The "Popularity" Problem in F&SF

A while ago, I was talking to my editor, and I mentioned a book that he had edited for a new author — one for which I’d offered a blurb. My editor sighed, and informed me that he wouldn’t be able to publish another book by the writer, although the first book had received a considerable number of favorable comments and reviews, because it hadn’t sold well enough for the publisher to risk a second book. At present, this is scarcely news to any author in the field, because the same thing is happening all over publishing. Sales of a majority of established published authors are down, and while they’re not down enough to hurt the really big names, the decline tends to affect newer and less established authors much more. And it makes sense, unfortunately.

In a time when readers, along with everyone else, are watching their purchases more carefully, fewer are going to risk their entertainment dollars on an author they don’t know, unless someone they know personally and trust recommends that author. But… with new authors very few, if any, readers know the author — unless the publishing house pours a ton of money into publicity, and that is happening less and less.

Now, in this time of economic downturn, this is relatively self-evident. What isn’t quite so evident is that it’s merely the continuation of an on-going trend. At a time when blockbuster sales — such as the Twilight books, the Wheel of Time, Nora Roberts, etc. — are dwarfing best-seller numbers of previous decades, the sales numbers of mid-list and low best-selling authors at major publishing houses tend to be flattening, if not declining, especially mass-market sales, although there are some exceptions. These exceptions are always cited as contrary examples, of course, rather than the anomalies that they are.

The reaction of many authors is to aim for that “popular” audience, to the point that F&SF aficionados can cite example after example of imitation, subtle or blatant, and that the media and series tie-in section of the F&SF section at many chain stories is almost as large as the “regular” section.

One reaction in the F&SF field has been the growth of small presses, some of which stretch the definition of “small,” but these presses are limited in what they can do, although they often publish novels of high quality. This has had another off-shoot, as well, in that it appears a number of “professional” and “semi-professional” F&SF reviewers tend to concentrate on such works, almost as if assuming that most of what is published by a large publisher is “merely commercial,” and seldom worthy of comment.

Writers who have the ability to write excellent books are placed in an unenviable position, because books which tend to be technically outstanding usually have lower sales. As one of the responders to this blog has pointed out, outstanding books also get fewer and “less favorable” reader reviews, and those reduce sales. Since most professionals do write in hopes of making a living, there is a not-so-subtle and continuing pressure to “write popular,” even if an editor never says a thing to a writer.

More than a few readers have pointed out that these trends could very well lead to more self-publishing, more web publishing, and more electronic alternatives to getting stories and novels out. It probably will, but it won’t solve the “popularity” problem, because for those stories and novels to reach more readers requires word about them to reach readers, and successful “word-passing” on the web requires the support of widely-read and popular websites. Thus… the web-publishing option merely transports the popularity problem from one form of publishing to another — and does so without nearly the same degree of quality control as is exercised by the old-line print publishing business. This shift also results, in most cases, to a reduction in the income of writers, along with the problem that readers are left having to spend far more time sifting through web and other less conventional forums to find books they like that fall outside “popular” parameters. Again… there are exceptions, such as Baen’s Universe magazine, but they’re few indeed.

In the end, it all boils down to the fact that readers, as a whole, get what they’re willing to pay for, and if most readers flock to the “popular,” before long, that will represent most of what’s available — and that will be the case whether the source is “conventional” publishing or the web.