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MIND MELD: If You Could Change Any Aspect of The Science Fiction Field, What Would it Be?

I recently read Seeds of Change, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams centered on the theme of technological, scientific, political and/or cultural change. For this week’s Mind Meld, we turned to the anthology’s editor and authors, as well as a host of others, to answer the following question about changing the science fiction field itself:

Q: Science fiction, some say, is all about fostering change. But if you could change any aspect of the science fiction field itself – publishing, mainstream acceptance, fans, or whatever – what would it be and why?

The answers will shock and amaze! And tickle.

Kathleen Ann Goonan
Kathleen Ann Goonan is a science fiction writer with several Nebula Award nominated books. Her debut novel, Queen City Jazz was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent novel, In War Times, is the winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2007 and was chosen by the American Library Association as Best Science Fiction Novel for their 2008 reading list.

Naturally, as a writer, I would like the audience for sf to be much broader, but for, perhaps, unusual reasons.

In 1959, C.P. Snow gave a famous talk in which he said that science and literature had become two distinct cultures, neither of which spoke to the other. It seems to me that this split has intensified and solidified over the years. The result of this is that science is not well understood by much of the public.

As a society, we need to think about problems and controversies that face us, from the very large problem of war, which never seems to end, to the equally important problem of distribution of medical care, education, and goods. Science, and the technologies which depend on science, are crucial in understanding and dealing with these issues.

I find it ironic that the phrase “like science fiction” is used to describe ideas that seem harebrained, when, in fact, fiction rooted in science is quite the opposite. However, in the public mind, at least in the United States, science fiction seems to have gone from being regarded as an intellectually demanding literature to a literature of the ridiculous and the impossible. This is not, by the way, true in Europe.

Good science fiction unites the two cultures. That doesn’t mean that science fiction has any responsibility to do so, any more than it has to be didactic or dull. Instead, like any other kind of fiction, it must have an emotional impact on the reader, and it should, can, and does entertain with all of the wit, elegance, and depth of any literature.

As for marketing, I don’t mind that science fiction is shelved separately in bookstores, because that helps fans find it, or that the covers scream “science fiction–readers of general fiction, beware!,” but I think it should also be shelved with other literature, clad in covers that bespeak “mainstream,” (you know what I’m talking about, marketing directors), so that it can be discovered by new readers. These new readers might begin to understand that they are immersed in a sea of science, and be encouraged to find out more about what is really going on in the world around them. Science education might thereby gain more respect and more funding in the United States.

And if not, at least many more readers would be able to appreciate and enjoy science fiction.

Gary Gibson
Gary Gibson is the author of three novels for Tor UK, the latest being Stealing Light, the first book of a trilogy which does in fact feature exploding spaceships and was originally written under the working title Shit Blows Up. He has recently completed the second book, written under the working title Even More Shit Blows Up, the final, official title being as yet undecided. He has since begun work on the third volume, under the working title Now That’s What I Call Blowing Shit Up. Scottish by birth and inclination, he is currently spending some time living and writing in the Far East. He has a website at whitescreenofdespair.blogspot.com.

If I was going to start with anything, it’d be with what sometimes seems like the impossible dream, oft-stated: an end to lurid paperback covers, especially from U.S. publishers – the foiled bumpy ones with chisel-jawed heroes gazing meaningfully at some point in the far distance while something explodes in the background. How well I remember those intricate, literary post-New Wave Chris Priest novels of the ’70’s, and the Chris Foss spaceship explode-a-ramas with which they were frequently saddled; or the endless Bladerunner-influenced designs of the ’80’s (I still have a copy of Gene Wolfe’s Free Live Free, saddled with cover art that looks like an outtake from that movie) that completely disregarded the contents.

There are numerous other examples. I recently picked up Kage Baker’s In The Garden of Iden, which is largely set in 16th Century rural England and features a time-travelling botanist, and yet has a cover design of a large-breasted woman in a tight white top inside some kind of machine racing, presumably, through time. I loved the book, which I remember as a comedy of manners about the clash between present-day value systems and those of several centuries ago, but the artwork suggests something hardly so subtle. I can’t help but wonder if some potential readers, who might have enjoyed the story but weren’t already aware of Baker’s considerable genre cred, might have been put off. Similarly, it’s hard to voice concerns over mainstream acceptance if someone outside the field can simply point to some of the more egregious examples of cover art as evidence of the genre’s lack of maturity.

But there is hope. The cover of Iain Banks’ Matter is a masterpiece of understated design that loses none of the epic scale of his Culture novels. The recent Gollancz reissue in the UK of several novels by the likes of Richard Morgan, Paul McAuley and others under the banner of Future Classics is a strong sign that many publishers have cottoned onto the fact that a significant audience might be gained with less lurid cover designs.

It makes me glad I’m one of the lucky ones, with a publisher who – yes, it’s really true – asks my opinion. As a result, I’ve managed to avoid potential cover-cide on at least one occasion.

More grown-up covers, please. Even if the book concerned does, in fact, feature exploding spaceships.

Blake Charlton
Blake Charlton is a SF and fantasy writer and a second year student at Stanford Medical School. He recently debuted with the novelette “Endosymbiont” in the Seeds of Change anthology. Blake is also the author of three fantasy novels, forthcoming from Tor Books. The first, Spellwright, is scheduled for release in late 2009 or early 2010.

