Wednesday, August 20, 2008

King Canute Has a Posse

I really need to stop getting so grumpy about things I read online -- only last week, my cardiologist tsk-tsked at me about my blood pressure -- but it always seems that there's one more thing to be corrected, or complained about.

Today it's the current "Mind Meld" feature from the guys of SF Signal, featuring seventeen replies to the question "If you could change any aspect of the science fiction field itself - publishing, mainstream acceptance, fans, or whatever - what would it be and why?"

The answers range from smart and thoughtful (i.e., things that I agree with -- examples are Colleen Lindsay and Ken MacLeod) to...well, things that I consider strongly wrong-headed and not likely to sway the reality-based community. And I'm afraid I'm now going to get all sarcastic about some of the answers. I know, I know -- it's not to my credit, but I can't help myself.

The Melders were:
Kathleen Ann Goonan, who wants SF to be as respectable as a very respectable thing, and who wants her preferred SF books to be also shelved, with covers she likes, in the literature section. Assuming an infinitely extensible bookshop that carries every book in existence, and no increased costs to create different, competing editions of the same book, this would only be mildly difficult. In reality, every book that's shelved in two sections means one other book -- one midlist book, by a writer like Goonan -- is skipped entirely. Some of us would consider that a problem.

Gary Gibson writes books about spaceships blowing up, and apparently has realized that audiences like books about spaceships blowing up, but wishes that there were no covers of spaceships blowing up (but that, somehow, the people who like those things would keep buying his books). Can we just declare it a publishing truism that authors hate the iconic looks of their genre, and move on from that? Everyone wants to be the category-breaking massive bestseller with the glamorous Chip Kidd cover, but that's like wanting to be thin and rich and model-beautiful, and about as likely.

Blake Charlton really really wishes he could force-feed young readers science fiction stories, and at the same time keep them from loathing it, as they usually do things that they have been force-fed. He also thinks short fiction has been in a decline for "the past decade," which is true if "the past decade" extends back to 1945.

Colleen Lindsay, writing from a perspective deep in the confines of evil, old-fashioned publishing -- please note that I'm getting even more sarcastic than usual, since I agree with her -- wishes that publishers would stop betting most of their money on long-shot non-genre horses, and that publishers would continue to wise up about modern communication methods. The only complaint I have is that her suggestions don't require magical changes to human behavior or massive expenses, which -- given most of the other answers -- seems to have been a requirement.

Jason Sizemore wishes that editors would stop getting fired because they've gotten too senior (and expensive) for cost-cutting companies. You and me both, brother, you and me both.

James Van Pelt has a few, not particularly likely, suggestions to stop the magazine death-spiral. I don't want to pick on him too much, but I doubt his ideas would be successful. (E.g., the kid opening a new video game -- and I speak as an overgrown version of that kid -- is not likely to even read the game's manual if he doesn't have to, let alone spend hours on some unrelated fiction.)

Jeremiah Tolbert's response seems reasonable (until one tries to do a workup of its costs), but it deserves a point-by-point scoffing, with translations into Hornswoggler-ese:
At one time, the defunct magazine SF Age had nearly 175,000 in sales of a single issue. The largest circulation of any magazine is barely over 20,000 today and has been falling for nearly a decade. There is no doubt that there is a larger audience out there for the SF short fiction magazines, but because those magazines have a marketing budget of zero, they don't seem to be connecting with their audience as well as they could.

There may be some connection between "circulation...barely over 20,000" and "marketing budget of zero." Just saying. Also, circulation has been dropping for far longer than a decade -- OMNI had a far higher circulation than SF Age, in its own heyday. Tolbert also assumes that the people who used to buy those magazines are still out there and just unconnected.

Tolbert's plan -- presumably to be funded by a massive influx of cash from Bill Gates or some other geeky sucker:
1.Stock the SF magazines in the SF books section. The digests are too small to stand out on the magazine racks at the big stores. Keep hammering on the big chains until they do this. The costs will equal the gains in acquiring new, young readers. Admittedly, the magazines are attempting this. But if they can't get the chains to do it, then ask the dedicated readers to move them.
To recap: a minor, marginal product, which has been dropped by many stores, should demand better, free placement in a different section. "Hammering" by minor publishing companies will achieve this end, and not lead to the magazines being dropped entirely. Tolbert also, I suspect, does not know how much co-op advertising costs. And the problem of not having enough readers can be fixed by having those few readers constantly moving stock in every bookstore in the country.

