How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank 36,961 1,675 1,343 3,928 6,459 21,874 9,893 28,465 36,977 105,387 113,513 122,368 49,097 210,023 73,260 263,078 72,413 278,212 137,467 309,193 89,148 312,016 99,167 383,305 130,384 417,852 170,106 454,412 126,308 485,754 145,960 540,963 256,251 856,963 265,635 1,048,438 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents

8 thoughts on “How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?”

  1. Reading Science Fiction is immensely popular with me. Just ask the guys that moved all my books in November. I have to agree that I prefer big thick books, preferably in series. I can read three or four short stories before bed and forget them before I wake up. Can’t say that I’ve ever read a book about science fiction but, I’ll make note of the one you suggested.

  2. I think you’re more interested in the sociology or the demographics of sci-fi – as well as criticism and analysis. Lots of folks enjoy reading it but few want to go into the other aspects – I suppose it’s kind of like Romance – lots of people read it but few actually study the genre.

  3. In Britain few SF/F/H titles actually make the annual top 50 novels/books sold

    However looking at it another way, there are more SF/F/H writers in the top 50 list
    of authors selling in Britain

    Then again one can look at market share (of the commercial mass market of books
    [that excludes small presses, private company and direct learned society and other
    specialist sales])…

    Here SF/F and fantastical horror has for the past three decades in Britain has held between
    7% and 10% of the mass market share

    Presumably the situation is vaguely analogous in N. America???

    1. I’m not sure about the actual numbers, but 7-10 percent sounds about right. I have seen reports that mystery, romance and general fiction are bigger markets than science fiction. But that number will be smaller because I was only talking about true science fiction, and not fantasy and horror. The trouble is the publishing industry lumps SF, fantasy and horror together, and I wish they wouldn’t. I think science fiction has specific goals that making it uniquely appealing, and thus deserving of study.

      Thanks for the links. I’ll study them.

  4. Science fiction is a fascinating area for study. The very nature of science fiction itself is (or can be) to wrestle with human limitations through extraordinary imagination. From an anthropological perspective this is extremely poignant and I would love to delve deeper!

    Science fiction short stories and flash fiction are an interesting development as of late, and I must say I enjoy them. The genre has an almost endless supply of topics and concepts, so the short story format is a way to tackle them in an artistic and thoughtful way, I look forward to seeing how it plays out as a writing style.

    Great post, thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi James

    I have read the Panshin book, I enjoy reading about SF, Aldiss’s , now Trillion Year Spree, and James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds were good. Gunn also did a series of anthologies called the Road to Science Fiction, they are hard to get but his introductions to the books and the individual stores are mini histories of the field. While I have always read SF, I started collecting older works and pulps after a friend gave me David Kyle’s 2 volume illustrated histories Science Fiction and Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams. I started reading Bud Webster’s articles on the web and finally purchased his books including Anthopology 101 about anthologies and have collected a bunch of them. How many people read about the genre, indeed how many read the literature itself I am not sure. More universities seem to be studying SF as part of the trend towards studying popular culture. I notice a lot of people seem to be participating in the reading Vintage SF month on the Little Red Reviewer blog and they cover a real spectrum of titles and authors.

    All the best

  6. The change in WordPress theme makes the writing pop off the page. Nice look.

    I like reading books on sf. My favorite sf historian/critics are James Gunn, John J. Pierce, and Brian Stableford.

    I haven’t read the Panshins. I keep forgetting they wrote on more than Heinlein.

  7. I wonder what correlation there is between bible readers and science fiction readers? High? Low?
    I wonder how many science fiction readers have read Orwells 1984?
    I’d love to see those statistics.

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