Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Space opera vs sword & sorcery vs planetary romance

I sometimes read author blog posts and listen to their podcasts and stuff like that.  I've been particularly impressed with material that has come from Jason Anspach and Nick Cole—not only their work (the Galaxy's Edge series) but also their sales model and their discussions about how and why it works.  Cole seems to be more the "face" of the pair in terms of speaking up more as a podcast guest, etc.  I don't think that means that he's necessarily the leader of the pair, merely that by personality he's more suited to be the PR face.  So much of what I'm going to say is kind of taken from Cole's interviews and blog posts.  Although he also is pretty quick to admit that much of what the two of them do is little more than example of the Richard Fox method of selling on Amazon.

One key aspect of the Richard Fox method of selling is understanding Amazon's algorithm of finding potential buyers.  And for books, that means that when you launch a book, particularly if it has any success, you pretty much need to continue to release books in that same vein, and you pretty much need to do so very frequently.  The algorithm is actually bad for selling unless it concentrates on "power buyers" of a particular type of book.  What's the example Cole uses?  If you write a how-to book on gardening and then you write a space opera fiction, all you're doing is confusing the algorithm.  If you do that, then you need to sell them under different author names, really, so that the algorithm doesn't try to tie the two of them together and market your gardening book to people who want to buy space opera and vice versa.  However, because you also need to be very prolific and continue to add new releases at a pretty steady schedule—once every 60 days or so (once a month would be even better for the algorithm) what this effectively means is that if you hope to have any success with selling on Amazon utilizing its algorithm to help you find sales—and it does work quite well if you do it right, but if you don't, you'll be one of thousands of one-off books lingering out there with practically no attention—then you need to be concentrated and focuses on a single type of book.

Here's the rub for many authors.  Writers who write, for example, Star Warsian space opera also tend to love vaguely Lord of the Ringsian fantasy.  What if you want to write sword & sorcery and space opera?  You have to either give up any notion of reaching large audiences, or be so prolific that you're writing a new book every three weeks or so so that you can alternate between the two, selling them under different pen names.  This, needless to say, stretches the limit of practicality for most would-be writers (which is what I am, a would-be writer).  So hard decisions need to be made about what exactly to write.  Let's look at the (relatively narrow) spectrum of what I'm interested in, and see if we can come up with an area where I should focus?

Space Opera
By this, I don't just mean adventurous science fiction, but actual fantasy in space a la the Star Wars franchise.  I'm not only perfectly OK with the notion of space wizards, but I actually really quite like the idea and gravitate to it naturally.  My own AD ASTRA setting would be what I would work on here; a setting that originally was a deliberate attempt to get at Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off, but which has since evolved an identity its own.  (By this I don't mean to imply that it's innovative or unique; merely that it's obviously not just a Star Wars rip-off.  It rips off Traveller and Warhammer 40k just as much.  Not that all three of those weren't obviously ripping off all kinds of other, older space opera, much of which I'm also familiar with directly.)

What are some obvious advantages of working in this genre?
  • Lots of exotic locations.  If I don't think a fantasy location is exotic enough, I can always just fly the characters to another bizarre planet where they can have all kinds of crazy things happen to them.
  • Lots of exotic aliens.  Fantasy has its aliens too, so to speak, but elves and orcs and whatnot (or "original" analogues that actually fit those same archetypes) have a more folkloric background rather than space alien background; it seems like the door is much more widely open in this genre for truly unique and unusual aliens.  Not that we often actually get aliens that are truly unusual and unique.  But the expectation and what the audience will accept without saying to themselves, "hey, that doesn't fit this kind of work" is wider.
  • Technobabble gobbledygook can solve all kinds of plot problems if I need it to, or just add plot conveniences.
  • Thanks to Star Wars a comic books and whatnot, the tropes of this genre are pretty much as familiar to most people as those of fantasy.
  • The genre is flexible enough to accept just about any type of story.  You want Cold War spy thrillers?  You can do it.  You want hardcore military fiction?  You can do it.  You want a Western?  A noir mystery? A zombie outbreak?  Giant Godzilla-style monster story?  You can do any of those
Sword & Sorcery
I actually prefer actual sword & sorcery to stuff that more closely resembles high fantasy, but in this case, I'm not splitting genre hairs; I mean fantasy adventure with swordfighters and whatnot.  This obviously can contain fantasy monsters, fantasy races and magic—although I prefer to make all of those elements a little bit more muted than some other works, and therefore build them up to have a bigger impact when they do appear.  

