A couple of days ago a colleague pointed me to a Publisher’s Weekly article by John DeNardo, the former editor and publisher of SF Signal (we still miss ya, Signal!) regarding the influence that sub-genres are having on readership and publishing.
My first two thoughts were: “I’ve been banging that drum for years” and “I need to start banging that drum again!”.
My third thought was – John wasn’t being pointed or accusatory enough.
And my fourth thought was – I can do that.
John’s piece was titled Why Too Many Genre Labels (Space Colonization, Terraforming, Etc.) Is Bad for Science Fiction and Fantasy, which you should read first. Let me know when you’re done.
Great! Now lets discuss.
John called out labels rather than sub-genres, though he eventually mentioned those as one of the culprits. His central thesis is that labelling a book (whether that be a high-level categorization such as ‘Science Fiction’, or low-level, such as ‘space opera’) is both good and bad; good because it helps readers find what they are looking for, bad because it may limit their reading horizons, prevent them from discoverinig something they may really like. He goes on to say –
“The additional danger there is that it renders writers on the other side of that divide as invisible, even if they would otherwise turn out to be someone’s favorite author.”
It’s certainly true that if readers are focusing their attention on the ‘kind’ of fiction they want to read as defined by ‘labels’ applied to a book by others, they aren’t placing their focus on the correct part of the creative process. Had such labels (and communication media such as the internet) existed during the late 40’s through the 60’s, it might look something like this:
“If you’re looking for science fiction about secret NAZI bases on the Moon, you’ll definitely want to stay away from Heinlein’s latest – Space Cadet. Sure, it features erstwhile young men learning to become men, and there are rocket ships, but unlike his previous novel Rocket Ship Galileo, all of the action takes place on Earth or on Venus and there are no Nazis anywhere to be found. Perhaps he’ll return to his Nazi theme with an up-coming title purported to be called Starship Troopers, but for now you’ll have to look elsewhere for your Moon-Nazi reading needs.”
Writing is an art; our primary focus ought to be on the creator, not the brush strokes of individual works. Labelling goes on all the time with art, but we’re supposed to recognize that this is technique, not the creative process itself.
However, this is not exactly what I want to focus on. What I want to point out is that John’s piece did not point an accusatory finger where it needs to be pointed, and that is on the ascendancy of marketing over the creative process that produces Moon-Nazi science fiction, because it is the marketing process that creates, sustains and reinforces the labelling for its own benefit, and largely to the detriment of both authors and readers.
First, I will turn to the late, great Ursula Le Guin to establish the fact that I am not alone in pointing this finger.
When accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 National Book Awards, she said:
Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
Some of what Ursula was referencing is inside baseball, but then, most of her audience at that ceremony were baseball people, by which I mean publishers, editors, agents, etc. The average reader will probably not have heard editors complain about not being able to place a book because the sales department couldn’t find a niche to stick it in, or authors complaining about a lost sale for the same reason, most likely have not heard about the meetings editors attend where they have to pitch a book to people who reduce the entire creative process to a spread sheet of numbers that can only reflect the past…
Another point of reference: had the present commodification of books been prevailing back in the mid 70s, we’d not have been able to enjoy at least two titles, both by highly acclaimed, award-winning authors – Dhalgren by Delaney and The Female Man by Russ.
Fred Pohl was the editor responsible for getting both books published and, while they had differing sales results (Dhalgren selling over a million copies through 19 printings; Female Man not doing as well but going on to be considered a seminal work in the field), and in two posts on his The Way the Future Blogs website, he wrote about the artistic freedom he enjoyed as an editor, while retelling the tale of Dhalgren:
“I had landed a dream job as science-fiction editor for the independent paperback giant, Bantam Books — didn’t have to come in to the office except when I felt like it, had total freedom to publish any property I chose without needing to get anyone’s permission or approval, or even without needing anyone’s okay to offer as high or as low an advance and royalties as I chose. It was the very model of the position that any ink-stained editorial wretch would have given his eyeteeth to be offered.” (Pohl, archive.org)
“…one of Bantam’s customs was to have an annual sales meeting at which all of its sales force flocked in from their territories all over the country to hear Bantam’s editors tell them about the books they would be persuading stores to order for the next season. … They… had too many editors …, to give everyone a chance to meet the sales force. As the best available compromise only the top editors were invited to the sales meeting.” (Pohl, archive.org)
It was starting in the 70s. ALL of the sales force attended, but only some of the editors. (Belaboring: who knew the product better at this stage of the game? Editors. Who was cut off from communicating what they knew? The Editors.)