Science fiction needs youth. New ideas and perspectives are the life’s blood of our stories. Of course, fresh ideas and perspectives come from minds of all ages, but only the young possess a freedom from previous conceptions and prejudices. Yevgeny Zamyatin–whose early dystopian novels influenced Orwell, Le Guin, and Vonnegut–once wrote that “Children are the boldest philosophers. They enter life naked, not covered by the smallest fig leaf of dogma, absolutes, creeds.” Science fiction is the literature of the boldest philosophers. Our stories remove the unmovable, impose the impossible. To continue to do so, we need to continually recruit young audiences; some of whom will become new creative forces in the field. Engaging the young has not been a problem for many forms of SF. Movies, television, video games, comics, and even novels attract young audiences through marketing and natural appeal. Short stories, however, have not. If granted one wish to change SF, I’d spend it on increasing the number of young people who read short stories.

And I don’t think I’m alone. In the past few days I’ve read a lot of commentary bemoaning the decreasing subscriptions to print SF magazines. Some champion online magazines over print. Some gripe about the digest format or ask for more of one kind of story, less of another. As a journeyman writer, I love what I read in F&SF, Asimov’s, and Interzone, but I’m not surprised their subscriptions are low. Such magazines provide a space for writers to sharpen their prose in hopes of being dubbed ‘cutting-edge’. The resulting literary spectacle has not expanded readership because it’s not designed to do so. The current magazines showcase avant-garde SF; this might not have wide market appeal, but it has great value. Publications celebrating innovation help keep literary SF vibrant and exciting. They also provide fresh experiences for those who have already read widely in SF. If we forced the current print magazines to become something they’re not, we would have to reinvent them.

So how to reach younger readers? You can’t win a new race on an old horse. If the SF short story is going to win broader appeal, it will have to be through a new medium. I see three bright points of hope. A magazine-format publication marketed toward the young might do well, especially if it were to capitalize on existing interest in media SF. Short stories in online audio format — a la Escape Pod or authorial podcasting — are proving to be a stronger and stronger contender. Finally, and most exciting to me, online microtransactions might breathe new life into short fiction. There already exist many young readers enamored with SF novelists. If these readers could download the short stories of their favorite authors for $0.99 and read them on their iPhones, it might spark greater interest in other online stories.

A diminishing readership of short fiction is not unique to science fiction. The past decade has seen a declining number of magazines of all kinds that run fiction. Many theories try to explain why the short story has suffered so: they are fighting a losing battle against TV or the Internet; they’ve become too erudite for the common reader; etc. However, regardless of the cause, there is no reason why we can’t spark a resurgence of interest in the short story. Indeed, because science fiction deals in the trade of wonder and excitement, we are the literary branch best suited to recruit the young. For that reason, science fiction is one of our best hopes of creating a more literate society.

Colleen Lindsay
For five years, Colleen Lindsay (link here: ) served as the Director of Publicity for Del Rey Books, a division of the Random House Publishing Group, where she specialized in the creative publicity and marketing of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels and third-party licensed media. Additionally, she has more than twenty years experience in publishing and bookselling. Currently Colleen is a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management.

From a publishing standpoint, it would be great to see more of the marketing and publicity dollars at the larger mainstream houses being funneled toward the SF/F imprints. Frequently when there are cutbacks, what publishers call “slash & burn” meetings toward the end of a span, the first things to get cut are the marketing & publicity dollars for the genre titles (and when I say genre here, I’m including mid-list mystery and romance as well). Too often the bulk of the promotional monies get funneled into promoting a lead title for which some over-zealous editor overpaid, and that book often ends up being both a critical and commercial disappointment despite the ridiculous amounts of promotional dollars spent on it. It doesn’t necessarily mean the book was a bad one; rather it indicates that the model publishers are using for allocating promotional dollars is no longer working and needs to be rethought.

Additionally, it would be great to see more publishers embracing the Internet for promotion, using viral videos and blogs and social networking sites to get the word out about a great new book rather than spending money on print advertisements. Some of the publishers are doing a very good job with this: Baen, Orbit, Tor, Pyr and Del Rey (which was the first SF/F publisher to really grasp the importance of the fledgling Internet back in the mid-90s when editor Ellen Key Harris had the foresight to create the Del Rey BBS and the Online Writing Workshop, an online workshop is still going strong today as a private venture and that has helped shape some of today’s bestselling genre writers).

People bemoan the loss of the newspaper book reviews, but those print book review sections functioned primarily as an additional revenue stream for the newspaper. When publishers started paying attention to the fact that most print ads don’t sell books, they stopped paying for ad space and as a consequence the newspapers cut the book review sections entirely. I don’t see it as a great loss, quite honestly. The Internet has proven itself to be a much more egalitarian medium for promoting books and authors, especially within the various genres.

Jason Sizemore
Jason Sizemore is the editor-in-chief of Apex Digest Online and Apex Book Company. When not publishing books and an ezine, he writes creepy Sci-horror short stories. For more information visit http://www.apexbookcompany.com

The fans are great. Stay the same, people!

Do we need mainstream acceptance? I would argue that science fiction IS the mainstream. It’s all a sneaky ruse pulled on the public. Many of the best novels (film and comics as well) in the past few years have incorporated science fiction ideas into their plots.

Publishing…so much needs to be changed. Instead of a twenty page diatribe outlining the woes of the industry, I’ll list one personal pet peeve: the downsizing of editorial staff.

Sometimes becoming good at your job can get you fired. Becoming highly skilled means you’ll want more money. But in tougher economic times, being a high-salaried employee makes you a target. Why pay this old guy $80k a year when I can get a college grad for $28k?

