Over at the SFFWorld.com forums, an author looking at different ways of proceeding in fiction book publishing asked for information regarding a number of basic questions about book publishing. You can check out that discussion thread here, and the conversation is not necessarily done as I’m sure more questions may come up, but I am also going to reprint my responses to various questions here. While many may find the info basic, it ended up being a decent foundational outline of things authors have to understand and consider in business decisions in fiction publishing. And so it may be of some interest to writers navigating the waters or those simply curious about how the odd industry of fiction publishing operates. Part 1 below:
Category Archives: Writing
Here are links to articles on writing and publishing that I found interesting. (Writing neepery, in other words. Much more pleasant than Hugo neepery, really.)
The Internet is full of words, you see. We raised the young people on them.
Chuck Wendig offers helpful suggestions about dealing with reviews to writers.
However, Foz Meadows, who just got a two book deal, does take Chuck to task on there being no rules for writing fiction. (This one’s for you, Andrew! She writes better than I do, but given it’s her blog it was on, she has more curse words.) This is a regular problem — Chuck is a terrific fiction writer, just did the new tie-in novel for Star Wars — but writers, when asked for advice or proferring it, often fall into the form of ordering it to give it a more authoritative bounce. It does more harm than they realize, so I appreciate Foz addressing this.
Chris Brecheen wrote to a woman writer who wanted, get this, J.K. Rowling to retire because she believed it would give other writers a better chance. Brecheen explained how fiction publishing actually works, and that it’s not a competition, which is actually helpful for a wider pool of authors than you might think.
Daniel Jose´ Older offers advice that is also very helpful to a lot of writers dealing with the endless time crunch of life.
Food for thought! Hope all your evenings are warm and safe and welcoming, folks.
Some stuff left over from last year, but interesting and likely to be related to interesting developments in publishing coming up:
In 2014, during the height of negotiations with Amazon and other e-vendors, HarperCollins set up selling e-books of their titles directly to readers. Now, this isn’t exactly a new thing. “Direct mail,” as it used to be called, has always been available from publishers, where readers could order books directly from publishers, usually at a discount because of shipping costs. In the 1960’s-1980’s, it was a sizable, though not central, market for paperbacks, with book order forms printed in the back pages of paperbacks, and some publishers setting up subscription services that operated sort of like book clubs, not to mention actual book clubs run by publishers or working with publishers. (The romance publishers had it down to an art form.)
In the 90’s, when the wholesale and paperback markets collapsed, direct mail became considerably less important but still existed. With the Internet developing, publishers set up buy options on their websites, however, that increased overall direct sales. For the last several years, publishers have been setting up selling e-books directly. This is, though, HarperCollins’ formalized, larger effort. Whether that’s going to help with the lack of breadth in the e-vendors market is anybody’s guess, but publishers have definitely amped up more of their book-selling efforts as the market has changed.
To that end, Mills & Boon publishers in the U.K. has also set up not only e-book selling, but doing so to mobile phones easily through an app. This is again a re-adjustment of the romance publishers’ practice of making subscription easy for buyers who will read lots of titles each month.
Related to these developments of publishers are the continual battles going on in the music industry. YouTube is getting serious about trying to compete with various streaming services, and so threatened to ban indie labels that didn’t sign up for its new music service. Likewise, Amazon and other big e-vendors have been pressing smaller houses on terms and marketing fees and signing up for various service programs. We’re going to see a lot more of these kinds of battles in most of the arts.
Other links: an interesting author interview on io9.com with Kelly Thompson, author of illustrated superpower novel, The Girl Who Would Be King, which just got a movie deal. Thompson ended up self-publishing the novel after not being able to sell it, and funded it with a Kickstarter campaign. This is becoming more and more common the last few years — the funding that authors could get from partner publishing by selling a license to a publisher and getting an advance against their royalties, they are now obtaining in a donations model, allowing them to act more effectively as writers and go bigger in production and marketing. It doesn’t work out for all authors, but in the begging electronic economy, it’s a solid model for raising capital support.
Chris Sims of the Comics Alliance wrote an interesting piece on Business Insider about DC and its relationship to Marvel, regarding moves both companies have made regarding their comics, films and other projects.
And lastly, fantasy author N.K. Jemisin offers authors some advice about dealing with reviews of their published work, “Author Strength Training”.
Back last summer, Lightspeed Magazine did a very cool issue of the magazine called “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” featuring stories from women SF writers and a lot of articles about women in science fiction and the issues female writers and fans face in the field. I meant to feature it at the time, but life happened. You can still check it out at the link above. There’s also a lovely Twitter feed “article” — becoming a new art form that — from SFF writer Seanan McGuire about what the issue of the magazine means to her as writer and fan.
Of course not everybody was able to get into the spirit of the thing. Old fashioned sexist Dave Truesdale, who apparently runs a site called Tangent Online, whined about the issue’s existence and assembled panels of others to “review” the issue’s non-fiction articles by whining about their existence. This irked a number of people into writing very fun articles about the issue and that critiquing site’s usual sexist commentary on the very idea of it, the kind of rhetoric heard all the way back by Mary Shelley when she published Frankenstein. Amal El Mohtar, E. Catherine Tobler, John O’Neill of Black Gate Magazine, and Rachel Acks were the ones I found the most astute and Natalie Luhrs was both astute and offers up interesting related links.
On a similar front of encouragement and documenting discrimination, Gail Simone did a great piece for women creators in comics and women creators in general. My favorite quote from it:
“I have many times seen advice given to women that essentially equals, “smile and don’t upset anyone.” This is the world’s worst advice, and the people who say that to you? Make no mistake. They are the enemy, regardless of gender. Don’t even bother to engage them, just go around them as they try to grab your legs and pull you down.”
Bestselling fantasy author Carrie Vaughn also does a great piece about writing “tough” female characters and the stereotypes we socially hold about them.
And at Vox.com, Susannah Locke did a fascinating interview with scientist Sarah Richardson, author of the book Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome. The book tackles the actual facts about our biological sex regarding our DNA and Richardson talks about the social biases about gender that have skewed biological research and had to be deconstructed:
“Our biological theories of sex are deeply intertwined with our cultural theories of sex and gender.”
Good stuff, so check out what interests you.
Since everything is hiddly-piddly on my end (I blame Halloween,) with lots of stuff unfinished, I am reposting a piece I did a couple of years ago. It has become relevant again — well, at least I think it is — in the light of several recent incidents concerning fiction authors reacting to reviews with published screeds of anger, and in one case, with stalking and harassment and then a published screed of anger. Enjoy as you care to. Note: here’s the link to the original publication of the article, where you can see a discussion that I and Scott Bakker had in the comments about the piece as well.
“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” – Joss Whedon
When you release a written fictional work into the pubic marketplace, either on your own or through a publishing partner, it is like sending a helium balloon up into the air. It is floating off across the sky and how it will be seen is no longer under your control. Ever. Forever. Nor are reactions to you personally, as the author and therefore as a public figure of a sort, by people who may have no real knowledge of you and might not have even read your work, only heard of it.
It is very hard for authors to learn to sit still and not rush to try to defend their balloons — or themselves for launching them — when they feel someone is taking potshots at a work or misunderstanding it completely. No matter how much you may want to defend your work, however, you cannot. It will never have the effect that you want it to have. Because you are the one who launched the balloon, what you think of the balloon means nothing in the wider world in which it floats. And your rush to defend the balloon – even to those who agree with you about it – will be seen at best as a sort of whining, quaint idiocy, and at worst as you being a raging jerkwad whose work they no longer have any interest in trying. Even if you have a cheerleading group of fans who are encouraging you to take action and give the critic what for, they are wrong. It will not work and it will drive other potential readers away. It does not matter if you are a bestselling balloon launcher, an award winning balloon launcher or a new balloon launcher. Snarl that people don’t have the right to make comments about your balloon and yourself as author of it and you’re toast. Because the reality is that they do have that right. Always. Forever. And just because you decided to launch a balloon does not give you any say in how they use it and talk about you with it. You released the balloon – it’s theirs now.
