Recently, Brad Torgersen made a lengthy comment about why he believed that F&SF, and particularly science fiction, needs to “popularize” itself, because the older “target market” is… well… old and getting older, and the younger readers tend to come to SF through such venues as media tie-in novels, graphic novels, and “popular” fiction. While he’s absolutely correct in the sense that any vital genre has to attract to new readers in order to continue, he unfortunately is under one major misapprehension – that publishers can “market” fiction the way Harley-Davidson marketed motorcycles. Like it or not, publishing – and readers – don’t work quite that way.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s quite a bit of successful marketing in the field, but one reason why there are always opportunities for new authors is that it’s very rare that a publisher can actually “create” a successful book or author. I know of one such case, and it was enabled by a smart publisher and a fluke set of circumstances that occurred exactly once in the last two decades. Historically, and practically, what happens far more often is that, of all the new authors published, one or two, if that, each year appeal widely or, if you will, popularly. Once that happens, a savvy publisher immediately brings all possible marketing tools and expertise to publicize and expand that reading base and highlight what makes that author’s work popular.
In short, there has to be a larger than “usual” reader base to begin with, and the work in question has to be “popularizable.” I do have, I think it’s fair to say, such a reader base, but, barring some strange circumstances, that reader base isn’t likely to expand wildly to the millions because what and how I write require a certain amount of thought for the fullest appreciation of readers, and the readers who flock to each new multi-million selling new novelistic sensation are looking primarily for either (1) entertainment, (2) a world with the same characters that promises that they can identify with it for years, or (3) a “fast” read, preferably all three, but certainly two out of three.
All this doesn’t mean that publishers can’t do more to expand their readership, but it does mean that such expansion has to begin by considering and publishing books that are likely to appeal to readers beyond those of the traditional audience, without alienating the majority of those traditional readers. And in fact, one way that publishers have been trying to reach beyond the existing audience is by putting out more and more “supernatural” fantasy dealing with vampires, werewolves, and books with more explicit sexual content. The problem with this approach is that, first, such books tend not to appeal to those who like science fiction and/or tech-oriented publications, as well as also tending to alienate a significant percentage of older readers, as opposed to, as Brad pointed out, media tie-in novels, which appeal across a wider range of ages and backgrounds. Another problem is that writing science fiction, as opposed to fantasy, takes more and more technical experience and education, and fewer and fewer writers have that background. That’s one reason why SF media tie-in novels are easier to write – most of the technical trappings have been worked out, one way or another.
I don’t have an easy answer, except to say that trying to expand readership by extending the series of authors with “popular” appeal or by copying or trying to latch on to the current fads has limited effectiveness. Personally, I tend to believe that just looking for good books, whether or not they fit into current popularity fads, is the best remedy, but that may just be a reflection of my views and mark me as “dated.”
In any case, Brad has pointed out a real problem facing science fiction, in particular, and one that needs more insight and investigation by editors and publishers in the field.