Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Genre Sales 2: Science Fiction (Part 6 of 8)

In the not-too-distant future, an intrepid young sales commander voyages into the unknown realms of... GENRE WARS BREAKDOWNS

Yes, science fiction, mes auteurs. Whether it's gritty military sci-fi, space opera, futuristic cyber punkdom/crimery (I'm being a little inventive with the jargon here), or something a little loonier (think The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), science fiction asks The Big Questions™ in the politically distanced, freer, and generally, more technologically advanced arena of the future (or occasionally a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). Fantastic things happen, dear readers, but unlike in fantasy, they're things that could maybe happen someday! It's no magic, all science, all the time.

Keeping all the usual caveats in mind, it seems to me (again, based on the data available to me and anecdotal evidence from the folks selling these titles) that science fiction is either flat or a little down compared to 2009. As usual, I have a couple of theories as to why.

The genre has been pretty quiet this year and last. Without any phenomenally huge blow-out titles, the sales numbers probably more or less accurately reflect the general state of midlist fiction in this country, which (sadly) appears to be down year-on-year.

Americans apparently find science, fictional or not, scary. Back when we were trying to build colossal ocean liners or kill Nazis or beat the Russians or conquer space, science was cool and science fiction served as a method of exploring humanity's potential. I can't help but wonder whether our current dismal attitude toward science (made no better by our overly administrative, under-funded, and overwhelmingly lukewarm space program) has contributed to the decline of the genre since the Golden Age of Science Fiction (which ended in the late '50s) and the later New Wave Science Fiction ('60s, '70s, and first couple years of the '80s).

Maybe the Large Hadron Collider will help. Dr. Higgs and the Boson of Doom, anyone?

A lot of the cool science fiction crossovers are getting poached by other genres. I can't tell you how many times I created a kit for what I thought was a sci-fi title, only to discover it was being sold in as (futuristic) romance. Or fantasy (fantasy, as we have seen, sells). Or mystery/thriller (something like Minority Report could very well be sold today to the thriller buyer at a book store). With less and less hardcore science fiction available and, apparently, a smaller market for it, it's no surprise the numbers are going down.

The bright spot is, mes auteurs, that writers and readers of science fiction were the first to adopt the e-book (in the late '90s, before it was cool), and thus Our Coming Electronic Overlords may be the best thing to happen to science fiction since Asimov. For the time being, anyway—e-books are already surprisingly mainstream, and once they reach parity with physical books in the market, I don't think the genre will retain much of an edge.

So in that time-honored format that has, in fact, returned from the distant future to save all bulletkind:

• Sci-fi sales seem to be down. Frak.

• This is probably due to Americans not being super amped about science. Now that I think of it, it's also possible—though to a lesser extent—that some of it is due to women making up the majority of book buyers, while making up a minority of sci-fi readers.

• E-book sales are, I think, good for now and potentially still on the up-and-up, but I expect this to level out over time.

That's all for today, Borg and Klingons. Next up: Women's fiction! Tomorrow!


  1. It is interesting that while SF books sales may be down over the years, SF movies are up. Witness "Inception." Purists, for the record, refer to the genre as "SF." "Sci-fi" was invented by TV and movie producers and is frowned on by the increasingly aging minority of science fiction purists.

  2. Interesting, I find people love sci-fi and fantasy, surprised to hear that sales are down.

  3. Down? Not the new up?! ;) Frell!

  4. I'm disappointed scifi books are down but since I'm working on a screenplay I'm happy movies are up.

    btw - I'm really enjoying this series of posts.

  5. My pet theory for why science fiction isn't resonating with the public is that the exciting possibilities it deals with are beginning to feel familiar and thus un-exciting.

    Robots? Go to a public washroom. The toilet flushes itself, the sink turns on and off automatically, and the soap and towel dispensers trigger with a wave of your hand. We've got robots.

    Space exploration? We're not doing it personally, but via 'bots and amazing telescopes, we're exploring our solar system and cataloging alien worlds.

    Transponders? Geez; what do you think a cell phone is? We have all kinds of amazing devices that are pocket-sized.

    Virtual reality? Nanotechnology? The discovery of alien life? It's simply a matter of time now. Everyone expects these things to come to pass.

    And that's a problem for science fiction because nobody fears or feels awed by the familiar, yet fiction must generate emotion to have impact on its reader.

    Basically, we're the Jetsons. Science fiction is now obsolete.

  6. Props for the BSG reference! Star Trek too.

    And yes, thank you for this series of posts. It's very interesting and informative. :)

  7. I am a little surprised science fiction sales are down. I guess I shouldn't be - I see lots of fantasy on the SF shelves these days and little science fiction. Though I must admit to reading lots and lots fantasy and romance in the last year and precious little science fiction.

    jjdebenedictis - it is not obsolete!

  8. If you head over to the Haikasoru main page you will see a number of great SF novels brought to this country by Nick Mamatas. Try The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto for a great reading experience.