from the December 1998 Locus Magazine
Will the Real Dodo Please Stand Up?
by Steve Perry
You want an opinion piece? Chew on this: The publishing industry is dying. Books are fast going the way of the dodo. Nobody reads any more.
Here’s my favorite: Printed science fiction will be dead in another generation, and it’s the media-tie ins, shared-universes, and novelizations that will kill it off.
I’ve been hearing garbage like this for most of the forty-odd years I’ve been reading, and more in the twenty-odd years I’ve been writing, and after considered thought, here is my response - as precise as I can make it:
You want some numbers? Try these: If you start right now reading a book, and you read a new and different book every day hence; and if you were born yesterday, and if you you live to be a hundred, when you die, you would not have been able to read all the books published in these United States last year, much less get to any published in the next hundred years. Sure, some of these are non-fiction, and most assuredly, Sturgeon’s Law will apply, so you wouldn’t want to read most of them, but those are the numbers. That’s only 30,000 some-odd books, and there were closer to 50,000 published last year.
Damn sure doesn’t sound like books are about to go belly up to me.
Not that reading has ever been that popular a sport anyhow. The percentages have always stayed low, vis-a-vis the general population. More numbers: If you write a book and it sells a million copies in hardback, your agent and publisher and ex-spouse will do handsprings for joy - unless you are among the few super-writers like King and Clancy and Auel and Grisham, in which case you might do twice that well and still not be all that pleased. With the US population creeping up on a quarter of a billion souls, at least half of whom can read, even two million is considerably less than one percent. If you were a sandlot baseball player batting like that, you’d get picked to play after the fat kid whose mother made him come outside instead of letting him stay in to practice the viola. Just after the three-legged dog gets chosen.
Publishing isn’t dying. It’s changing, sure enough, with conglomerates on one end and mega-bookstores on the other, but if you think books are in danger of going extinct any time soon, you need to get to your optometrist and have your prescription checked. Or move to Metropolis - where everybody is blind and it won’t matter. A bird? A plane? Jesus, you can’t tell a bodybuilder in a red and blue suit with a cape from a bird or a plane? Only guy in that town wears glasses doesn’t need them - except as a great disguise, of course.
Not only is publishing in general not dying, genre literature - if the literary elite will allow me to use those two words in conjunction - of which readers of Locus are fans, i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and horror - is also doing just fine. The doom and gloom of our field’s pundits about the popcorn and Coke kiddie lit takeover, that scum-sucking Star Wars and Star Trek, and all the other heinous media tie-ins is also, are, my considered opinion - what was that word again? Ah, yes:
Media fiction tie-ins accounted for 15% of new science fiction and fantasy titles in 1997. Which means, if my math skills have not left me entirely, that books other than said media tie-ins must have accounted for 85% of new titles.That doesn’t sound quite as overwhelming as the sci-fi po-lice make it out to be, does it?
Of course, the latest Star Wars or Trek novel is not going to replace Dune or The Man in the High Castle, and I’m not here to try and convince anybody that such space opera is great literature. But I do have to wonder why there is so much vituperation and outright bile being spat at and drizzled upon the writers and publishers who dare produce popcorn and Cokes instead of filet mignon and eggs Benedict. A steady diet of junk food might not be good for you, but a little won’t kill you. It surely won’t kill science fiction and fantasy. (And to stretch that metaphor, a steady diet of steak and eggs will clog your arteries.)
Locus won’t even dignify a book written in somebody else’s universe with the world ‘‘novel,’’ they call them novelizations around here, and that is usually the gist of any review of said material.
I have read interviews - some in this very magazine - wherein writers who know better have accused Star Wars and Star Trek of nearly destroying science fiction. Which is, (according to the Rule of Three as I know it):
It is particularly amusing to read such droll pronouncements from some of our more stellar literary lights wherein they take aim and whizz upon all this trashy media tie-in and TV pilk when I know (and you can easily find out) that some of these stars have operated the popper and filled the cups with ice and fizzy water a few times themselves. You want to have a little fun? Dig up your old Conan novels; pull out the Star Trek books and video tapes; dust off your copies of the Wild Cards - and look at the writers’ names. See if there aren’t some that you recognize as ‘‘real’’ writers.
Those of us who produce the junk food these days might have to sit still and be lambasted by the righteous, but damned if we have to smile at the hypocrites when they do it.
Our field wasn’t ruined by the movies, the tube, the video games. In fact, the opposite is true. Star Wars and Star Trek and those heinous others have revitalized the field.
Go back and look at how many SF books were being published before Star Trek and Star Wars, and what kind of advances the writers of those books were making, then look at the boom that Gene and George helped usher in, and the numbers that followed. Not everybody who knows the Vulcan hand salute, or believes in the Force, will go on to marvel at the witches of Dune, but some of them will - and a lot of them already have. Everybody has to start somewhere, and our field would not have blossomed as it did without the visual media’s help. If you are a science fiction or fantasy fan, odds are real good you read comic books as a kid. And watched cartoons on TV. And probably read Conan or Tarzan or Flash Gordon. So what is wrong with that? Nothing is what. Not a thing.
But shared-universe space opera and comics and anything less than all-stops-out Hugo and Nebula winners are being made to seem as akin to mass murder. Why is this?
I have a theory: Many hardcore science fiction fans are - not to put too fine a point on it - snobs. They sneer at anybody who not one of the Chosen. They spit at writers who stoop to produce popular fiction, and that includes anybody who sells more than four copies of his or her latest, from Stephen King on down. It doesn’t help that some of these fans are also writers, and get their opinions into print. It the same attitude that used to damn Charles Dickens: If a lot of people like it, well, it can’t be any good, can it?
At the World Science Fiction Convention in Miami, back in the late ’70s, I sat and listened as an auditorium full of fans booed the producer of Star Wars when he came to collect an award they’d voted to his movie. Here was a guy who was part of the most fun picture made in years, come all the way from Hollywood to stand in front of fans, being roundly booed because he didn’t know the secret handshake.
There was a class act from fandom.
A lot of fans would like to take everything written after H.G. Wells (or at least Robert A. Heinlein) and wish it into the cornfield. They pray to Ghod that all that light shined into our ghetto by those nasty movie and TV folks will go away, so they can play with their propeller beanies in peace and feel better because they know and the mundanes don’t. Here’s your wake-up call, folks - we’re living here in the future now, and the days of the secret handshake and moral superiority when we could call ‘‘them’’ mundanes are gone. And you know what? Good riddance.
Do I have a vested interest in this? You betcha. Let me speak for the action-adventure and space opera writers for a moment. We write for a living. We want to give you your beer money’s worth, and if you feel like you’ve gotten it when you’re finished with one of our books, then we’ve done our jobs. You buy a box of popcorn and a Coke, and if the corn is crisp and the salt is right and the Coke is iced just enough, then that’s what you paid for.
I’m no literary light. My bulb is not the brightest on the string. I keep as much of the dark away as I can, and so do my fellow hacks. Some of our readers will go on to read books and stories with maybe a little more substance than most of ours, and more power to ’em. We’re not asking for respect here, we know better. A surcease of poison spew would be nice.
But if not, well, okay, we can wait.
Science fiction and fantasy publishing aren’t leaving. What is dwindling are the old guard fans who want to cling to a past that is dead and gone. This head-in-the-sand attitude hardly seems appropriate for fans of a literature that prides itself on being able to deal with future shock.
Heads up, folks. Put down your buggy whips and join the current century before it rolls into the next.
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