Writers’ Shift

Over the past few years I’ve been asked how the field of writing has changed since I was first published, a question I suspect comes up because I’ve managed to stay published for a long enough time that I might have some perspective on any possible changes affecting writers, in particular.

Some of the changes are obvious to any even casual reader, such as the decline in the number of big box chain bookstores and the growth of ebooks, along with a decline in the availability of a diversity of mass market paperback books. Others are less likely to be quite so apparent, and some will be apparent only to long-time F&SF readers, such as the actual length of books.

When I started writing most SF novels fell in the 80,000-90,000 word range, and for a very good reason. Almost all science fiction was published as paperback originals, and paperback books longer than that had a disconcerting tendency to fall apart rather quickly. Also, there was very little fantasy, and for whatever reason, science fiction novels, in general, tend to be shorter than fantasy novels. The binding technology has gotten better, and now most F&SF tends to be published in hardcover first – a practice pioneered largely by Tor, I might add. And whether it’s because of better bindings, more fantasy, or something else, F&SF books are definitely longer and larger than they were thirty-five years ago.

While it’s one of those things I can’t prove absolutely, what I have observed suggests that writers who are not blockbuster best-sellers and who turn out a book a year or more infrequently are earning less than they used to, largely because bookstores carry fewer titles in backlist inventory and because media buzz, even electronic media hype, tends to die out much more quickly after a book is released than it once did. That’s one of the reasons why more and more authors find they need to publish more frequently and to establish and maintain as much of a media presence as they can. The problem with this is that maintaining a full-scale media presence takes a great deal of time and effort, and that time and effort isn’t going toward actually writing books.

At the same time, publishers aren’t doing as many author tours, except for their very top authors, as they once did, and more and more authors are trying to arrange their own appearances, pretty much anywhere that they can. This was greatly frowned upon in past years, especially by the big-box book chains. One such chain wouldn’t let me appear in any of their stores for several years because I went around corporate management and worked out an appearance in one of the chain’s stores because, for some reason, the chain didn’t seem to want me appearing in any of their stores in a certain mid-sized city, even though the local stores did. Now, the local community relations people in many of the B&N stores seem much more receptive to that, but I wonder if they’re just keeping corporate headquarters in the dark, or if headquarters is just grateful for anything that might boost sales.

Because more and more authors are doing personal marketing of some sort, the author who doesn’t is often at a disadvantage, but personal marketing takes a considerable amount of time and effort, as well as a financial outlay that can range from modest to outrageous.

Another area that’s changed is that there’s much more media interest in authors who are in some way personally intriguing or young and attractive. While this has always been true to some degree, it seems as though that’s become even more so, and that there is now a greater number of authors who get read more because of their media persona than because of the content of their books.

Not surprisingly, really accurate “hard” science fiction has declined, replaced largely by “space opera,” even steampunk, perhaps because it takes more knowledge and effort to write good solid science-based fiction, because scientific discoveries have ruled out a great number of popular scenarios, because those discoveries require more knowledge on the part of readers at a time when fewer and fewer readers are science-literate, and because more and more readers prefer exciting escapism from a world they believe is already too technically demanding.

And, of course, there is self-publishing, the growth of which is well-known, but which would have astounded followers of the field if someone had predicted its impact in 1990, and probably such an accurate prediction would have earned the forecaster ridicule. That impact was made possible by electronic books, an innovation which unfortunately has also had the impact of effectively destroying significant percentage the mass market paperback sales, while boosting piracy, with the result that most authors’ per book ebook sales don’t make up for the loss in sales of recently released books, and largely only authors with either blockbuster titles or long backlists come close to the royalty levels that existed in the 1990s.

All in all, a very mixed bag in how authors have fared.

