How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 2, 2018

Special thanks go to Chuck Litka for directing me to “2018 SFWA Nebula Conference Presentation” at Author Earningsa website devoted to helping writers find marketing information. This SFWA presentation is a slideshow with an impressive amount of sales data that readers generally don’t get to see. Anyone who writes science fiction, or hopes to be a science fiction writer, should study these slides carefully. Fans of science fiction should find it interesting to know what other fans are buying and how.

The slideshow by Data Guy is mostly focused on sales numbers, but the slide I liked best is #35 – Science Fiction Ebook Unit Sales by Subgenre. Hope Data Guy doesn’t mind if I copy a couple here.

Slide35

It is disheartening to me that short story collections and anthologies sell so damn little. I’m guessing “Short Stories” means single-author collections. I don’t know why “Anthologies & Short Stories” and “Anthologies” have two separate categories. My other favorite category is “Classics,” and it has sales barely above anthologies.

By the way, “Military SF” is my least favorite kind of science fiction. Growing up in the 1960s I felt like an oddball because I read science fiction. Few people read science fiction before Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans were considered dorks. And when folks did admit they were a science fiction fan, it meant reading science fiction, not watching.

Now I feel like an oddball because I read the least popular kinds of science fiction. Of course, I do love all the sub-genres from “Post-Apocalyptic” to “Exploration.” But I consume them in short stories, novelettes, and novellas. I seldom buy new SF novels anymore. I get the latest Kim Stanley Robinson or the Hugo winners, or the odd SF bestseller like The Martian by Andy Weir. And when I do buy a new science fiction novel, 98% of the time it’s an audiobook.

The impact of audiobooks and ebooks is the main point of Data Guy’s slideshow and the fact that self-publishing is making a huge impact on the genre. Since I’m older, retired, and spend a lot of my reading time consuming mid-20th-century science fiction, I’m not a typical buyer. But it does make me old enough to remember how vastly different book buying was half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, most science fiction novels came out in paperback. They were mass-market papers, but we didn’t call them that. I don’t think trade paperbacks existed then. At least I don’t remember any. More often than not, paperbacks were purchased from twirling racks in drugstores than bookstores.

Few people bought hardbacks. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC) in 1967 to collect cheap hardbacks. They’d weren’t bound in cloth, but a thin vinyl-like plastic. Today collectors prize the paperbacks from this era for their covers. True cloth-bound 1st editions are also loved. But are rare. I often end up with old SFBC editions when I order from ABEBooks. (Or I end up with library discards. That’s another cause for depression, that classic SF is so little read that libraries discard them.)

The first new bookstore I shopped at when I was 16, had three shelves of science fiction books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks. It was pretty easy to keep up with the genre, and most of it was reprints. My favorite library then only had 8 shelves of SF books tucked away in a dark corner. I would guess less than 200 SF/F titles were published yearly back then. Today it’s well over 2,000.

Science fiction selling in hardback is something that’s evolved over the course of my lifetime. I was middle-aged before they started getting on the bestseller lists. My library in 2018 has 8 ranges of bookshelves for SF/F. In recent years we’ve seen more trade paperback editions and fewer mass market books. Now ebooks and audiobooks are wiping out the mass market book and have made a huge dent into trade and hardback sales. See slide #13.

Slide 13

My personal book buying habits reflect this chart, but instead of new print books, half of my book buying is used print books. When buying new books, I’d say 95% are ebooks and audiobooks. The last new print book I bought was Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet edited by Mike Ashley, and I had to special order it from England.

I’m now renting more books, via Scribd.com, another distribution type that’s not in the data. I’m reading/listening to books from this service that previously I would have bought as ebooks or audiobooks. And most of the ebooks I buy are the bargain $1.99 editions. I’ve collected a huge library of classic science fiction at that price by watching the daily deals. Generally, any book I really love in audio is one I’ll also buy in ebook. I like having a reading copy for reference and reviewing.

I’m mostly a guy that looks backward to the future. I wonder what young people today who are looking forward to the future are buying? The data in these slides reveal buying decisions in format and sub-genre, but I actually think that view of science fiction has changed.

The futures I hoped for and feared are different from the futures that young people read about today. Readers are reading more fantasy, and much of the science fiction is unbelievable, not based on hard science. I read science fiction in the 1960s hoping it would shape the future, but I don’t think people do that today.

Science fiction has always been an escapist lit but was tinged with hubris. Much of that hubris has faded away. But Data Guy couldn’t document that in his slides. Today, science fiction is more like medical marijuana than project management software. This is why I spend most of my science fiction reading time on the shorter forms. Science fiction writers are more likely to speculate and extrapolate in short fiction than long.

Another area that Data Guy didn’t document is series. Writers are devoting more of their efforts to writing book series. Many of my science fiction reading friends love book series. Series might be comfy books, but to me, they are vast wastelands of words because they have so little science fiction speculation in them. If they have clever ideas, they’re all in the first book.

