Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fantasy and Science Fiction in the marketplace

I just stumbled across this article, which was the cover story for the Library Journal recently, purporting to examine the trends in the science fiction marketplace--and by science fiction, I mean it as it's usually meant in bookstores and libraries; i.e science fiction and fantasy lumped together. I certainly recommend reading the entire thing; it's not that long (I printed it and took it to the john; it was about six pages printed, once I cut off the extaneous stuff at the end.) Curiously, or perhaps not, I can see many of these trends as part of a subcultural zeitgeist, if you will. They seem familiar and unsurprising to me, because in many ways, I'm personally undergoing some of those same trends.
  • Epic fantasy is still really big, but it's a post-Tolkien age epic fantasy; grittier, darker, more "realistic", more pessimistic, and often pervaded with anti-heroes. The success of writers like George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson and others should have made this one unsurprising; and it's probably been true for years anyway.

  • Fantasy markets are not exactly moving away from the traditional eurocentric model, but other models are gaining ground, including a pseudo Arabian Nights vibe. I've blogged before about my love of this particular vibe; but again, it's not new, it's a resurgance of a very old trend. Heck; the very first modern fantasy; the sword & sorcery of guys like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, etc. were heavily influenced by the Arabian Night. Some of the novels highlighted in the article are, however, even more overtly "arabocentric."

  • "Male urban fantasy" is selling like hotcakes and growing like kudzu. As a big fan of Jim Butcher, I don't find this surprising, but again, apparently the author kinda does. Considering that urban fantasy seems to have started as "romance novels for goth girls" and evolved slowly from there, maybe this is a bigger deal than it seems to me to publishers and the like. Butcher's work, and those like him, are very solidly divorced from the romance angle and targeting an entirely new market than stuff like, oh, say, the Twilight Saga or Anita Blake have done.

  • Zombie kitsch, such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies turns out to have possibly been kinda faddish, but other zombie related fiction continues to be a reasonably big element of the market, and is expected to grow, especially with the World War Z movie with Brad Pitt coming out next year.

  • Steampunk continues to be important, but also continues to be more of an aesthetic overlay rather than a true "subgenre" of it's own. Lots of authors are dipping their toes into the water, including superstar Brandon Sanderson, but again--by applying it as an overlay to the subgenre that they already write in, mostly.

  • Science Fiction itself struggles; in need of a renaissance. The genre is increasingly turning grim and political-minded, which means that it's not attracting the same kinds of audiences that thrilled to Star Wars when they were kids and still want exciting space-based adventure. Hard SF, on the other hand, continues to trundle onward, and possibly even grow a bit. A Tor editor noted that fantasy outsells SF 2-1, but fantasy submissions outpace SF 4 or 5-1. Is that good news or bad news? Maybe good if you're a SF author looking to break into the market; less competition and easier to differentiate yourself; but bad news if you really want to tap into the big markets--those guys prefer reading fantasy. Lots of attempts to do something new with SF seem to be on the horizon, but whether any of them will be more than minor hits is perhaps somewhat dubious.

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