What is the Kindle Doing to the Science Fiction Genre?

Here is the Kindle Best Sellers in Science Fiction showing two lists, Top 100 Paid and Top 100 Free.

The #1 book on the paid list is A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin.  Okay, that’s natural, it tops other bestseller lists too.

#2 is five John Carter novels bundled together for 99 cents.  I can see that, the movie is getting people to read the old ERB books.

#3 is Ender’s Game – another natural, but it’s old.  I guess people with a new reading gadget are rereading their old favorites.  Cool.

#4 is Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey.  WTF?  Who is Hugh Howey?  And he’s got 277 customer reviews!  In fact, Hugh Howey has several Kindle books in the Top 100 paid.  How did this unknown writer get in the Top 100 Kindle SF books?

Going down this Kindle Top 100 list for Science Fiction I realize that unknown authors are grabbing many positions on both the paid and free Top 100 lists.  There’s a smattering of old time favorite SF writers, Heinlein has two titles, Asimov, one, and a few modern SF writers of note like Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card have a few more, but for the most part the these best sellers are books I haven’t heard of before, by authors unknown to me.

Is the Kindle changing the reading habits of science fiction readers?  And other genres as well?

My favorite science fiction writer is Robert A. Heinlein, but then I’m 60 and my reading tastes are as old as I am.  When I started reading science fiction in the 1960s Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were the big three of the genre.  Most of the SF authors I’ve discovered in the last 50 years don’t have books on this list.   Why?  Are they out of fashion, or has Kindle reading habits changed things dramatically?

How are low cost and free Kindle books going to affect professional writers?  Also, notice the name of the publishers of these books – they are unknown to me, so I have to wonder if they aren’t self-published.

Supposedly, Kindle books are outselling all other forms of books, so is this what people are really reading in the SF genre today?

Many of Heinlein’s books are available for the Kindle, but only two are in the Top 100, and one of those is there because Amazon put it on sale last month.  There are many Kurt Vonnegut books in the Top 100 Paid listing, but again, they are on sale this month.  Amazon uses the technique of lowering the price of a book for a few days to get attention and then upping the price.  New, unknown writers, are using the same technique with their self-published books, and evidently its working very well.  Better than book reviews, better than word of mouth reviews.  Establish writers are now using that trick too.  That trick only works with Kindle ebooks.  It would be interesting to see if it worked with printed books.

If you look at Locus Bestsellers for March 2012, many of their books aren’t on the Kindle bestseller list.  If you look at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Science Fiction general list that includes printed books and Kindle books, the makeup of this list is different, but the Kindle books are having a huge impact.  Here is the Science Fiction Book Club Top 100 Bestsellers.  Notice how it’s dominated by series, media tie-ins and non-science fiction titles.   The SFBC has little science fiction.  Not so for the Kindle list.  Evidently would-be writers are very anxious to write science fiction and readers are finding it on Amazon to consume in mass quantities on their Kindles.

There’s more new science fiction, and dare I say, more exciting sounding science fiction by the unknown authors at the Kindle store.  Big publishers push blockbusters and name authors, and media related books, so the unknown writer doesn’t have much of a chance, but that’s not true in the wild west gold rush of self-published ebooks.  Something is happening here, and we don’t know what it is.

The press has been full of stories for the last two years about how ebooks are impacting traditional publishing, but I don’t think they imagined the paradigm change that self-publishing is making on bookselling.  Self-published ebooks are becoming the  universal slush pile for all readers to work through to find that gem they want to make a success.  Discovering a new author and promoting her can become a new form of social networking.

Think about that.  In the old days assistant editors would cull the slush pile for worthy books to show editors.  Getting a book published was a long slow process that winnowed out the bad.  Now Amazon has made free ebooks the slush pile anybody can read.  If it gets a lot of downloads they put a price on it, if it sells, they promote it.  If it keeps selling, they publish paper copies.  If it keeps selling, a big name publisher will grab up the author.

