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