Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m frequently heard explaining how badly broken the current business model for bookselling is, from the author all the way to the bookshop till. What I don’t often get to expand on is all that SF&F authors can put in the plus column, as we wait to see if glimmers in the present gloom are rays of hope or merely an oncoming train. So here goes.

Genre authors, whether writing crime, romance or SF&F, soon learn their advances rarely reach the dizzy heights that mainstream books can attract. What’s less apparent is while we don’t reach the heights, the range overall is narrower. The lowest mainstream advances make modest genre payments look wholly respectable. If we don’t scale the peaks, we don’t fall nearly so sharply into the crevasses.

When major publishers are reporting sales for all but their top 50 or so authors are falling sharply, it’s easier to earn out a reasonable advance than some inflated, speculative amount. When a mainstream author only delivers average sales with an over-hyped second book, they’ll be dumped far faster than a genre author, whose editor is still quietly building writing careers out of the spotlight.

As well as editors, genre fans are more loyal. They seek out what booksellers politely call ‘destination departments’. They’ll risk the escalator when the SF&F or crime section is shunted upstairs to clear space for ‘I’m a Celebrity Chef, Let Me Shout at You!’. Once a genre reader discovers a new author, they’re far more likely to seek out that writer’s backlist. Genre books have a better record for simply staying in print.

So far, so good for all genres. But we in SF&F have advantages that writers in other fields envy, trust me. We have well-established local fan groups and national fan organisations producing magazines and newsletters with international circulation. Given the overlap between SF&F readers and IT departments, we were streets ahead of the rest using the Internet to generate word-of-mouth enthusiasm for good books. That’s what builds readerships. Most SF&F imprints had decent websites well before their mainstream stable-mates. Now we have webzines and forums, blogs and podcasts. The best reviewing sites are wholly professional in outlook, while retaining the valuable independence of the amateur. This increases their worth for the reader and keeps the astute writer alert. You don’t settle for ‘good enough,’ when slapdash work will soon be rigorously dissected.

Then we have the convention circuit. Yes, it’s great when someone comes up and says they enjoy your books but that’s not nearly the whole story. Conventions give writers opportunities to find out what people are reading across the whole genre and beyond, hearing about recent disappointments and new enthusiasms. We can test ideas in friendly yet challenging debate that often sparks entirely new ideas. We meet other authors and swap helpful notes and cautionary tales about the business. We hone skills in public speaking and working as panels that don’t half impress librarians, believe me.

I invariably come away from any convention with some new perspective that will improve my writing skills. Mainstream writers talk about literary parties where they stand with their backs to the wall so as not to get stabbed between the shoulder blades. The SF&F writers I’ve met, from highest to humblest, from my days as a complete rookie till now, have been friendly and accessible.

And not merely to fellow professionals. Only crime comes close as a genre where published writers are so generous with advice and support to aspiring writers. There’s far more an attitude of ‘we’re all in this together’ than any grudging fear of encouraging potential competition. Mostly because established writers vividly remember the help and encouragement they got back in the day. We still have a small press and magazine sector that refuses to quit.

All this can only be good for the health of the genre. Reasons to be cheerful!

An article for the BSFA’s Matrix magazine back in 2006

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