[This article contains baseball references, but knowledge of the game is not required to enjoy it. I wrote it last year and sat on it for months, trying to make it more sensible. I don't think I succeeded. Screw it, it's my blog I'll ramble if I want to. I guess with last Friday's article I'm startig a bit of a series about 'State of Genre Fiction' or something like that... whatever. Enjoy, I hope.]
The Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing world is a lot like professional baseball. I first started reading seriously as an 11 year old middle school student. Somewhere along the way I picked up Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and recognized the little flame on the bottom of each book and three little letters beneath it… T – O – R. It didn’t take me long to realize that Tor Books are the New York Yankees of SFF. Since then I’ve learned that Jordan’s series was the equivalent of Barry Bonds (or Christiano Renaldo for European readers) — a singular force capable of propelling his publisher into the black.
Those days are gone. Jordan has passed away, and even while he was alive his release schedules were intermittent at best and terminally delayed at worst. In today’s marketplace maybe only George R.R. Martin, who’s on a five year release plan himself, seems capable of this kind of strength. To respond, the Big-6 publishers have embraced the model vetted for the last hundred years by the big market pro sports teams – buy proven commodities and use them until their knees turn arthritic.
A trend that demonstrates this is the glut of thief and/or assassin based low-fantasy novels. Just look at the 2011 line-up:
Shadow’s Lure by Jon Sprunk (Pyr)
Farlander and Stands a Shadow by Col Buchanon (Tor)
Shadow Chaser by Alexey Pehov (Tor)
A Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and Honor Among Thieves by David Chandler (Voyager)
Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick (Ace)
Theft of Swords and Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)
The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
Low Town by Daniel Polansky (Doubleday)
That’s at least one title from all the major U.S. houses with the exception of Spectra who has Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves due out this year. Along with Republic of Thieves are these expected 2012 titles:
Shadow’s Master by Jon Sprunk (Pyr)
Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell (Pyr)
Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)
Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (Orbit)
The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Orbit)
Shadow Blizzard by Alexey Pehov (Tor)
Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle (Angry Robot)
Giant Thief by David Tallerman (Angry Robot)
I’m sure I’ve missed a handful from both last year and this, and I haven’t even touched on some of the previous works like Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn that continue to sell very well. I suspect this ‘trend’ has a lot do with the massive success of Lynch’s work and publishers gravitating toward a type of book they know will sell. Some of them are quite good, some are decidedly not. Most of them aren’t really all that similar to each other, but that isn’t really the point — they all look similar. I could certainly do the same exercise for vampire novels, or zombie novels, or dystopian novels and the results would be similar. With limited acquisition budgets and shrinking shelf space (Borders), is there any question why more of these are making it to the shelves?
The Big-6 buy novels that have proven market success. It’s really that simple. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily criticizing them. With a flagging economy, a dozen different forms of media available to consumers free of charge, not mentioning the gads of self published work available on-line for free, it’s understandable that these for profit entities are going to be, well…. for profit. But, there’s a danger in that. If the industry is just trying put butts in the seats, it runs the risk of stagnating. Just like the New York Yankees, who from 1982-1994, despite a tremendously inflated payroll, never made the playoffs.
The Yankees have a lot of money, so even in the worst of times they’re able to buy enough talent to keep their head above water (Big-6). Still, a successful sports franchise (or publishing house, or any other business) requires new blood to stay fresh. They have to promote young players from the minor leagues. They draft these players or acquire them from other teams by trade, but without cheap young talent they’ll end up marginalized as high priced stars age gracelessly.
Teams like the Oakland Athletics or the Tampa Bay Rays survive by investing wisely. They front load money on young talent, hoping they pay off. Most fail, but the ones that succeed easily cover the sunk costs of those who’ve fallen by the wayside. More pointedly they apply the Moneyball (now a major motion picture) philosophy articulated in Michael Lewis’s book of the same name: survive by exploiting the inefficiencies in a marketplace dominated by those who make decisions based on past outcomes. In publishing terms these teams are Night Shade Books (NSB) and Angry Robot (AR).
Pyr and Baen might also fit in that grouping, but I’ve heard Lou Anders, Hugo Award Winning Editor for Pyr, say that their brand is ‘quality’. I find that both accurate, and incredibly savvy. If I went to the Big-6 and asked about their brand, I suspect in an honest moment they’d say something like ‘marketable’. Baen has a very clear brand built around military SF. NSB and AR have become the brand for new and unique voices. These two have found the inefficiency in the marketplace. The Moneyball if you will. They’re exploiting risk. Risk the Big-6 aren’t willing – or more accurately don’t have to - absorb.
In a new world of eBooks, blogs, and self publishing, where the reader has an infinity of choice a keystroke away, the notion of brand is going to become more and more prevalent. When I see those letters on a book’s spine, as a reader I’ll know what I’m getting. When I want to see a game full of names I know, with history and reputation, I’m going to Yankee Stadium. I’ll watch Derek Jeter trot out to shortstop for 1000th time and remember the first time I saw him as a 19 year old fresh faced kid. But if I want to be bowled over, see something I’ve never seen before, I’m going to head to Tampa. They’re pushing the envelope -that’s their brand.
I have no doubt that in the years ahead the Big-6 will find many of these smaller press authors in their catalogs. At the end of the day small markets develop talent only to lose them to bigger contracts, but without these feeder systems the larger markets will stagnate. Just imagine for a moment though what could be if the Big-6 committed to risk, driving the market not just responding to it. Putting resources behind not just books that can sell, but books that should be read. In the sports world, that’s called a dynasty. I guess for all the small and medium presses I’ll keep my fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.
[Before the comments get going, yes I realize the Big-6 do take risks on unknown authors. That's not the point I'm making. The point is they don't take many, if any, risks on things that have a questionable market. Also, keep in mind this is a piece meant to provoke discussion, not to demagogue an issue that ultimately I am only tangentially informed on.]