Progressive Science Fiction – Part 5

Part 4 discussed the third of the first of the four points below about how the cutting edge science fiction was becoming less available in the shops due to:

  • innovative technology needs more knowledge and understanding than in the past, because we are dealing with a bigger body knowledge, and therefore needs in general more or better explanation of how it affects us humans
  • the more politically correct society limits the subjects we can write about when it comes to political and social science fiction themes
  • ‘new’ places requires more understanding and aligning with sciences to be plausible that requires a lot of work on the part of the writer, which in turn can severely detract from a writer’s income
  • publishers not wanting to publish or push the really innovative science fiction because they want to invest in ‘safe bets’, like something similar to what sold well before

I have argued before that publishers are risk adverse to publishing anything that is considered likely to lose them money. This has changed from several decades ago when publishers would take a promising talented writer under their wing and help them into publishing, because they had the cash to spare. Why the change?

We saw competition creep in, which meant that book prices were reduced. This led to looking for books that would sell large numbers to get the necessary return. Economies of scale crept in as result. Which meant publishers were only looking for large print runs that they could sell. Which in turn meant that publishing houses had to merge to survive.

Along came print on demand and the internet, which meant you could order a book that could be printed just for you. This turned out not to be successful, mainly because the internet intervened with its selling of e-books. So paper books became less in demand, which in turn meant the economies of scale the publishers had built up no longer made the profits that were needed. So even fewer books got the large print runs.

Along came new small scale publishers who can afford to only do small print runs. But their problem is that unless they can tap into a niche market, they will find it difficult to do the marketing and publicity. Meanwhile it became easy to put together e-books and sell them. The number of books shot up, with a significant proportion of e-books being poorly written. These independent publishers suffered from one other problem. Lack of publicity. With so many e-books being published by independent authors, how do they make themselves stand out publicity-wise to get the sales? There have been a very few examples where word of mouth has done the trick, but let me emphasise – they are very few.

So publishing is basically in a mess. But it does explain why publishers want to publish only safe bets, which means variants of the successful.

But let’s look at this from another viewpoint. What are the reasons for publishing science fiction?

  • To find a ‘world’ that helps discuss our current society problems or adds emphasis to morality tales (think H G Wells’ The Time Machine with its Eloi and Morlocks being a commentary on Victorian social values or Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers)
  • To make up new games that have adversaries (think E E Doc Smith’s Lensmen series or any other military science fiction for that matter or Hunger Games)
  • To make suggestions about how the future might turn out (think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars or Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel), including warning about  potential dangers to the human race (think Arthur C Clarke’s The Hammer of God or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids)
  • To describe how the places we can’t visit might look lie (think Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea or Larry Niven’s Integral Trees)

Or summarising:

  1. Today’s societal issues being emphasised (or fairy tales in space if you must)
  2. Gaming
  3. Predicting the future
  4. Visiting exotic places

Given the ‘conservatism’ of the publishers, which of the four categories are they most likely to go for?

Well fairy tales have always sold, so definitely (1). And ever since the Roman times the people have wanted games, so definitely (2). But (3) and (4)? Well, no. Predicting the future and visiting exotic places both require newness in their stories, whether it be a new invention that makes a heck of a difference to lives or visiting the black hole at our Galaxy’s core. So publishers are unlikely to be interested.

If publishers are concentrating on (1) and (2), they are concentrating on the fantasy end of science fiction. Which means the science end of science fiction will not get much, if any, of a look in.

Hm… looks like I’ve argued that the publishing industry and its need to survival is responsible for the lack the science end of science fiction.

But what you may ask about the likes of David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson Ben Bova, Alastair Reynolds… well apart from the last named, they have all been around a long time. This means they have a following the publishers are counting on to buy their books. Alastair’s first book, Revelation Space, caught the public’s imagination at the turn of the millennium, when we were thinking about what the future would bring and it did so in a spectacular fashion. His next books were sequels. Definitely good moves, publishing-wise.

But are the small presses doing anything to redress this imbalance? They are trying. But given that the publishing industry has concentrated so long with such great emphasis on the fantasy end, they’ve got the readership to believe fantasy science fiction is good, science science fiction is not the in-thing. So the bias against the science end of science fiction is reinforced. Which means writers, especially new ones looking to get published will veer towards the fantasy end, which further reinforces the fantasy emphasis. Which means the science end science fiction stories are not being written and hence not available to the publishers. No wonder even the small presses and indeed self-publishers are pushed to avoid the science end of science fiction.

There was a brief respite for the science science fiction a few years back, when the technology world wanted inspiration from stories. The investment, unfortunately, did not keep the initiative going in the public domain. It would not surprise me if the big firms kept their own small band of science fiction writers going to help decide how to market the products they come up with. These writers would naturally have confidentiality clauses imposed on them.

To sum up:

The financial squeeze on the publishing industry has made it veer away from publishing the science end of science fiction, so much so that we are unlikely to see this sub-genre being published in the near future.






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