2. Failing the above, change the format to match Weird Tales and Interzone in size so they are easier to find on the newsstand.

Because Weird Tales and Interzone have such excellent newsstand distribution and circulation. And there are vast hordes of readers eagerly searching the newsstand, missing the digests merely because they are too small to be seen. Any drops in circulation, advertising pages, or profitability in the wider magazine market can be safely ignored, since we in our ghetto only look at ourselves and (yearningly) at the idealised image of the literary mainstream that we have constructed.
3. Improve the cover art across the board. Too many covers today do not appeal to young readers and have a very archaic art style. The design of the magazines as well are a little dusty. Magazines like Interzone and Weird Tales once again are ahead in this area. If they can afford modern, hip art, so can the others.
Spend more money for art Tolbert likes. Perhaps Gary Gibson can consult here as well, so that we can have utterly classy covers. Once again, the way to increase circulation is to mimic magazines with lower circulations.
4. Improve the magazine web presences. Some of the magazines have websites that have not updated their design in the time that I have been active in the field. They're difficult to use and frankly, ugly. My generation judges a company by their website quite often.
Spend more money for a website Tolbert likes, which will magically attract the vast hordes of SF readers roaming the Internet.

5. Video game cross promotion. Most of my friends who would be reading these magazines play video games instead. Advertise short fiction venues in video game magazines. Consider running video game tie-in fiction even. Ask Microsoft to let you run some Halo short stories. Give those World of Warcraft gamers something to read while they wait for a raid to come together.

Spend lots of money on other things Tolbert likes, because gamers would really prefer to read SF short stories if they knew they had the choice -- they just play Halo because they don't realize they'd like something else better.
6. Create a YA-oriented SF/F magazine and get it into schools any way possible. Beg and/or bribe JK Rowling to write a story for your first issue. How you bribe someone with a net worth larger than the Queen is an exercise I leave to the reader.
Do something that no amount of money can buy, which is an increase over the cost of even the previous items. Magically keep the kids from disliking required reading in this particular case. Even Tolbert admits this is a pie-in-the-sky idea.

I'm in sympathy with Tolbert's aims, but nothing he suggests is even the slightest bit plausible. If he'd just said that he was using his wish to create a world where SF short-fiction magazines routinely sell in the millions of copies, it would have been just as likely.

David Langford wants to stop, via time-travel, Forry Ackerman from having invented the term "sci-fi." Even if we could, I bet there would have been some other term of opprobrium. People always do attach disdain to the words about things they dislike. But here I'm being dour and serious about something light-hearted, like some hob-nailed goblin stomping a butterfly.

Nnedi Okrafor-Mbachu, who has gotten along pretty well without the SF field so far, wishes SF was less cold, sterile, Western, and masculine. I have nothing sarcastic to say about that.

Ken MacLeod wishes SF had a future it believed strongly in -- a future that it actually wanted. That would be nice.

Paul Kincaid bemoans the existence of the very genre of science fiction, without which the world would have been flooded with SFnal ideas and concepts through all channels, bringing us all to Utopia. (Or something like that.) He seems to think that something external stops readers from picking up books from other sections of the bookstore, and not that reader behavior constrains the limits of available books. His is a sweet, yearning wish, but a SF genre that wasn't a genre and didn't form around a community of writers, readers, and magazines wouldn't actually exist, and so it's hard to claim that would be preferable to what we have.

Mark Budz is saddened by the existing of marketing categories, which don't exist anywhere but science fiction and bear no relation to the observed reading habits of people. He also comes thisclose to calling for the publication of lots more SF novels that people don't actually want to read -- that's what "less commercial" means -- which is a bit odd to me. He should also look up the sales of a midlist "literary" novel for a dash of cold water; I believe, even with the current slump in SF, he's still doing much better than his trendy-program-MFA equivalent. And his mass-market numbers, while true, are not limited to SF; it's like that all over. As I've said a thousand times before, a lot of SF writers seem to want to escape to the Land of Lit'rachur, but things in general are much tougher there than they are here -- from the Land of Skiffy, though, it's easier to see the mountains than the valleys.

Daryl Gregory sez that ebooks should be cheap and DRM-less, which is mostly a good idea, but he also repeats the old (wrong) saw that ebooks have "almost zero production and distribution costs." Shipping isn't that expensive, and neither is PP&B (paper printing and binding) -- "production" includes a lot of things that ebooks need just as much as paper books.

Edward Willet opines that the grass is much, much greener over there, and those darn literary kids keep stealing our ideas. He also thinks that the average mainstream novel sells better than the average SFF novel, which is not true.

