NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 155, Fall, 2002.
MIKE: One of the questions I’m asked most often by beginners is: “What kind of science fiction sells best?”
Now, why they should ask me, instead of people like Anne McCaffrey or Ray Feist, who live on the bestseller list, is a mystery, but an even bigger mystery is: What kind of science fiction sells best?
My first inclination is to answer: Good science fiction. But that’s ridiculous. Just look at what Trekbook #308 or Wookiebook #79 does to any year’s Hugo-winning novel in head-to-head competition. In fact, look at what generic 7-book trilogies do to works of literary ambition. There are mighty few totally unoriginal fantasy quest books that can’t whip a well-conceived beautifully-written science fiction novel in straight falls.
Has it always been like this?
I have a horrible feeling that it has. Let me share an experience with you.
Back in 1970, I was given a tour of Charles Levy’s warehouse. (Levy was the major—indeed the only—distributor of books and magazines in Chicago.) As we passed by the Gothic section—Gothics were wildly popular back then, and invariably had a cover illustration of a girl running away from a foreboding house on a hill—the warehouse manager pointed to a just-arrived title and told me it would sell 57%. I must have looked interested or impressed (I was both), because he began going through the Gothics, announcing that this one would sell 53%, this one 48%, this one 50%, and so on.
I remarked that he must have a remarkable knowledge of all the authors and books to be so well-informed, and I wondered where he found the time to read them all. (Okay, I was young and innocent then. Sue me.)
He laughed, and explained that the average Gothic sold 54%. If there was a light in the house on the cover, you could subtract 3%. A high neckline on the girl, subtract another 2%. Yellow letters for the title, add 4%. If cover blurb implied that the curse on the house (there was always a curse) was English, add a point; American, subtract a point; French, subtract 7 points. If she was running away in the daylight, subtract 10 points; on a moonless night, and you could still make out her features, add 2 points. He listed 20 or 25 factors that determined the sale of the book, and every single one concerned the packaging; the quality of the writing had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was a revelation.
I was afraid to ask him to take me to the science fiction section and do the same trick. I wanted desperately to believe that quality mattered. I still want to believe it, but I’m 32 years older and just a tad more cynical.
I’ll go this far: I think a quality package sells. But of course, that has a lot more to do with the artist and book designer than the manuscript.
Please tell me I’m wrong. Then we’ll go to work on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
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BARRY: Does quality sell? I’m not quite as cynical as you—I have flushes of hope and universal acceptance which persist for as long as l5-20 seconds—but I’m prey to the same feelings and emotions which you suggest. If quality was the sole determinant of sales, then the Star Trek or Star Wars franchise novels would not—as you point out—outsell the Hugo or Nebula winners 2-l, which they do, nor would Sturgeon’s More Than Human have been out of print for more than a decade (Vintage brought it back a few years ago). Alfred Bester’s sales figures would have been greater than those of Robert E. Howard’s, fine and promising writers like X, Y and Z would not have given up writing, voluntarily or otherwise, in early or mid-career because of low sales.
But of course there are anomalies. Good work can sell very well (although never better than the best-selling not-so-good work). Neuromancer, an outstanding and ambitious novel, has never been out of print in its l8 years and has certainly sold well over two million copies in all of its editions. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is both distinguished and commercially successful. Sometimes good work is indeed rewarded. But that is an anomaly, it is by no means a pattern.
I’d go this far: good work lasts, not-so-good work doesn’t. Cumulative sales of The Demolished Man or A Canticle for Leibowitz must be well below the cumulative sales of Conan the Conqueror. But the Alfred Bester and Walter Miller novels keep on coming back; if they fall out of print, they return to print and their audience is self-renewing. (The same is true of Conan, of course. To say good work lasts doesn’t exclude the fact that some not-so-good work can last too, and in lasting raises the question as to whether it may be good work after all . . . but that is for three other columns.) My Beyond Apollo, never a commercially successful novel, has kind of hung around: an electronic edition last year, a mass market paperback in l99l, reissues in foreign markets. Disch’s Camp Concentration and Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, bestsellers neither, have more presence than almost any other novel published in l968 (Stand on Zanzibar, published that year, did pretty well too). Good and innovative work persists. It may even prevail. But we are not talking of immediate sales figures and—as we well know—we are living in a market geared as never before to immediate sales figures.
