Observations on Book Recommendations for 2008

It’s now time for the usual scramble for F&SF readers — or at least the hard-core and devoted ones — to put forth their nominations for the Hugo Awards, the annual reader popularity contest of the World Science Fiction Convention, which, by the way, will be held in Montreal in early August. As a prelude to this exercise, all sorts of “best” lists and “recommended” lists have popped up everywhere.

In looking over the reading lists that I’ve so far seen for the year, several things stand out.

First, most of the novels — well over 80% — appearing on most “recommended” lists come from “big” publishers, but most of the works that are shorter than novel length don’t come from the larger name print magazines, but from a variety of sources.

As others have observed, there’s also an increasing “British” flavor to the recommended novels. Whether this is a result of changing reviewer/recommender tastes or better British writing or just happenstance… who knows?

Another interesting fact was that, although there is no Hugo category for author collections, several recommended lists do mention them, and almost no recommended single author collection was listed as from a “major” publisher, although a number of authors with recommended collections from smaller presses are in fact novelists who are published by major publishers. This, along with the proliferation of stories recommended from smaller sources, tends to suggest that the story market is a far different market than the novel market. I can certainly recall when far more story collections were issued by major publishers.

This trend is also reinforced by the recent demise of several long-running “best of” anthologies, as well as the movement of other “best” anthologies from major publishers to smaller presses. I fretted about the decline of short fiction reading in an earlier post, and this trend seems to be continuing, with short fiction retreating to various lower-volume/total revenue venues, such as online or limited print-run magazines, so that the number of short stories published may actually have increased in recent years, without the total volume of readership increasing significantly… or perhaps even declining.

Since I clearly couldn’t read all of the books listed, my overall impressions are based on the comparative few I did read, the authors, and the summary recommendations, but I have the feeling that many of the recommended books listed as science fiction verge on the edge of adventure science fantasy, while of those listed as fantasy, few would actually fall into the “popular” definition of fantasy. I suspect this illustrates a trend more among reviewers than among readers.

All in all, it’s an interesting time in the world of F&SF… and I just hope it’s not “interesting” in the sense of that ancient Chinese curse.