I was reminded of this back a few months ago, when the Clark Award nominations came out. It is tradition when award nominations are announced for there to be tirades against the nominees, along with suggestions as to who else would have been much better as a nominee. These tirades serve several useful purposes. They get people to be aware of the nominees, curious about them and talking about them – which is one of the main purposes of the awards themselves – and they get people to be aware of, be curious about and talk about suggested alternatives. And often they start other discussions that bring up other interesting works. For the Clark Awards, we got a goodie – a rant from noted author Christopher Priest, to whom the word “pithy” is certainly apt. His tirade created a side discussion started by author Cathrynne Valente, not about Priest’s views, but about the resistance women get on the Internet and elsewhere for making critical views like Priest’s or even mild observations, resistance and reaction that is framed entirely or almost entirely on them being women and ranges from violent threats to unconscious slams based on the feminine aspect. In the course of that issue, Valente mentioned a female blogger who is known for courting controversy who had jumped on Scott Bakker’s fantasy novels and on Bakker for being a sexist while not really having read his books. Valente did not agree with the blogger’s rants, but was looking at the framing of the reactions to her doing them. And this is how I learned that Scott Bakker had apparently been engaged in a war of words with this woman over his work.
Which surprised me. Bakker, who is a smart cookie and whose stories are actually I’d say subversively feminist, is obsessed with neurolinguistics and related issues. So you would think he’d understand the concept that the author cannot also effectively be the defender and cannot avert any “toxicity” from one person being critical, only compound it by trying to take on a role that the author cannot play. Perhaps he is going on the notion that it’s at least attention and attention is good, controversy sells, etc., but given that there is now a substantial chunk of people who now think Bakker is horrible and won’t touch his stuff, the trade off doesn’t seem very effective.
I was reminded of this again recently when I heard that a gang of bullies from Goodreads is now attacking reviewers they don’t like and think are too mean and critical on Goodreads in a separate site, identifying their victims and giving out their personal info. Every author I’ve heard tell of regarding this idea is appalled by it. While passionate arguing over works is all to the good, having vigilantes viciously attack others who disagree with them in the authors’ names is a disaster for the authors. (Plus, as the authors note, it’s just plain nasty.) It’s again a claim that others don’t have the right to make opinions, unfounded or otherwise, which is never going to sell a work or effectively defend it.
So how do authors deal with negative criticism if they can’t defend their balloon? They accept it. If the criticism is about the writing or the story and the criticism is not directly addressed to the author (i.e. they are not physically or electronically approached,) the simplest approach is to ignore it. Let it stand. It is your job as an author to send out a set of words into the world. It is not your job as author to critique the words that others say about your words. If you are directly approached with negative criticism of your writing or story, the response then is to say that you’re sorry that they didn’t like it, and hope that if they try something else of yours in the future, that they will like it better.
In such situations, gentle humor in you, the author, accepting, even celebrating, critical reactions as part of the joy of literature and the learning experience of being a writer may also help. When directly approached for his reaction to Priest’s scathing, brief commentary on his Clark Award nominated novel, authorCharles Stross made T-shirts celebrating that Priest had called him an “Internet puppy.” Scott Lynch wrote about his bad reviews with humor and gratitude. John Scalzi celebrated his 1-star negative reviews for his new, bestselling novel Redshirts.
When the criticism is about non-writing issues like sexism and racism, the situation gets more complicated – and usually more personal. Reactions such as these are not just negative; they denote pain. There is a much stronger desire to defend the balloon, to defend one’s person and to deny another person’s right to have experienced pain on the grounds that the person is wrong to have that reaction to the work, is just trying to create controversy, etc. If that criticism is not directly given to the author, however, the best response is again to ignore it, to let it stand unacknowledged by you and not try to effect it or deny it with author commentary. It is an issue that every reader and potential reader decides for themselves and you won’t change that. Others may argue it for you – and hopefully will not do so as bullies or stalkers, but for you, the balloon has flown. You can widely discuss in interviews, essays and elsewhere not negative reactions to your work, but what you were trying to do in the story and positive reactions to it. Talking about your work from an author’s perspective usually is more likely to interest potential readers than arguing with a stranger about what sort of person you are.
If you are approached directly or asked about criticisms of your work based on issues such as sexism, the response is similar to that for writing criticisms: that you are sorry the person had that reaction, that this was not at all your intent in the work (because you didn’t want to cause people pain that way,) that you will think carefully about what the person said (because it’s usually a good idea to consider that reaction outside your own experience,) and that you hope that if the person decides to try any of your other works in the future, that he or she will feel that they are better. That’s about all you can do, and it may in no way change the critiquer’s mind or what that person says about you. It does, however, acknowledge that you heard what was said and that you accept your balloon is in the sky and is going to be seen in different, perhaps uncomfortable ways.
There are authors who may object to this whole idea, who like being magnets of controversy, who delight in vigorously defending their creations, who assert they are gods of brilliance or at least being unfairly picked on. After all, many vaunted literary figures in history have been lauded for the wit of their literary feuds and withering putdowns of critics. Such an approach, however, (besides being from a dated time,) does not remove criticism, nor weaken it. The balloon has flown and all who encounter it, or even hear of it in the sky, will judge it. Any argument you make, you make in your creative work, and that’s all you get. Beyond that, you’re simply preaching to the choir of those who already think you’re right and your work is golden, and snarling at those unsure, uncaring or upset. That’s your right to act that way. But you still are not actually defending your balloon. You don’t have that power. You’re the author. You gave it to the world.
I learned the word fulgurous today. It means characteristic of or resembling lightning, i.e. “the fulgurous crack of the whip.” Feel free to work that into your everyday conversations, people.
Lot going on here and in about three, four weeks, I’m going to be making some changes to the blog, but until then, have some more links! These are about writing fiction, book publishing and SFFH media:
Author Ferrett Steinmetz talks about selling his novel.
Lauren Davis talks about the perils of genre shaming readers and writers.
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff talks about issues in critiquing people’s writing.
Mary Robinette Kowal talks about turning off your inner editor when writing.
An article on award-winning SF author Ann Leckie, her novel Ancillary Justice and its impact in the field. (I quite liked Ancillary Justice — more on that later.)
Ask a Game Developer explains what it is important to focus on in higher education if you want to get into games development.
Gwenda Bond explains quite simply about fiction being a symbiotic market for authors and how you should concentrate on your own career in fiction.
Over at SFFWorld.com, there was a question about exposition and “infodumps” in short stories. (Someone in the discussion brought up the first line of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.) My thoughts on this were wider than just the specific question, so here they are also*:
* I realized I forgot to give the link to that thread, where a conversation on exposition and such is still on-going. Here’s the link.
Okay, Stephen King, The Gunslinger, famous first line:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Short, informative but primarily on an attention getting plane. What are the next lines, though?
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
You will note that this paragraph contains a punctuation unwisety and at least one grammatical error, passive verbs, etc. (Because fiction writers don’t write expository essays, they write poetry.) The first pages go on with some more world/setting info in telling how the gunslinger is thirsty, then describing what the gunslinger carries, wears, his guns, then some more description of the landscape as he follows the trail, more info about the devil-grass, some about his past, religion, more landscape and details of his hunting the man in black as he walks and then around about page 11 or so, he runs into a farm and farmer, whom he describes, info in the dialogue, more description, etc. It’s all from the gunslinger’s point of view.
