Marketing F&SF

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.

9 thoughts on “Marketing F&SF”

  1. Lawrence says:

    I finally viewed Avatar last week and quite enjoyed it (I know nothing about the background, story origin etc, I just watched a movie).

    What I found interesting in context of this discussion was that every aspect of the story line was something that I had previously encountered in reading what I call “classic science fiction”; novels dating from the 1950’s to the ultimate corruption of the genre by the Star Trek / Star Wars templates.

    I find it curious that a story-line whose elements completely pre-date the current mainstream F&SF flavour, one which doesn’t require sexually pornographic content to cover any shortcomings and ultimately justifies itself on a moral basis, can be so wildly successful while in literary form that same story is virtually unsellable today without the marketing and success of the film behind it.

    Perhaps that’s the key to marketing quality literature and rejuvinating the genre. Put it all in flashy pictures so the plebs will look at it. Then again we’re all familiar with the general quality of Hollywood (or any other) movies. Besides how many times have you mentioned a good book only to meet as a response “Oh yeah, I’ve never read it but I saw the movie”.

    Oh well, back to the drawing board I guess. Besides what publisher can affort to invest that kind of money in a single story?

  2. David says:

    I wonder if some of this might be a change in book selling with regards to younger readers. I specifically mean the relatively new marketing to YA. Back when I was a new reader, if I wanted to find something to read, I had to go browse through the adult fantasy and science fiction shelves. The stuff I would read, juvenile Heinlein’s, Alan Dean Foster, etc., your bang, zoom adventure stuff was sandwiched in among the “real” books. So, when I was looking for something more as an older reader, I just stayed where I was.

    The bang, zoom adventure feeder books are now in YA, helpfully segregated from the genre ghettos in most stores and libraries. Additionally, very few of the YA authors cross over to “adult” science fiction to act as anchors for young readers to find adult science fiction. The dedicated will still find what they are looking for because they know what round peg fits in their round hole, but it’s not too terribly outside of that science fiction round hole to go for the more mainstream thrillers and suspense novels.

  3. Terrific rejoinder, Lee. I can’t say I disagree with any of it, and I defer to your significant experience in the publishing realm, in terms of publishers struggling with ‘manufacturing’ popular hits, versus hits just organically arising through any number of subtle and/or unguessable factors.

    I supposse I am just feeling grouchy, that after so many years struggling to break into print SF at a professional level, now that I have a toe-hold in the genre — a voice, however small — sales figures seem to indicate that print SF is in trouble. Great, as if there were not enough hurdles facing new SF writers, now the genre itself is in danger of fading into literary obscurity?

    Perhaps that’s too much gloom’n’doom on my part? Perhaps I am not taking enough of a long view about the subject?

    I just remember reading SF as a young teen, and being so thoroughly excited by it all — the genre seemed huge, with lots of different authors; a wide vista filled with possibilities.

    Now, the genre seems too much like an eroded fortress, populated by a shrinking number of venerable authors who irregularly man the ramparts, and a select group of younger but altogether politicized writers, fans — and some editors — who seem to think SF’s only value comes from its use as a tool of contemporary (code: dreary and dyspeptic) progressive social critique.

    Perhaps today’s youth market has simply stopped being impressed with ‘classic’ flavor sci-fi — spaceships and interstellar adventure — that is not explicitly media-related? Maybe the overall public disinterest in things like NASA reflects a dreary “turning inward” on the part of the popular consumer imagination as a whole?

    Like you, I am fairly stumped as to what can be done about it. Most of the time I get angry at a genre establishment which seems quite happy to remain a “fortress” against popular revival. Occasionally I despair that young readers simply have stopped giving a damn about literary subjects and fictional exploration which fired my soul when I was a teen reader.

  4. Jonah says:

    To Lawrence’s comment about “Avatar” – I would say that succeeded despite, rather than because of, its storyline. It’s a beautiful movie and Cameron’s success is the reason other films are being made (or converted) to 3D,but I don’t think it was the storytelling that got “Avatar” it’s success.
    To the broader point about marketing and “making” a hit – I’m curious whether you think there would be ways to leverage the web (choose your own adventure is a lot less ridiculous than it used to be) for a new form of literature which might be more appealing?

  5. hob says:

    I am curious, what exactly would you describe as being sf?

    It seems to me that when sf first came out it was a future based fantasy genre. The more our world started being shaped by it computers/faster than sound travel etc the more the fantasy wasn’t, so to speak. You could argue that for sf to become as popular as fantasy/supernatural sf authors have to present sf in a different way.

  6. marketing says:

    Keep up the posts, always an education!

  7. Congratulations – you’ve just gained a new fan 🙂

  8. hm… sorry for being a lttle bit boring but i think your blog could look a little bit better and a bit more easy to the eyes if it got a bit more of a white feel to it, but that is only me. good post anyhow! =) Best regards, Sista Minuten Resor Från Göteborg

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