6 thoughts on “Writers’ Shift”

  1. Alison Hamway says:

    As a long term reader I certainly have seen many of these same trends. My local independent bookstores have all disappeared, and Barnes and Noble is struggling. Our local B&N carries fewer titles. The used bookstore owner is extremely bitter about electronic readers. As a reader, I now mostly read on my Kindle — paperback SF titles are in extremely short supply. Several authors that I admire have been dropped by their publishers — it is almost like there is a rush to conform to certain blockbuster type books, instead of reward for innovation.

  2. Tim says:

    Alison : be encouraged in a small way. I note that books never before available on eBooks are now appearing in that form. All of Vance for example and some much less known authors. I assume that this is mainly due to the availability of good software to do this.

    On the down side is that eBooks are generally just a new form of an existing published book. In Vance’s case, it was due to his following; in other cases I know (eg Stoddard’s High House) it is because they managed to get published and sold enough to get noticed.

    With the likely demise of paperbacks and their being less opportunity to get published in the first instance, we may end up like students of English Literature : i.e. reading old books.

  3. invah says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about your approach to science fiction versus fantasy, and your approach to hard science fiction (such as in “Solar Express”) versus less technical science fiction (“The Elysium Commission).

    You’ve obliquely made comments that lead me to think that you are personally frustrated that your efforts in hard science fiction are not as well-received or successful as your efforts in fantasy.

    What is interesting is that your books are technical regardless of science fiction or fantasy designation. Even your approach to individual characters’ perception of magical actions is technical, and, rather brilliantly, not standardized across the series and world in execution aside from the basic framework.

    Aside from the application of magic/talent, there are your forays into craft, governing, resource management, et cetera.

    I think that you are right in science literacy as a factor. I also wonder if regular readers are more likely to be have a basic foundation for the other non-science topics you incorporate by virtue of education, life experience, and interest.

    One thing I’d mention is that, from what I can tell, you stay abreast of the latest STEM research and applications. I can’t personally speak to whether this affects a reader’s capacity for comprehension – it could be that a scientifically literate reader has the foundation for comprehension, or it could be that your operating ahead of those readers due to active, engaged, and ongoing research – but it does make me wonder.

    It also occurs to me that you are experiencing something that, I believe, the Japanese discovered with respect to robotics, which is that the closer to human-approximation a robot is, the more we look for differentiation. The further from human-approximation, the more we anthropomorphize. When you set hard science fiction novel in the identifiably ‘near’ future, the more a reader is likely to find themselves mentally outside the story, comparing it to the present or their current projection of the future.

    Additionally, I think readers take a different approach to fantasy versus science fiction, which is that the fantasy world is self-contained in a way that the science fiction world is not. A fantasy world reveals the physical and magical “laws” of that world, and requires no prior knowledge from the reader. A reader doesn’t expect to have to know anything outside the world.

    A science fiction novel, particularly for readers who are under-educated in areas which apply to the novel, are going to feel that they “should” have this knowledge, and will approach the story more as a textbook than a story. A reader with little or no science background, I suspect, will simply accept the story presented as-is (similar to the way fantasy is read).

    It is the reader who has enough knowledge to know that they don’t know enough, and who feels that they should, who will find themselves outside of the story repeatedly, as they attempt to process and categorize what they do and do not know.

    So I wonder if that your writing on the edge of STEM scientific advancement unintentionally leaves most of your audience as ‘under-educated’.

    One of the reasons you became my favorite author is how you approach systems and inter-related systems, both human and technological. I found myself struggling with your “hard” science fiction because it was just enough outside my knowledge base, STEM science-wise, that I felt I needed to educate myself instead of just engaging in the process of reading. It was when I realized that I was reading your fantasy work differently than your science fiction work that I adjusted my reading style. Since my purpose and pleasure in reading your work is not predominantly related to STEM science, I re-oriented my reading style.

    I now let the story ‘wash over’ me, picking up pieces as I go, instead of feeling that I need to have a comprehensive understanding of the scientific framework first.

    This isn’t to criticize your writing approach at all. I happen to think that we don’t discuss the process of reading as well as we do the process of writing.

  4. invah says:

    Sorry I keep dropping these long comments on you!

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