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Barrie
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 04:51 am:   

For fuck's sake Al, increase the medication!,

Trust me, I'm a doctor
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 05:16 am:   

Ah, it's catharsis, Baz. Howling at the full moon, primal screaming and all that jazz.

Besides, if I upped the medication the voices might go away... and then I'd only have to listen to, I dunno, reason, conscience, boring things like that. :-)
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jigsaw
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 05:23 am:   

that has to be one of the most impressive rants i've ever seen :-)

interesting to come across someone else who thinks sf/f has defined itself into a ghetto and is doing its utmost to stay in it. and that the genre(s) is/are obsessive about self-definition and intertextuality to the point of stale stasisity.
i do wonder if there's a danger in adopting moderism rather than pulp, in that the result will be to continue rather than replace the increasing genre-self-definition-navel-gazing which the 'new weird', despite *breaking out from the genre*, has maybe encouraged.

it'd be encouraging to see other people 'in' the genre taking your points on board
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 07:04 am:   

"I do wonder if there's a danger in adopting moderism rather than pulp, in that the result will be to continue rather than replace the increasing genre-self-definition-navel-gazing"

Hi, Jigsaw. If there's something we can learn from genre writing it's probably the no-nonsense attitude of an unreconstructed hack... to shut the fuck up and just do the job. That said, as I see it, if Modernism isn't a genre (in the same way that what we twitchily call SF-not-Sci-Fi isn't really a genre), if it's more of a shared set of techniques and concerns, a cannibalistic approach which sees genre as input rather than output, well, I think the self-definition can actually be a pragmatic description of technique rather than a theoretical prescription of content. Defining yourself as a Cubist, a Surrealist, etc., seems to me a lot more useful than defining yourself as a "Still Life" painter. It's "I try to break down an image into more basic circles and triangles and overlay multiple perspectives in order to present a sort of abstracted representation less limited by an individual spatio-temporal view" versus "I paint fruit". Personally I do prefer the more general label of just plain Modernism though. Sod the self-searching.
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neilw
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 07:45 am:   

Al - so, why is it all of your rants feature food so prominently?

Great rant though, an excellent way to spend 45 minutes.

neil
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 08:07 am:   

Cause foooooood is gooooooood.
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gary gibson
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 08:28 am:   

This all started when I said I didn't think Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was SF, yeah?

The problem with your argument, although I agree with a portion of it, is that it's almost entirely subjective. At one point you’re forced to recite a series of personal takes on the limited range of work in the sf field you've read. Yes, you’ve read Bester, some Heinlein, a good bit of Delany. But I seem to recall you haven't read Dune. Or Red Mars. Or - forgive me if I'm getting this wrong - not even Iain Banks. There are literally a thousand books I could mention here (and yes, I am aware you’re not attacking the field, merely certain people’s entrenched attitudes).

All you’re really saying is, sf is just part of pop culture – meaning those vast piles of books you see in shops like Fopp!, between the dvd’s and cd’s. There’s your Camus, your HS Thompson, your Al Gray, Huxley, Ballard, Moorcock, Mieville, Bear, and Clarke, and on and on and all mixed together. Does sf deserve to win the Booker Prize? Hell, Al, do a considerable number of the books that did win the Booker deserve it? Do I care one way or the other? No. You don’t even really read sf any more. So why rant about it? Why do you care?

If the world of culture and media was a pub, the ‘literary establishment’ and that part of sf that seeks to defend itself against attacks would consist of two middle-aged blokes in a tiny, out of the way alcove somewhere behind the jukebox and the fag machine engaging in an argument of interest only to them. Everyone else would be way too busy having a good time and not really giving a toss what anyone thinks of them to care one way or another. Readers vote with their wallets and little else: literary argument rarely impinges on this.

Next time you feel the urge to write two thousand word screeds over mindnumbingly obscure points of literary opinion, give me a call and I’ll get you out to the pub before it’s too late. Look out the window! Daylight!
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John Klima
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 08:46 am:   

Will Glasgow be this much fun when I arrive in August? Please say yes!