Mindy Klasky shouts that the walls need to come down -- all of them, right now! -- in the skiffy section. I wasn't aware that there were barriers of the kind she describes -- writers write more or less what they want, editors commission books they think will sell, readers buy what they want, and reviewers try to put each book into context. I suspect she's had at least one proposal nixed recently for being too far from her core audience.

John Joseph Adams asserts that editors should be tougher, and thinks that the general quality of stories used to be better. (He might want to read a year or so of Astounding/Analog -- of almost any era of Campbell's editing -- to see how much crap was mixed in with the good stories we remember.) He also thinks that the mainstream audiences who liked books with vaguely SFnal premises, like The Road and The Time-Traveler's Wife, can be turned into regular SF readers -- I'm more pessimistic, because I think those audiences found different things in those stories than their SFnal virtues (whatever those are).

Jay Lake also wishes that lazy journalists would stop reflexively dumping on SF, and that literary lights would stop defending their turf. I'll add a wish for world peace, free and complete health care for everyone on Earth, and non-fattening ice cream to the wish list, as long as we're shooting the moon. People live by stereotypes -- and ours is "geeks." Ask blonde girls how the battle of changing public perception is going...

I am grumpy today. Good thing SF Signal didn't ask me to be part of this one, or I'd probably have done something unforgivable. Of course this question was broad and led to "if I ran the zoo"-style answers, so my complaining about the answers really isn't fair.

Oh, well. Add me to the giant stack of things that aren't fair. I can live with it.


Unknown said...

Damn, I knew there was a reason I liked you.

Can I get a rainbow farting pony, too?

Anonymous said...

Of course, King Canute dragged his courtiers out to the beach so he could demonstrate to them that there are things that even Kings can't command... So he's firmly on your (realist) side.

Great post!

clindsay said...

::: whew! :::

Glad I made the cut. ;-)

Jeremy said...

Ouch. Guess I'll keep my mouth shut in the future.

Unknown said...

Yep, looks like SF publishers still lack magical powers. Thanks for pointing that out, I'm certain we're all edified.

Anonymous said...

There's a great many points in your post with which I agree, but this is the Internet so I'm obliged to point out one with which I did not.

For all the dismissive talk about Halo and other tie-in fiction, three of the five Halo tie-in novels became NY Times bestsellers... two of those in Trade Paperback format, no less. There's a reason the retail shelves are groaning under licensed titles; they sell. Thus I refute thee, at least in the "gamers will just play the games" point.

It is indeed a somewhat-forlorn hope that mixing original fiction in with the licenced stuff will lead franchise-readers to the promised land of original genre fiction... but there's some sign that _Harry Potter_ readers are migrating to similar works now that their franchise-of-choice is complete. Whether that conversion rate is high enough to justify betting on it, however, is beyond my humble powers of analysis... but at least the editions with the tie-ins would sell.

-- Steve

PS: Something very similar did introduce me to Bujold's earlier work... an anecdote, I admit, but worth something to the discussion, no?

NM said...

I think it was fairly obvious that Tolbert's comments with regards to trim size have little to do with either Interzone or Weird Tales specifically and a heck of a lot to do with the fact that the digest is pretty much dead.

It's actually hard to think of a magazine with a larger trim size that has a circulation lower than that of the digests...well except within the SF fiction magazine sector itself. The comments about covers and trim are obviously calls for the "big three" to mimic magazines with larger circulations. The problem is that Tolbert didn't have the vocabulary to actually discuss what he meant.

The above is not to be taken as a defense of other comments he or other Mindmelders may have made.

CEP said...

I would have had three particular suggestions, but SF Signal would never ask me (and not just because I've smacked them with the Halibut of Doom for being too Pollyannish in their reviews):

(1) Shoot every publishing-industry accountant, both at publishers and in the distribution chain, who insists on applying "modern" accounting rules to an industry founded on mercantilism. Preferably with a single, SFnal bullet that eliminates all of them simultaneously.

(2) Eliminate returns and force all royalty schedules to be timely reported and paid on the same basis as books are actually shipped and sold (currently just over 90 days). This will, of course, actually reinforce item 1. This isn't SFnal, though; it seems somewhere between William Morris's fantasies and his quasiutopian News From Nowhere.

(3) Apply antitrust law — in particular, the 1940s through 1960s precedents regarding film-studio ownership and tying arrangements with cinemas — to prohibit common ownership of both content and distribution mechanisms (Exhibit A: S___ T___). This is alternate history, though, in which we pretend that Reagan lost the 1980 election.

