Thursday, September 04, 2008

MIND MELD: How Do Media Tie-In Novels Affect SF/F?

SF Signal is back with another great Mind Meld, this one asking, "How do you think media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?"

It's a subject that I've had a change of heart on in recent years, going from borderline hostile to casually tolerant, bolstered largely by observations on the difference between 20th and 21st century fandom. But looking over the SF Signal posts, the arguments in favor go something like this:

1. Media tie-in novels are a gateway drug for (young) readers to discover "real" sf&f.
2. Even media tie-in novels get people thinking about important SFnal concepts.
3. The sales numbers associated with media tie-in novels brings its own kind of respect to our section of the bookstore and makes more non media tie-in works possible.

The arguments against go something like this:

1. Media tie-ins are eating the shelf space.
2. Work for hire isn't a good thing for a writer to be doing, career-wise.
3. Media tie-ins encourage people to want "same book, different cover" and not stretch.
4. Media tie-ins present the "poorest face" to the general public and hurt the perception of SF&F in the general public.

(A lot of these cons come from Alan Beatts, a very smart and articulate man, whose bookstore, Borderlands Books, is one of the best genre stores in America. The fourth point, which Alan makes, is probably the best argument against in my book.)

Now, as I said, I myself started out with a bias against media tie-ins that I've dropped when I realized it was a bias. As Rob H. Bedford points out when he says, "The funny thing is that the perception of non-genre readers towards 'us' is not too different than how genre readers look down upon media tie-ins." I don't ever want to take the position of "grumpy old man" and that alone might be enough to sway me.

Then I happen to have a lot of my friends writing them - from Paul Cornell (arguable the best of the Doctor Who novelists, though he's moved past it now), to Chris Roberson (X-Men, Star Trek, Warhammer 40k), to Sean Williams (who just hit the #1 spot on the NYTimes Bestseller list with The Force Unleashed.) Now, these guys are all great writers. I know this from their non-media tie-in work, but I can't imagine that they give any less when they do their tie-ins. And, in fact, I see reviewers calling out their work as being the best in their respective franchises.

And I've met enough people for whom the media tie-in was a gateway drug to know that it happens. As Kevin J. Anderson says, "A large percentage of the readers of my Dune novels with Brian Herbert have also followed my Saga of Seven Suns (enough that those books are now hitting general fiction bestseller lists). Anybody who claims that tie-in readers don't read other novels is simply misinformed..."

The Dune books are tie-in novels?!? (With the Dune films, maybe?) Still, the man does know media tie-ins, so if he says they follow him home, I am betting they do.

That being said, anytime you are trying to convert one type of behavior into another, you are dealing with very small percentage. So whether you are trying to get someone to respond to a direct mail campaign, or click through a banner ad on a website, or read a newsletter and buy a book, you are dealing with something like a 1 or 2% adaption rate. So while I don't doubt that the readership for the highest profile authors -- hugely-successful writers like Kevin J. Anderson, Michael Stackpole, Timothy Zahn, etc... -- are following them home to their non media tie-in material in significant numbers (because 2% of a million is significant), I'm not sure that the average media tie-in author is pulling a significant percentage of readers back to his/her creator-owned work. I'll be curious to see what Sean Williams' NYT Bestseller does to his Books of the Cataclysm, for instance, as the first is still on shelves in paperback and the second comes out in paperback in November. I certainly hope we get a bounce - but it might take two or three bestselling Star Wars novels in succession before we do. What Chris Roberson is doing - working his way through a succession of different franchises - might be smart, since if it's true that he's only going to pull off only a few percentages of a given fan base, then by writing for a different fan base each time he should be able to begin to aggregate these percentages into some measurable numbers.

On the other end of it, I'm not sure that media tie-ins are taking eyeballs away from the "real" stuff. My own experience penning over 500 articles for the pages of magazines like Star Trek Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, etc... is that the vast majority of the readers (that 97-99%) don't care about the byline, only the subject. As David Gerrold says, "Tie-ins are merchandising. They are marketing. They are also a particular kind of advertising, using the bookstores as additional channels to raise consciousness of the primary product." Walter Jon Williams reverses this when he says, "Trek reruns became nothing less than hour-long advertisements for Trek fiction- and the commercial advantages of having hour-long ads for your fiction soon became apparent." But the point is, I don't think the readers that are gobbling down Star Wars would pick up Brasyl if only George Lucas wasn't in the way. I think those readers wouldn't be in the SF&F section in the first place, they would be out watching more Star Wars and playing with Star Wars toys and games, and Brasyl's numbers would remain unchanged. As Andrew Wheeler says, "Avid tie-in readers are, again, fans of the property rather than of the genre as a whole, and expecting them to suddenly jump to books that aren't about that property is unlikely."

I also know from my time on Star Trek that media SF can get you thinking "in SFnal ways," as witness the large number of inventions, from the compact disk to the beds in use in our M*A*S*H units, that were directly inspired by the tech of Trek. And I do think that thinking "in SFnal ways" is good for the world at large.

But what really strikes me is how many of the fifteen people who responded to this question came themselves to SF&F through media tie-ins. So while maybe it's only a small percentage of media tie-in readers who graduate to the "real" stuff, it may be a high percentage of readers of the "real" stuff who came in via media tie-in. I know I came to SF publishing after a stint in SF television myself. And as Chris Roberson says, "You hear a lot about the 'graying of fandom,' and there are eternal cries for new fans and new readers. As nice as it would be to think that we could simply hand young readers the smartest, most 'challenging' novels that our genres have to offer, it seems unlikely to snare more than a bare handful of them. How much better to hit them where they live, to take franchises they already enjoy-in tv, film, video games, you name it-and offer them more of the same?"

Of course, the number one way that books are discovered isn't via browsing in bookstores. It's still good old word of mouth. Which means that the best thing you can do for SF&F is to share it. And on that note, I have to agree with Walter again when he says, "The success of media SF is on the whole a positive thing. It shows that there's an audience for SF, and that there's money to be made on science fiction ideas."

As long as those ideas are top notch, I think we're okay. Which it means its down to the individual writers to be excellent (even if excellent isn't a requirement). And, in a world where what we are being told to be is "spreadable," then seeing SF everywhere can only be good for the overall health of SF. As I've said before, more of everything means more quality as well as more crap. Omni-media SF is here to stay, we might as well start thinking of more ways to make it work for us.


Ted said...

But what really strikes me is how many of the fifteen people who responded to this question came themselves to SF&F through media tie-ins.

Presumably many of them were asked this questeion because of their associations with media tie-ins, so it's possible that a greater percentage of them came in from that direction than would be the case with another group.

RobB said...

Hi Lou,

I'm glad to see your thoughts on the subject, especially considering your career in both realms of Speculative Fiction.

Also, thanks for the shout out!


Lou Anders said...

Thanks Rob, and my pleasure. I have a thought too that 21st century readers are more catholic in their tastes, coming from an "its all good" attitude that doesn't see the divide between books and other media that those generations who grew up with only books, then saw the rise of media SF, might feel.