MIND MELD: How will Science Fiction Weather the Recession?

It’s official, the U.S. economy is in a recession and may be heading for a depression. This means that the average consumer of SF will have to make some tough choices on how and where to spend their money. With people spending less the science fiction publishing industry could be hit hard.

Q: What can the SF industry do to weather a prolonged economic downturn? Will new authors have an even harder time breaking into the field?
Diana Gill
Executive Editor Diana Gill runs Eos, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. She is the editor of New York Times bestselling authors Kim Harrison and Vicki Pettersson. Other authors with whom she has worked include Mario Acevedo, Jonathan Barnes, Trudi Canavan, Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Mary Stewart, Karen Traviss, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

I think the hardcover market will shrink a bit, and people will be more judicious in what they buy in hardcover, and thus publishers will also watch what’s done in hardcover, but it’s worth remembering that a mass market is $7.99, and it can be read numerous times, unlike a $12 movie or $20 DVD.

In terms of the overall market, people read sf/f at least partially for a sense of escapism, for something different than their everyday world, and that need for escapism is even stronger during a difficult market. Our sales stayed steady after 9/11, and I expect the reading public will still want tales of adventure and a way to not think about the recession, etc.

Urban fantasy, in particular, should remain extremely popular, since it presents a world very like our own, but one that’s heightened, filled with magic and possibilities, etc.

The harder challenge will be with stores cutting their buys, which is already happening. If that continues, it will be harder to buy smaller books, or ones with a more specialized audience. But in some ways new authors have an advantage, as they don’t have a sales track that can hinder them.

Justina Robson
Justina Robson is the author of Silver Screen, Mappa Mundi, Natural History, Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and the Quantum Gravity series (Keeping It Real, Selling Out, Going Under, and the upcoming Chasing the Dragon – all from Pyr).

I have no idea. If book sales drop then of course it will be harder to break into the markets and I expect struggling authors without high sales figures might be in for some unpleasant turns. It depends if the publishers decide to go with bean counters and shrinkfit their lists to the till receipts or if they keep a wider view. The more the variety drops out of the market the worse it will be for everyone concerned so we’ll just have to hope that large selling writers and shows make enough money to keep mid-lists afloat. On the other hand, when times are tough escapism is always profitable…

Mark Newton
Mark Newton is the assistant editor at Solaris Books. His first book, The Reef, is published in the UK in March, and he has just sold a two-novel deal with Macmillan / Tor UK. The first book, Nights of Villjamur, will be published early 2009.

In my experience, and from industry mutterings over the years, the SF and Fantasy genre tends to be immune to economic situations. If the book trade announces sales are down, it’s most likely to be the titles such as celebrity biographies, or quirky humour titles – the shallow, mass market end of things that suffer, because those aren’t usually read by a dedicated readership.

People will still seek to escape in genre books. Should there not be much money in pockets, well… a book lasts a lot longer than other forms of entertainment, and perhaps it will bring new readers in, if more people wish to spend nights at home. I’m merely speculating at the psychology – but as far as I’m aware, the genre hasn’t often suffered from recessions. And this is SFF fandom – this is people’s passion, and fans will invest as much time and energy into it as always. I’m confident that this is nothing to worry about – even as a new author breaking into the mass market field next year.

Lou Anders
A 2007/2008 Hugo Award and 2007 Chesley Award and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at SFSite.com, RevolutionSF.com and InfinityPlus.co.uk. Visit him online at www.louanders.com and www.pyrsf.com.

The convention wisdom has always held that book sales remain steady during economic downturns. Books are a small ticket item that provides hours, days, even weeks of enjoyment, and so, when the economy forces people to forgo the big expenses (vacations, vehicles, luxury items, that flat screen TV), they reward themselves with the small things. This has traditionally been the case, but what we didn’t know is how books would be effected by the Internet age. Never before has so much free content been available online, an even cheaper alternative to big expenditures. But I suspected going in that alot of this online content still drives purchases to small ticket items. Looking in Publishers Weekly, it seems that book sales were down in September but up in October, and a recent survey of bookstores they conducted in the November 3rd issue entitled “Hunkering Down: Booksellers Prepare for a Challenging Season“, saw 4 of the 9 stores queried reporting that sales were up. A fifth reported sales down in September but up in October. A sixth disqualified themselves as being tied to football season and thus always down at this time, while I seventh saw their biggest losses in text books. So it seems that sales of entertainment titles are holding steady. For our part, sales at Pyr have been especially strong for the last few months, and indeed, for most of the year. Meanwhile, I hear reports from major retailers that nonfiction categories are down, but that science fiction, fantasy and mystery books are doing fine. All of this bears out the conventional wisdom and offers hope for the recession, even if it does drag through the first quarter of 2009. I’m glad that we made the decision to get into mass market last year, as it’s certainly the perfect time to be introducing lower priced Pyr books, but that fortuitous decision was in play long before we knew we were in a recession. Likewise, I’m having to make decisions now about books you won’t see on shelves until late 2009 or 2010, so I’m not really selecting works with the recession in mind. (God forbid we should still be in it then!). So I don’t see how it’s going to be any harder for a new author to break in than it ever is. The best thing a publisher can do is to put out the highest quality reading experience they possibly can – but we’d be doing that anyway! The best thing a prospective author can do is be brilliant and shine!

[Lou also has related thoughts on the Pyr Blog here.]


How has the recession affected your book buying habits? Are you making more use of libraries or used book stores? Let us know!

7 thoughts on “MIND MELD: How will Science Fiction Weather the Recession?”

  1. it’s worth remembering that a mass market is $7.99, and it can be read numerous times, unlike a $12 movie or $20 DVD

     

    You can’t watch a DVD again?