I wish Data Guy had the numbers on sales by age groups. I wonder how many over-65 science fiction readers are like me – focussed on the past? I’ve recently rediscovered that exciting science fiction is still being written in the shorter forms. It always has, I just lost my way.

My current SF reading involves jumping back and forth from new and old anthologies. The annual best-of-the-year anthologies are new books I do buy, usually in ebook format, but also as audiobooks when they are available. These large collections are actually easier to read electronically.

I wonder how much of the sales Data Guy tracked involved books, ebooks, and audiobooks found in libraries? More and more my library is offering to let me to check out via download rather than visit. To me, Scribd.com is merely a public library where I’m fined $8.99 a month to use.

Finally, one more sad note to contemplate. If book sales move to ebooks and audiobooks, what will collectors collect in the future? You can’t go to musty old bookshops hoping to find lost treasures when they never existed in the physical world to begin with. But there is a practicality to ebooks. The beautiful old paperbacks I find in pristine condition today really aren’t readable. They are collectible, but often they’re too fragile for eye tracks and page flipping. Most of the classic novels of science fiction are easily found today as ebooks, and usually well priced. Audible.com has republished nearly all the classic science fiction novels I grew up reading.

And I’m starting to see more and more classic short stories show up in ebook format. I’ve been collecting Robert Sheckley and Clifford Simak stories that way. What I hope is all of classic science fiction short stories will eventually show up in audiobook too, read by great narrators. That’s how I really love to “read” today.

JWH

 

 

Discovering New Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 edited by Jonathan StrahanTomorrow is July 1st and my online science fiction club begins discussing The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan. This is the first time we’ve selected an annual best-of-the-year anthology. We mostly stick to novels and favor the classics. This anthology collects the best short SF/F from 2017, so we’re getting very close to the event horizon of new science fiction. To be honest, our members are mostly older readers, so reading these new stories should make us feel younger.

2018 is the year of the science fiction short story for me. I’ve listened to three volumes of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, started reading The Great SF Stories 1939-1964 edited by Asimov and Greenberg and I’m up to 1943. I going through Science Fiction of the 50’s edited by Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander, and I listened to all of The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume 11 and I’m getting close to finishing listening to volume 12.

Growing up in the 1960s I got hooked on current science fiction by subscribing to F&SF, Analog, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantastic, and If. To me, the heart and soul of science fiction have always been the SF magazines. For the most part, I stopped reading those in the late 1970s. During my work years, I’d find time to read 10-12 science novels a year. I’d sometimes subscribe to F&SF or Asimov’s. In 2002 I joined Audible.com and began rereading all my favorite science fiction novels by listening to them. But in the last few years since retiring, I’ve mostly caught up. Now I’m reading and listening to old science fiction short stories. And it’s tremendous fun. A reading renaissance.

I dabble in new science fiction, but it’s hard for me. I think that’s true for many of the book club members. Every year thousands of new SF/F novels come out, and mostly by unknown authors. Listening to these two best-of-the-year anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan is reconnecting me with current science fiction and a new generation of writers. I like the feeling of being near the edge of contemporary science fiction. Last year I even resubscribed to F&SF, Asimov’s and Analog. That’s why I nominated volume 12 of Strahan’s anthology for the book club. I was surprised when the group voted it in.

Maybe I’m not the only old SF fan that wants to check out what’s new. I’ve decided I just can’t keep up with current novels. I might read one new novelist a year. But reading and listening to new short stories allows me to discover dozens of new writers and the whole spectrum of new science fictional ideas. Just reading this one annual best-of-the-year anthology exposes readers to the modern diversity of 29 writers. And many of them are new to me.

Now, here’s the thing about my group. Some members don’t like voting for books they have to buy. Most have giant collections of unread SF/F books, and they’ve stopped buying new books. For a book to win a monthly spot in our book club it has to be easily available, either from libraries, used bookstores, cheap ebook editions, or already owned.

To help out those members who don’t own or won’t buy volume 12, I created a list of the stories in the collection and linked any that were on the web. This had two surprising results. First, over half the stories were free to read online. Second, and more importantly, looking at these stories revealed the modern state of written science fiction. Just following these links will show you what the latest science fiction magazines are like. They’re digital. Many have beautiful layouts and great art. And it’s not uncommon to have audio versions to play. Sadly, print magazines are dying. But all magazines need supporters. Subscribe to their digital editions, and if you don’t want print magazines to go extinct, subscribe to them too.

I don’t want this list to discourage people from buying the Strahan anthology. It’s available in paper, ebook, and audiobook, and very reasonably priced. It’s a great introduction to new SF/F tales for readers stuck in the past of classic stories. My only personal complaint is it contains fantasy. It irks me no end to buy anthologies that have both science fiction and fantasy because I’m strictly a science fiction guy. However, my book club does have many fantasy fans. I bought the ebook version of volume 12 because it was cheap, and the audiobook version because I love hearing short stories on audio. (But it still annoys me to wade through the fantasy, although I do have to admit they were all well-told stories even if they were about magic and dragons.)

