Competing With “Dead Guys”

Earlier this month, SFF author Fonda Lee took to twitter to point out what she and many other contemporary SFF authors were “up against” at brick and mortars like Barnes & Noble.

This is what modern fantasy writers are up against. In my local B&N, most authors are lucky to find a copy of their book, super lucky if it’s face out. There are 3.5 shelves for Tolkien. 1.5 for Jordan. Here’s who we compete against for shelf space: not each other, but dead guys.

Before you @ me about the importance of classics, I love LOTR too, okay? But 3.5 shelves?? So much great modern SFF work out there. I found one copy of my WFA-winning book. One of most of the other Nebula and Hugo nominees. One copy of The Fifth Season. 18 copies of LOTR.

If you think a bookstore should be a place of discovery, who goes into B&N and “discovers” Tolkien? Do they figure people want another 5 copies of LOTR and aren’t interested in all the other work out there? I dunno guys. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to go into bookstores, tbh.

(And reminder that this is another reason why I love my local indie bookstores and why we must, must, MUST for the love of God keep supporting them.)

This got picked up by Bounding Into Comics, so needless to say, it kind of blew up and people, myself included, decided to share their takes on the matter.

My own take ignores the specter of “SJWs in science fiction” and “Look at them wanting to erase dead white guys”, because even if those are the case, there’s a lot more going on here that maybe I’m more aware of than some of my twitter mutuals because I’m in publishing.

The fact of the matter is, old works have a much wider audience than the current SFF niche. Even award winning and award nominated works sell far fewer copies than a handful of big-named older works. But remember: these chain book stores are where people go to pick up quick gifts for birthdays and holidays. Nearly everyone will buy new copy of LotR for whatever kids they have whenever that birthday rolls around that they think the kid is old enough to read it themself.  Anyone looking for B&N shelfspace is competing against a market that’s principally driven by easy access to nice editions of classic works to be given as gifts, not one that’s able to sustain itself on new content. 30+ years on, they might get that spot.

A bunch of the “New Authors just need to git gud” takes I saw kind of missed the real point that new authors can’t actually look at B&N the way that many of them, Fonda Lee, too apparently, are looking at it.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of books, the quality of writing, or the quality of the authors. It has EVERYTHING to do with who or what is moving whale numbers, and the rest is being propped up by those sales.

Around 15k sales per year (two copies per month per location–B&N has 633 stores) is pretty good by most publishing standards today, and really only justifies one or two copies of a book kept on the shelf.

Even for successful new SFF titles, it’s still apples to oranges. Fifth Season may be great–it’s sure popular and a big seller for a new SFF book, and Jemisen has a lot to be proud of. But it’s not a book that every parent buys a copy for their children going on 4 generations

B&N’s bread & butter are gift editions of extremely popular and timeless works and novelties.

Being on the shelves of these stores should not be the end goal. Growing your audience is more important than sitting unsold on a shelf next to Tolkien.

Bookstores are no longer “places of discover” and have not really been so for a long time. This is unfortunate, but the realities of the market have changed. It’s why B&N is turning into a toy-store for millennials and carrying less media.

There are some authors out there that genuinely believe that people use B&N as something besides a place to pick up a nice edition of a classic or currently boom-popular work to give as a gift for Xmas or Birthday, and the more authors dissuaded from this the better.

I’d also note that if Barnes & Noble decided to carry Cirsova titles in their stores, we’d probably be bankrupt (I’d be bankrupt–Cirsova’s non-incorporated) within a year when they ship backed the returnable copies. Now, that said, you CAN purchase Cirsova products through Barnes & Noble’s online store! In fact, you should do that now. (Plus Duel Visions, which shows up separate from the search term “Cirsova”.)

Note: this post was originally comprised as a disparate series of tweets across a couple threads. It’s been edited [cobbled together] for cogency and saved for posterity.]

Note 2: Cirsova Magazine of Heroic Fantasy & Science Fiction was a Hugo-Nominated publication with literally 88 nominating votes.

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4 responses to “Competing With “Dead Guys”

  1. I think they should be glad they are sitting beside giants of the past, that way someone may be tricked to buy their stuff thinking that if it’s also in the X category it may be similar.

  2. If you’re artist of any kind, once you start thinking about any sort of art as a competition, you should reassess why your doing it in the first place. That kind of thinking can lead to “why bother?” Or a certain amount of vindictiveness … Which really isn’t good for creativity.

  3. It seems safe to say that SJW SF relies on an almost-entirely different set of customers than classic SFF. And that … really explains all of her complaints from several angles.

    Clearly the SJW SF publishers thus need to work hard to grow their reader base. I hear supernatural romance sells, or at least it did a while ago. Well, get cracking.

    • Well, the thing is, there’s a lot of great classic SFF that’s not out there for reasons that have nothing to do with quality.

      The B&N model is currently (and largely always has been) about whales that did astronomical numbers that justified enough shelf-space for everything else.

      A Stephanie Meyers or Susanne Collins carries a shelf of dozens of authors and titles selling tens of thousands of copies nationwide with the thousands of copies they’re selling IN EACH STORE.

      Those tens of thousands of copies moving nation-wide are great for the authors and publishers of those books, but when you have over 600 stores that those tens of thousands of sales are spread out across, you need to accept that your sales are a very very very small piece of a gargantuan pie.

      The reason Tolkien has a target on him is that his sales are evergreen.

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