Curiouser and Curiouser: thoughts on Sad Puppydom and the State of the Hugos
I freely admit I was looking for an easy topic to
rant *coff* talk about this week because this has not been my best week (taking the much-loved 21 year old cat on her final trip to the vet will do that – as well as consume ridiculous quantities of Kleenex). My usual sources for good topics were all suspiciously quiet (yeah, I harass them most weeks), so I googled Sad Puppies Three.
I expected to get unending pages of hits of SJW types waxing poetic about the evil that is the Campaign to End Puppy-Related Sadness. Instead I got the official Sad Puppies posts, and a whole lot of “Read books and nominate them for awards if you think they deserve it? Good idea.”
Now, I’ll concede that Google might be customizing my search results just for me and automatically filtering off SJW hits, but I also got (after about page 3) a whole lot of “cute photo” hits. And – seriously – buggerall from the usual suspects.
There were two links to anti-ish posts, both of which showed a remarkable lack of understanding of the whole notion. You know, the idea that it’s good to actually read the books and bring in a bigger diversity of topic and theme for consideration. Because an award that calls itself the “most prestigious” is kind of by definition something meaningful to Joe Average SFF Fan looking for a good read to spend his hard earned money on.
And… well… the Hugo isn’t.
Look at Amazon rankings (which are as close to honest sales figures as we mere mortals are likely to get). Now look at recent Hugo winners. For fairness, keep it to the novel winners and paid sales in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Now stop screaming, go back and change the search parameters a bit and… oh, never mind. There’s no way to get a list of SF and Fantasy that doesn’t also include several metric shit-tons of paranormal romance, much of it venerable indeed (Seriously? Gabaldon’s Outlander series? That was new when I was in high school and I’m entirely too many years away from that to be comfortable with the number. Let’s just say the cat I farewelled this week post-dated high school by quite a few years and leave it there).
The thing is, most of the time, the darlings of the awards in the last ten years or so tend not to be long-term sellers. The long-term classics stay in the Amazon top lists (when I looked, there were multiple editions and versions of 1984 in the top 100 SF & F, rubbing literary shoulders with Tolkien, Vonnegut, and assorted other classic SF/F authors). Of the not-classics, there were a lot of series, enough paranormal romances to sink a modern cargo ship, and a smattering of newer works.
Add in the latest news from the Official Source of Truth (aka Bookscan) is that sales are dropping. Of course, they don’t include Indie sales, which means that sales of traditionally published SF & F are dropping – as they have been for years… a time frame that to a large extent correlates remarkably closely with the publishing establishment’s near-total lock on distribution (and therefore sales – it being a trifle difficult to sell something that didn’t get to the stores in the first place).
Now of course correlation is not causation and something else could have caused sales to drop to the extent that modern SF & F does not proudly state on covers “Over a million copies sold!” (And yes, I own SF & F paperbacks from the 80s that say this). Insiders will whisper about how standard print runs have dropped from 50, 000 to 20, 000 to a few thousand, and how books never seem to sell out the advance. And then the SF & F sections of bookstores is gradually becoming more the realm of endless tie-in novels and a whole bunch of paranormal romance (at least until it gets booted out into its own section because the readers wanting a bit of a different romance aren’t too happy about slumming it with the geeks and nerds).
What all of this means is that the books printed by the traditional publishers are not, for the most part, the books the SF & F loving portion of the population want to read. The genre itself isn’t any less popular – but the traditional publishers, the ones who dominate the Hugo and are beloved by the whoever the Hugo SMOFs are – are not.
Which means that winning SF & F’s “most prestigious” award has become a little like wetting your pants in public: you get a nice warm feeling for a while, but very few other people care.