Unfortunately, I’ve heard of this happening a lot in the publishing business lately. Sometimes the switch to a green editor works just fine. But often, the change isn’t so easy. It’s a shock to an author in the fourth book of a seven-book series to have his or her editor changed. The author loses a valuable resource and the person who was enthusiastic enough about the book to buy it in the first place.

The worst cases are when an editor is let go and no other editor employed by their publisher picks up the author. Many an excellent book has been “orphaned” this way.

Maybe editors should be granted tenure! Publishers could never fire them. Authors would have little power to argue about their edits.

A win-win for all parties involved!

James Van Pelt
James Van Pelt‘s fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Talebones, Realms of Fantasy and many other magazines. He’s been a finalist for the Nebula and the Sturgeon awards. His first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, was released in Nov. ’06. His third collection of short stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, will be available in 2009 from Fairwood Press. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school and college English in western Colorado.

Well, of course, if I could change anything, I’d make science fiction short stories by high school English teachers wildly popular, and shower the authors with acclaim and fortune. If I can’t have that, I wish at least that the major book chains would treat their customers who love science fiction and fantasy better by putting the magazines that publish science fiction and fantasy on the end caps where fans could find them. News stand sales are driven partly by visibility. In every major book store I’ve been in, the story magazines are across the store from the books, displayed on the bottom shelf with the more obscure titles like Saddle Lovers Monthly or Better Garages and Attics where only someone on their hands and knees could find them. Most of the people cruising through the books for a good read aren’t even aware that there are magazines devoted to the genre they love. It’s tough to get new subscribers when the potential audience for the magazines don’t know of their existence.

I know that magazine sales in general are falling, but I don’t think the science fiction and fantasy magazines have to accept that for our small part of the big picture. SF/F magazines should try to reverse the trend. Since new news stand subscriptions aren’t growing anyone, then the science fiction and fantasy magazines have to figure out different strategies to find readers. Jeremy Tolbert suggested to me at WorldCon that there’s a huge SF/F gaming community who is unaware of short fiction. He thought that the magazines could try something innovative, like putting an issue in every box of Halo or World of Warcraft. That would be a lot of exposure!

Jeremiah Tolbert
Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer, web designer, and photographer living in Northern Colorado. His work has appeared in Interzone, Shimmer, and most recently, the new anthology Seeds of Change. He is also behind the steampunk project Dr. Roundbottom found at clockpunk.com.

There are a lot of things I wouldn’t mind seeing changed in science fiction, but they mostly revolve around growing the audience. I am most interested in creating ways for people who would like science fiction short fiction to learn that it even exists. At one time, the defunct magazine SF Age had nearly 175,000 in sales of a single issue. The largest circulation of any magazine is barely over 20,000 today and has been falling for nearly a decade. There is no doubt that there is a larger audience out there for the SF short fiction magazines, but because those magazines have a marketing budget of zero, they don’t seem to be connecting with their audience as well as they could. Here are a few things I would do to change this.

  1. Stock the SF magazines in the SF books section. The digests are too small to stand out on the magazine racks at the big stores. Keep hammering on the big chains until they do this. The costs will equal the gains in acquiring new, young readers. Admittedly, the magazines are attempting this. But if they can’t get the chains to do it, then ask the dedicated readers to move them.
  2. Failing the above, change the format to match Weird Tales and Interzone in size so they are easier to find on the newsstand.
  3. Improve the cover art across the board. Too many covers today do not appeal to young readers and have a very archaic art style. The design of the magazines as well are a little dusty. Magazines like Interzone and Weird Tales once again are ahead in this area. If they can afford modern, hip art, so can the others.
  4. Improve the magazine web presences. Some of the magazines have websites that have not updated their design in the time that I have been active in the field. They’re difficult to use and frankly, ugly. My generation judges a company by their website quite often.
  5. Video game cross promotion. Most of my friends who would be reading these magazines play video games instead. Advertise short fiction venues in video game magazines. Consider running video game tie-in fiction even. Ask Microsoft to let you run some Halo short stories. Give those World of Warcraft gamers something to read while they wait for a raid to come together.

  6. Create a YA-oriented SF/F magazine and get it into schools any way possible. Beg and/or bribe JK Rowling to write a story for your first issue. How you bribe someone with a net worth larger than the Queen is an exercise I leave to the reader.

The popularity of SF in television and film proves to me that the audience for SF short fiction is larger than any magazine has tapped. Unfortunately, its going to take some serious energy and perhaps even some money to reach new readers. Given the aging of core fandom, I believe reaching new, younger readers is the most important problem facing this smaller part of the field.

David Langford
David Langford, sf critic and editor of Ansible, is hugely

overdocumented at http://ansible.co.uk/.)

I have a dream in which that otherwise splendid fellow Forrest J Ackerman was persuaded — possibly by time-travelling fans with honeyed tongues and knuckledusters — /not/ to invent the term “sci-fi”. He was only having fannish fun, unaware of how easily that jingling phrase could be used by the mass media to belittle sf and make it sound vaguely childish. Imagine an alternate history in which our favourite genre has another nickname. The mists clear, the crystal ball locks onto its channel, and I have a vision in which sf is known for its most academically acclaimed practitioner. In this utopian if-world, all the journalists call it DickLit.

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is the author of Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin) and The Shadow Speaker (Disney Media Group). Her book, Long Juju Man, winner of the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, is scheduled for release in February, 2009. Her latest short story, “Spider the Artist”, was published in Seeds of Change (edited by John Joseph Adams, Prime Books). Her website is at nnedi.com.