Here’s the list I created for my book club. To save your place here, right-click on each link and select “Open link in new window” to try out the story. Then poke around its online magazine. These digital venues for short science fiction are the cutting edge of the genre. Read the columns and comments. Many sites have ebook editions to buy to finance all the free reading.

Some of these stories have already won awards. “The Hermit of Houston” and “The Martian Obelisk” won Locus awards. “The Secret Life of Bots” and “The Martian Obelisk” are up for the Hugo in August.

The Jonathan Strahan annual anthology is just one of eleven this year that focuses on the best science fiction stories of 2017. See my overview of them at Book Riot. Also, read my “Reading (and Writing for) Science Fiction Magazines” for links to many of the current science fiction magazines. To get an even a bigger picture, look at the lists of defunct and current SF magazines at Wikipedia.

I used to think the science fiction short story was dying off. Evidently, I’m completely wrong. Today short written science fiction is thriving. Most science fiction fans are movie and television fans, but real science fiction comes from magazines. It always has.

JWH

 

 

A History of the Annual Science Fiction Best-of-the-Year Anthology

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Best_science_fiction_stories_1949Back in 1949 editors Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty came out with The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 from Fredrick Fell publishers that collected the best science fiction stories that appeared in magazines during 1948. They were following the tradition of The Best American Short Stories anthology that first appeared in 1915. Science fiction has had one or more annual best-of-the-year anthologies ever since. I’ve counted 9 scheduled for 2018, with two already released (The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 edited by Neil Clarke and The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve edited by Jonathan Strahan). By the way, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven is currently available for the Kindle for 99 cents. It has two of my favorite recent reads:  “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (try the audio) and “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi (author of The Windup Girl.)

Few people read short stories. The audience for them is greater than poetry readers, but probably not by much. The three top print magazines, Analog, Asimov’s SF, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction all have roughly 10,000-20,000 buyers each. There’s no telling how many readers there are for the many online magazines. 1% of the U.S. population would be 3.257 million people, so even if there were 50,000 science fiction short story fans, that would only be less than 1/65th of 1% of the population. If you’re a fan of SF short stories, the odds of knowing someone else who is also a fan is very small indeed.

However, I would claim the science fiction short story has always been the heart and soul of the genre. Even before Amazing Stories in April 1926, the first pulp magazine devoted to science fiction, short science fiction appeared regularly in periodicals decades before that. Most science fiction writers, especially the Golden Age writers, got their start writing short stories. And if you love to read science fiction for the far-out ideas, the magazines are the place to go.

In an age where most novels are part of trilogies or never-ending series, a short work of fiction that jumps in, gets the job done and wraps up satisfyingly is to be highly prized. I get more science fictional bangs for my galactic credit by reading one annual anthology than I do reading a dozen SF novels. That’s why I’ve switched to mostly reading SF short stories.

Bleiler and Dikty might have begun the tradition of best-short-stories-of-the-year anthologies, but Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg created a series in the late 1970s that jumped back to 1939 and continued for 25 volumes until 1963. Robert Silverberg added one more volume for 1964 after they stopped.

I’ve started a reading project to read all these anthologies from 1939 to the present, assuming the present will be the year I die. That’s about 200 books as of 2018. I’m currently reading stories from 1942, the 1950s, and 2017.

Here are the annual anthologies I know about that ran for at least three years minimum. There have been other editors and publishers starting annual series that didn’t succeed that I’m ignoring in my collecting and reading. Follow the links to ISFDB to read more about each series, their volumes, and their content. I’m using the series title decided on my ISFDB, but individual volume titles will vary.

If you count series with the bolded “present” above, you should tally eleven. Maybe my assumption that few people read short stories is wrong because this seems like a boom time for best-of-the-year anthologies.

Bleiler & Dikty began their series two years before I was born. Evidently, their publisher Frederick Fell didn’t have a wide distribution because I don’t remember seeing any of these volumes at the library when I was growing up. I began reading the annual anthologies in the mid-sixties with Judith Merril and then the Wollheim books from Ace Books. After that, I started reading the Terry Carr collections. I bought every annual from Dozois when he started with Bluejay Books, but I didn’t keep them. Damn!  Today I follow Dozois, Strahan, Horton, Kaster, and Clarke.

My current reading project is The Great SF Stories edited by Asimov/Greenberg. I’m reading them straight through. I’m now in 1942. I seldom read the annual anthologies from cover-to-cover. My goal is to do that this time as I progress through the years. It’s becoming quite an education in the history and evolution of science fiction. I sometimes write about the stories that intrigue me over at Worlds Without End.

If you’re interested in discussing SF short stories I have an online email group, The Great SF Stories at Groups.io. You’re welcome to join.

Update:

A few weeks ago I wrote “9 ‘Best SFF of the Year’ Anthologies” for Book Riot that just got published (4/13/18). At the time I only knew about 9 current best-of-the-year anthologies. Now it’s up to 11. There might be more.

JWH