Saturday, July 02, 2005

Essentially Speaking...

So, Tor Books and the SCI FI Channel have just announced their new cross-promotional scheme, Sci Fi Essentials, in which one lucky Tor book a month will receive the channel's seal of approval and be promoted on the website, newsletter, and even on the television channel itself. First out, Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, (which has a gorgeous Dave McKean cover.) I must say, I have a mixed reaction to this move, coupled with no small amount of curiosity.

Obviously, this is their bid to create something like the Oprah Book Club for geeks, and the editorial director in me has to admire their marketing ingenuity. But whereas that world famous committee-of-one selects from the pool of all books - or at least, all books that might appeal to Oprah personally enough to get on her radar - this one is paid advertising by and for only one publisher. Now, as the largest SF&F publisher in the world, that's still a pretty large pool to draw from, and I'm sure the selectees feel damn lucky (Karl Schroeder is next up, followed by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson), so more power to them. But I'm bothered that there's no mention in the press release nor on the site itself that I can find as to what the selection criteria are, nor who is doing the selecting. I think I'd feel better about this if there were a recognized jury of SF peers involved, or even Ellen Datlow over at SciFiction, rather than what I suspect is a purely marketing & publicity-derived listing. I feel it's a shame that the Sci Fi Channel didn't launch something like this independent of Tor and offer their stamp-of-approval in a way that potentially commanded more authority and garnered more respect.

Still, I don't actually feel that the stamp-of-approval from the Sci Fi Channel is going to sway anybody in the core community of science fiction readers. Readers who are paying attention enough to have heard about this, or care, are already well-aware of who Cory Doctorow is and don't need the stamp-of-approval from a channel primarily known as rerunning a lot of really slocky horror movies and some direct-to-video embarrassments to tell them what's what in genre writing. (For my part, if I pick up Someone Comes to Town it will be for the aforementioned gorgeous cover, only now the collector in me will be hoping I can get that dang Sci Fi Channel sticker off without damaging the jacket!)

No, this isn't aimed at us, at least not as the number one target, but is, I believe, aimed primarily at that larger pool of science fiction viewers, they who watch every episode of every Babylon 5 spin off but never buy a book that isn't a Quantum Leap or Buffy tie-in. Now, those of you who have followed my writing here and elsewhere know that I've long been irked by the disparity between literary and cinema SF. And, honestly, if this new marketing scheme results in a few of the SF viewer crowd actually discovering "the real stuff" who wouldn't have done so before, well then, I don't think I'm going to fault it.

Ultimately, I think I feel about this about the same as I do about the somewhat controversial Quill Awards, that joint venture between Publishers Weekly parent-company Reed Business Information and NBC Universal Television Stations. (The controversy here revolves around the potential of Publishers Weekly to reap enormous profit in ad revenue from publishers anxious to impress the voters - select industry professionals who are all PW subscribers.) Still, as an effort to encourage reading and literacy in the mainstream with the creation of an "Oscars for books," I can't really begrudge the Quills success. I'll be watching it closely and hoping-against-hope that NBC doesn't get bored with it and drop it in a year or two.

So, congrats to Cory and more power to the Sci Fi Channel & Tor. I'll be watching this with interest as it develops. Meanwhile, I wish the Sci Fi Channel had the good sense to start filming our own Oscars, the Hugo ceremony. Maybe more Hollywood producers would start picking up their awards if they knew they were going to be on television, and the exposure for all our writers would certainly go a long way in bridging the gap between the literature of science fiction and its too often inferior cinematic counterpart.


A.R.Yngve said...

Like you said, the Sci-Fi Channel campaign is meant to attract people who usually don't read books that aren't "moychandise" -- and that is basically a good thing which will eventually benefit *all* SF publishers (and writers).

Now, if we could get Oprah to present an SF novel on her talkshow... which one would have a chance of catching her interest?? Perhaps NEVER LET ME GO, or STAR OF GYPSIES, or...??


Lou Anders said...

I think what I object to in the Essentials is their claim that their label "means it deserves to be counted among the finest works of the genre." Says who? Tell me that. But as you say, anything that turns on more readers is ultimately a good thing.

As to Oprah, while that will never happen, unless by chance she reads Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, I am pleased to see that the Quill Awards contains a science fiction/fantasy category.

A.R.Yngve said...

If it's any comfort, things could have been much, much worse:

"Today I want to talk with my viewers about a book which touched my heart as well as my mind. It's called STAR TREK: THE ROMULAN BRIEFS..."


RobB said...

I'm partially surprised the SciFi channel took this long to do something like this.

The TLC channel has a show called GREAT BOOK, though it hasn't been on in some time. I remember seeing Catch-22 and Dante's Inferno. Something like this, I always thought, Would be great for the SciFi channel.

Lou Anders said...

Again, I don't fault them. I just wish it were less a marketing-drive and more a legitimate, something that pulled from a larger pool than just one publisher.

But I do want more synergy between the Sci Fi Channel and the literature. In addition to filming/airing the Hugos, I'd like to see profiles of science fiction writers, more documentaries, more quality adaptations, etc...

Ronn said...

I hadn't heard about this, but I do hope that the Sci Fi Channel is putting more thought into the books they're pushing than they do into their programming. I mean come on, Boa vs. Python. What's that all about? I really had higher hopes for this channel.

I agree with you, in that I would like to see more synergy between the Sci Fi Channel and the literature. A few good SF shows, some author profiles, and a general reaching out to the more literate SF fans would be good. Perhaps Sci Fi Essentials is the start of that

Lou Anders said...

One can only hope. Battlestar Galactica is certainly a move in the right direction, but I don't see anything behind that.

Also, I was recently interviewed by the Altanta Journal-Constitution, and the journalist told me he also talked to a higher-up at the Sci Fi Channel, who told him their marketing research said fantasy was "warm and fun" whereas SF was "cold, dark and geeky."

Of course, it's largely been cast in this light by the sea of Aliens-inspired, marines vs. Giger monster knockoffs that have little to do with the literature fo the genre. Still, when the flagship channel for science fiction is trying to rebrand themselves away from the label, I don't hold out much hope.

A.R.Yngve said...

"Fantasy is warm and fun"? Eh??

Um, yeah, the Harry Potter books have no dark elements in them. And "The Lord of the Rings" is as lighthearted as a sun-kissed summer day.

Granted, SF on TV often is grim. Which is a pity... there's no law against lighthearted and funny SF. (Guilty pleasure: HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS: The TV Series.)