But do we really want to be slush pile readers?  I’m old, and have little time, so I usually go with the definitive classic now, but young people with lots of time seem to have no problem trying an unknown writer.  Those people are pushing Hugh Howey forward.

I’ve thought science fiction has lost most of its vitality in recent years.  Writers have become obsessed with series, trying to build their book sales by pushing a popular character.  That’s comfortable for some readers, but I liked when science fiction writers were always trying to top each other with far out ideas.  I don’t know if the self-publishing revolution will bring back those days, but maybe.

Finally, does it mean if you don’t own a Kindle you’ll be out of touch with the popular reading reality?  Yes!

SF Signal is a good site to keep up with free SF.  They feature almost a daily roundup of free science fiction.  Today Chasing Vegas by Tad Vezner caught my attention.  The customer reviews at Amazon are very encouraging and it has a great cover.  The old saying is you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I don’t know if that’s completely true.  It seems to me, the best of the self-published books have nice covers.  I don’t know if that’s a real indicator or not.  But in this new paradigm of reading from the slush pile I’m not willing to try just any book.  I look for customer reviews and a good cover.  I hope self publishing authors will do two things.  Hire an editor and buy a cover.

JWH – 3/24/12

Free Science Fiction

It’s a great time to be poor, tight or miserly because there’s lots of free science fiction offerings on the Internet.  Heinlein was wrong about that free lunch deal.  Just subscribing to two web sites, SF Site and SFF Audio via RSS feeds will keep you informed of more good free SF&F reading and listening than you can handle, even if you’re out-of-work or out-of-school.  All you’ve got to do is read the regular posts and these sites will spot the goodies for you. 

Hell, a couple months ago Tor let people sign up to get 12 free ebooks novels from them, in PDF, HTML and unprotected Mobi formats, which is good for the new Amazon Kindle.  I socked them away for a rainy day when I want to try out some new authors, but I especially appreciated getting a copy of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi because I already bought and listened to it on audio.  Audio books are the best way to fully experience a book, in my humble opinion, but audio books are not so good for reference and study.  eBooks are great for snagging a quote.  I wished all paper editions came with ebook editions for reviewing purposes – but I digress from my main topic.

I don’t know why there is so much free reading and listening on the Internet.  I do know there’s a theory that a certain amount of free promotion helps with sales, but currently there’s enough free promotion to exist completely without buying.

Some writers like Cory Doctorow even offer their latest novels for free, such as his new book Little Brother.  Read the intro in the HTML edition to see just how far his generosity extends.  I’m waiting for the audio edition to show up on Audible.com to buy.  I’ve read Cory’s stories in anthologies I’ve bought, but his name has stuck with me because of his free work on the Internet.  Finding his brilliant “Anda’s Game” made me remember his name as a standout writer.  The same thing happened with Charlie Stross, because of free stories on the net, or stories in anthologies, I’ve gone on to buy his books.

A good way to dip your toe in the free story waters is to read BestScienceFictionStories.com where Rusty reviews standout SF short stories, many of which are on the net to read for free and Rusty provides the links.  He even offers a guide to finding free stories, “Nine Secrets For Finding Your Favorite Science Fiction Short Stories Online,” as well as “The 10 Best Web Sites for Free Online Science Fiction Short Stories.”  When I was a kid I had to haunt musty used bookshops all over Miami to find classic SF stories to read.  Now story hunting is as easy as a mouse-click away.

And these stories aren’t submissions from would-be writers, or trunk stories from published writers, but award winning stories, stories that have appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies, and stories that have appeared on lists like The Top 100 Sci-Fi Short Stories.

For the last decade I’ve been doing far more listening to fiction than reading.  At first audio science fiction was rare, but in the last year there has been a boom in SF&F for your ears, including free productions.  At first free audio featured amateur readers no better than the best student you’d hear when we had to take turns reading aloud in class.  The best professional readers today act out audio books in performances I often find better than those I see in Oscar winning movies.  Free audio productions have a long way to go to compete with professional productions, but surprisingly, they are evolving fast!