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MIKE: All very true, but merely persisting, sticking around, somehow making an occasional resale, is begging the question. I’ve resold books, too—but never for top dollar. If your name isn’t Isaac and we’re not discussing the Foundation trilogy, I don’t know of anyone who ultimately makes 6 and 7-digit advances for reprints of books that originally sold for 3 digits.
Which is to say: if an editor likes your work, it’s no great gamble for him to pay you a beginner’s advance to reprint it. And it’s no great triumph either, not in this year of 2002 where our very top authors (King, Clancy, Steel, Koontz) regularly make 8-digit advances which were undreamed of 15 years ago, and where million-dollar contracts are no longer so rare, even in science fiction, that they make national news.
All the titles you named, and all their reprint sales, and all their aggregate sales figures combined, don’t equal what one best-selling generic fantasy novel sells in a week.
Is it the packaging? I know if I was concerned only with sales, and I could choose between having a Frank Frazetta cover or a brilliant novel, I’d take the Frazetta cover every time. Is that the key?
Is it—as I like to believe, when I fail to make the bestseller list, which is most of the time now that I come to think about it—that when you do not genuflect to the lowest common denominator, when you write for adults, when you go out of your way not to tell the same story every time you write, that you immediately alienate 80% or more of your potential audience? That it’s the boneheads and not the discerning readers that make you rich?
Or is it something else, something subtler? Heinlein didn’t shoot for that lowest common denominator. Neither did Herbert, or Bradbury, or Clarke, or Asimov. Didn’t stop them from selling zillions of books. Did they finally make their millions (and “finally” is the operative word here) because, as Herbert once said, they had primed 10 or 15 generations of magazine readers who could finally afford hardcover books by the 1970s?
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BARRY: I don’t think there’s anything profound here . . . Heinlein didn’t aim for the lowest common denominator, nor do you, nor I, nor—come to think of it—Robert E. Howard or Mr. Lovecraft. All of these writers did their work as best they could more or less and took their chances in the marketplace. It took Howard and Lovecraft many years of death to reach a large audience; Heinlein was reaching a large audience well within the first ten years of his career. Did any of them plan it that way? I doubt it very much.
It seems easy to say that work aimed at the lowest common denominator will always sell better than work not aimed at & etc., but the reasoning behind this when examined will often prove to be remarkably circular. Look at the New York Times Book Review bestseller list, start working your way down from Grisham to Koontz to Anita Shreve (Anita Shreve?) and point out that this one appeals to the masses for that pandering reason, another appeals for another pandering reason and so on. But this excludes the fact that every year hundreds of novels are published for the mass market, some of them with large advances and heavy advertising budgets which fail utterly; it ignores the fact that the Harry Potter books made their way in two countries and then the world without large advances, print orders or publicity; that works like Blue Highways or Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Repair, published in someone’s garage decades ago, sold so many copies without advertising or publicity that one of the commercial trade publishers took it over and sold millions of copies. (Same thing to be said of Casteneda, of The Whole Earth Catalogue) There’s no formula for a bestseller, there is no formula even for a lowest common denominator. If there were, this would not be a business in which 90% of trade books fail, in which almost half the print run of the magazines (the most successful magazines, mind you) are returned unsold from the newstand).
A business predicated on failure, I think. Dune, published serially in Analog in l963 and l964, was rejected by forty or fifty hardcover publishers before Chilton took it on for a $l,500 US or $2,000 US advance and published it almost invisibly. Terry Carr described in a memoir how he and Don Wollheim had finally decided to buy paperback rights for Ace after all the science fiction paperback publishers had declined. “We decided that it was a very long novel,” Carr said in effect, “And that would be something unusual; there had been very, very few long science fiction novels and this would be something unusual and Stranger In A Strange Land was a long science fiction novel, albeit by Robert Heinlein, and maybe we could do something here. Anyway, we didn’t have to pay much at all.” Scientific publishing. I do want to remind us all that Stand On Zanzibar in all of its USA editions over 33 years has sold less copies than a new Janet Daley or Nora Roberts novel will sell in the first 30 days after its publication. Perspective is important.
