Why The Next 10 Years of Science Fiction Will Smash The Last 10

Science fiction booksThe Golden Age of science fiction is dead.

You were probably already aware of this, but if the news never reached you, allow me to offer my condolences. Depending on who you talk to, the time of death was sometime between 1950 and 1960. It was survived by its offspring, New Wave sci-fi, which included some of the old authors, as well as new ones. The cause of death was a maturing of both author and audience, after which simple stories of rocket ships and aliens no longer satisfied any but the most juvenile of readers.

Publishers, however, didn’t change. Sure, they got savvy to evolving tastes, but they were still the gatekeepers. No author could be published unless they said so, which meant writing to a specific audience, staying within narrow word counts, and avoiding anything controversial. And you can’t really blame the publishers—it’s a tough game. Every one of them would love to discover the next Asimov, Heinlein, or Le Guin, but the sad fact is that most books—especially those by new authors—will lose money, and there are only so many risks you can take before you start calling it gambling. To offset the inevitable risks, they published as many formulaic, predictable, highly salable books as possible just to keep the doors open and printers rolling.

Retailers—the brick and mortar kind—faced similar challenges, albeit for different reasons. Even the largest stores have finite square footage, only so many prime display locations, and unpredictable but limited foot traffic. The pressure to keep looking fresh drives new books off the front displays onto back shelves after just a short stay, and from there it’s often a quick jaunt to the bargain bin, which is the last stop before getting boxed up and returned to the publisher. This means most books, even great ones, have little time in the spot light to grow into a bestseller.

Enter the digital age. It’s relatively early days, but I believe the advent of inter-connected digital devices will end up changing publishing even more than the printing press did. We’ve already seen huge changes, but some of these trends are only just beginning, and with some surprising effects.

The most obvious change is the movement from print to ebooks. With no printing costs, ebooks can be profitable at lower prices and in smaller batches. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but ebooks have reached a steady 25% of the market, and could go even higher. That’s not to say print is dead, or even on life support. In fact, self-published ebooks may even help the print market by being a testing ground for new authors, allowing traditional publishers to offer contracts to successful indie authors instead of risking development costs and marketing dollars on unproven authors.

Lower prices have also vastly increased the potential buying audience, opening markets in countries where printed books are a luxury. There’s an English-speaking audience in almost every country, but if people can’t afford twenty bucks plus shipping, they’re not going to buy many books. Ebooks can be read on devices they probably own already, so the initial cost of an e-reader isn’t a deciding factor.

However, the real benefit of ebooks is that by lowering the barrier to publishing and reducing the break-even point to much lower sales volumes, writers can now create in very specific sub-genres that would never otherwise have a chance of succeeding on the crowded display shelves of book stores. Readers in these sub-genres are often hungry for this sort of work, having been deprived for so long by a risk-averse industry. I’ve met indie authors who make a steady income in genres I’ve never even heard of before, something possible only in recent years.

The flip side, of course, is that readers can search for very specific types of books. Amazon and other ebook retailers have copied Google’s success by improving search relevancy, and including qualified reviews as part of their algorithms. The result is that the reader ends up with what they want, at least most of the time anyway. Try searching for a coming of age story in medieval science fiction with dragons in your local book store. If you happen to find one, there’s no way to tell whether other people liked it or not, because the only reviews are the ones the publisher chose. Do the same thing on your Kindle or Kobo and you’ve got dozens of options, some good, some bad.

Readers have more options for sharing now, too. Few people are likely to talk about their love of erotic steampunk at the water cooler, for instance—but in the safety of their Facebook or Goodreads group? Not a problem. This further expands a niche-writer’s audience, as well as an avid reader’s list of authors to check out.

If technology has benefited writers in narrow niches, then it’s done wonders for those from less economically successful countries. I correspond regularly with writers from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Brazil, and other far away places who make a decent living on their writing. This wasn’t possible a decade ago, at least not in the numbers they are now. It’s great for them, but it’s wonderful for readers too, as we are constantly introduced to new stories and ideas incorporating different cultures, mythologies, witticisms, language, characters, and so much more. It’s often said that reading is the cheapest form of travel, and doing so with a native guide instead of just another tourist makes all the difference.

Indie publishers have developed strategies to take advantage of these changes, in many cases borrowing from other forms of entertainment. Just as viewers love binging on entire series on Netflix, so too do readers love to binge on series, and it’s the rare author who isn’t writing one now. It makes sense from both sides: as a writer, someone who loves book one is almost certainly going to enjoy books two through ten, which means not having to find a new audience for each book. For a reader, sequels represent a known quantity, a safe choice for cheap entertainment.

To get readers hooked, authors often make the first book of a series either very cheap, or even free, knowing that they’ll reach a much bigger audience in the hopes that a percentage will become true fans. The psychological barrier to “buying” a free book is much lower than even a low price like 99 cents. After all, if you don’t like it after three chapters, there’s no guilt removing it from your e-reader because it cost you absolutely nothing. And if you liked it, then there’s probably more (or will be soon—trust me, I’m working hard on book two!)

What about the risk for the writer though? Writing a novel is no simple feat. The Defender of Rebel Falls took me ten years to finish, and the thought of never making a dime on it scared me. But going the traditional route could easily be so much worse, because if no one publishes it, I don’t even get a reader out of it, aside from a few friends and family. In both economic and emotional terms, a reader is more valuable than a sale, and having an unpublished manuscript collecting dust or clogging a hard drive gives no satisfaction at all.

What this means for you is a smorgasbord of free books to try. Some won’t be to your taste, others will be garbage (there are some real clunkers out there—just because anyone CAN self-publish doesn’t mean they should). But you could easily find someone whose work you love, someone whose writing would never have made the light of day ten years ago.

So I was wrong. It looks like the golden age of science fiction is just beginning.

Speaking of free books, Freebie Books has a new list of—you guessed it—free books. Check them out—you may find a new favorite author (besides me, of course.) At the very least, you’ll be giving someone a chance.


Happy Reading!


Erik Christensen