JK
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 09:11 am:   

"So why rant about it?"

Cause that's, um, what a blog is for, innit? Entirely subjective arguments about mindnumbingly obscure points of literary opinion.

Or Amazon rankings and word counts :P
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 09:12 am:   

Oh, don't worry, John. It'll be more fun.

I'll have the absinthe in stock by then.
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 10:09 am:   

"If the world of culture and media was a pub, the ‘literary establishment’ and that part of sf that seeks to defend itself against attacks would consist of two middle-aged blokes in a tiny, out of the way alcove somewhere behind the jukebox and the fag machine engaging in an argument of interest only to them."

Actually, I kinda see "that part of sf" more as one middle-aged bloke on his own muttering bitterly into his pint about how the world hates him. Poor poppet. The literary establishment has no beef with him, just doesn't want to go near him for the body odour. There are no "arguments".

Point is I don't give a fuck about the Booker meself (I'm sure I said that in there somewhere). Readers vote with their wallets? I quite agree. That's why I dump the pointless Booker comparison and go for Catch-22 as a comparison. Man, that must have sold bucketloads... movie deal and everything. Sweet. And I'd bet even money that if it had been serialised in Guns & Ammo before coming out as an *ahem* genre-busting War Fiction novel from Colditz Books with a picture of Yossarian, cigar clenched in jaw, blowing a Stukka out of the sky, it would have taken a lot more of a push for it to be as successful. It might, in fact, have taken a complete nosedive amongst reader expecting the Further Adventures of Sergeant Yank.

Which is basically why I care. I'm fuckin greedy and I want as big a market as possible. So sue me. :-) Booker? Actually, the Booker would boost yer sales substantially, I'd imagine (whether deserved or not). So if you're looking at it on a purely mercenary basis, all I'm arguing is that we're cutting out a huge swathe of the potential market by our failure to sell the product as what it actually is - non-genre imaginative fiction.
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jigsaw
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 10:28 am:   

hi - sorry, i thought with

"what you’re left with is a construction so complicated, of so many tunnels burrowing this way and that, that the whole thing’s in danger of collapsing into one big fucking hole in the ground, an empty space where meaning used to be. If we’re going to say that this or that work is SF because SF isn’t just Science Fiction, it’s Speculative Fiction, it’s Science Fantasy, it’s Alternative History, Space Opera, Experimental Fiction and so on, not one genre but a whole host of genres and cross-genre, interstitial, slipstream, New Wave, New Weird, New Whatever, genre-busting fiction, then ultimately we’re playing exactly the same game as our dreaded high-brow, high-society nemeses"

etc you were pointing to endless self-definition, division and replication within texts and sub genres as being a limiting factor of sf. i think i'll have to have another read . . . . where the text-descriptor, like modernism, means something then it's useful as it feeds into the text rather than shutting it into a box regardless of whether the structure of the nominal genre confines or enhances it. in that respect modernism is far more helpful than new weird, for example, and unusually for sf doesn't push it's constituent parts firmly back into sf zone and away from the mainstream.

but on the whole i don't think the alternate history, new weird, new wave etc titles do this. it seems unlikely their practitioners are even sure what they mean, let alone anyone else.

does modernism - something like stamping butterflies comes to mind? - define your approach in your own book then?
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jigsaw
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 10:32 am:   

s'alarming just how many sf afficiondo's out there *are* scary looking balding middle-aged bearded men who drink stout, smell and lech horribly . . .
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gary gibson
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 11:42 am:   

"all I'm arguing is that we're cutting out a huge swathe of the potential market by our failure to sell the product as what it actually is - non-genre imaginative fiction."

