Thoughts about the Sci-Fi Book Market

While I was lamenting the seeming demise of the Science Fiction section of the book store at the hands of Fantasy works, I noticed something kind of interesting. It seems that these books, both Sci-Fi and Fantasy, have been getting bigger. I went to the used book store to confirm my suspicions and it seems to hold true. Now I have to qualify this by stating that I am only talking about the paperback format.

I also put together examples from three decades to point this out, which you see above. The one to the left is an example of the dimensions of the genre during the 1960s & early 70s. Recall Not Earth by C.C. MacApp has 192 pages. The center book, The Complete Bolo by Keith Laumer was printed in 1990 and checks in at 314 pages. The book to the far right was printed in 2008. Harry Turtledove’s Opening Atlantis has a whopping 519 pages of fiction. The Turtledove book isn’t part of the largest books on the shelves, either. Looking over these authors, two of which are quite well known in the community and while MacApp isn’t, I can offer at least a dozen books of nearly equivalent size from numerous authors.

Crunching the numbers, it appears that over the 38 year span we have here page counts have increased some 300 pages! There could be any number of reasons for this, but when you actually say them, they seem kind of funny… The authors over the 3 decades have become more verbose? or at least more expansive?? Kind of doubtful. The margins or typesetting is looser, allowing for more pages? Sorry, they’re nearly the same size across all three.

What can it be then? Well this is the part I have to stand on what could be called hearsay… I have heard that the largess is caused by imprints themselves. It’s kind of like the record company thing now, where the imprints are interested in making more money. Now that books are printed in China (yes, even books are made in China)  the cost of manufacturing them has dropped and page counts are nearly irrelevant.

How do you make more money on a book? Charge more. Prices rose dramatically during these years as well. Recall Not Earth listed at .60 . Laumer’s book in 1990 was $3.95 and in 2008 you could buy Opening Atlantis for $7.99. If the cost of making the book is nearly negegible in terms of page count, then more pages would seem to justify the increased cost, right? After all, you would be getting a larger book, that has to be worth more!

There has been a rule of thumb that I have heard around that if you were to engage in writing a work of Sci-Fi or Fantasy, that in 2010, you’d better have at least 600 pages. Quality of writing was not discussed.

This is curious in that it is also a widely held rule of thumb that one page equals one minute if said book were converted in to a movie. Meaning that imprints are unconcerned about future profits of their books making it onto celluloid. I guess we shouldn’t hold our breaths about new Sci-Fi books being made into movies.

All of the above is a bit of conjecture and extrapolation but what interests me is how this translates to the usage of shelf-space in bookstores. Now that you are making books that are essentially three times larger than books 30 years ago, you have essentially removed 2 books for every one on the shelf. Now, imprints are putting their eggs in one basket, in terms of success and in the process, vastly diminishing the amount and quality of the offerings to consumers, just as the record labels have done. This can even be seen by looking at the number of collected stories and compendiums available now. The imprints already own the rights to these proven winners so why not sell them again. This is the same reason why there are so many Beatles best-of albums that keep coming out.

My hope here, is that the promise of ebooks will allow for renaissance of Sci-Fi, like the MP3 had done for independent acts in music. The barriers to entry are far smaller and page count will be less of an issue, both as a driver of cost and as an arbitrary point of entry. Even the idea of Amazon’s Kindle Singles is an exciting prospect for an unencombered Sci-Fi writer.

Here’s to hoping that e-books can revive Science Fiction writing because really: if you can’t get a story across in under 300 pages, it is not going to get better at 600.

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