This is a difficult question to answer because no matter what complaint I make or improvement I suggest, someone will be able to point out this or that book that proves my concerns are unfounded. Plus I’m no expert on the genre of science fiction. I’m just a reader of it. Anyway…so what would I change about the field of science fiction? Well, it seems that too much of the science fiction that I read is, for lack of a better word, cold. Emotionless, overly logical and too often overly male in character, point-of-view, concern. I also notice a lack of cultural-diversity. Again, this is just my limited experience. My world view requires diversity, passion and magic, even in the scientific. All this allows me to believe in a story. There is nothing like getting sucked so deep into a story that you forget where you are, that you might as well disappear from where you sit. I only get this effect when I believe what I am reading. I have a very big imagination, but when certain elements are missing or ignored, that belief effect is not so potent. I’d like to see more science fiction that reflects my world view along with the others (note: I am not suggesting that every writer write the same thing or do what I want to see done – that is not diversity. I’d just like more).

Ken MacLeod
Ken MacLeod was born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, on August 2, 1954. He is married with two children and lives in West Lothian. He has an Honours and Masters degree in biological subjects and worked for some years in the IT industry. Since 1997 he has been a full-time writer. He is the author of eleven novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to The Night Sessions (2008), and many articles and short stories. His novels have received one BSFA award and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards. Ken MacLeod’s weblog is The Early Days of a Better Nation.

If I could change one thing about SF, it would be the Future.

Golden Age SF had a default future that most written SF assumed as a background, or consciously departed from. You know how it went: one way or another, humanity would expand into the universe. By now that future has come to seem unlikely in reality, and implausible (or ironic) in fiction. Outside written SF, it flourishes as never before: from Star Wars and Star Trek to The Chronicles of Riddick and Battlestar Galactica.

At the same time, popular science has become best-selling, and more exciting than science fiction.

In written SF, however, we haven’t come up with anything to replace the old Galactic Empire. This is why the magazines have lost so much of their appeal. There’s nothing much wrong with the literary quality of their stories. It’s just rare to see stories written about a future that the writer believes in and the reader can get excited about – let alone one they’d like to live in.

What we need is a new intellectual engagement with the real possibilities, coupled with a new confidence in humanity’s capacity to deal with them. Then we might see again SF magazines that we couldn’t wait for the next issue of, or for the next installment of the future.

Paul Kincaid
Paul Kincaid is the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, he writes regularly for a range of outlets from Science Fiction Studies to SF Site.

There are so many possible answers to this question, but they all come down to the same thing: an end to the ghetto mentality. I think the idea of the ghetto has done more harm to our image of ourselves, and more harm to everyone else’s image of science fiction, than anything else. It’s an easy get out: it allows us to feel persecuted by everyone else and to exclude everyone else all at the same time. So when someone says something sniffy about science fiction, we can just ignore them: they’re not part of sf, they don’t understand. Well, a lot of the time that is true, because we don’t make it easy for people from outside the ghetto to understand. But sometimes they make a criticism that is acute and valuable, but we ignore it because they’re not one of us. When an sf writer writes a non-sf novel, we like to feel betrayed. When a non-sf writer writes an sf novel, we like to feel superior.

The ghetto cuts both ways. It helps to foster the impression that science fiction is elitist or exclusive or just plain silly. We howl with outrage when critics in the mainstream don’t take us seriously, but the Keep Out notices we plaster all over the place don’t exactly encourage that seriousness. Instead we get as far as the ghetto walls then turn around, and become inward looking, self regarding. And everyone outside the ghetto walls comes up to them then turns around and thinks: well, there’s no point in bothering, is there?

The truth is, if science fiction really is the no-holds-barred, daring, experimental, stretch-every-idea-to-the-limit literature we like to think it is, then most sf writers are going to get daring and experimental ideas that don’t fit neatly into the genre. That’s not betrayal, it’s validation. Similarly, if science fiction really is the only way to write about the present (to borrow J.G. Ballard’s notion), then any writer worth their salt, from whatever part of the literary spectrum, is going to come up with ideas that we would classify as science fiction.

The best thing that could happen for the genre, the best thing that could happen for the whole of literature, would be a range of fiction from the most determinedly realist to the most outrageously fantastic, and any and all readers and any and all writers should be able to move freely along the entire continuum. But when we put up road blocks and border posts along that line, ideas just don’t get exchanged.

When I first got involved in science fiction the ghetto mentality was rampant. In fact there were far too many fans and writers who congratulated themselves on being in the ghetto. I suspect today a lot of people would say it doesn’t exist at all, but it’s still there, still inextricably bound up with our sense of self. Let’s get science fiction back in the gutter where it belongs, they’ll say. They may say it ironically, but it colours their idea of the genre nevertheless.

It is almost impossible to imagine what sf might have been like if we’d never thought we belong in the gutter, if we’d never thought we belong in the ghetto. If we could go back and change that, where would we be now?

Mark Budz
Mark Budz (Clade, Crache, Idolon, Till Human Voices Wake Us) works and plays near the largely imaginary community of Silicon Beach. He occasionally finds the time to write a short story, the latest of which can be found in Seeds of Change.

If I could change one thing about SF/F, it would be the way genre writers are marketed today by publishers in the field. Because of the way book sales and distribution developed over the years, editors and publishers demand books that fall into well-defined, easily identifiable categories. Is it steampunk, hard SF, military SF, space opera, alternate history? If a book can’t be pigeonholed it’s less likely to find a home. The more commercial a book, the more familiar and franchise-able, the more desirable. The net result is a field that is in danger of becoming homogeneous and lobotomized by inbreeding.

