Fantasy and SF for the connoisseur or for mainstream tastes: which path should a publishing house follow? That’s an interesting debate which the ever-erudite Lou Anders has raised on his blog. When founding the excellent Pyr imprint, Lou and his team took the conscious decision to publish what Norman Spinrad called “science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in”.
I think that’s an excellent policy for Pyr. It’s certainly a truism that the more you indulge in a particular taste the more refined that taste becomes (which can also be a problem for critics, who, as Stephen King puts it, “lose their taste for pizza”). The core readership of fantasy and SF – the fans, although they probably don’t categorise themselves that way – deserve some gourmet dishes.
But there is a wider debate here. On The Genre Files, Ariel gives a smart overview of marketing genre books in the 21st century, a post that all authors and publishers should read. And in a separate article, editor George Mann writes about Solaris’ choice of traditional covers for their genre titles.
Both these articles get right to the heart of trying to sell books to a fragmented audience in the 21st century, and it’s something the music industry in particular, and TV and Film, are all struggling to deal with. Do you go for the hardcore fan or reach out to the wider audience? There are pros and cons for both. It seems that Lou, Ariel and George are all swinging towards an approach that caters to the dedicated reader, and I think that’s a business model that will work very well for Pyr and Solaris.
But if it was applied to the whole industry I would have real problems. In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern).
The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan – and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry.
The issue of covers and marketing is not just an industry issue. I’ve had several readers complain about my move away from traditional illustrative fantasy covers to the latest design-oriented ones. I’ve had just as many applaud the move. These covers are a personal choice. I like design; they work for me. And, I have to say, sales have been much, much better. But I don’t think you can extrapolate too much from that for the wider market. If all covers were designery, mine wouldn’t have had the same impact.
I love fantasy, science fiction and horror. I believe these three genres are appealing to mainstream tastes, if some way can be found to communicate their values to the casual browser. I’m afraid that an across-the-board retreat to the ‘core fan model’ will ghettoize them even further and lead to a long-term decline. The best way for the industry, I think is – to use music industry analogy – hardcore labels for the purist, and general labels to attract new users.
But that is a fiendish and crippling trap for the writer. Once you establish yourself in one pool or the other it will be very hard to crossover and gain, on the one hand, the new readers and wider sales that sustain your career, and, on the other, credibility that is just as valuable a commodity in the internet-empowered world.