Congratulations to all the Dragon Award winners. It is good for sf as a genre, and the award, and for winners and the short-list nominees to have an award being won by popular authors with a large, broad-spectrum readership. I’m sure all the usual suspects at File 770 are howling about their lack of literary merit and political correctness – but the truth is: neither of those things sell much – and an award’s value to authors and the genre is determined by at least some winners being real (as opposed to publisher faked, purchased NYT bestseller slots, with no major long term sales proving their actual popularity). Then an award starts to say ‘Buy me!’ rather than ‘Avoid me!’ to the numbers we need to make sf thrive.
Back in the dark ages when fax machines and dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was just entering University, I was participating in that defining ritual of evolved civilization: the orderly queue, to register. Being a graduate of South African Military School of ‘hurry up and wait’ I was well prepared. I was wearing trousers that had magazine pockets on the thigh, got into the queue and hauled out a sf novel, and settled down to read and wait. The young blonde-haired bloke behind me sighed. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
So being a kind, outgoing soul, and also not wanting someone to talk to me while I read, I offered to lend him one of the other two books, from the opposite thigh-pocket. And thus, reading, in companionable silence, a long friendship was formed. As it happened Pete and I were registering for almost all of the same subjects – he ended up in entomology and I was at the bludgeoning edge of Ichthyology – but as undergrads we shared most of subjects – and taste in books, and depraved senses of humor.
Life took us off in separate directions, but it was one of those friendships where you might not have seen each other for five years, but it was as if the other had just stepped out of the room for five minutes. We disagree on as many subjects as we agree on, but manage to still talk, argue, and like and respect each other. He married a girl ideally suited to him (even if she is a microbiologist) that we highly approved of, and they were God-parents to one of my sons, and we are God-parents to their daughters.
They were the last people we saw when we left South Africa, and, while my sons have seen them since, that was seven years back. Pete’s wife is coming across to visit after a conference on tick-borne diseases on the day this post is due, so I’m getting this done – and thinking about old friends in the book world.
There are a lot of common traits with ‘old friend’ books and ‘old friend’ people, many of which are very important to an author – or at least to an author who wants to make a living at this. You want, badly, your readers to regard you (or rather your books, but to them, you are your books – which is why when a reader meets or talks to an author whose books they love, and find that author a jerk – you lose that reader) as that old friend. New and exciting and dangerous is all very well, but you always find time and money for old friends. I don’t know about you, but things have to be fairly good before I feel like venturing on a new author. However, old friends – there’s never a bad time for a Weber, or Correia or a Lee and Miller or Louis L’Amour… I may not enjoy all of the new offerings as much or agree with all of the ideas and themes. But I know I’m not going to hate them, and I know it’s very probable I’ll really love the book. Trust me: I know the lit’ry world says you want to be unique just like everyone else, and startling and shocking and pushing the boundaries… if you want to sell well, reliably, you want to be that old friend.
So: what is it about those old friend authors? I dunno. You tell me. Different authors are ‘old friends’ to different readers. I would say ‘trustable’ was definitely near the top of the universal list, however. Some authors – and I am probably one, are very ‘hit-and-miss’ with readers. This is probably more likely if (like me) you write all over the place – anything from high fantasy to hard sf – which is why it is so essential to signal with your covers and blurbs just what the reader is getting. I have a fair number of readers who will read it if I wrote it, but there are others who are specific fans of certain genres and styles – and telling them, up front, may lose you a few short-term sales, but it says they can trust you.
Secondly: I’d say ‘old friend’ authors go out of their way to treat their readers with respect. The fashionable attitude in much of our genre is very much that the rubes who buy your books are idiots – especially if they dare disagree with you. You’re one of the ‘cool kids’ according sycophantic respect to your publisher, praising every word they say – but quite happy to label people who paid for your book/s as morons or bigots — if they don’t agree or like your opinions. Well. I won’t be back as a reader easily if I get treated like that. Readers have value. Publishers… and politicians and their positions (unless they run in concord with most of your readers, don’t.
Finally old friends make you feel better and leave you feeling better – so you long to see them again.
And now I plan to go and spend time with this old friend. When they leave, I’ll turn to a book… by an author who is old friend, too.