Markets, versus what we think they want

I was at a convention not very long ago, and listening to a conversation going on between a number of my peers — to include several aspirants I knew would be breaking in very soon. There was much excitement over a supposed subgenre of a subgenre within Science Fiction and Fantasy, to the point that every single author in that circle seemed convinced that this subgenre was going to go out and take over the world. Each of them had plans for stories and books to be written in that subgenre of the subgenre. All of it sounded very interesting to me. But I also knew that the market for this material was going to be fantastically narrow. Which is really saying something, considering the extant narrowness of SF/F as a form of literary entertainment.

But that particular circle was on fire about their subject, and I am not keen on throwing cold water across creative people when they’re hot about their work. That’s not my style.

Nevertheless, I’ve yet to see this subgenre of a subgenre go on to become the genre-dominant force many say it will be, even to this day. Not because it’s not a worthwhile flavor of SF/F — I think it’s deservedly intriguing, and there are a great many people investing a great deal of time and energy in it. But because I think this is a (common) case of authors becoming fixated on a thing because it pushes our love buttons, without the market following suit.

I think we are, as a class of creative professional, incredibly susceptible to this inverted fish-eye view of the marketplace. Once we latch onto a thing, we can latch onto it with almost fanatical energy.

Which is not always bad. Sometimes I think we look around and we say, “I am not seeing X or Y type books and stories,” and that becomes the spark that drives our prose. I know it’s certainly been true for me, and I think I’ve been fortunate to tap a genuine vein within the SF/F audience that has been — according to my reader mail — underserviced and neglected. It was a case of author perception (mine) roughly matching audience perception (theirs) and the marriage of supply and demand has been a happy one, which I hope to enjoy for a long time into the future.

But then there are moments where I think we, as writers, overly fetishize our own innovation, to the point that we’re talking way past the readers, and are instead writing books and stories strictly to ourselves, about ourselves, for ourselves, and concerned only with our own desire to see a given kind of book or story reach print — even if there is not really any consumer interest waiting on the other end.

A lot of this fetishization can be traced to SF/F’s hoary old expectation that no wheel be re-invented. Going all the way back to the pulp era, a common conceit arose, stipulating that once a given concept or idea had been “done” that concept was more or less used up, and it was expected that future authors — having dutifully studied and read all which had gone before — would not re-mow the same patch of grass. A kind of faddishness grew from this expectation, such that topics would rise, explode, and die, in almost supernova-like style. But once that supernova had reduced to dwarf status, it was time for everybody to move on. The thing had been seen and done and read enough. It was time for something new.

Except, after a century of feverish activity, SF/F really has been just about everywhere it can go, in some form. There aren’t any new ideas under the sun, as the saying goes. So, people resort to improbable mash-ups, or extremely deep, hair-crack dives on old ideas — drilling down, at fine-tooth-comb detail, in an attempt to extract mileage from the tiniest shreds of unexplored real estate.

None of which is bad, mind you. I do hate how this kind of analysis can turn into a bad/good false dichotomy. Rather, I want to suggest that such electron-microscope exploration — while fascinating to students of the field — risks leaving the larger audience behind. That larger audience probably hasn’t read even one one-hundredth of the field’s books and stories. They don’t know this decade’s evolving iteration of the “classics,” as defined by the cognoscenti. They’re blissfully unaware of the yellow and black-striped caution signs saying, THIS HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE, MOVE ON.

The public just wants to be entertained — and they’re prepared to take any book or story at face value. Just because it’s been done before, doesn’t mean this generation of readers knows, or cares.

I believe this is how a concept like Weir’s The Martian captures so much attention. There was absolutely nothing new about it. Men-go-to-Mars stories have been around from the very beginning of the field. Weir just happened to tell a particularly detailed, hard-science version of that story — one which this generation of consumers was ready to embrace. All else grew from there, and Weir reaped the fruit thereof. And good for him. As an admirer and practitioner of Hard SF, I found it hugely gratifying to see a genuine Hard SF story not just succeed with a broad audience, but succeed to an overwhelming degree; both in print, and on the big screen. After enduring a lot of backhanded scorn from the softer side of the genre — obsessed with sociological explorations of SF — I was heartened by the idea that the public still wanted and appreciated a genuine Hard SF “nuts and bolts” approach to a classic Jack London man-versus-the-elements story.