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MIKE: I know, I know—if a publisher knew what made a blockbuster, it’s all he’d publish.
But science fiction, while it was born in the pulps, has a half-century history as a book field (no, don’t remind me of Wells and Verne and Burroughs; I mean as a clearly-defined category field), and now that a number of books have hit the bestseller list, and many have sold well, and many have sold poorly, there must be some hint of a reason.
For example, how much does a Whelan or Eggleton cover boost your sales? Or doesn’t it?
How about raised metallic type? Does it really do any good?
How about ads in Locus and Chronicle? Do they help sales, or are they counter-productive since the average subscriber knew about your book six months before the publisher advertised it?
We tend to say reviews don’t add to sales, except perhaps for pre-pub reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and possibly Kirkus Reviews—but is it true?
Do autographings at bookstores help? Or are they just plain humiliating to 90% of the SF writers who consent to them?
Do book club sales introduce you to a huge new audience, or merely undercut your own paperback sales?
In other words, the field—and its methods of selling—have been evolving for half a century. Can we, after all these tens of thousands of examples, make any definitive statement as to what helps or hurts?
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BARRY: “The field and its methods of selling have been evolving for half a century.” Hollow, Woolrichian laughter to that one. Yes, our beloved field has evolved (not as much as we’d think, however: need I remind you that “No Woman Born,” “That Only A Mother,” “Clash by Night,” “Thunder and Roses,” “Private Eye” were all published more than half a century ago? That “Fondly Farenheit,” More Than Human, Solar Lottery almost half a century ago?) but the “methods of selling”? Methods of selling, Mike, haven’t evolved in the last half century; they haven’t, in fact, evolved significantly in the last one hundred years. (Read George Gissing’s Grub Street set in late Victorian England.) Get quotes from friends or eminences or both. Put quotes on cover or back cover of book. Send out review copies. Take out advertisements (sometimes) in publications associated with the subject of the book. Have readings, perhaps autographings. If science fiction, publicize at the major conventions, send copies to dealers. That was what publishers did (or against authors’ protests failed to do) in l950 and that is what they are doing today.
“Well, what are they supposed to do?” you might ask, “Put the book on shelves in supermarkets? Buy advertising time during the Super Bowl?” Well, no, that wouldn’t make any kind of economic sense. It does, however, make a kind of practical sense because the thrust of selling books has always been based upon selling them to an audience of book readers . . . targeting those who are self-selected. That there is an entirely different way of looking at this—marketing the work to people who are not habitual readers or readers of the kind of book at issue—has almost always been dismissed out of hand.
When it hasn’t been so dismissed, the technique has worked. There are a number of works marketed outside of customary channels ranging from the romance novels of Janet Daley to Fire Island by Burt Hirschfield to the novels of Jacqueline Susann which were enormously successful and whose procedure of marketing defied all of the accustomed, inherited non-wisdom of the business.
Indeed, part of the resentment toward Jacqueline Susann and her promoter husband, Irving Mansfield, in the l970’s had to do with the fact that these people were breaking the rules, working against the common wisdom of marketing and succeeding . . . and by so doing making fools of the publicity and promotional departments. It wasn’t that Susann’s books were lousy that lay at the heart of this anger—they weren’t all that lousy in my opinion but we can leave that debate for the Bulletin of the Jacqueline Susann Society—but that the marketing circumvented and in so doing proved practically useless conventional promotional methods. This might have pointed a direction but publishing, as any reader of Grub Street will quickly understand, is a l9th century business still, even after all of the conglomeratization, in the hands of people who want it to stay that way.
