Times are different in SF
Today’s publishing environment is radically dissimilar to that of previous times – maybe not all of them…
The kind of fiction that gains visibility relatively easily is generally marketed well, presented well, part of an established series and is often more or less pulp fiction/marketing fiction, or it has mass appeal one way or another, which is immediately made evident by the surface details and characteristics presented in the mega-bookstores.
It’s hard for things to be otherwise; and, if you do do things differently, you may need to exert a bit more energy getting noticed and for a longer period.
What about SF’s Greats?
Anyway, I wonder sometimes as I’m ‘analysing’ the top end of the science fiction charts, what would happen to all the ready-well-established and popular authors, dead or alive, if they jumped into the Amazonian environment and tried to get noticed from a cold position?
You may consider it irrelevant as they are all traditionally published and great, so they would obviously all be traditionally published and great in this environment as well, right?
We know them as being great, but that’s because they’re known and already established with a community of interpretations and a position in mainstream SF lore, etc., … I mean even if we don’t like them.
How would Frank Herbert and the Dune series fair from a cold position … at least in the short term?
Or in more recent times, how would Peter F. Hamilton with his The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, etc., get along?
I mean, these authors are incredibly popular in SF history, and they have had millions of readers each…
But have you ‘looked’ at the Reality Dysfunction in paper back (not the two volumes released in the US), let alone read it? It’s a weighty tome, and you can read 300+ pages just to sample it in order to work out whether you’ll continue reading or not! Even that would be a tall order for most readers.
What’s more to the point is that these books and all their cousins have several things in common, none of which work in today’s publishing environment:
- The authors took years to write them and put more hours into producing them than most of us are prepared to spend on anything whatsoever; and
- They wrote them at a mercilessly high level – the series are highbrow SF; the authors included whatever they thought would be good for the story regardless of the audience … or they made it appear that way. I mean how could you be writing ‘marketing-fiction’ or user-oriented ‘page-turners’ when your book is 1200 pages and dense from start to finish?!
Today, such authors may well be buried in the depths of the charts due to their inaccessibility. What’s more, the first instalment will be friendless and lonely not just for weeks or months but potentially a year or two … or more.
What about Peter F. Hamilton’s writing and publications in the early years?
After he started writing in 1987 he sold his first short story to Fear Magazine in 1988. His first novel, Mindstar Rising, was published in 1993, followed by A Quantum Murder and The Nano Flower. After this he wrote a massive space opera, called The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. Read more here…
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy was released between 1996-1999.
Frank Herbert’s Dune series was released between 1963 and 1985; admittedly, he did publish other things in between.
I know you can’t rush greatness, but …
In today’s digital environment, that just won’t do!
Today, you need the following:
- A backlist the length of both your arms as soon as possible while somehow maintaining ‘quality in quantity.’ If you have a lonely start to a series, you need to not only get the sequel up as soon as possible, you need to complete the series as soon as possible after that. If you can’t get a decent readership while the series is in the making, you may be able to when the series is complete. There are some readers, after all, who will wait until a series is complete before even sampling the first book … just in case they like it and have to wait too long to get to the ending, etc: thankfully, there are many that will let this slide, but it still works best if they only have to wait for a few weeks or a few months tops. Plus, complete series provide that gorging function in marketing that you just can’t beat; and that’s what’s going to take your books up the charts and get you some visibility; and
- Accessible fiction. This means fiction that is more of a page-turner than a challenge, and something that’s more ‘readable’ from the perspective of the masses and that has little to no elitist or highbrow qualities about it. (Having said that, I still believe that this applies more to the short term, but it still imposes limits over the long term, even once a tipping point has been reached.)
My point is that if you’re still taking your cues from the masters of the past and from the values of traditional publishing system, even of the 1990s and early 2000s, you’re going to get yourself into trouble … unless you’re already hyper productive and can cope with more on your plate, a lot more.
What about epic trilogies?
If you want to write an epic trilogy because ‘that’s what you do in the genres,’ and this is the way you’re starting out, then you may well find yourself in a situation where life and the charts just fly right past you…
It’s true that you need to do the hard yards in developing your writing programme and working out how to write quality in quantity, but X years plus will have passed before your series is complete, and then, even when you’re done, you’ll be up against those writer-marketers who are selling their churned out fiction at the same price and have backlists the length of both their arms and are gaining status with series of short stories that are in direct competition with your epic highbrow trilogy! And, no one will care about the difference particularly. Then you’ll realise that a trilogy just won’t do and you need to produce another series ASAP.
So what are you going to do? Commit everything yu have to writing another highbrow epic trilogy and hope that it takes you half the time? Two and a half years is still a long time in publishing today…
Making short shorter and speeding up quality in quantity
When I started writing my first novel in 2005, I thought that I was being radical by deviating from the epic SF tradition and focusing instead on ‘short, fast and hard.’ What resulted was an approx. 50K novel that I thought was borderline: as short as I could make it while getting away with it. Fahrenheit 451 was approx. 46K, after all, which is still considered a novel but is even more borderline, I suppose.
At the time, I was going against the ‘ever-longer’ trend. But I was still focused on making it a technically precise content-loaded SF novel that you need to concentrate hard on and read in a non-linear way in order to understand, rather than a marketing-fiction page-turner.
But, by the time I published it in March this year, that reality had collapsed a while ago and given way to serialised fiction and churned out series and long backlists, and skilled and pragmatically focused and entrenched networking and marketing programmes.
I admit to being ironic: although I’m a social scientist, I lack a tremendous amount of social skills, lol! Nevermind…
I was aware of this emerging publishing envirnoment back in 2010, but still took my time preparing my first two novels … since they needed some more work … and consequently neglected the marketing; I just didn’t have the time.
If you don’t have the productive capacity to write the epic trilogy in months rather than years, you had better do something you can manage … unless you’re happy throwing caution to the wind and gambling, or restricting and delaying your prospects way into the future.
If you have integrity, there’s a tension between writing what you want and what you think is important versus giving in to the market forces and playing that game as hard as you can. There are many who writer-marketers who don’t see a distinction, though.
Thankfully, I like it short, fast and hard…
In order to get my trilogies together so that I can move on to something else sooner rather than later, I’ve started writing short stories. I probably should have written some while I was finishing my first two novels, but I didn’t. I’ll have the four sequels finished within 13 months of starting them, which will be next February or March. Needless to say, that’s a kind of revolution for me.
I can’t argue with that. And I’m more than ready to move on, anyway, but I can’t just let those novels hang there without support…