These days, we’re well past worrying about the commodification that Le Guin mentioned in her speech, we’re in full stride, with the purchase, marketing and sale of books relegated to the same kinds of approaches taken for dish soap.
Sub-genres (space opera, science fiction romance, cyberpunk) are a part and parcel of this exercise. The genre is being “nichified”, and much to its detriment.
Nichifying goes hand-in-hand with commodification, the latter also at least somewhat responsible for the increase in sequels, and perhaps contributory to the elimination of author back-lists.
It starts at the very beginning of the process: marketing wants to know what category a novel fits into and, if a strong category can’t be found, the book is not purchased by the publisher. It may even start earlier with a marketing-influenced editor, when they read the ms and recognize that they won’t be able to categorize it for the marketing department.
What’s that? Marketing decides? Yeah, it does. Which is a neat, 180 degree inversion of the way things used to work.
It used to be that someone would come up with a widget; it did whatever widgets do, the detail unimportant. The widget would be presented to the marketing folks, who were whiz bangs at figuring out where and to whom that widget would appeal and then they’d craft a program that attempted to marry the widget to the widget users. Later on they might mention that a slightly modified widget might find appeal in a different market – but they didn’t get to say what the widget was going to be before it was created. Sometimes they said “hey, there’s a need for a widget in this market”, but they never said “we don’t have a market for that kind of widget” – they either found or created one.
To use a buzzword, this is the kind of gatekeeping we should really be objecting to. On every level of the book-reading process, the reader is being encouraged to LIMIT their activity, rather than to expand upon it, and that, I believe, has a direct and negative effect on sales, which creates a feedback loop that further limits sales.
Readers are encouraged by sub-genre classification (the niche) to stay within their niche; more of the same is advertised to them, why search for something else when this next MilSF novel will give you everything you already know you like in an SF novel; look, there’s a new book in the series coming out…
Marketing knows that consumers like dependability; it’s the concept that the entire fast food franchise business is based on: no matter where you go in the world, that bucket of fried chicken is going to taste exactly like you expect it to taste, even if the label is in Mandarin. It’s easier to sell a known commodity, less effort (less expense) is required. They’ve created sub-genres as a way to offer that known quantity and dependability to readers and, like good fast food franchisers, they are doing everything they can to make sure that you eat as many meals as possible at their chain.
Once a niche has been defined and demonstrates viability through sales and being profitable, there is every reason for them to reinforce it: sales have now become a dependable number: how many copies do we print on first run? Enough to service the niche. Which in turn helps diminish discoverability, and, should sales not meet projections for some reason, the next print run will be smaller – plenty of other better selling works in that niche, no need to reinforce a bad thing.
Promotion (what little there is these days) doesn’t hinge on promoting the genre, it focuses on where the sales are known to be good – on the niche. The consumer is further encouraged to stay within the niche by being exposed to promotions for things they already like, as opposed to having the breadth of the genre promoted to them.
It used to be that a handful of science fiction novels were heavily promoted every year, and that handful was used to extend promotion to everything else in the publisher’s line; the idea was that the reader wanted to read SCIENCE FICTION, and the existence of books that treated the genre in ways different from what had gone before was seen as a positive hook on which to hang a promotion. At least in Science Fiction’s case, the genre is supposed to be all about exploring newness, change, difference, not canned spaghettios.
Even Robert Heinlein weighed in on this: “Specialization is for insects”. Insects, despite being capable of extraordinary things, do not produce art.
Don’t get me wrong; there is room and a place for every kind of science fiction imaginable; there are no ‘bad’ sub-genres and individual works by individual authors, taken individually, are not canned works; but the market is being educated to treat them as such in order to meet marketing goals, not art goals. As a result, authors are being robbed of opportunities to produce art and readers are being discouraged from discovering the breadth of offerings the field represents.
And down this path (prognostication coming, something I am assured is not the realm of science fiction) lies a bleak future: authors being told that only certain kinds of formulaic works, meeting the known requirements of a particular kind of commodity, sell, and therfore, that is what needs to be written.
(Don’t start talking about indie works here: yes, that’s where the creativity will go, but a lot of authors will get lost along the way for a variety of reasons and traditional publishing still rules the markets.)
I think it a remote possibility that the preceding will actually come to be (it’s a race between market forces and existential threats facing our species), but the only way it won’t happen is if we all stop letting it happen. Don’t choose your next read based on comfort, choose it based on discovery. And if you don’t like that idea – buy two books every time you purchase new reads: get a comfort book and get a discovery book. Either way, you’ll be doing the right thing.