Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mind Meld: Science Fiction Series

Today, SF Signal's Mind Meld question is: Are science fiction book series a barrier to gaining new readership?

Answers from Yours Truly, Chris Roberson, Joe Sherry, David Louis Edelman and John Joseph Adams. With all those names, there must be something good to be had from it, right?

1 comment:

Paul Wargelin said...

Hi Lou,

This is a question that poses even more questions.

1: Define “new readership.” Are we talking about readers completely new to SF&F, readers who generally do not read series books, readers who do read series books in other genres, or the SF&F reader looking to try something new?

2: Define “series.” Open-ended or finite? Or both? How about series of series (or trilogies of trilogies)? Single-author continuing story or multiple-author house-owned franchise?

Obviously, SF&F readers who enjoy reading series will continue to do so. The new series they choose to invest time in depends on their own tastes for the specific subject matter and tolerances regarding the length of a series.

Readers of series books in the mystery and romance genres may be willing to try urban fantasies that emphasize similar elements. Readers of Tom Clancy and other techno-thriller series would probably enjoy military SF.

But for people who do not generally read SF&F or series books, the bookshelves in that section of the store are intimidating between the numbered volumes and in some cases the size of the individual books. They don’t know where to begin, or even if it’s worth the time and effort to do so.

For publishers and booksellers, series books are no-brainers. They can build and retain a readership if the series is successful, and if the author is fast (and the books are short), they can publish several books in the series annually. On crowded bookshelves, the booksellers can just replace the last book in the series with the new one.

Of course series fiction is nothing new—from dime novels featuring both fictional and real-life Wild West figures through the pulp magazine continuing adventures of Conan, Doc Savage, The Shadow and others to comic book superheroes, and the Star Wars, Star Trek, Battletech, etc. media-tie in books—there has always been a readership for series.

I think the current publishing model for a book series, regardless of genre, is based upon attracting television and film audiences. CSI viewers may read Patricia Cornwell, while Buffy fans may be drawn to Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels, etc. Many modern book series are written as if they are film/TV scripts in prose form, and certainly read that way.

When the highest praise reviewers and critics can give a book is “this would make a great movie,” what does that say about the art of writing prose fiction? I understand that publishers and authors depend on Hollywood interest for financial reasons, but it’s almost as if those books that are considered for film or television adaptation are more valid or legitimate than those that aren’t. In the real money making world of Hollywood, publishing houses are idea factories and nothing more.

Back on topic: I don’t think that SF&F series are detrimental to attracting new readers who are already SF&F readers. Attracting the uninitiated reader remains a problem, and as I mentioned in previous posts here, avid SF&F film and TV viewers aren’t necessarily avid SF&F readers. The viewers get their story fix in a concise time frame and may not want to spend the time reading a dozen 600+ page tomes published over a dozen years when they can get the same amount of story watching one season of a TV show in nine months or three films in six years.

This isn’t our readership. Thirty-something years of blockbuster genre film audiences have not been driven to read genre books (despite the success of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King). I think in the television and information ages, if people haven’t developed a love for reading as children, they’re unlikely to do so as adults. We’re being bombarded with entertainment and information in the form of twenty minute sitcoms, forty minute dramas, two hour films, sound bites, RSS newsfeeds, and blogs that result in short attention spans and encourage an entitlement of instant gratification, while creating an intolerance and impatience for anything considered time-consuming—like book reading.

If SF&F book series aren’t attracting new readers in the genre, they’re unlikely to do so outside the genre. If there are already 10+ books in the series, and if it’s necessary to be well-versed in all of them in order to enjoy one of them, then publishers run the risk of losing both potential and long-time readers. The story lines running through the titles of DC and Marvel Comics are so inter-connected and insular that even readers who grew up on superhero comics no longer have a point of entry. If publishers are unable to attract their former readers, how are they going to attract new ones?