* * *

See, at least I admit that all three of my proposed solutions are fictional.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jeremy: If I can't keep my mouth shut -- and I think we've conclusively proven that -- then there's no reason at all for anyone else to do so.

Andrew Wheeler said...

C.E.: It's rare that I find someone even farther out than I am, so for that I must salute you.

1) Given that I sell books to accountants by day, I must say that I could wholeheartedly get behind your implied plan to create entirely different accounting rules for every different industry. GAAP vs. IFRS would be piffle compared to that, and I could sell huge quantities of books to overworked wearers of green eye-shades.

2) Booksellers are starting to think that they might be willing to live without returns -- of course, they're demanding a higher discount to cover their increased risk, which is fair. The rest is fighting over money, which is as good a high-level definition of business as you'll find anywhere.

And when authors have the same bargaining power as bookstore chains, then royalty statements will be as clear, concise, and timely as invoices. Don't hold your breath.

3) Unless you mean "distribution" to be "printing books," they already are separated. B&N publishes a bit, but they're not a major player. Ditto Borders, ditto Amazon. There have been some small-scale conglomerates of small publishers and medium-level distributors, but most book publishers are quite separate from any distribution arm.

CEP said...

One clarification: I'm not saying that every industry needs its own accounting standards. I'm only saying that applying protocapitalist/comparative advantage standards to an industry that is, at its, core, mercantilist is merely an exercise in making up numbers to make things sound good, and does not reflect the underlying strength of the respective businesses. It's very much like applying Newtonian mechanics to individual electrons.

John Joseph Adams said...

I didn't say that SF was better in the good old days, just that it seems like maybe editors wrangled a great story out of what was submitted as a good one more often--if anecdotal accounts can be believed. I don't hear authors talking about how an editor rejected a story with comments that made the author revisit the story in such a way as to make it great. This is based on my own editorial experience and from talking to many writers and reading many introductions and afterwords to story collections (whereas I have read about that kind of thing a lot in older stuff--one example that comes to mind was George RR Martin talking about how Harlan Ellison rejected his story "Meathouse Man" and challenged him to tear the heart out of it and start over from scratch. I don't know what it was like before, but it sure ended up as a great story.)

Also, I didn't say I was *optimistic* that we could turn literary readers into genre readers, just that it would be nice if we could.

Andrew Wheeler said...

C.E.: If companies are drawing from the same sources of capital, they will be judged against each other, using common metrics. If you'd like to argue that publishing companies should be forbidden from being public firms, that could possibly fit your objections. Otherwise, the bean counters will be counting everyone's beans and lining them up against each other.

(Though I might be misunderstanding you.)

James Enge said...

I think you underrate a number of Jeremiah Tolbert's suggestions, particularly the one about a YA magazine in the schools. Book promotions through Scholastic and the like are a big deal to school-age kids--it's like Christmas, when the books come, not like required reading. Lots of YA readers are sf/f readers now; the only question is whether they'll continue being so as they mature. The YA magazine might not or might not work to strengthen short fiction genre venues in the long run, but it's not really a mockworthy idea.

Farah said...

You just got yourself a new reader. A brilliant post.

Anonymous said...

Posts like this are why i read Andrew Wheeler. He's a nice antidote to a lot of the self-serving BS you find in the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

I just came from a Barnes and Noble location where I managed to find one copy of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the usual place: completely concealed behind Paris Review. When I checked out, the clerk exclaimed that she didn't know they carried F&SF, and that if she had, she'd have purchased it herself. I told her that they hide it behind Paris Review. She was amazed. (I used to subscribe, but the best luck I ever had with the postal delivery was 7 issues out of 10.) Some problems with the field may, indeed, just be problems with general post-modern administrative cussedness, for which I have never found a cure. Susan Loyal

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Actually Andrew, I'm all for book covers featuring spaceships blowing up, as long as there are spaceships blowing up inside the actual book. Whereas many book covers of the Seventies featured cover illustrations of spaceships blowing up on books by authors like Dick and Priest which contained nothing within them that might remotely be described as constituting any form of extra-atmospheric detonation whatsoever.

I meant that we need art appropriate to the contents. I even deliberately described big stripey spaceships and towers in the book i just finished as a specific nod towards all those old Chris Foss covers, but will I get a cover showing shit blowing up? Sod's law says I'll just get something inappropriately tasteful and subtle.

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