Sawdust, chocolate cake, and New Coke
Regarding this item which crossed my desk over drill weekend, it’s typical of the attitude one finds among deck chair rearrangers — the men and women who think the answer to flagging trad pub sales, is to scold the genre for poor marketing while simultaneously scolding the audience for bad taste.
Because the field has evolved, yo. We’ve moved on from Star Trek. Nevermind that Star Trek spawned half a dozen television shows, as well as over a dozen big screen films, hundreds of tie-in novels, numerous kinds of video and paper-and-dice games, merchandising for light-years, and so forth. Star Trek is done, okay? Time for you to update your settings. We, the rearrangers, are here to notify you that the stuff you loved from the old days, is over.
A sales pitch which works wonders — on people who read things out of a sense of political duty.
The rest of us? We’re just looking for a good time. Not a mindless time. A good time. The sort of read which leaves us with a feeling of satisfaction. Because our hours were well spent. The author has properly rewarded our investment.
What constitutes a “good time” is definitely one of those de gustibus questions. Populists and taste-makers have both existed, since the first campfire storytellers regaled us over the flames — dating back to prehistory. Which stories are “worthy” and which stories are not? Can such a judgment be imposed, from the top down? Or will it invariably manifest itself organically, from the bottom up?
My personal belief is that it’s purely organic. Even when there are strong forces working to make this decision for us.
Taste-makers may secure for themselves the levers of academic or institutional power — pressing a kind or style of fiction on largely captive crowds. But nobody likes to be force-fed a handful of sawdust, while being told that the sawdust is in fact a rich, delicious piece of chocolate cake. A few people, wishing to join the taste-making set, may embrace the sawdust. Swearing up and down that the sawdust is, quite simply, the greatest treat (s)he has ever had. (S)he will gobble further handfuls of sawdust, to prove that (s)he has adopted the acceptable and correct values.
But in the end, it’s still sawdust.
Which is why a Hugo or a Nebula short list — in 2017 — isn’t indicative of organic enjoyment. The Hugo and Nebula short lists are created by, and for, the sawdust set.
If I am talking to a prospective audience member who skips over SF/F as a general rule, I know precisely why (s)he feels this way. She’s had too many bites of the sawdust, which masquerades as chocolate cake. It’s the Nutty Nuggets rule. You can’t keep altering the contents, while leaving the packaging more or less unchanged, without running the risk of alienating your readers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the old contents are wrong, or bad, or outdated, or silly, or need to be revised simply to suit an arbitrary and purely internal sentiment. Remember how New Coke went over? Most of the people who want SF/F to “evolve” and “move on” probably aren’t old enough to remember New Coke — and how it brought a soda manufacturing giant to its knees.
The lesson of New Coke is, nobody asked for New Coke. The Coca-Cola folks were trying to figure out why their sales were slipping against Pepsi, so they cooked up this idea to reformulate Coca-Cola, and it bombed badly with consumers. Only the rapid and dramatic reintroduction of Coca-Cola classic restored consumer confidence. New Coke went down as one of the all-time great marketing and business blunders.
Now, speaking from memory, I didn’t think New Coke was fantastically different from Coke Classic. At that particular time, I was actually more of a Royal Crown consumer, with occasional Coke or Pepsi dalliances on the side. Especially Cherry Coke, which I still like very much.
But the point is: rattle your audience’s faith in your product, at your peril.
For the better part of two decades, SF/F’s rearrangers have been embarked upon their own version of New Coke. The sawdust-gobblers decided that we’d had just about enough of the blockbuster “old way” of doing things, even though the 1970s and 1980s invented the SF/F bestseller. It was time to move on.
And yet, the audience has not followed. In dribs and drabs, the audience has gone elsewhere. Trad pub numbers for SF/F continue to struggle, in comparison to a quarter of a century ago.
Some of this can be blamed on a media-diverse digital entertainment spectrum. Now that people can literally carry movies and television series and video games in their pockets, to watch or play at any time, the era of the paperback — as the single most convenient form of sit-down pass time — is over. Electronic books have also revolutionized the buying landscape, allowing consumers to get their books directly from the author, or from a clearinghouse seller.
But a lot of it — I believe very much — comes down to fans of SF/F Classic feeling burned, by New SF/F.
It’s not that New SF/F is measurably inferior — though some would argue it is. It’s just that the crowds from the high years of the genre’s print popularity, aren’t satisfied with what they’re getting anymore. New SF/F is “off” from SF/F Classic. Could you metric this on a chart? Not really, to the same degree that taste tests with Classic and New Coke yielded uncertain metrics. More, it’s the fact that print SF/F’s manufacturers have — since at least the year 2000 — decided they’re going to mix things up, even though there weren’t a lot of people from the old audience who had demanded such a mix-up.
SF/F Classic was deemed not good enough. So then came New SF/F.
And the trad pub numbers began their familiar decline.
Some of the 21st century’s strident SF/F activist-authors like to misstate the problem — accusing SF/F Classic fans of wanting to dial the genre all the way back to when actual coca leaf extract was in the formula, and it was administered as a pharmacological tonic.
I’m not sure what ground is gained via this line of reasoning, other than to further push SF/F Classic fans away from the very manufacturers who claim to want those fans’ business.
My own fear is that the zealots of New SF/F will so successfully alienate the audience, that SF/F et al will become an academic interest only. Ergo, the major trad publishers will jettison the brand, leaving it for the small presses and for a tiny reader base which is interested in SF/F purely as a political and sociological plaything.
We’re halfway there already.
Though, it must be noted, plenty of indie authors are trying desperately to ensure that SF/F Classic does not depart the digital publishing shelves. And there is also Baen, perhaps the lone holdout among all trad publishers, keeping SF/F Classic alive — with the flag proudly flown high. For these Classic SF/F parties, the taste of the original high-period audience (of print SF/F) is not in need of revision. Rather, it’s that very high-period taste which provides a solid market base.
Sawdust-gobbling be damned.
Which will not, of course, prevent the sawdust set from pushing New SF/F into ever more esoteric and obscure territory. Believing (vainly) that making New SF/F into a political cause, substitutes for returning SF/F to its natural state, as a popular cause.
In fact, there’s every indication that the zealots of New SF/F believe the political is popular, and vice versa.
But then, this is how zealots throughout history have always thought — theirs being the straight-line ramp of destiny.
I’m fairly certain the market disagrees. And it’s the market which always wins, too. It was the market which made SF/F Classic into a money-rich hit in the first place.