To be fair there are book editors out there who aren’t content with the status quo, editors who actively seek innovative material and are willing to fight to get it into print. Small, independent presses have done a good job of picking up some of the slack, particularly with established writers (generally, though not always, mid-list) who are coloring too far outside the lines. But by and large books are bought and sold to accommodate a core demographic with predictable buying habits.

For decades, category-based marketing has worked reasonably well. As a young reader, gravitating from comics to novels, I appreciated bookstores with a section devoted to science fiction and fantasy. It made it easier to find the kinds of books I was interested in reading. For years the SF/F enclave has been generally good for the field. Early on it established a home for kindred spirits. It provided an environment that fostered mutual support and actively encouraged new writers and readers. It offered an alembic in which ideas could be shared, alchemized, and expanded upon. That unique internal dialog has always been critical to the success of the field. It remains just as critical today.

But the enclave is steadily shrinking and has been for some time. Sales of the short fiction print magazines are at an all-time low, around 30% of what they were 25 years ago. The print run for a typical mid-list mass market paperback now stands at 15,000 to 20,000 copies instead of the 50,000 that used to be common. The patient lies etherised upon the table, the victim of multiple wounds: an aging core readership; competition with other mediums; little audience crossover between mediums; a declining interest in science; the extant (and perhaps expanding) public perception that all SF is little more than escapist juvenile fluff (to paraphrase one independent bookstore employee) devoid of any other intrinsic value.

How long before the enclave is no longer self-sustaining?

With the number of online resources now available to readers, the category-based model seems at best archaic and at worst self-limiting. When it’s just as easy to browse 10,000 titles as it is ten, why continue to separate genre SF/F from mainstream SF/F? Young adult doesn’t make the distinction, why should the rest of us? Music still groups bands by category, but this seems mainly a brick and mortar holdover. Search for a band online, and after a few related links you’re likely to find yourself heading off in unexpected and often rewarding directions. That act of discovery is part of the fun. I don’t know a single reader who doesn’t feel the same way about books. And I don’t know a single writer who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to gain access to a wider readership.

So maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at making inroads into the broader territory outside of traditional SF/F markets. The long-standing barrier between genre and non-genre fiction seems to be eroding. Due in part to a number of traditionally non-genre writers who have recently turned to SF/F tropes to make sense of the world (whether they’re willing to admit it or not), the mainstream is now more accepting of SFnal topics and modes of expression. There’s no reason to jettison the unique sense of community and the internal dialog that runs through the field. But there’s also no reason why books by genre writers shouldn’t stand side by side with the works of Borges, DeLillo, Lessing, Murakami, Pynchon, and Roth.

Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory is waiting for his first novel, Pandemonium, to come out this month from Del Rey Books. His short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and numerous year’s best anthologies. He writes web code in the morning and fiction in the afternoon, and by night he stalks the hills of State College, PA, alarming the Amish.

At WorldCon this year I was on a panel with Jim Minz from Baen Books about electronic publishing, and I became convinced that publishers should be following Baen’s lead. The industry needs ebooks that are cheap and DRM-free-and in a universal format. Hell, *I* need them.

First, the ebook has to be cheap. That makes sense for everyone: readers, publishers, and authors. It boggles me that electronic versions of new hardcovers sell for $20 or more, almost exactly what I can pay for the physical object at Barnes & Noble with my discount card. This despite the fact that the publisher has almost zero production and distribution costs — not even the cost of hiring a voice actor, as there is with audio books — and no return risk. Why aren’t publishers capitalizing on this? Jim said on the panel that he can make a lot more money selling many more low-priced electronic editions than he can selling few high-priced editions. And until inexpensive smart paper arrives like a skinny messiah, the fact that the text is electronic is more of a drawback than a benefit for most people. Paper books are still the preferred medium, and not just for old fogies; Locus recently reported on Scholastic’s study that found that children still prefer reading on paper to reading online. But even if it’s not the preferred medium, it’s still an important niche. And as a new writer, I want my books to be available in as many formats, distribution channels, and media as possible.

Second, the ebook should be DRM-free. In my day job as a programmer, I’ve built e-commerce sites and I’ve worked with the major anti-piracy and Digital Rights Management vendors for software, and I’ve built custom license systems for online access. As everyone knows by now, every DRM system is hackable. You will never be able to stop someone from copying your code or MP3 or text file if the hacker is motivated enough. Game vendors have it the worst: hackers are very motivated, and all the vendor can hope for is to slow down long enough to make a little money. Some game vendors buy into multiple protection schemes, switching every few weeks, just to keep the barbarians (their fans) behind the gates. Perhaps the worse news for a game publisher would be if no one cared enough to hack the DRM scheme.

The real problem with DRM is that the people you’re most likely to deny access to — and piss off — are your paying customers. DRM systems are by their nature pessimistic: they assume that unless the users have exactly the right credentials, they’re trying to cheat the system — and pessimistic systems produce an abundance of false positives. Customers blocked by a false positive will call for tech support, and your call center costs will start climbing. These charges will be on top of the costs to build the DRM system (or implement it, if you’re buying a third-party system) and maintain it. DRM systems suck up hours of programming, testing, and maintenance time. The theory behind DRM investment is that the cost of the system is less than the revenue you would have lost without it — an impossible figure to arrive at with much confidence. One thing’s certain: protection costs will greatly exceed the cost of just distributing the content by itself.