As I've said many times in the past, quite honestly, I prefer an almost dark fantasy vibe.  A combination of supernatural horror and fantasy adventure rather than a closer focus on one vs the other.  Robin Hood and Ragnar Lodbrok hunting Dracula through the streets of early Medieval London is kind of what I have in mind here.  While it generally doesn't have the flexibility of space opera in terms of types of stories that can be told, you can still do a lot.  What you give up in terms of flexibility, you gain in terms of cultural resonance.  So what are the advantages of sword & sorcery?
  • Familiar and comfortable setting with great cultural resonance that readers love to explore
  • Ability to add threats that are visceral because they come from a resonant place of folklore, mythology and psychology.
  • Everybody loves the traditional concepts that make up the backbone of most fantasy settings.
  • If I had to pick between space opera and sword & sorcery just based on which genre I like better, this one wins by a hair.  While that seems like this whole discussion is knocked off there, that's not exactly true.  I like space opera nearly as much, and I can do different things with it.  But it may be true that if I do space opera, I'll eventually regret and resent it because it keeps me from sword & sorcery.  Of course, the reverse might well be true too.
Planetary Romance
On the surface, planetary romance would seem to split the difference.  It's kind of like space opera on one planet, with super-science nonsense replacing magic.  Also; my second favorite book of all time is planetary romance (is, in fact, the prototype for all planetary romance.  I'm referring, of course, to A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)  I'm also a huge fan of good Flash Gordon material, and I good, I mean the original Alex Raymond stuff, or pastiche that gets the tone and feel correct.

However, I doubt I could really do this.  Planetary romance is kind of a moribund genre, structured in such a way that it almost requires (although there are exceptions, even on Barsoom) the fish out of water character (usually from Earth) who serves as part tour guide part self-congratulatory back-pat, because he always has some advantage over the natives.  And I have no idea what the audience is for new entries in this genre; probably not a lot.  It's too bad, in many ways, because if you did it more like sword & sorcery except with some wahoo technology and truly alien wildlife and settings sometimes, it could be really fun.

I don't have one.  I'm still waffling on whether a dark fantasy or a space opera setting is more up my alley at the moment.  And for that matter, for many moments to come, because once I pick one and start really working on it, I'm stuck with it for a while.  Of course, that assumes that 1) I actually do pick something and start working on it in a meaningful way, as opposed to the intermittent dabbling that I do now, and 2) I actually strategically try to use the Amazon algorithm to boost my sales.  Which, if I'm doing this for fun rather than because I seriously want to supplement my day job income, is not necessarily a given.

Anyway, I threw an image of both types in, just for the heckuvit, although the sword & sorcery one is almost caricaturish, and the space opera one belongs to well-known existing franchises.


Odious said...

Planetary romance has at least a partial successor in the 'Humanity, F- Yeah!' subgenre. While the focus has moved from the exotic and alien locale to wish-fulfillment about human excellence, some shreds of the original tropes remain.

Desdichado said...

I've never heard of that. What are some example works?

Odious said...

Here's the reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/HFY/

The motivating idea behind the subgenre is that humanity, for whatever reason, is uniquely dangerous (but not savage) and so, once unleashed on the universe at large, promptly find themselves at the top of any given food chain. The High Crusade has shades of this; Lindholm's Alien Earth plays with the trope; Dickson's short 'Danger--Human' fits nicely.