So, I temper my enthusiasm for the latest talk about sailpunk wereshark post-apocalypse antihero pirate-crossover transexual romances, being the thing that will now light the genre on fire. This is speculation driven almost entirely from within — from that place where we desperately want to forge the new, from the old. We may pick up a thing, and marvel at how it sparkles in the light of our mind’s eye — but to the wider audience, it’s just another beach rock. Nothing worth getting excited about. Expecting that the broader audience will become enamored with it, to the degree we ourselves may be enamored with it, can produce a lot of frustration, and even anger.

Now, an artiste won’t give a damn. “Real art” is never, ever supposed to be about the desire of the unwashed masses. “Real art” is about pouring salt water on the paper cuts of the soul. To hell with what the audience wants.

For my money, a professional walks a middle path. Not slavish to market forces, but not prone to belly-button infatuation with overly strange and esoteric ideas, either. The number of artistes surviving on subsidy, is legion. The number of pros who discover how to routinely provide a product that speaks to a lot of people in the commercial pel mel of the entertainment universe, is much smaller. Thus the task is (in my view) much harder. But it’s a challenge worth undertaking. Not only because of the financial incentive. But also for the sake of readers who will appreciate being given a resoundingly solid experience.

36 thoughts on “Markets, versus what we think they want

  1. It might hurt me and I just haven’t noticed, but this sort of market analysis just eludes me. I get ideas. I write them down. I submit them. I keep submitting them until they sell, or until I run out of markets. Whether an idea is cutting edge or old hat are almost beyond my comprehension.

      1. Thank you! Though I never saw it that way, I can see it. For me, it’s closer to… identity bender?

        1. It gives an entirely different meaning to the old Army ad slogan “Be all that you can be”.

          (Where all = anyone, if that was opaque usage).

  2. And the smart artiste will patiently work as a pro, building a reputation amongst the teeming masses, and then release that literary work which has been chewing away at his soul. It may or may not sell well, but that pre-existing reputation means that a larger group of people will at least give it more than a passing glance.

  3. I believe this is how a concept like Weir’s The Martian captures so much attention. There was absolutely nothing new about it. Men-go-to-Mars stories have been around from the very beginning of the field. Weir just happened to tell a particularly detailed, hard-science version of that story — one which this generation of consumers was ready to embrace.

    Geoffrey Landis’ Mars Crossing (2000) is a very similar concept, complete with necessary epic trek from one landing zone to another. And it’s well-done, both in terms of the science and the characterization. But that just goes to make your point: the same idea can be done in very similar ways by gifted writers, and still work. It doesn’t have to be completely and flamingly new.

    Consider the “sword and planet” subgenre. I’ve seen that done many, many times from the 1910’s through the present day — Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Andre Norton, etc.. Done right, it still works.

    1. I believe it was the movie red planet that also had them trekking across Mars to an old lander to get back into space and get rescued after getting stranded. Just proving Brad’s point that the Martian was not cutting new territory.

  4. I’m an old fart, and have read a LOT of SF over the past 50+ years, but I still enjoy a new story with new characters. If the arc is there, and the characters aren’t one dimensional, I’ll pretty much read anything that catches my eye. Taken to the extreme, if you will, all ANY of us are doing is rewriting Shakespeare… Be it fiction, romance, SF, or anything else… Sigh

  5. I’ve read and reviewed over 700 SFF short stories, novellas, and novelettes over the past six months, and while it’s true that a certain percentage of them have been bad reads whose only qualification seemed to be “originality,” that percentage is pretty small. It does happen, but I don’t think it happens often enough to worry about. At least, not in the top 6 magazines.