So, no, I don’t see much of an “evolution” in methods of selling (better termed “methods of not selling”). Part of this for the reasons above, another part rooted in the fact that no one, not publicity directors, not editors, not writers, not critics, not even Larry King or the late Sam Moskowitz knows what sells or why. This is what flummoxed the new conglomerate owners in the l960s and l970s; this was not a rational business, it did not respond to accepted wisdom or the kind of methods which the conglomerates had used in other fields. It was unpredictable. It is still unpredictable, even in the age of King, Grisham, Koontz, Nora Roberts, Robert Parker. From where did Harry Potter come? Who hyped Harry Potter? With what expectations were the first two Potter volumes published? If a British-based conglomerate were to conceive a marketing plan for the Rowling novels in the early 90’s, exactly how would they have proceeded? (Blurbs from fantasy writers and a few advertisements in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or Nickelodeon?)
Here is my secret: I don’t know what works. I don’t know why something sells. And with equal bewilderment: I don’t know why something doesn’t sell. A novel of which only three people have ever heard, The Movement, by Norman Garbo, reached Don Wollheim’s desk from WIlliam Morrow in l968 when I was doing paperback coverage for that sainted man and I read it. “This is our big fall book,” the subsidiary rights flyer said. “Bestseller,” I said, “The book of the decade. Takes us inside the student riots. Will sell and sell.” Sure it did.
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MIKE: I persist in believing that some people can tell the difference between a seller and a non-seller right at the outset (though I don’t know if it’s an instinct or a learned response).
Take Judy-Lynn del Rey. I may not have agreed with her taste very often, but if I were investing my money in a publishing company (and hence more interested in the bottom line than in anything else), she’s the editor I’d have wanted. Nothing in this field, before or since, ever sold like her line of books. And yet she didn’t turn every book into a bestseller, or even every monthly leader; just enough of them to shake up a science fiction field that had seemed unable to reach the bestseller lists before she arrived on the scene. How did she know to promote this book and not that one?
Take an author, one I’ve never met, Terry Goodkind. I know he got a six-figure advance for his first novel, and I know it earned out. I must also assume his editor sees dozens of 2,000-page fantasy manuscripts every year, manuscripts that couldn’t earn a twentieth of Goodkind’s advance. How did he know that this manuscript, a first novel by an unknown writer, was worth that kind of money?
Or, on the flip side, take mostly-hypothetical author X. He’s been around for a decade, won a Nebula, been up for a couple of Hugos, wrote and sold two novels that did okay, not great, not terrible. Now he delivers a thousand-page manuscript showing him at the absolute height of his literary powers, a knockout, a likely bet for the Nebula and Hugo ballots. And the odds are that, brilliant as it is, he’s not going to pick up a six-figure advance or anywhere close to it.
So the book goes out and gets on the ballots, and doesn’t earn out its $22,500 US or $30,000 US advance. Whose fault is it? The author delivered what he promised—an award-quality novel, of greater length than any contract is likely to call for. It was an even better novel than anyone had dared hoped. And it didn’t sell as well as it should have.
Do they fire the editor? The art director? The cover artist? The road men?
We know the answer. Of course they don’t. It’s easier to blame the writer, even though everyone admits that the book was exactly what they’d contracted to buy, that in fact it exceeded what they’d contracted for.
But exactly what are they blaming him for, and what can he do on his next book to overcome that jaundiced eye with which his publisher now views his output? Is there an answer, other than to write endless generic series under pseudonyms?
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BARRY: I don’t think there’s an answer. Should there be an answer? Are sales in the millions the only goal? John Simon, not a lovable man, has been writing for 40 years of the folly of corruption; why have a Man of La Mancha anyway? Why dumb down Don Quixote? Leave Don Quixote to the small population which can appreciate the novel as Cervantes wrote it, leave it in peace rather than abomination. This was an argument in a l974 issue of New York magazine. I found him at a New Year’s Eve party a month later, the only time I’ve met him and asked him, “Isn’t it better to get a little bit of a masterpiece, even a dumbed-down masterpiece, into the hands of a population which wouldn’t otherwise read it? And isn’t it possible that a few of them might go from Man of La Mancha to the original because they became aware of it?” Simon was having none of it. “Think of chamber music,” he said. “It’s great art and it’s for a small audience and that is intrinsic to its greatness.” I don’t agree then or now but it is, as the family counselors like to say, a position.