Now The Gunslinger is a novel made up of several serial novellas that King published in magazines and then put together for the novel (as was common in the 1960’s and 1970’s, still around today.) So for short stories, it’s of limited use perhaps, as he has space from length to stretch out a bit. But it’s not entirely absent of techniques you can use for short stories. With short stories, it is often wise to write it out long and then strip it down, especially if it’s a short story that isn’t plotted out beforehand. Here’s also the opening paragraphs of a novel, a science fiction novel called Half the Day is Night by Maureen McHugh:
The man in the reflection didn’t have any eyes.It was a trick of the lighting. He was looking into a window, out into the dark, and anywhere there was a shadow on his face the glass reflected nothing back. Holes for eyes. David looked up, the light fell on his face and his eyes appeared, he looked back out into the darkness and they became empty again.Outside was ocean. This far below the surface it was always night. You really didn’t have to go very far underwater before all the sunlight was absorbed. He should have realized but he had been unconsciously expecting Caribbean warmth, Caribbean sun, not this huge expanse of black. He shuddered, and picked up his bag and limped on, keeping his eyes away from the window. He could still see his reflection walking with him, a stride and a quick step, bobbing along, favoring his stiff knee. He followed signs directing him to Baggage Claim, they were all in English. That was a disappointment, he had hoped that there might be more French, because of the Haitian population in Caribe. They would be in Creole anyway, and he didn’t know Creole.
This is a good one because McHugh quickly establishes place by using the character’s pov (3rd person limited,) as he is deliberately looking at his surroundings as he arrives in a new place. There’s not every bit there, but there’s enough to start and she keeps dropping in bits. The gunslinger too, in King’s novel, is deliberately looking at his surroundings to chase the man in black, taking stock of his inventory in the harsh environment, reflecting on what is relevant to what he is doing. It doesn’t really matter what viewpoint format you are using and whether it’s a character or the omniscient narrator bopping around characters and adding additional info — the point is that you use pov’s to direct focus and in the process, you provide information in small bits, medium bits and sometimes large bits. In short stories, the bits tend to be smaller and more compacted because of the length issues. But as we’ve seen in trying to do synopses and query letter descriptions, you can pack quite a bit of information into one sentence.
Here’s the opening of a short story published in Strange Horizons, “The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/…7/aria-f.shtml )
Berlin, 1780I was in my dressing room putting on my makeup when Lukas came to tell me about the body in the canals. Lukas, a tenor, is one of the few actual friends I have in the company, although I have no enemies. Also he was the one who found the body.
The opera house has beneath it a maze of canals, which serve as both fire suppressant and a source of special effects. The stage hands can use them to produce cascades and waterfalls to make the most jaded audiences ooh and ahh. Apparently some poor soul had also met his end there that afternoon.
“Do you know who it was?” I asked. I had to put down my makeup brush, for my hands were no longer steady. A dead body in the canals is by no means a common occurrence, and we are shielded from many of the violent and pitiful deaths of poorer folk, in our opera company.
Note several things here:
1) She starts with a sub-heading notation of locale and time: “Berlin, 1780.”
2) She starts the conversation in the middle. We don’t see Lukas come in and tell her “there’s a body in the canal and I found it.” Instead, she tells us I was here and this happened and then she goes to what she said back for the scene. This is a common technique and it can be quite useful in a short story, because it is easier to pack necessary information more quickly into a few lines of exposition than it is to spell out all scenes in tiny detail and scenic description. (Yet, #580,621 in the reasons why “show, don’t tell” is not something you have to worry about.)
3) She describes the setting, she gives info about characters.
Here’s another opening for a short story, “Tortoiseshell Cats are not Refundable” by Cat Rambo inClarkesworld Magazine ( http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/rambo_02_14/ )
Antony bought the kit at Fry’s in the gray three months after Mindy’s death. He swam in and out of fog those days, but he still went frequently to the electronics store and drifted through its aisles, examining hard drives, routers, televisions, microphones, video games, garden lights, refrigerators, ice cream makers, rice cookers, all with the same degree of interest. Which was to say little to none, barely a twitch on the meter. A jump of the arrow from E up to one.A way to kill time. So were the evenings, watching reality shows and working his way methodically through a few joints. If pot hadn’t been legal in Seattle, it would’ve been booze, he knew, but instead the long, hard, lonely evening hours were a haze of blue smoke until he finally found himself nodding off and hauled himself into bed for a few hours of precious oblivion.
He prized those periods of nothingness.
Are we getting ideas yet?
Again, there is no such thing as an info-dump. The concept of info-dumps, show always, no adverbs, exposition and omniscient narration are evil, etc. were all ideas that formed a stylistic school that came of prominence in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that favored minimalist narratives that resembled screenplays as much as possible. These ideas then would get bandied about by authors (and others) as “the right way to write,” even though the authors didn’t actually use them in their texts much. Which is why it’s a good idea to not get caught up in a lot of half-baked rules that are not rules but instead stylistic suggestions, and instead look at what techniques authors actually use in their texts.
Very few SFFH writers are minimalists. SFFH stories require a fair amount of technical information that is unfamiliar (world-building,) and atmosphere. They tend more Poe than Hammett (and even Hammett wasn’t a minimalist):
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down— from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
He said to Effie Perine: ‘Yes, sweetheart?”
She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.”
In short stories, you will sometimes see minimalist techniques such as dialogue without much descriptors or action or settings only briefly described in quick straight imagery, depending on the goals and style of the story. However, short story writers also usually rely more on exposition than novelists may do, because exposition is faster for conveying information, allowing the short story writer to focus on the key scenes or scene fragments that form the center of the story.
So, go look at a lot of short stories (you’ll be helping the SFFH online magazines out certainly by doing it,) look at the different things they are doing and then go play, so that the story is tighter focused to what you want it to do. Any technique you can think of, including those used by Msr. Dumas, you can use. There are no story police. You aren’t “getting away” with anything because there is no one to get away with it from. There is no one reader, as the readerships for different magazines varies widely. Beta readers who tell you are info-dumping, etc., are parroting. They may be having a reaction to something, but you’ll have to pry the relevant information from them, because the 1980’s labels are not going to help you out.
There aren’t any rules, only tools. Pick the tools you like. Odds are at least a section of readers will like them too. Or at the least, not notice them as an issue one way or another, since I find the most vigorous proponents of things like no info dumps love writers who use large blocks of expository information, or show, don’t tell and love the wordiest, world building authors, or no Mary Sues who love the stories with the most improbably powerful protagonists, etc.
Once you start writing your voice, instead of trying to follow a write by numbers declaration of what voice and style you should have, you are probably going to find the writing easier — and stronger. That’s been my experience with authors.
Bestselling, award-winning, highly discussed fiction author Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out in a few weeks. It’s a non-fiction collection of the essays of a German satirist, which Franzen edited and wrote essays and annotations on for the book. And so he did a piece for Britain’s The Guardian, run online, about the satirist’s views of turn of the century technology, and how Franzen connects it to all he thinks is wrong with current Internet culture, specifically horrible Amazon, amateur book reviews, people taking pictures with smartphones, Facebook and Twitter, and whether we’re becoming in a way less human and stupider from modern technology and media.
The piece is such a mess of contradictory illogic and false claims against Internet book promotion — while he promotes a book on the Internet — that I could not resist going through the parts of the article dealing with our world, piece by piece. (If I’m going to be snarky, I might as well hit a big easy target.) It’s also useful for discussing various issues in book publishing and commonly held misconceptions, many of which Franzen espouses. So here are the bits that are about our modern times with my commentary:
In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction,
Dude, you’re an international bestseller. Gain a little awareness, here. It’s a global market now.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.
