This Friday much has been said in Fantasy/Sci-Fi circles about the recently released 2016 AuthorEarnings charts. Specifically this chart:
Looks bad for genre fiction that isn'tRomance, especially Science Fiction, which occupies the basement. It even pales next to Literary (large “L”) which only exists so that university bookstores have something to sell to freshmen taking prerequisite English classes because somebody at the New Yorker said it was “powerful and moving.”
It looks like Sci-Fi is dying as a literary (small “L”) genre, which is puzzling because almost every single major blockbuster movie being made has at least some element of science fiction going on (including superhero movies). Actually, its not really puzzling at all, since movies still have to make money for their studios, and therefore need to please audiences across the globe, and guess what? China really likes action sequences in movies they're investing billions of dollars into.
Sci-Fi's erstwhile brother Fantasy is doing better, roughly on par with Mystery.
Now before you grab those “THE END IS NIGH” signs, it bears looking at some of the colors on the chart, specifically the purple of the Big Five publishing houses and the blue of Indie. Indie Sci-Fi and Fantasy are much, much bigger than Big Five. Now look at Literary, which is almost exclusively carried by Big Five with barely any Indie presence.
What is working for Big Five Literary is clearly not working for Big Five Sci-Fi, yet certain prestigious award programs and online review outlets continuously laud the kinds of authors that are published by and follow the editorial mandate of the Big Five. Its still not selling.
Science fiction movies are huge, but science fiction books aren't selling. Sort of like how Superhero movies are huge, but sales at Marvel and DC are quite bad compared to what they were a decade or two ago.
There are probably lots of factors involved here, but I think a key one has been the steady march of Science Fiction to pursue Literary (big “L”) legitimacy. Some people want to write about rocketships but also want to get into the Norton Anthology, so the rocketship is turned into a backdrop so that they can write about “The Issues.” Or they try to couch their genre in vague terms like Slipstream or Magical Realism, where you get stories that plant the seeds of something imaginative but then turns into a bunch of pages about a weird old guy with wings who may or may not be an angel and nothing is resolved and it just ends with a wet fart of ambiguity.
(“No, but you see, its a metaphor about The Issues that were going on when it was written, you just have to read deeper into the critical interpretations about it in order to get it...” No. I get it. Its a critique of Latin American culture in the unsteady 1950s. Its still a boring story and felt like a waste of my time.)
See, the problem with navel gazing all the time is that you can only come up with so many different ways to describe the lint you find there.
Several years ago, when I would frequently read io9 (I was naive!), there was a prevailing toxicity in the comment sections regarding Sci-Fi/Fantasy, with many looking down their noses at Fantasy because it Wasn't Realistic and while things like Harry Potter were quite respectable, the rest of it was basically rolling around in the mud while truly cultured people read proper Hard Sci-Fi and Asimov help you if you dared to track Fantasy dirt into Science Fiction's space elevator. It wasn't every comment, but it was the prevailing wind and one of the reasons I, primarily a Fantasist, stopped reading the site.
Unburdened with the yoke of respectability, Fantasy is currently outselling Science Fiction, and the few times I check back in on what's generally called “Pink Sci-Fi,” there is a heavy cloud of frustration that things aren't selling well because people aren't writing about The Issues hard enough and not handing out enough Vonnegut Asterisks to the people they don't want polluting their waters. They are also thoroughly convinced that they're right and that people just don't get it.
I'm inclined to disagree, but then again, I un-ironically love Beastmaster, so I was never going to be part of that club anyway.
Now let's look at the chart again. Comparing the Indie authors of Sci-Fi and Fantasy brings them much closer together, yet Indies don't have the marketing clout of the Big Five and have to rely on word of mouth and self-promotion.
Now consider this: sales of Big Five genre fiction are declining, and there's rumors of stormy waters ahead at some very prominent publishers. If audiences are leaving the Big Five because the stories are boring and the community is a bunch of snooty CHORFS, but still want to experience stories of wonder and excitement and adventure because that's been a part of human entertainment since before the Sumerians saw fit to etch the Epic of Gilgamesh onto clay tablets, where will they go?
To the communities that are excited about sharing new stories of adventure and digging up authors whose works have been forgotten for so long that they'll feel fresh and new to a generation just discovering them.
Despite whatever disagreements might be had in the Pulp Revolution Community (as loose as it is), the most common feature is that none of us want to shut up about it and want to throw musty old paperbacks at people we love (metaphorically) because there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had in reading, discussing, and arguing about them on the internet.
Because Fun Is Good For You.
The sales chart looks bad in the same way that the asteroid looked bad for the dinosaurs. For the tiny mammals crawling out of the impact crater and looking up at a star-filled sky, its only the beginning a grand adventure.