Once you shake yourself free from the hypnotic perfume and false promises of DRM, however, something wonderful happens: you make possible an open, universal book format. That’s point three: Drop or keep the ten different ebook formats we already have going, but add one universal format and have a standards body approve it. As a programmer, I’d say the only real choice is some type of XML, so that developers everywhere can use any number of currently-available tools to transform and display that content for any device — but really, any free, public standard with a documented API will do.

With an open standard the book can easily appear on any phone, web browser, ebook reader, or game system — or any device created in the future. I can print the text in big batches with a mainstream publishing house, print it on demand, put it on a website (whether it’s a free, ad-supported, or subscription-based site), or all simultaneously. I can also send the text to translation companies (which have already standardized on xml as an exchange format), or automatically transform text into speech. The universal format drops development costs for everyone and provides both the author and publisher with more licensing options and more sales channels. If I’m going to make a career in this business, I need as many revenue streams as possible.

Now, don’t get me started on ebook readers — but I’d love to see something like Readius take off.

Edward Willett
Edward Willett is a Canadian author of science fiction and fantasy for both teens and adults. His most recent novel is Marseguro, published by DAW Books; the sequel, Terra Insegura, will be out next year. His website is at c and he blogs at edwardwillett.blogspot.com.

What’s the one thing I’d change about the science fiction field? Easy! I’d change it so everybody who reads science fiction–better yet, everyone who reads!–buys my books.

But every writer would make that change, so perhaps I’ll have to dig a little deeper.

I think my answer would have to be a variation on the “wouldn’t mainstream acceptance be nice?” theme. It’s frustrating to see mainstream writers reap accolades for writing stories based on ideas that have been explored within the field for decades. Greater acceptance of SF as a legitimate form of literature by so-called literary writers would force them to work harder at their versions of SF stories. They wouldn’t be able to trot out ideas that had already been well-farmed by SF writers as something brand-new. Instead, they would have to–as SF writers have to now–be aware of what previous authors did with that material and come up with fresher and more interesting takes on it.

There’s no question that those raised within the confines of the literary genre have strengths that are sometimes lacking within the SF genre. Those who praise literary writers talk about the elegance of their prose, the richness of their language, the depth of their characters, and so forth. If SF were more widely accepted by the mainstream, literary writers could use those strengths more often in the service of SF ideas.

Of course, SF has its own strengths that are sometimes lacking within the literary genre, including a wider canvas, better plotting, bigger ideas, an understanding that the future will not be the same as the present or the past, and–most importantly–a sheer joy of storytelling.

Greater mainstream acceptance of SF is the change I would bestow on the field with the wave of my magic (or, if you prefer, extremely advanced technology) wand, then, not because (well, not just because) of the annoyance all of us within the field feel when our chosen form of literature is denigrated and those who consider themselves our literary betters point at us and giggle, but because I believe that that acceptance would result in both better SF and better literature: that, in fact, the former might finally be afforded its due and understood to be the latter.

Oh, and of course it would mean all of us within the field–myself, naturally, included–would sell more books.

Bonus!

Mindy Klasky
Mindy Klasky is the author of 9 novels and numerous short stories that span the speculative fiction continuum from grimy cyberpunk to fluffy paranormal romance. In her spare (?) time, she quilts, bakes, and tries to tame her endless to-be-read-shelf. Visit her website at http://www.mindyklasky.com.

If I could change any aspect of the SF field, I would move readers, writers, editors, and reviewers away from the “ghetto” mentality of sub-genres and toward a more general recognition of “speculative fiction.” I would eradicate the shaky and sometimes invisible lines between science fiction and fantasy and urban fantasy and cyberpunk and steampunk and fill-in-the-blank-exciting-new-sub-genre.

We do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we fight over scant bookstore shelf space or relational database tags, squabbling about whether our work is more toward one end of a sub-genre continuum than toward another. The problem is greatest in the YA sections of major chain bookstores, where books for teens are broken out by “general” and by “series” and by “fantasy” and by “science fiction” and by “bestsellers” and by other sub-topics deemed appropriate in individual stores. Where can one find a book like Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps? It can obviously be shelved under “W” in the general section, but it has a sequel (making it part of a series), it features vampires (usually, a hallmark of fantasy), and it contains extensive discussions of parasite-and-host interaction (typically, an SF corner of the world.) Often, buyers become so frustrated by this type of balkanization that they walk away from making a purchase altogether.

We need to trust our readers. We need to believe that they can pick up a book by Steven Baxter and determine that it takes a different approach to speculative fiction than a book by J.K. Rowling. Once we stop drawing lines in the sand, our rich and varied genre can stand more firmly — in the marketplace and in readers’ collective imagination.

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams the editor of the anthologies Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, The Living Dead, and Seeds of Change. He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and is the print news correspondent for SCI FI Wire (the news service of the SCI FI Channel). Visit his website at www.johnjosephadams.com.