That would be the Amazon that has promoted the hay out of Franzen and helped make him a huge international bestseller. (Amazon is also not confined to the U.S.)
Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself,
They really don’t. Yes, they promoted the stuffing out of their self-publishing program – because self-pub authors and their families would then buy stuff from Amazon, and to help maintain their dominance in the e-book market at the beginning. And yes, they started a publishing arm to use as leverage with the big U.S. publishers. It’s their second publishing house – the first one petered out because Amazon really doesn’t care about book publishing and internationally has almost no publishing presence at all. Amazon cares about multi-media – movies (they have a studio now,) web videos, music, apps, data streaming and mobile devices – the tech world, not the book world. Bezos only decided to have Amazon sell print books initially instead of other products because the industry had the consignment return system – a less risky product, and Amazon’s only interest in e-books was to launch the Kindle.
with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books,
Franzen seems to be under the mistaken impression that large gobs of people read Amazon’s book reviews for more than entertainment purposes. Or that most book buyers read reviews at all and use them to choose books. As we know – and he should know – most people buy based on recommendations from friends and family, followed by book browsing. Reviews matter mostly in two areas – “serious” fiction that Franzen publishes, where reviews don’t impact sales directly that much but are status symbols in top publications that help get major, lucrative award nominations and may also be used by reading book clubs, and genre fiction where categories have their own genre media that dedicated readers may actually pay attention to in regards to reliable reviewers. Neither of those involve Amazon’s book reviews, nor are in competition with them. He may also be alluding to Amazon recently buying Goodreads, which people feared meant that Amazon would replace Goodreads’ consumer reviews – which are just like Amazon’s consumer reviews – with Amazon consumer reviews. In actuality, Amazon bought Goodreads for its extensive marketing data and because of its advertising revenue, to which they freely admitted.]
and with authors responsible for their own promotion.
Authors have always been responsible for their own promotion, including often getting reviews. Franzen was taken very good care of by Farrar, Straus & Giroux with his debut novel, which was given a big push, and when The Corrections became a bestseller and then Oprah picked it for her club and he won the National Book Award, most PR coordination was handled by FSG from thereon in, as well as possibly hired publicists. So maybe it just hasn’t occurred to the man that most authors get minimal promotional help and always have. Or more likely, that fact simply doesn’t fit the message he wants to make.
The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.
Franzen believes that fiction selling is or will become a popularity contest of authors’ personalities and ads (including paid reviews.) In reality, ads for fiction (and reviews) have very little effect on sales except for those authors like Franzen who are already bestsellers. Franzen is postulating that the Net will so change culture in the future that people will buy because authors talk to them. In hundreds of years, that did not occur. The Web has been around for twenty years and authors on it; it still hasn’t occurred. If it did, Franzen would be in good shape, since he regularly yaks online in articles and interviews – usually complaining about others being online and how this means doom.
But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word,
Some of them will be huge bestsellers, like Franzen. It is interesting that Franzen regards talking as a shallow form of social engagement, but talking at people in print – which is often transitory not permanent, like say newspaper book reviews — is automatically in depth. Franzen sounds nothing so much here as like a man whose publisher has been bugging him to do more promotion online.
and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control
Publishers have never assured any quality control and Franzen knows that. Publishers have always put out a range of books and the selection process did not involve checking everything with a specially appointed committee in academia. (And even if it had, that still wouldn’t promise quality.) Franzen here is pushing the myth that because many self-published works are badly edited, they will overrun the intellectual wealth of the nation. In reality, self-published works have had little impact on partner-published books and may contain as many gems as any other sector of fiction. Franzen is merely repeating what used to be said of mass market paperbacks back in the mid-20th century – that it would wipe out the hardcover, which it did not.
and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?
Right, because Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle had nothing to do with promotion. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the movies for cash and to promote himself, but that doesn’t count. Serious fiction writers who were journalists and milked every piece they wrote for novel promotion – the old method of author promotion – was somehow less noisy. Franzen himself went on Oprah to smooth feathers when he slammed her for picking his book. Norman Mailer’s lecture tours, prominent award-winning authors going on game shows back in the sixties, etc. all of that had nothing to do with self-promotional talking apparently. All of which, Franzen is right, really did have little to do with their literary reputations, and neither does talking or publishing on the Net. But it didn’t hurt either, which is why Franzen is yakking it up online to promote his new non-fiction book, among other things.
As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews,
Again, Franzen floats the idea that readers are guided in their buying choices by book reviews, which we know from countless surveys of readers to be incorrect, and that now they are instead being guided by phony consumer book reviews and authors blogging, which countless surveys of readers show to be incorrect. Word of mouth from family and friends and the occasional handselling of store clerks — which is consistently how readers most pick books — never rears its head here. The Internet, with all its “noise” has actually helped people find books at all, because it makes them visible for people to find, whereas before books were disappearing from more and more physical spaces and conversations. Franzen apparently resents that partner published titles used to have Amazon’s screens and bestseller lists all to themselves and now they have to share them with self-published titles sometimes, but again, those self-pubbed books have not hurt other books – they’ve brought in new readers who browse, same as always.
to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.
First off, I think it unlikely there are many places where Amazon warehouses, which are not particularly numerous, are the only business hiring. (Although I do agree that Amazon treats their employees poorly, a common problem with large corporations.) Second, writers had job security before? Since when? Writers are not employees of publishers or vendors and writers often have fewer “prospect” skills than computer savvy employees. They certainly, despite mental labor, are nowhere near in their laboring to manual workers. Most writers make little money and have day jobs. A writer struggling in financial hardship – as Franzen did himself – is not a new condition.
And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers,
Actually, book prices keep going up, the wholesale market shrank in the 1990’s which reduced access to cheap books, and booksellers have been squeezed more by store rent and mortgage hikes in the real estate market than sales issues. Amazon may have wanted to keep e-book prices low, losing money to establish the Kindle, but they were just as happy to let those prices bounce back up after negotiations, where they have stayed, and e-book sales are leveling off (though they are bringing in more profit because e-book prices are higher.) Meanwhile, print sales have bounced around, sometimes going up or slightly down, but not as bad as during the recession. Book profits were up for most of the big publishers in the first half of 2013. Franzen should know all this, or at least have bothered to do a search about it, but the facts again don’t fit his narrative.
because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).
When you are not making much money and your life is hard, what you want is irrelevant. You definitely hope you can find some free entertainment, since your money has to go to things like food. When you aren’t making much money, you have no or little access to the Web, you don’t buy books online or elsewhere, and you learn to live without gratification, much less instant gratification. Who Franzen is really talking about are the people who do have money – the middle class and higher who can afford to get on the Web, order products, and steal illegal streaming. These people don’t read Amazon consumer book reviews or newspaper book reviews most of the time. And even they don’t get free overnight shipping. If you want something shipped overnight, you have to pay for that, quite often a lot. You only get the shipping free if you buy a lot and it comes by regular shipping, which can take anywhere from three days to weeks. Franzen seems to feel the working class are rudderless, easily manipulated folk who – what? — mooch off the government to get on the Web, order books instead of more popular products from Amazon and somehow get magic shipping?