        1. Shouldn’t that be “If You Were a Was-Shark”? …Or is it “If You Was a Were-Shark”… or maybe “If Fuzzy-Wuzzy Wuz a Bear” … hang on, let me think about this.

  6. This I something I’ve seen in my writing group to a certain extent. Not everyone trying to be original but the people doing the critiquing talking about how unoriginal the story is because obscure novel from the forties had the same idea. Once upon a time perhaps there was so little SF and fantasy published that an avid reader could be expected to know of and read some of almost everything but fortunately that’s no longer the case.

    That said, if you are copying something famous (most often Star Trek), then that can be a problem and you might want to change it up to be a less obvious ‘homage’.

    One of the things that excites me about Indy books is that they make the mistakes that the experts (publishers, editors, agents, other writers) say are wrong and won’t sell and I’ve begun to think that most readers don’t actually give a toss about many of those ‘mistakes’. Essentially those people are extremely knowledgeable and avid readers who seem to want books that appeal to them as avid readers and don’t seem to notice that most readers aren’t at that level, nor do they want to be at that level.

    Basically, I think SF (and to a lesser extent Fantasy) have been written for avid readers for so long that we’ve forgotten how to write and market to the larger audience of the uninitiated.

    1. I have noticed the same thing with my writing group. What I find helps is a finely honed sense of when to take such statements seriously and when to ignore them.

  7. I look at the writing I am doing – and see not a single “new” idea. Heck, being fairly well read in SF, I don’t even see a single “new” combination of ideas.

    But I look at it with an analogy: I don’t know when some cook decided to put raisins and onions together, but it was a looong time ago. And is one of the most common combos you can find today (read the ingredient labels in your local grocery store’s sauce aisle, if you don’t believe me…). Doesn’t keep me from making my own special sauce (preferred by five out of five people surveyed!) from raisins and onions.

    1. Yep. Did something like that recently, where I decided to make gravy from the drippings for the first time. The resulting gravy was so popular with the family that we ran out of rice, and Aff, who normally just tolerates rice, actually asked if there was a way to quickly cook up more rice. (I had microwave cup of brown rice, so I was able to grant the wish.)

      1. And that is the first one I learned, when barely big enough to reach the stovetop… I really only began to branch out the last few years, when I became the chief cook and bottle-washer.

        Just curious – what was your starch?

        (I’m with Aff, by the way – I can only tolerate rice when it is about half not-rice.)

        1. Corn starch was the starch I used. I was making an effort at oven-fried chicken drumsticks and was draining the oil and drippings to let the skin crisp up. Because of how I’d seasoned the chicken, the drippings were DELICIOUS.

          Naturally that meant it needed to be made into gravy.

  8. SF/F’s hoary old expectation that no wheel be re-invented.

    They obviously need to read more Poul Anderson. What else are you supposed to do when you can’t use circles?

  9. Once in an English Lit class, I believe we were reading stories from the Decameron, and the point was made that back the, people didn’t WANT new and original stories, they wanted retellings of familiar tales, and authors had to sneak their new ides into them. The point was made that the authors who made it (and whom we study today) weren’t known for the tale, but the telling. Thus one planet romance is memorable as a classic, while the other is held up as an example of the worst of the genre. (Barsoom vs. Gor).

  10. I take a small exception for a simple reason: This is not isolated to SF/F. The other week I saw a new product that a company was convinced was going to take utilities by storm. It won’t, because part of what it addresses is already handled more cheaply and with less complexity. Had they known what the customer wanted, they wouldn’t have wasted effort and money.

    What’s particularly ironic is that we the customers told this company *exactly what we wanted* and they not only ignored it, they said it couldn’t be done. IIRC I got a bit snarky and named a vendor that’s been doing the “impossible” for over thirty years, and reps from another utility put the company on the spot about it. The company’s reaction was to simply stop having these sessions.