The granddaddy of SF audio is probably Escape Pod, currently broadcasting it’s 159th episode.  You no longer have to mess with podcast software to listen to the shows, so go sample its stories with the on-page sound controls.  The production quality is now equal or better to many of the commercial stories I buy at Audible.com.  Escape Pod offers a lot of quality for free.  Again, these aren’t just third-tier stories, but stories that have appeared in professional story magazines like F&SF, Asimov’s, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Jim Baen’s Universe, and other magazines that SF writers love to sell to.

Also, the above linked magazine sites often offer free stories to read from their for-sale magazines, especially during award times when they want to promote their nominated authors.  Just following the links on this page will keep you up-to-date with what’s going in with the genre of science fiction.  You’ll learn who the famous authors are as well as the new and upcoming writers.

Free audio book novels are showing up but most of them are read by amateur readers, something not to my taste, but if you like free and are patient and forgiving, you might find a lot in these offerings.  I expect this category to grow in the future as amateur actors discover audio books are a way to audition their talents and get their names known.  Digital recording equipment is relatively cheap, but producing a ten-twenty hour novel is quite a commitment, but they are appearing.  Keep an eye on SFF Audio.

And if you want to know about classic science fiction, visit Feedbooks, where you can get ebook novels for free.  Their Science Fiction page offer books from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to George Orwell’s 1984 to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, the new book mentioned above.  And all the books are nicely formatted for a wide range of electronic reading devices.  Teachers and professors could offer a class on science fiction and their students could get all their textbooks for free on this site.

I don’t understand how all this generosity works.  It’s a hippie dream – a commie’s philosophy come true.  Feedbooks doesn’t even have ads on their page.  It’s a mystery, like WordPress, how do they make their money?  There are even radio magazine shows like StarShipSofa.com, that appear to be the work of energetic individuals unmotivated by capitalism.  It’s like the old days of fanzines, creating a new generation of online fandom, fashioning an audio genzine.

Like I said, it doesn’t take much to join this community, just add the RSS feeds from SF Signal and SFF Audio.  Having online access allows web surfers to join a never ending science fiction convention, again for free, without having to buy a membership or pay for hotels, cabs and airline tickets.  If you follow SFF Audio, links to panels and con speeches often show up too.  And again, it’s all for free.

This makes me wonder about the financial health of the little audio book publishers and small press publishers.  Is all this free competition hurting them?  SF Signal and SFF Audio also link to these commercial sites, so if you want to see them succeed, patronize their online stores too.  The commercial SF&F magazines have been losing paid readership for years – is the Internet partially at fault – either through free offerings, or just a diversion from old fashion pastimes?  It’s all too hard to know, but we do know there were a lot more short story magazines on sale at newsstands before the advent of television, again a system that offered content for free, usually paid for by ads.

The science fiction short story may go the way of poetry – moving out of the realm of commercial sales to exist and be supported by love of the art form and its fans.  I hate to see that, but I sure do love the fact that the art form of the science fiction short story seems to be growing on the Internet.

Learning to adapt to this free medium takes a bit of training and equipment.  Listening to audio via on-page controls is the easiest way to join in.  Just play a story and kick back.  They are nice company for doing the dishes, or pursuing hobbies like modeling or knitting.  Next up is learning to subscribe to podcasts in iTunes and take the stories with you when you run or walk.  If you like to read on your phone, PDA, notebook computer or ebook reader, find you favorite reading software and learn where the best places that offer that format for free.  I’ve barely touched on the free sites available. 

Like I said, I mostly listening to books because I’ve found so many ways to integrate audio books into my routine.  It’s quite wonderful to be walking down the street while classic novels are whispered into my ear.

Jim