But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list,
Print sales had several upturn cycles, make up seventy-five percent of the market and booksellers were quite happy at this year’s Book Expo trade show.
so responsible book reviewers go extinct
Like the responsible book reviewer at the New York Times whom Franzen has called a “national disgrace”? Actually, professional book reviewers are migrating to the Web and there are actually now more new journalist positions after several years of drought.
so independent bookstores disappear,
Numerous independent bookstores are having a renaissance with increased sales and growth in their communities. It’s the big chains that are falling apart.
so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,
Oh, this is a good one. Jennifer Weiner’s first books were considered to be serious literary fiction. But as women’s fiction had a flush of growth, they were all tagged with the derogatory label of “chick-lit” and a lot of interesting female novelists who sold well were declared “commercial” while their male bestselling counterparts were declared weighty sophisticates. Weiner has in recent years been speaking out in the press, mostly on behalf of other female authors, that the book review sections and prominent publications were ignoring female authors, not using female reviewers often enough, and consistently insisting that women’s fiction wasn’t serious enough and was too domestically centered, while elevating male fiction about the same subject matter. She used the review and media attention Franzen was getting on his newest novel as an example. Franzen actually agreed with her that there was a bias in the press, but clearly the whole thing has rankled and so here he is digging at Weiner for being a supposedly commercial, self-promoting annoyance. Again, it sounds like Franzen’s publisher is bugging him to do more promotion and he considers this to be the fault of technology.
so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers.
The Big Six are now the Big Five, as the biggest one of them is now merging with the second biggest one of them. Clearly, imminent death is on the horizon. Or not. That the Big Five are so big is in fact a problem for authors as it means fewer publishers to sell licenses to in competition with each other as their various imprints aren’t allowed to compete against each other in sales auctions. And since all the Big Five are owned by non-U.S. companies who are big global media entities, that can mean fewer options publishing abroad as well. In that sense, self-publishing as an option actually gives authors more leverage in negotiating with publishers, especially the bestsellers like Franzen, and having Amazon as yet another publishing option may help out.
Amazon has made no move to buy up the inventory of the Big Five or drive them off. Their tiny list did very poorly until recently when they have one reported hit, the three books by German author Oliver Potzsch hit one million total sales all formats. But Amazon didn’t first publish Potzsch; Ullstein in Germany did and they still reap sales benefits. And Houghton Mifflin’s Mariner Books, a major imprint, is publishing the trade paperback U.S. edition that is making up a good number of those sales, licensed from Amazon. It’s more likely that Amazon is going to be just another part of the publishing landscape, if they stick with it, than swallowing up other corporations. Franzen’s physical apocalypse fantasy is very much in line with what self-publishing vendors like to push to try and get more business – the idea that “traditional” publishing will soon be dead. The fact that no data backs that idea up or the indications that the opposite is true hasn’t stopped people from mouthing it. The fact that similar predictions of book publisher death, regarding competition from the gaming industry, the decline of schools before the rise of YA fiction, the existence of the mass market paperback, etc., have all been proven wrong is conveniently forgotten.
Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers.
Note here that Franzen doesn’t go with one third of all consumer book reviews are said to be bogus, but instead “product” reviews, as in everything under the sun. And where he got such a made-up stat is anybody’s guess. The Internet isn’t really experimenting with consumer reviewing – consumer reviews have always been a factor in selling products (it’s called “customer testimonials,” Franzen.) The Internet just makes it easier. But when it comes to fiction, again, people seldom if ever check reviews for that information. They instead get the recommendations from folks they trust – friends with similar tastes to their own. The decline in book reviewers isn’t due to consumer reviews on the Internet; it’s due to the collapse of the consignment wholesale market including newsstands and the ease of Internet distribution effecting the newspaper market. This financial shift caused newspapers and magazines to jettison sections that don’t sell ads and few readers care about – like book reviews. Nonetheless, as publications are figuring out how to make the Internet work for them, reviewers of books, movies, t.v., games, etc., will continue to play a role.
Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to barnesandnoble.com, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics.
1. Amazon is losing its online retail market share hegemony on the Net, not just with e-books but simply as an online retailer. It’s still going great guns, but there’s a reason it’s continually expanding into other businesses besides retail sales. Apple/iTunes emerged as a major competitor, and Apple itself is facing a raft of competitors in various forms of data streaming, which includes e-books. The twelve people who sometimes peruse my blog know that I’m not always a fan of Amazon’s tactics, but the company simply isn’t the boogeyman, ruthless as it can be.
2. That Franzen is championing Barnes and Noble is hilarious. Barnes and Noble, that would be the company facing failure due to corporate mismanagement like Borders, the company that in the early 1990’s deliberately ran independent bookstores out of business by opening superstores right across the street from them, the company that closed its mall stores and thus reduced the visibility of books in the marketplace, the company whose business practices to maintain dominance for the last thirty years have been as ruthless as Amazon’s, the company who pays its employees basement wages, the company whose nickname used to be Satan? Franzen is saying the same thing about Amazon that used to be said about Barnes & Noble and the superstores – that they would destroy bookselling and publishing, that they would exert mammoth power that would culturally impoverish books and fiction forever, etc. Now we have to save Barnes & Noble? I doubt that was the tune that Franzen was singing in 1988 when his first novel came out.
Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes.
People didn’t get sick of cigarettes. They kicked their addiction because they were dying from them, and because other people who didn’t smoke were tired of dying from second-hand smoke and enacted regulations. Twitter will lose its dominance over time as other social media companies take over market share, but since the entire Internet is about communication, it seems highly unlikely the methods of Twitter are going away. And you know who can use Twitter to alert people to their book reviews? Professional book reviewers and their publications.
Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.
It’s true that Twitter and Facebook and other parts of the Web are scheming advertising dollars without necessarily delivering the profits for them. But so have newspapers, t.v. ads, etc., in the past. Advertising is not a guarantee. But getting people aware of what you have to offer doesn’t hurt to gamble on, especially if it’s low cost. Which is why Franzen’s publisher maintains a Twitter account to talk up Franzen and other authors, and a Facebook page just for him with a link to this article of his complaining about Facebook and Twitter.
I could, it’s true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of “Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping.”
The man is obsessed with non-existent overnight free shipping. He is also seemingly unaware that publishers for decades have let booksellers have print shipping in trucks for free. The resources and trees needed to produce paper and print books, house them in warehouses and ship them with gasoline powered trucks and planes does make a bit of an argument for e-printing being more environmentally friendly, even with the energy for electricity issues and the poor being cut off from access. China is having a manufacturing slow down because we aren’t buying cheap stuff or any stuff as much anymore and WalMart in the U.S. has seen its sales decline. Run off from papermills used to pollute lakes – any activity can destroy the environment if it isn’t regulated and companies can do as they like, which they have been. But Franzen really doesn’t care about pollution pre- or post-Internet – he’s just continuing his metaphor here.
But apocalypse isn’t necessarily the physical end of the world. Indeed, the word more directly implies an element of final cosmic judgment. In Kraus’s chronicling of crimes against truth and language in The Last Days of Mankind, he’s referring not merely to physical destruction. In fact, the title of his play would be better rendered in English as The Last Days of Humanity: “dehumanised” doesn’t mean “depopulated”, and if the first world war spelled the end of humanity in Austria, it wasn’t because there were no longer any people there. Kraus was appalled by the carnage, but he saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.
And here we return to basic elitism. The masses will become numb, cultureless, consumer controlled stupid zombies who can’t appreciate the good stuff. Everything will be conformity and cheap and therefore worthless, no art and creativity coming from new technologies and forms, and we will stop reading books in favor of vapid entertainment, turning ourselves less than human. Meanwhile, a t.v. movie was made of Franzen’s The Corrections and his novel Freedom, is in the works to become a film. But after that, it will be all Brave New World, see if it doesn’t.
But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by “humanity”. Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there’s a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another. To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a “dehumanisation” of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you’re immediately confronted by Bourdieu’s persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful…And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal.
