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

 

 

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