    The parallels in publishing are obvious. Whether it’s tunnel vision or becoming wrapped up in an idea or simply clueless, I can’t say. I plead cluelessness in misjudging the indie market for stand alone short stores – or maybe clueless as to the marketability of what I write. Whatever the case, it’s very similar to companies making bad product and marketing decisions, and that’s regardless of whether they peddle books or widgets.

    1. ” . . . misjudging the Indie market . . . ”
      We all do that. It changes very fast, and we all chase after it, which is tough as it’s camouflaged and given to seemingly random zigzags, which are probably just the writer encountering a different set of readers.

    2. Sometimes you can’t know or guess where the market is, sometimes you get lucky and hit it spot on. The worst part is when you *think* you’ve got it pegged, but can’t get the reach to hit lots of potential customers. I’ve known a couple authors who spent thousands on advertising when they should have been out networking.

      Right now my currently best-selling book is a fantasy pirate setting, which I wrote as a one-off tie-in to my main fantasy series. Who could have guessed?

    3. It definitely isn’t. Here was are, in 2016, and VR is going to be The Next Big Thing (just like it was in 1996)- but Now we ave The Technology.

      Of course, no one is telling the kids saving up the $600 to buy an Oculus Rift headset that they are going to spend about thirty dollars a week on Dramamine…

  11. “sailpunk wereshark post-apocalypse antihero pirate-crossover transexual romances”

    …I think I read that one. There was also a werebear biker and a chubby girl.

  12. The market (i.e. us readers) is also fickle. What sells today may not sell tomorrow but sell excellently next year. There are also barriers that are invisible to authors. I didn’t much care for Stardogs despite it being well written so I put off buying any more David Freer. After continuing to read his articles here, I gave him another chance and have read (and purchased) several of his books – enjoying them all. On the flip side, that led me to reading some Mercedes Lackey who I got tired of, for now, and probably will not read again for years.

    I don’t think you can predict; you can just hope. 1632 was a huge thing that I didn’t even hear about until 2014, then I gobbled them all up. (Pro tip: Don’t read novels on cruise ship decks without sunscreen.)

    As an aside, would anyone actually write/say “of whom I became tired” or even more accurately and awkwardly, “of whose plot devices I became tired”?

  13. As we said in the service, about performance evaluations in a mature system, There are no new problems, but there are many new people who haven’t seen a lot of them.

  14. It’s good to be aware, though, that at least one prominent editor has a different point of view. Trying to sell him a done-before idea may be difficult:

    “But for New Voices in Science Fiction, which SFWA asked me to edit, there were no assignments, no themes. It worked just like a magazine, and I rejected more stories than I bought — but even the stories I rejected were usually pretty well-written.

    Where did they fall down?

    They were by (mostly) young writers, and being young, they hadn’t read enough of the field to know that Heinlein told it better 40 years ago — and while I’m thinking of it, so did 20 other guys.

    So, a word of advice: more than any other field, you must be well-read in science fiction if you hope to make a career writing it. This is not a field you can come to cold, unless you’re a movie director who, like Lucas or Roddenbury, insists on putting 1935 pulp magazine stories up there on the screen.”

    1. This may be a distinction without a difference.

      Mike Resnick wasn’t rejecting stories because Heinlein told them forty years ago. He was rejecting stories, in his own words, because Heinlein told them better forty years ago.

      Actually, his article is showing its age rather badly. Heinlein wasn’t writing any stories forty years ago; he was recovering from surgery for TIAs, campaigning to recruit blood donors, researching and writing encyclopaedia yearbook articles, and all sorts of other fun stuff that had damn-all to do with writing fiction. Bear in mind that his ‘forty years ago’, when written, means 1962.

      Nowadays, it’s Lucas and Roddenberry who were telling the stories forty years ago, and they did not even pretend to be original whilst doing so. If you want to work the same fields again, you will have to do better than they did, because they, unlike the pulp writers whose ideas they lifted, are still genuinely famous in the broader culture.

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