And here Franzen hedges his bets. Apocalypse is individual, so if he is horrified that people record their big moments with smartphones the same way they did with video cameras and cameras and written accounts in the past, maybe it’s just different ways of seeing the world and we’re all not so inhuman after all. He just has a refined aesthetic.
I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.
Yes, there were great values to pass on in 1159, when women were property, most people were slaves, disease and violence ran rampant and most people never made it to 53. The idea that the Middle Ages – a span of a thousand years – had little cultural and value change and little technical change over that time but was static until the Renaissance and the industrial revolution came along is so historically incorrect as to be deeply embarrassing coming from someone with Franzen’s education. Maybe Franzen is feeling his mortality here.
But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time,
Yeah, no. There were these hugely popular daytime shows called soap operas, game shows, baseball games, etc. that people watched, even wealthy people. Also prime time ran four hours a night.
and people wrote letters and put them in the mail,
And now we write letters and send them electronically. We actually communicate much more with each other than we used to do.
and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section,
That’s not historically true.
and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers,
Definitely not historically true, even back in the 1930’s. Talk about romanticizing the 1980’s publishing scene, dude.
and New Criticism reigned in English departments,
and the Amazon basin was intact,
Not true at all – deforestation in the Amazon began wholesale to make farmland in the 1960’s and even more in the 1970’s once they built highways into the jungle; it’s true the big push wasn’t till the 1990’s, but that was twenty years ago when Franzen was in his thirties; when he was a kid nobody knew anything about the Amazon basin because they did not have the Internet to tell them about it and no one worried about forest destruction back then even if they knew about it. That’s how we got the Dust Bowl in the U.S.
and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.
Antibiotics have been pumped into cows for the last fifty years, which includes most of Franzen’s lifetime.
It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer.
It was a conformist, repressive, changing and unstable world that has laid the seeds for so many problems today, especially environmental pollution. And you know what they’re using to try to solve many of those problems today and coordinate those attempts globally – the Internet.
And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me.
Me too, since Franzen’s forgetfulness and ignorance of the past here has been quite amazing.
The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.
The experience of each generation is really not all that different from the previous one, despite technology. The same issues repeat – poor wages and working conditions; civil rights; environmental pollution; the young seen as weird, selfish, lazy, etc. by older people whose goals have changed; war. We feel nostalgia for the past and we white-out the unpleasant parts of it, largely because we feel, if we’re older, that our mortality and irrelevance are approaching fast. Franzen, however, has been complaining about this stuff for a long time; he was writing essays about the decline of contemporary literature in the 1990’s, when he was promoting his second novel not surprisingly. And just as then, he’s promoting his new non-fiction book now, online, by yakking and modest bragging with crosslinks to his Facebook page, which you can buy at Amazon on pre-order for a 40% discounted price or a not so cheap e-book price of $15.36. Way to have your cake and eat it too, big guy.
Franzen’s concerns are not new – the world seemingly changed from what we remember hazily of the past and our uncertainty about what it will further change into and whether it will still like us then. When those concerns are presented dishonestly, however, with the romanticizing of the past and the demonizing of the current day, with an apocalyptic vision of the future that is superstitious and intellectually facile, it becomes simply an empty myth. And coming from someone in Franzen’s position, with the media platform he has open to him that includes the Internet he uses while lambasting it with scorn, it perpetuates false information about books by the very methods that he claims to fear – misleading lamentations by someone who admits he really doesn’t have a clear picture of the world about which he worries.
So that’s my rant for the day. ‘Cause that’s the thing about the Internet – a wide open field (in most countries) in which to rant. There is much that is scary about that – it certainly scares Franzen – but there is much that is glorious about it too. As long as the electricity lasts, that is.
The following was a response of mine to another member’s question on SFFWorld about genres, especially fantasy, and how things are classified. The response is composed of facts that I know and my opinions on such facts:
Back in the first part of the 20th century, a category market for SFFH developed containing a mix of comics, magazines with short fiction, and novels (often novellas) and short story collections. This category market was eventually called science fiction, largely thanks to Hugo Gernsback (of Hugo Award fame,) founding Amazing Stories in the late 1920’s. It did not contain only science fiction stories — it contained fantasy stories, horror stories, weird tales (Weird Tales magazine — a style of Gothic horror stories,) etc. The category market did not contain all or even most of the SFFH being published, especially in book form. But what it did contain were magazines and publishing imprints dedicated to specializing in SFFH. This became more and more common in the first part of the 20th century — specialized publishing, such as children’s and suspense.
Most of the books in the SFFH category market were in mass market paperback that cost about as much as the comics and magazines. The publishers who did comics and magazines and paperbacks were largely different from the publishers who did hardcovers and large paperbacks. However, after/during World War II, the paperback publishers and the hardback publishers began to merge and book publishing became somewhat more separate from magazines and comics which built itself a more specialized industry. The specialized imprints for adults, the category markets — mystery, science fiction, westerns, romance — still kept mostly to cheaper mass market paperbacks but limited hardcover runs or hardcovers for big sellers became more common. These category markets came to be called genre fiction, with them being considered genres — types of stories by general common content.
However, there was a certain social class conflict in that merging of paperback that was seen as for the masses and hardcover seen as the domain of the more literate well-off. “Genre fiction” — the specialized imprints — were seen as pulp (whether they actually used pulp styles or not,) cheap paperbacks not worth much as fiction. SFFH published in general fiction, in hardcover, was often declared not pulp and therefore not science fiction, not genre, even though it was also being sold to category market readers who loved it as genre. To this day, a lot of people are invested in that notion that came out of early bookselling and the equalitarianism of increased literacy and education of the society. “Genre fiction” was considered all the same, whatever notion of sameness a particular person had.
All of this was reinforced by the use of the term “sci-fi” which came from writer Forrest J. Ackerman in the 1950’s, and which referred partly to the greater use of SFFH in movies and television, particularly what was seen as the “B” pulp horror movies. Over time, the term was used mainly to refer to movies and television and was often used as an insult to indicate stuff that was not well made and for the teeming masses. Written SFFH preferred to distance itself from movie/tv sci-fi by insisting on being called science fiction or SF. During this time, science fiction and sci-fi both acted as umbrella terms meaning fantasy and horror as well as science fiction.
That began to change in the 1960’s, when the publishers of the SF category market decided to branch out. They launched a separate but allied fantasy fiction category market, labeling fantasy stories directly as fantasy. There had been magazines dedicated to just fantasy or horror, and there were more of them. The fantasy category market was greatly helped out by publishing then-cult favorite later-Godzilla title The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien in a set of paperbacks, both in the U.K. and twice in the U.S., once illegally and once legally. It was additionally helped out in the 1970’s by the popularity of the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, the development of the gaming industry and the idea of tie-in novels to help market games. Category market fantasy was sold with science fiction in the category market section of U.S. bookstores — there was less separatization in other countries as they often didn’t have special sections. Horror did not have enough dependable fans to form a steady category market of its own for a long time, although horror titles often sold better than SF and fantasy (see Stephen King, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz.) Horror was sold either with SFF in the category market if it came from a specialized imprint or a lot of it in paperback general fiction.
The fantasy category market hit high speed in the 1980’s and being a young market, was one of the few that kept growing during the Great Paperback Depression in the 1990’s, when the wholesale non-bookstore markets in most western countries shrank with great speed, greatly damaging the mass market paperback market, the paperback fiction market and the largely paperback SFF category markets. (Also, it was a firm blow to the declining SFFH magazine market and other magazines.) Fantasy’s growth for the first half of the 1990’s during the depression relied on well selling “epic” fantasy series — secondary world fantasy stories usually in a pre-industrial setting — novels by Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Weiss & Hickman, etc.
