June 27th, 2005


science fiction vs. fantasy

I don't recall how I was routed there as I browsed my way through various links at the end of the business day.... but over on filomancer's site there's an entry wherein the author mentions that her agent encouraged her to write fantasy rather than science fiction, because the former sells better than the latter. Naturally, she wanted to know why. Hmmm.....

Looking at my own sales to date this year, and setting aside media titles (AKA work-for-hire) and other genres, the original fantasy titles I've sold outnumber the science fiction novels by 3:1. As of whatever moment it was that I just scrolled through the top 25 best-selling titles on Amazon's sf/f list, fantasy was outrunning science fiction by 2:1. The June Locus seems to be a bit more balanced. Still, based on that small amount of circumstantial evidence, it sounds like the agent mentioned above might be correct. Indeed, it seems to be an accepted truism in the market; I've heared it many times before. I speak mostly for novel-length fiction here, as it seems the statistics are different in shorter forms (which is another interesting comparison in and of itself). But, in my own personal experience, I have to admit it's been, over the last several years, more difficult to place science fiction titles. The irony, I find, is that nearly every editor I've asked about what they need to fill out their list has told me that they need more good science fiction; that fantasy is easily had and plentiful. And, yet, this uneven sales history exists. It's food for thought and I'm curious to know why other people might think this is so.

filomancer also says: I'm deeply attached to many aspects of the sf novel I'm working on, not just the space ships and explosions, and would have a really hard time putting it away. And in a later entry: Writing is hard enough without trying to write something you're not interested in. I have to be sufficiently passionate about a story to get me through the sometimes very difficult labor of making it work. If I don't love something about a story, I might as well be writing grant proposals in my spare time. So, yeah, I think I have to just go ahead and write what I want to write and take it from there. For a slow writer like myself, though, the thought of spending years on a novel that I might then not sell is a fearful one.

This touches on another topic that I've found myself thinking on more than once: market vs. muse. Naturally, as an agent reads through submissions, they must think of the potential each project has to sell. With those queries, proposals, and manuscripts that are not from current clients, this is certainly a factor in considering whether to pursue their novel further. And, of course, every once in a while a client submits an idea or sample or full manuscript for something that strikes me as being a tough sell. The question for me as agent becomes -- it is in their best interest to market this? Do I think I can actually sell it, or should I try to encourage them to explore a more saleable direction? And, I'll tell you.... If you're an agent who's only in it for the cold hard cash, then the answer is obvious. You sell what will sell big and sell well. And when that's over, you dump them and move on to the next cash cow. But if there's more to it than that for you? If you're an agent after more, then the answer becomes more murky. You're an agent -- you want to sell things. Writers want you to sell things for them. After all, that's what they hired you to do (and both of you need to pay the electric bill next week). But, you're also a lover of good stories and well-written prose. It's not just a job. It's a career; maybe even a calling. It's not just what you do. It's who you are. So, what do you do when you get a book that is going to be a long road for both of you? I don't know about everyone else, but if I believe in that writer and in that story, I take a deep breath, give them the honest truth about what I think our chances are, and then we go for it. The first time I ever did that, it took me nearly three years to sell the novel in question. And it's now into many printings and the author has sold several more novels. So, there.
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