From an editorial perspective, I think maybe that we don’t often enough challenge writers to be great. Not all stories (or writers) have greatness inside of them, but I think that perhaps too often we accept and publish good stories that truly could be great if the writer was just pushed to *make it* great. It seems like editors used to do this routinely, if one can accept the statements one reads in historical accounts at face value. Editors like John W. Campbell and Harlan Ellison are frequently cited as having done a lot to mold and shape the fiction they published. It could be that this is still happening today, but I don’t hear about it very often and don’t often see it–instead I find myself reading good stories in which I find greatness lurking inside them. I don’t know what the reason for this is, or even if it is a true problem–good stories are, after all *good*–but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

The other thing is I’d like us to find a way to bridge the gap between the various groups of non-genre readers who *like* SF and get them to read the stuff actually marketed as SF. You know, the kids reading SF/fantasy in the young adult section, people who like books like The Road or The Time Traveler’s Wife–these readers clearly like SF, but they don’t often cross-over into reading the stuff marketed as SF. Same thing goes for comic book readers, manga readers, video game players, and SF film viewers–all of these people like the conventions of the genre; surely there’s a way to convert them to SF readers. There are a number of publishers–such as Tor, with the new Tor.com–who appear to be trying out various gambits to attract new readers; I’d love to see more of that, and to see efforts like that pay dividends.

Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

While it’s quite popular to grumble about the state of publishing, and there certainly may be room for improvement, I find my publisher excellent to work with. I absolutely love our fan community here in speculative fiction, both the general readership and the core Fandom who support us all.

What I would love to see is a different relationship with the mainstream of publishing — critically, distribution-wise, even the Hollywood channel. We hear constant a mainstream mantra of “this isn’t science fiction, it’s a serious look at the future” every time a literary icon or major Hollywood producer plays in our turf. That arises a from a “Spock ears” perception of our field, driven by public misconceptions and stereotypes about writers and fandom.

18 out of the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time are fantasy and science fiction. Non-sports computer and online gaming is dominated by our content. Many mainstream bestsellers have strong genre elements. We are everywhere in the literary community, having lost all the battles but somehow won the war. Now, if only the literary community could see that.

The other thing I would change? More Barbarella babes on the book covers!!! Ooh rah!

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

20 Comments on MIND MELD: If You Could Change Any Aspect of The Science Fiction Field, What Would it Be?

  1. Aaah… you see, this is why you guys are more popular than I am.

    If I had run this discussion I would have called it “Who’s going to be first up against the wall come the SF revolution?” 🙂

  2. And what would your answer be, Jonathan? 🙂

  3. A comment for Gary Gibson…

     

    I don’t disagree about the cover for <i>In the Garden of Iden</i>, but I wouldn’t characterize a book where the climax includes the burning at the stake of a significant character as a “comedy of manners.”  It’s an intersting story, but it’s more <i>Doomsday Book</a> than P.G. Wodehouse.

     

  4. Karen – you’re quite right, I was basing my description on a book I read a year ago, and my copy of which is currently several thousand miles away from where I now sit, meaning I lacked the opportunity to check it against my feeble memory. As you say, it’s more Doomsday Book than anything else (as I now recall). Nonetheless, I don’t feel that the cover fits the book.

    I can easily imagine, say, joining a reading group full of people who’ve never read genre, and their reactions if I produced a copy of Iden with that cover and said ‘you should really read this’. I’ve not had that precise experience, but quite a few similar ones. 

    They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but the fact is we all do, whether consciously or otherwise.

  5. Actually, that sounds like I’m disagreeing with you when you’re actually agreeing with me. Doh!

  6. I’ll unmask myself as a literary Philistine here and say “better cover art.”

    I used to pick up sf books all the time just on the strength of an exciting-looking spaceship, a fascinating creature, an alien landscape, a heroic figure in an exciting situation, or a zaftig woman with hubcaps on her boobs.

    There’s stilll very fine art produced, just less of it. The “best” is clearly superior these days, but the run-of-the-mill has become much worse.

  7. Interesting that an aim towards YA market was oft-mentioned but no YA author was interviewed.

  8. I think I will have to buy the Daryl Gregory book when it releases. Anyone who hates on DRM deserves to be supported with a purchase.

  9. Um, I think Okorafor-Mbachu is a YA author. At least that’s what my memory tells me. Need to google her. But I believe she writes YA novels.

     

     

     

  10. <em>Gary Gibson is the author of three novels for Tor UK, the latest being Stealing Light, the first book of a trilogy which does in fact feature exploding spaceships and was originally written under the working title Shit Blows Up. He has recently completed the second book, written under the working title Even More Shit Blows Up, the final, official title being as yet undecided. He has since begun work on the third volume, under the working title Now That’s What I Call Blowing Shit Up. </em>

    I feel like a terrible person because this was my favorite section of the whole article.  -_-

    Great stuff here, though.  Nobody asked me, =) but if I could change one thing, I would change… SF/F’s resistance to change.  Some of the authors in the Meld noted this as a problem, though they phrased it in different ways — the ugly cover art, the ineffective marketing methods, the resistance to offering DRM-free fiction online, etc.  It seems strange to me that a genre dedicated to speculation and imagining the impossible would be so conservative and reactionary, but it is.  This conservativism isn’t very appealing to younger readers, I believe, so that could be one reason why SF isn’t attracting as many youth as it should be.  I definitely think this may be what’s slowly killing the print market for short SF/F — the Big Three aren’t making much of an effort to appeal to audiences beyond their current demographic (middle-aged to old, middle-class, etc. white males).  Those other audiences exist, and some of the (especially newer) short fiction markets have figured out effective ways to target them, but I don’t see many of the older markets adopting and implementing these methods.  I also think this conservativism is what’s got SFWA on the ropes; they’re not implementing any of the successful outreach/membership-growth models used by other writers’ organizations.  If SFWA adopted the “come one, come all” membership hierarchy used by the RWA, for example, they’d probably then have enough members and money to offer some really powerful resources, like health insurance or a publicist to help improve the genre’s image.

