Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What Are the Great SF Novels of the...Oh, Crap! I'm Out of Decades!

In rec.arts.sf.written, on 3/1/07, I posted the following, as part of my annual tradition of getting the good people there to do my homework for me:

I've already posted this on the SFBC blog, but, since I've asked you folks about essentially the same issue the last few years, I thought I'd also post it here. It's only just barely on topic, for which I apologize.

As you may or may not know, the SFBC has been doing a 50th Anniversary Collection for the past five years -- we started in 2003 (the 50th anniversary of the club's founding in 1953) with a series of eight great books of the 1950s, and have had series each year since then to cover the decades following.

Well, we're running out of history now, since in 2007 we're doing books from the 1990s, and it's a little early to do the best books of the 2000s in 2008. So the series either needs to end or do something different.

And that's what I wanted to ask you folks about -- what different thing could we do? (Note that suggestions that a reasonable number of people might buy with their own money will be preferred -- yes, it would be nice to have the eight-volume definitive collection of Great SF Poetry, but the SFBC is a commercial enterprise and needs to be able to sell books to continue operations.)

We've thought about going backwards, and doing a series of the great SF books of the '40s -- or maybe just eight books from the period before 1950 (probably only going back to Verne and/or Wells). But I'm sure there are other possibilities.

All suggestions will be considered, though ones along the lines of my Great SF Poetry example may be mocked...

One person suggested an eight-volume collection of the great SF stories:

The budget really wouldn't reach to eight original books (or one, for that matter) -- so, if we did another year, it would need to be of books that already exist.

Good idea, though.

Another person suggested "first use of an idea anthologies":

A series of eight anthologies would be pretty much guaranteed to fail, unfortunately. And, as with Mike's idea, I think it would require creating all-new anthologies, which would be quite expensive. (I might be misunderstanding Dan's suggestion, though.)

One of the ideas we had a few years back for "what to do after the '90s" was a series of the great anthologies of the history of the field -- Adventures in Time and Space, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, stuff like that. But, again, we'd prefer not to be fired over the sales of the series.

Another comment about collections and/or anthologies mentioned that I was "religious" about novels in the first five series of the collection:

Wasn't that religious, actually -- the '50s series has City, the '70s has Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and Deathbird Stories, and the '80s has Schismatrix Plus, which is a novel plus stories.

It's just that, as I've said many times, I have a preference for books that people will actually buy.

And, if we do a series in 2008, we'll need an idea that can generate eight books...although, if we do ten more books, that would bring the grand total up to fifty, which is a nice round (and appropriate) number.

Several suggestions from one person: first a series of "the Best of {insert major current author}":

I'd love for someone to do that, but I'm afraid the club couldn't afford to do it on bookclub sales. Subterranean seems to be working their way into that niche, though -- they did the Vance book, and one on Connie Willis is coming up this year. (Not to mention the giant George R.R. Martin collection a few years back.)

Second, a continuation of the Hugo Winners anthologies:

Well, we missed the last trade-published volume or two in the club anyway (because they had stopped selling decently for us). So this is pretty unlikely. Again, if a trade publisher can't make it profitable, there would be even less money in it for the club.

Third, the books that almost made it into the earlier series:

That's one possibility, but we'd need to think of a better name than "the also-rans," which is how I keep thinking of this. Good idea, though.

Someone else asked about translated SF, which he thought would sell badly:

I'm afraid that's true. We tried to sell Solaris when the movie was out, and even that didn't help.

(For the inevitable follow-up: it doesn't matter how bad a movie made from an existing book is; it always increases the sales of that book. Ask me someday how we sold Starship Troopers and The Postman in the late '90s.)

Great SF of the 19th Century, someone asked?

Could work, but I think we'd want to do the first half of the 20th century first -- otherwise, it would look a bit weird to jump from 2000 right back to Frankenstein.

(And most of those books probably wouldn't sell all that well, since they're all Public Domain and available in many forms already.)

Back to anthologies. Someone thought that doing a whole series of them might be economically unwise for us:

If we did one of those two [Adventures in Time and Space and/or A Treasury of Great Science Fiction], preferably a year after doing any similar book, sales would only be on the low end of medium, yes.

For us, at least, anthologies are a very tough sell right now -- and historical reprint anthologies aren't as popular as they used to be. (I suspect this is because the audience for those books already has them, and newer readers aren't particularly interested in reading a pile of sixty-year-old stories all at once.)

The same person asked about the problems of the rights to old anthologies:

Realistically speaking, if the rights for an anthology are not still assembled in one place by someone, it's no longer publishable in that form. It's vastly easier to just hire a new editor and start from scratch.

And that was pretty much my contributions to that thread. Anyone here have any brilliant ideas? (I must warn you that we're 99% convinced to end the whole thing with the 90s series, which we're half through right now.)


Anonymous said...

Best Romantic Speculative Fiction
(Romance sells, maybe not to hard SF readers, but it still sells.)

Get some crossover going.

Anonymous said...

What about a more thematic organization by SF trope rather than decade: e.g. first contact, big dumb object, distressed human colony, etc. Or a series of books that answer the question "how do we get to the stars?" FTL drive, not-quite-FTL drive, hyperdrive, cold sleep, generation ship, etc. (Big nostalgic appeal to baby boomers, since it doesn't look like we'll go anywhere right now.) Or you could pick something from the first 5 years of the 21st century and then choose the other books based on what defines that work's SF roots. (It wouldn't need to be "the best" of the new century--maybe the work you think draws most heavily on the tradition--that you can get rights to!) Could be fun. Susan Loyal

Anonymous said...

In a bit of serendipity, the Smart Bitches (a romance fandom site) are talking about one of Bujold's books today.


(Or if you don't like tinyURLs go to www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/
for the date of April 11, 2007.)

I argue there is an audience for those classic SF/F books with great relationship stories as part of the plot. People just need to know that they exist. As both Sarah and Candy point out, they don't usually read fantasy...

I'm not a reader of fan fiction, but my understanding is it's not so much about star drives, physics principles, or magic amulets as it is about relationships (yes, I know--including sex) between beloved characters.

It appears even SF fans like this "yucky" romance stuff.

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