  2. I’ve almost stopped buying paperbacks. I’ve pretty much cut back my hardcover acquisitions to only those authors that I already am familiar with. No more experiments in new genres, authors, etc. When the boss does performance reviews and does not give out raises with the stock phrase “You’re lucky you still have a job in this economy”, it ain’t time to be trying a lot of new titles or writers!

    The only buying I’m maintaining is Baen’s Webscription bundles and specials. They are picking up more and more titles from other publishers and someday the deal with Tor will be finalized, so a lot of what I buy in paperback will be available (sooner or later).

    I expect a lot of areas will be hit. People will be less likely to pick up a $50.00 title for the XBox or Wii unless they have heard good things. Marginal games will fail (faster). Sure, DVD’s are $20.00 and that probably is cheaper than going to the movies in most areas of the country (it is in my area!), but marginal titles are not going to do well.

    Gas prices are generally trending downwards, other prices (food) should follow (albeit, a lot more slowly). That will help, but help will be six to 12 months away. I recall a big SF publishing implosion in the early 1980’s with imprints failing. Will they weather the storm any better this time around?

  3. Hmmm. Books. Books & yarn. Yes. Definitely my downfall. Although I do seem to be able to forego buying yarn as much as I used to, say a couple of years ago, I don’t seem to be able to forego buying books (science fiction mostly & fantasy & a very few other types). Art books are my latest trend, & in hardback they can be pricey. See, I don’t buy paperbacks with their 3inchx5inch size & 4-point type & 4-pt leading that is too small to read. (Besides, their covers can’t compare to a hardback cover.) So, I buy only hardbacks. But, I do find myself being more discriminatory in what books I buy. Meaning I buy one hardback every 2 months instead of one hardback every month. I have noticed fewer people in bookstores however, & we all know that fewer people in a store means less sales. The only exception I’ve noticed here in Seattle is the Barnes & Noble in University Village – it’s always packed, especially on the weekend – but then it has a huge coffee/food/tables area that makes up its entire mezzanine floor. And there is always a long check-out line for paying for your books.

    One other thing I’ve noticed. More & more floor space being devoted to non-book items – stuffed animals, blank write-in “books,” cards, music cd’s, etc. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when I go to a bookstore I want to see books.

    In today’s economy, disposable income is not as large as it once was. Mine included. Will folks quit buying books? Of those folks who do buy books, will they buy the old familiar authors or try new ones? I have not a clue. What I wonder is – how is the used book business doing compared to the new book business?

  4. I have to disagree a bit with the panel. SFF publishing has been effected by recession and economic downturns. Everytime we’ve had one in the last twenty years, publishers lay off employees and dissolve and merge imprints — which has been happening now and happened right before 9/11 in the tech bubble meltdown — and slash mid-list authors from their lists. A bestseller mentality has dominated, with acquisitions in bad times being limited mostly to authors the publishers feel have “break-out” potential, instead of the ability to build an audience over time. This year, we’ve had the odd occurrence of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officially announcing this policy to the press.

    In the early 1990’s, with a recession and the Persian Gulf War on top of it, book tours were cancelled, and authors found publishers didn’t want the next book in their series. Children’s, including SFF, was in a very bad position until the mid-1990’s. Paperback fiction didn’t do well and lost more and more wholesaler outlets. SF took a big hit, so much so that prophecies of it dying out again were widespread. Fantasy weathered it the best, but mid-list authors were still cut.

    So yeah, I think SFF is going to be hit like everybody else. But, with fantasy still a growth sector with Hollywood support, with SF having a rise in interest before the crisis hit, and with horror doing better than it has since the 1980’s, I think SFFH will do better than suspense and other types of fiction. But not without some blood-letting.

     

  5. We’re dipping into recession up here in Canada too, but it’s hard to say how it will affect SF book buying and availability. On one hand, I was talking with the owner of the SF specialty bookstore in Vancouver (White Dwarf) not too long ago, and he didn’t seem too worried about things yet. He noted he’s been able to ride out previous recessions because his customers tend to be quite loyal and tend to buy regularly. On the other hand, I was in one of the outlets of our national big-box chain, Chapters, today and they’ve reduced their SF&F section substantially – 2 shelves for fantasy now, and just one for science fiction. They used to have between 4 and 6 shelves for the two combined. Maybe all this means the little guy will win in the end. Maybe.

    As for my own buying habits, as long as my job holds up, I’ll probably go into the SF specialty store once a month, as usual, although I may only buy one book at a time, instead of two or three.

     

  6. I think it’s time for the industry to get real. Yeah, I am sure buying less. Now I know readers don’t buy many books based on the inspid back cover blurb, but ocassionally–say with a writer one has never heard of–it tends to happen; and to think that a Bean Counter thinks $7.99 is a cheap price for someone unknown (or even known, for that matter), in this day and age–when they used to be $3,99, years and years ago, just says to me Mr. Bean Counter has has his had… somewhere it shouldn’t be. I’d rather save that 7.99 for my gas tank or groceries–or a really special book purchase. What *would* serve the whole publishing industry is to *drop* their prices and fast, or they’re in for a real rude awakening when sales stop altogether; because no, I don’t think people look at books as a cheap form of entertainment. They read once and throw them away more often than not.  There *is* American Idol and crud like that on “free tv’ to distract them, after all–and what home doesn’t have a ready cache of movies on DVD and video these days, I ask you? As to SF presenting a form of escapism–well, that’s true in the fantasy genre, but in SF, we do try to deal with what’s plausible; vampires and Disney-esque witches aren’t, are they?   So

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