  11. Excellent topic. A lot of the responses seem to point to expanding the audience  and getting the genre out of the ghetto. Marketing people like genre  to be ghettoized. Oddly enough the writers like it too. They may not know it, but they do. It’s not required for authors call their work science fiction, but it helps them market it. If an author wants to get out of the science fiction ghetto, there’s the door (Same goes for the publishers). It’s a lot harder to describe work in the mainstream world. It’s also a lot harder to get attention when there’s so many other writers competing with you. But the audience is expanded and it’s not nearly the ghetto the genre literature is.

     

     

  12. John — I don’t know… it would have to be one hell of a long wall 😉

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    Great discussion!

     

    I read SF as a teen and young adult—what I found in the adult/SF section of the library, that is. Therefore, I thought one way to attract youth would be by establishing “catch the SF reading bug” campaigns with libraries. If marketing departments can’t/won’t spend the money or effort on such a campaign, then a grassroots collaboration between authors, librarians, teachers, and parents might be the way to go.

     

    Libraries could order more YA or at least youth friendly SF books and set up programs that could tie into science workshops/activities/interactive presentations. Authors could do readings/speeches for youth, teachers could bring students for field trips…the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of those involved. This might also potentially harness the power of Internet promotion, as Ms. Lindsay discussed, because so many young adults connect online these days.

     

    Having worked in the mental health field, I know there are many youth programs that would benefit from donated SF books or attention from authors. Those of you with similar experience understand what a strong impact such a partnership could have.

     

    >Same thing goes for comic book readers, manga readers, video game players, and SF film viewers–all of these people like the conventions of the genre; surely there’s a way to convert them to SF readers

     

    It’s called Comic-Con.

  14. whoops! sorry about all that nonsensical nonsense. I cut and pasted from a Word document so it must have appeared because of that.

  15. I can think of a bunch of things I’d like to see.

    1.  I’d like to see a monthly audio digest that collected the best 8 hours of SF/F short stories from any source of print/online magazines or original anthologies, and read by top narrators.  I want it to showcase how good short SF/F is to the iPod generation.  This audio anthology needs a distribution system that promotes the concept widely and makes money for the authors, producers and narrators, and gets people to read more SF/F magazine.  The publishers of this audio magazine should let subscribers to print magazines have a copy for free to promote the magazines and help the authors and editors.

    2.  I would like to see classic SF/F produced for television in 13 and 26 episode miniseries.  I hate television series that start up and then get cancelled.  Well, pick longer SF/F stories and commit to half-year and full-year runs that complete a story and in the end make a nice stand alone DVD set.

    3.  I’d loved to see the annual Dozois best of the year anthology produced as a top quality audio book.

    4.  I’d loved to see some graphic novels made into DVDs so the images show on the computer screen in hi-rez but the words get narrated by professional readers and the dialog baloons get removed.

    5.  Reprint classic fanzines, like Richard Geis’ Science Fiction Review as pdf files.

    6.  Create a Wiki for science fiction that’s as good as Wikipedia that also reprints all SF/F that’s out of print, like old runs of Adventure magazines, and early Amazing could be preserved.

    7.  Keep evolving SF Signal to that it tracks all SF/F related content so that it makes taking it all easier.  Y’all have done a fantastic job so far, but I think the future is even brighter for what SF Signal will become.

    Well, that’s enough wishing for now.

     

     

  16. Andrew Wheeler responds to this Mind Meld.

  17. Mr. Kincaid, it is quite likely we would be where Philo Vance is now.

  18. While I agree that cover art in the genre is sometimes atrocious and deliberately misleading, hey, at least we get cover art!  A lot of mainstream fiction doesn’t bother with cover art of any kind, especially for the big name writers.  Granted, SF&F does that too with mega-names (think GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire books), but for the most part, we get something.  And when it’s something by John Picacio, Donato Giancola, Stephan Martiniere, Bob Eggleton, or Michael Whelan, so much the better.

    Oh crap, I just noticed the lack of prominent female cover artists.  OK, so that’s a change I’d like to see in the field:  more female cover artists.

    I also wouldn’t mind more anthologies that are open instead of invite-only.  Not for selfish reasons, believe it or not, but because I do get tired of seeing the same names over and over and over in every TOC.  It’s possible that even open, blind submissions would result in the same TOCs, I suppose, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out.

  19. S. F. Murphy // August 21, 2008 at 12:24 pm //

    This conservativism isn’t very appealing to younger readers, I believe, so that could be one reason why SF isn’t attracting as many youth as it should be.

    What conservatism?

    S. F. Murphy

  20. Coming to the discussion late (I’ve had it open in a tab, “to read” for almost a month now!).  An interesting slice of opinions (I’m really enjoying your Mind Melds).

    Bottom line: frustration that there aren’t more people “getting” science fiction.  I sometimes wish <a href=”http://www.gudmagazine.com/”>GUD</a> didn’t publish adult-leaning content so that we could more easily market to perspicacious YA–but at least in puritanical-US, that would be litigiously dangerous.  I don’t have a good enough feel for other places to say…

    I think we do a beautiful job of publishing fiction across the continuum–and I’d really, REALLY like to do some videogame tie-ins.  Any gamedevs out there looking for some unique, short-fiction IP?  I’d do it myself, and hope to some day, but not enough of me to go around. 😉

    I think science fiction needs more celebrities.  That’s the culture we’re in, so I think that’s the quickest way to the heart of the matter.  We need _specifically_ science fiction celebrities that get all the painful papparazi treatment as the rest of them.  Or maybe I just need more sleep.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

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