The secondary world fantasies of this type had their obvious roots in mythic ballads and what Tolkien and others had done with them, but they also had their roots in planetary and what was called romance science fiction, such as John Carter on Mars, etc., which also lead eventually to some of what we today call space opera science fiction. There were fantasy series like Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle and Andre Norton’s Witch World that were also the descendents of the planetary fiction and were initially sold as science fiction. There were the very fantasy-like science fiction series of Gene Wolfe’s Ur-Sun and New Sun, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, which were often the inspiration for secondary world fantasy writers like Guy Gavriel Kay. Telepathy, time travel, vampires, multiple dimensions, alternate histories and the like all could be given a scientific or supernatural basis and so were used for both science fiction or fantasy (or SF or fantasy horror.) So there is crossover in the foothills with the slightest of words and it isn’t usually a problem. A large majority of the writers wrote both SF and fantasy stories, and often horror and suspense stories as well. (And this still goes on today.)
Since the two category markets worked together and had the same publishers and had a lot of cross marketing and were sold in the same sections of bookstores, there were groups of people desperately trying to separate them (especially SF fans who regarded the popularity of fantasy as a threat rather than a help and fantasy fans who regard SF fans as snobs,) while others insisted that they should all still be considered science fiction or floated new terms like slipstream (weird surrealism literary movement,) or speculative, none of which particularly caught on as an umbrella term. SFFH books published in general fiction were cross-marketed with books in the category market imprints — for publishers, there’s no difference between a hardcover SFFH novel published by one of their fiction imprints and a paperback SFFH novel published by their category imprint. But they will give them different packaging and some marketing efforts to capture audiences who might be looking specifically for a hardcover fantasy novel that seems general fiction or a paperback with a bright cover sold in the special section of the bookstore, while selling the hardcover to the category audience too or the paperback to the general fiction audience too. (It’s really a giant shell game.)
In the late 1990’s, as had been predicted, booksellers started splitting the SF and fantasy category markets into two separate sections. This allowed the booksellers to do what booksellers like to do with category markets, why category markets exist in the first place — expand the shelves with offerings but also make them easy for interested folks to find. Having a fantasy section and a science fiction section meant twice as many shelves, although it did make it a bit complicated with the writers who did both. In the late oughts, things were going so well in these category markets that the specialized publishers decided to expand into another dedicated category market — horror. The renewed popularity of horror movies and the crossover interest from contemporary fantasy, horror SF and dark fantasy meant there was a solid core audience willing to explore with new authors, which is the starting place for a category market.
Around the same time, in the late 1990’s, romance category publishers expanded their imprints that did supernatural (or as it got eventually named paranormal) and SF romance. So popular was this area that in the mid-oughts it got its own category market and often its own section in the bookstores. The SF romance was slower off the block than the fantasy, but is now catching up. The paranormal romance expansion coincided with the horror expansion and the contemporary and urban fantasy expansion. And all of this also came on top of the expansion of YA fiction. YA was the sleepy, small part of children’s fiction, but with Harry Potter moving from middle school to YA in focus and other YA books (SFF and not-SFF) getting attention in its wake and the Potter movie adaptations, YA became the juggernaut of children’s fiction. Fantasy YA was a driving force there, but YA SF was also immensely popular. So large has the audience become, that we are beginning to see some bookstores split fantasy and science fiction from the rest of YA and have separate fantasy and science fiction YA sections. The crossover reading between adults and teens/kids in the YA market sent readers back and forth between children’s and adult sectors and lots of crossmarketing, bolstered by the increasing interest of film/t.v. in SFFH both adult and YA. (And then there was Marvel Films and what happened between movies and comics.)
A lot of people who came into reading fantasy in the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s read just the big secondary world pre-industrial war epics and tended to think that was all there was in the fantasy category market. However, fantasy has always had numerous types of setting and its “sub-genres” or sub-categories are all setting based. The big general seven are secondary world fantasy — both pre- and post-industrial; historical or alt history fantasy; contemporary fantasy/urban fantasy; dark fantasy — a dark, moody, sometimes violent setting sold as either part of the horror market or the fantasy market; comic/satiric fantasy with a comic setting; portal/multi-dimensional fantasy in which people travel between different realms/worlds; and lastly futuristic fantasy which takes place in a setting in Earth’s future or a dimension involving space travel. (Futuristic fantasy tends to be largely post-apocalyptic and this often confuses people who see any kind of post-apocalypse as science fiction, especially in a future Earth.) Right now, the biggest sector of fantasy is the contemporary fantasy, not secondary world. However, secondary world fantasy (still largely but not exclusively pre-industrial,) is still the flagship of that category market. Historical fantasy is also quite large, especially its industrial/steampunk/western division.
Science fiction, in slight contrast, is loosely divided by types/use of science. Hard SF focuses on the physical sciences of physics, biology and chemistry. Sociological SF focuses on cultural, political and psychological issues related to physical science. Cyberpunk (which is also a literary movement,) focuses on the cultural, political and sometimes biological effects of technology and computers, specifically in regards to young people, dystopias and revolutions. Military SF — what it says on the tin. Comic/satiric SF and horror SF, and SF romance. And space opera refers to a wide swath of SF stories that are more focused on adventure than a branch of science, which would include the planetary SF stories that sometimes seem fantasy-like to some people. There is also post-apocalyptic SF, one of its most popular sectors. Alternative history SF postulates a quantum theory of multiple-dimensions which allows for a changed Earth that is not supernatural in any way.
So why am I taking you the long way round on this topic? Because it may be helpful in understanding why people have the differing views of terms that they do and what exactly is going on in the market now and how we got there.
So basically, science fiction is those stories in which the unreal phenomena are given a scientific explanation for existing that is clear and definite as scientific, natural, even if the science is not detailed or strongly physical science or particularly good science. And fantasy uses elements where the explanation basis is supernatural, not having a natural explanation and basis — magic, supernatural and divine phenomena. You can have a fantasy story with a lot of SF elements, because the SF is natural, just like real existing things such as a car or a dog. But you cannot have a SF story with fantasy elements because the definition of SF is unreal elements with a natural basis and fantasy elements are unreal with a supernatural basis, outside SF’s purview. When you get into really squishy stories, it really doesn’t matter to readers much — and this is often an issue with slipstream — but that’s how the orientation works. Horror can be anything — science fiction, fantasy or neither and just using suspense such as serial killers. Most horror is fantasy horror, but it’s not exclusive.
So the first suggestion I’d have for you is to drop the term sci-fi. It’s really focused on tv/movies and it means fantasy, science fiction and horror together. Since you’re dealing with the written market, where sci-fi is seldom used as a term, it’s not going to be particularly helpful to you. Let’s look first at some of the other ones you mentioned:
1) China Mieville — Mieville’s rather useful for talking about various movements and sub-genres. Mieville is heavily influenced by Weird Fiction, which is a literary movement, originally centered around but not limited to the magazine Weird Tales, and sub-genre of horror of the Gothic, creepy, monsters, deep depression, weird surrealism kind. It is an ancestor of slipstream (which gets loosely described as weird surreal stories,) SF horror and dark fantasy. It’s also had an influence in other areas such as some steampunk. Mieville also has a mentor in legendary author and editor Michael Moorcock. Moorcock in many ways launched a New Weird movement itself in reviving Weird Fiction (though it wasn’t called that,) and more, he was a driving force through his editing of the New Wave SF movement. This was a literary movement in the late 50’s to 1970’s around the thematic concepts first of artistic writing in reaction to the blunter SF stories of the earlier part of the century, and second of the social ideas of the Beats and the counterculture — exploring cultural norms and conformity, liberalized sex, revolution, drugs, etc. The New Wave authors were writing mostly sociological SF, occasionally with a hard edge and occasionally space opera.
