F&SF Fiction as an "Arthouse" Relic?

Last week, I was talking to an editor, and he made the observation that, overall, paperback book sales of bestselling authors have been declining steadily but inexorably over the years… and the situation is even worse for other authors. Now… if this were a trend where those paperback sales were being replaced by e-books or the like, I’d chalk it up to changing technology. But it’s not. As I understand it, in science fiction and fantasy, it wasn’t uncommon to have first paperback printings of 50,000- 100,000 books for a publisher’s top writers [excluding, of course, the very small handful of runaway best sellers like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan]. Today, it’s more like 30,000 – 50,000.

One immediate response is along the lines of, “What do you expect when new paperbacks are eight dollars?” But I’m talking about what’s happened in the last few years… AFTER paperbacks had reached the $6-8 range. Besides, the real costs of other items have increased in the same way as those of books.

At the time when an Ace double was 35 cents, I could get a hamburger, fries, and a Coke from MacDonald’s for the same amount. Now the average paperback F&SF book is three times as long as that Ace double and costs $7.99. People are buying full meals from MacDonald’s for about the same amount, but the difference is that the market for fast food has exploded, and the market for books has not.

Certainly, one factor is the “profit motive.” All of the large F&SF publishers have been gobbled up by one of the media conglomerates, and conglomerates want to make money first, and publishing books is only a means by which this is possible. The same is also true of the booksellers. The results are anything but good for the fiction market.

No matter how many or how few books are printed and shipped, some are always returned. For example, one of the more popular best-selling F&SF authors has a “sell-through” of 70-80%. That is extremely high. The “normal” range for successful authors is more like 50-60%. One critically acclaimed author once actually achieved a dismal sell-through of 4%, i.e., 96% of the books printed and shipped were returned unsold. Now… enter the accountants of the bookstore chains. They look at the sales of even a best-selling author and note that they didn’t sell all of the books of that author’s last book… and they order fewer copies of the next book. Even if the sell-through ratio goes up considerably, say ten percent, and that is a considerable increase, the total number of books ordered and sold goes down… And for the author’s next book, the chain’s initial order will again decrease… and so on.

Then add to that the fact that reading among Americans under the age of thirty has dropped precipitously, for a number of factors, including the internet, computers, and media-created attention-deficit-disorder which makes reading boring, because it requires sustained concentration and thought. And all the technology and convenient e-book readers won’t help with those who can’t concentrate in the first place.

What does this mean for publishing?

I’d say that a certain trend is already emerging. The larger publishers are cutting loose more and more authors who were once “mid-list” because their sales numbers are falling and because the break-even point for larger publishers is a higher number of copies than in the past. Authors who have a small but loyal following are turning to the smaller presses, who are now providing higher quality products, and who can produce fewer copies “economically.” Add to that print on demand.

But… the basic problem is that the number of outlets for books is continuing to diminish, and except in the mega-stores or the minimal numbers of F&SF specialty stores, the range of choice is almost non-existent. While the mall bookstores are being replaced in some places by anchor chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, thousands of malls have no book outlets at all. While every Wal-Mart has a book department, it’s a rare Wal-Mart that stocks more than 20 F&SF titles — and that’s one percent of the number of F&SF titles published in a year, and those 20 don’t include anything from the small presses.

So the small press editions are mostly relegated to online sales, local sales, specialty F&SF stores [of which there are only a few handfuls left], and convention sales. These outlets aren’t enough to expose new readers to the true range of speculative fiction, and without such exposure, the number of new readers will remain low, and, unless matters change, as the older readers die off, the reading base will diminish.

Does this mean that in another generation, the only devoted F&SF readers will be gray-haired and restricted to a few specialty stores and one carrel in the chains?

I hope not… but it’s not looking all that promising [unless you all go out and buy more paperbacks!].