Look: it’s a position. Maybe our not-so-imaginary Hugo-and-Nebula-finalist with the masterpiece and the relatively low sales doesn’t want it any other way. Maybe the right book done for the right audience, earning necessarily less than the wrong book for the wrong audience, is the way our writer wants to go. Maybe a large royalty statement and a small percentage of returns are not the only desired way. Judy-Lynn del Rey brought to the marketing of science fiction the same mind-set and practices which had in earlier generations been given over to the marketing of toothpaste, of hair-coloring, of the Cadillac deVille. Her methods worked brilliantly. She was brilliant. She wanted to prove that writers like Anne McCaffrey or Stephen R. Donaldson or Terry Brooks could reach as wide an audience—or wider!—than the brand-name bestselling writers. She proved it with lengths to spare. Late in her career (it shouldn’t have been “late”; she was 40 just two years before the stroke that killed her), she said to me with fury, “Malzberg, I want you to know that I didn’t destroy science fiction!” This flabbergasted me. “I never said you destroyed it, Judy-Lynn,” I said. “In fact, I think you love it. You might have corrupted it a little . . .” If she had been given another ten years to edit out of the unassailable security she had by then earned, she might have reached that conclusion herself. Not everything had to be on the New York Times bestseller list. In fact, there were some very fine writers who might lose their minds and careers out of the misguided attempt to fit themselves into a suit they could not wear.
That’s a digression,; I suppose, but a digression built upon an assumption which has been the underlay of a good many of these columns and a preponderance of the articles which have appeared in this Bulletin . . . the assumption that more is always better. More pages, more sales, more readers, more dragons, more apocalypse, more hard science or soft science or no science or medium science. More more more. But the most concentrated run of the greatest work science fiction has ever known occurred in the mid-l940s Astounding Science Fiction, a magazine whose circulation at that time was about a third of the figures Raymond Palmer was achieving for Amazing Stories. Shaverism outsold Kuttner, Van Vogt, and Sturgeon by three to one. Where is Shaverism today? (We could also ask where those three writers are, but at least one of them has books in print from the most prestigious Vintage line which is more than Shaver or Palmer could claim.)
“The ethos of this field valorizes sales at any cost,” John Clute has written (or something very close to that). I suppose there’s no other position a professional journal can take but I’m not really comfortable with that.
And I don’t think you are either, Mike.
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MIKE: There’s so much to disagree with here I hardly know where to begin—but let me start by briefly noting that John Simon is an elitist snob who has trashed more good plays than any three critics extant. One almost gets the feeling that if Simon is present when the audience gives a play a standing ovation, he instantly concludes that it’s no good.
I’d also argue that Galaxy from 1950 to 1955 and Astounding from 1939 to 1943 were both superior to the Astounding of the mid-1940s.
But the main thing I’d argue is your supposition that fine writers would rather sell less copies than more. Remember: no one is suggesting that they sell out, that they write fat 8-book trilogies about elves and swords and magical quests. They would simply like to know how to increase their sales without debasing their plots and their prose. They look at Heinlein and Herbert and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury, and they know it can be done, that none of those authors was catering to the lowest common denominator . . . so they are unquestionably justified in wondering how they did it, what the secret might be.
I submit to you that if you walk up to any Hugo or Nebula winner, and say: “Would you like to receive and earn out a trio of million-dollar advances for your next three books without having to change anything about your approach or style?”, the only ones who would say “No” are probably already wearing nifty little jackets with wraparound sleeves.
I suppose what I’d really like is to resurrect Judy-Lynn del Rey for a decade, give her a dozen brilliant writers who have yet to hit, or even approach, the bestseller list, and turn her loose. And yet, while her methods worked better than anyone else’s, they weren’t unique, and they weren’t original, and they weren’t copy-protected, so isn’t it about time someone picked up the torch?
Or are we wrong, and was that guy in Levy’s warehouse right all those many years ago? Is the package everything, or can the writer somehow make a difference?
*Sigh* I still don’t know. And, to paraphrase the pundits of the ad biz, where only 20% of what they do is effective but nobody knows which 20% and hence they have to work like hell at all aspects of it, until we know for a fact that all that counts is the packaging and the hype, we’d probably better keep writing the best books we can. You never know . . .
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.