Steampunk was a name made up by author K.W. Jeter for some of the sort of stories he and other authors like Tim Powers and James Blaylock were sometimes doing. It was a deliberate play on cyberpunk, and while the two movements have some similarities, steampunk was not a non-computer version of cyberpunk. Unlike cyberpunk, steampunk could be either fantasy or science fiction in mainly the alternate history version. In steampunk, the main thing is the aesthetic of steam technology and anachronisms/inventions in relation to steam technology, which has spread beyond storytelling at this point. Mieville has a lot of interest in colonialism and its destruction, the rot of cities, etc., and so steampunk has been an influence for some of the things he was doing.
Perdido Street Station, the novel which vaulted him up into prominence, is a fantasy novel, which blends weird tales horror, New Wave SF attributes and a steampunk story. It is specifically a post-industrial secondary world fantasy novel, Victoriana flavor. And the whole line is that it’s a post-industrial secondary world dark dystopia steampunk thriller fantasy, and a good one at that. It’s not a new form, but it has really interesting themes. Mieville does a bit of cuteness by having the magic elements in his story studied academically and coming up with equations for them. However, these equations do not offer a natural basis for the existence of the unnatural phenomena that defies the natural laws of Mieville’s world. It’s simply magic that can be analyzed and manipulated, by will without a natural world explanation or basis. He also has sentient robots, but they are that way again through a combo of electricity and magic. (Magic robots are not new to fantasy fiction.) But because of that sort of thing, which is reminiscent of The Compleat Enchanter by de Camp and Pratt, some SF fans regarded Perdido as SF, and some fantasy fans declared it not fantasy because no elves and the world was post-industrial. That steampunk crosses into SF or fantasy also added to this impression. Some of Mieville’s other work may be SF, but his city trilogy is fantasy.
When Perdido Street Station got such attention, Mieville regarded it as the chance to jumpstart a conversation about experimentation and advocated a new literary movement in SFF that he called New Weird, essentially a new, somewhat different version of Weird Fiction, somewhat in line with New Wave SF, and encompassing SF horror, surrealism (slipstream,) dark fantasy, dystopia SF, etc. (not necessarily steampunk or alternate history SF.) A lot of people were interested in this — Jeff Vandermeer did things with it, there were some anthologies, publishers started slapping the term on things. But because Mieville’s definition of the movement was deliberately nebulous, and because he was not editing a magazine as Moorcock had done to shape the fiction of a group of authors into something more thematically consistent, it never really coalesced. It certainly was an influence, as Mieville’s work has been, and the term is sometimes still used, but Mieville basically tossed in the towel and said he was done with it as it hadn’t really developed.
2) Dune is the venerated elder of space opera and a descendent of planetary SF. While the science in Dune is certainly shaky, it is actually based on natural science theory — quantum theory and environmental biology, which Herbert researched. Everything in Dune — the mental powers, the spice, the worms, etc., is given a natural basis explanation. There is nothing magical in the story, though some characters are superstitious. Some fantasy readers quite naturally like Dune, with its desert adventure and grand houses, but like Wolf’s Ur-Sun, it’s SF of a particular type.
3) C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy is also SF, again in the loose category of space opera. The natural explanation for the phenomena in her doomed colony planet is based on quantum theory, physics and neurology, with the idea of energy in a natural planetary energy field which can be absorbed and channeled through conscious minds into solid matter. It’s pretty shaky science again, but she did base it on actual theories. Many fantasy readers, however, treated it as another Lord Valentine’s Castle and declared it fantasy. Friedman basically threw up her hands and accepted that people could view it as they liked. She has written military SF — In Conquest Born — and fantasy novels as well.
Pure surrealism and magic realism are fantasy stories. Surrealism that then develops into a natural explanation for the surreal heads into SF. Slipstream may encompass both SF and fantasy based stories, but it has also been a rather nebulous literary movement. Sentience is an area of particular interest to SF, the idea that sentience could develop naturally, scientifically in entities we would not normally expect, such as computer networks. Therefore, when you write a story about a space colony in which a body of water is sentient — if it seemed that you were giving a natural explanation for how that body of water can have an intelligent consciousness in the story, then readers might regard the story as SF. Even if you don’t, it might, yes, be assumed it’s SF because it’s on a space colony and the supernatural elements are not clearly delineated. If you had a ghost for instance that was inhabiting the body of water, that would be more clearly delineated as supernatural, although even then some might claim it to be SF.
The setting of a space colony is a SF element but does not guarantee that the story isn’t fantasy based. A medieval (pre-industrial) setting could be in a historical fiction story that has no unreal elements or even an alternate history SF story; the medieval setting does not make something fantasy and there are thousands of fantasy novels that have no medieval setting. (Go to a search engine or Amazon, etc., and type in the phrase contemporary fantasy.) However, when people have data sets about these things, it can effect their perception. But perception is not the whole market.
Using the term a futuristic fantasy story may help others understand what you are going for. I would also suggest that you check out some of the titles I’ve mentioned earlier and some of these as well maybe, so you can start to get a feel for the range (you don’t have to read them all, but take a look at them and be aware perhaps:
Emma Bull — Bone Dance — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Stephen R. Boyett — Ariel, sequel Elegy Beach — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Terry Brooks — The Sword of Shannara — futuristic post-apocalypse fantasy
Patricia Kennealy-Morrison — The Keltiad series — futuristic fantasy in another star system
Liz Williams — Inspector Chen series — near future, alternate history thriller fantasy
Genevieve Valentine — Mechanique — post-apocalyptic fantasy in either an Earth-like secondary world or future Earth
(she keeps it vague on purpose)
Kameron Hurley — God’s War series — futuristic fantasy (another one lots of people feel is science fiction; this would be an interesting one for you)
Charles Yu — How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — meta, surrealistic quantum science fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi — The Quantum Thief — quantum based cyberpunk (may have some bits in the general neighborhood of your story)
Tad Williams — Otherland series — VR science fiction (Williams is a big fantasy writer so a lot of fans insist that Otherland is fantasy because of medieval settings in the virtual reality system)
C.J. Cherryh — Rider at the Gate series — planetary sociological SF in the same neighborhood as Coldfire (fantasy-like)
Gayle Greeno — Ghatto series — space opera political thrillers with psi abilities (fantasy-like)
These may be of less use to you, but give you an idea of some of the things being done:
Cathrynne Valente — Palimpsest — multi-dimensional fantasy
Michael Swanwick — The Iron Dragon’s Daughter — multi-dimensional fantasy
Tim Powers — Declare — historical fantasy (World War II-Cold War)
Roger Zelazny — Princes of Amber series — multi-dimensional with futuristic elements fantasy
Michael Moorcock — Eternal Champion Multiverse series — multi-dimensional fantasy with futuristic elements
Stephen King — Dark Tower series — multi-dimensional fantasy includes futuristic elements
Matthew Stover — Caine series — multi-dimensional fantasy series
Carrie Vaughn — Discord’s Apple — alternate Earth near future fantasy novel
Charles Stross — Laundry Files series — multi-dimensional satiric spy fantasy
Kelly McCullough — WebMage series — an oughts version of computer based contemporary fantasy
Cory Doctorow — Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town — surrealism
Hal Duncan — Vellum and Ink — multi-dimensional fantasy with surrealism elements
SFFH — it’s a big wide world.
(Do check out some of the authors above even if your interest in the topic is limited — good stuff.)