- so what are you doing hanging out at sf and fantasy conventions? I'll accept your argument in favour of a non-genre approach unless you turn around one day and wholesale reject the entire body of sf and those who write it as hacks. Anybody remember the Vurt guy? That's exactly what he did, I seem to recall. I'm not saying you would ... I'm just saying you sound kinda like one of those guys ... (lights cigarette, blows on tip until red hot, makes sure ropes and gag are secure). Now you wouldn't wanna go n'hurt us like that, would yuh, boy? 'Cause we got our own laws round here ...
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 11:50 am:   

What I want to know is--

what's a fag machine?



JeffV
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 11:52 am:   

I just don't have time right now to read the whole rant. Will soon. But I'd like to know is how it deals with what I would call "accidents of birth"--the process by which one book from a fantastical point of view is published by a mainstream imprint for a mainstream audience and another is not. I.e., where the quality, focus, and subgenres are the same or close.

JeffV
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gary gibson
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 12:13 pm:   

'fags' means 'cigarettes' over here.
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, March 01, 2005 - 01:09 pm:   

Gary: "So what are you doing hanging out at sf and fantasy conventions?"

Cause that's the community where the core audience for, and writers of, this peculiar non-genre of imaginative fiction which we lumpenly call SF hang out, kick back, share ideas and, most importantly of all, drink heavily. That's where the latter-day popular Modernists in their SF writer drag go to party.

And, no, don't worry - no need for the ropes and gag (then again... mmm... kinky... no... no... we're not going there). No, I'm not about to denounce all and sundry under the SF banner as hacks. See, kinda the nub of my argument is that there is no 'entire body of sf' to wholesale reject, but that it's our fuzzing of it all into one big SF label that makes a lot of readers who might otherwise be well up for a bit of, say, Roadmarks throw that baby out with the bathwater, that it's our bad labelling rather than their snobbery that's the problem. That book seems like a good example of the stuff I'm talking about as not-actually-genre, steak tartare that we're passing off as hamburger. It's driven by an imaginative conceit, yes, but it's as non-generic as The Illuminatus Trilogy. Hell, I'm championing that sort of stuff, I'd say; I wonder if Roadmarks could be much more well known today if it you simply released it in a plain black-and-white cover as a "modern classic". Or Sladek's The Reproductive System. Or a whole host of others. Your example of Fopp is actually spot-on. The point is that the Fopp stalls are just as coherent, in some way, in their lumping in of Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Dodge and William Burroughs, Ballard, Burgess, etc. as any SF bookshelf. And those Fopp stacks are just as valid a place for Zelazny, Sladek, Delany etc., if not more so than the SF/F shelf in Borders.

Aaagh! Anyway... too late to answer yez right now, Jigsaw 'n' Jeff. Must go to pub.
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 04:33 am:   

Jigsaw: "...endless self-definition, division and replication within texts and sub genres as being a limiting factor of sf..."

To use your metaphor of shutting the text into a box, I think what I was trying to get at is the pointlessness of having one big box labelled SF and then boxes within boxes inside that like Russian dolls. It's not so much about limiting SF as it's about mislabelling; because writing is a highly compactable substance you can squeeze a lot of material into a small box if you push very hard. There can be limitations set on 'density', so to speak, by fans who don't want anything 'too heavy' or writers too lazy to try and fit the quality in, but we make the boxes at the end of the day, and we can remake them bigger and stronger if we decide to 'up our weight thresholds' as writers, readers or publishers. Actually I think the idea of genre as a sort of too-small-box for really-big-writing is maybe a bit of a straw man. "Future dystopia" is a very small box which you can cram some very big ideas into, long as you're willing to push, as long as you have someone willing to carry it to the market, and as long as the readers are happy to heft it back home. Spending far too much time dithering over which box to put your writing in, building new boxes and coming up with new labels for them, and not getting on with the sodding writing is a different issue.

It's targeting that's the problem, I think. If you're boxing things for delivery to highly specific places I can see the point in putting sticky address labels on them. This box goes to 23 Space Opera Gardens. This box goes to Flat 1/2, 12 Alternate History Road. This box goes to 97 New Wave Crescent. But when we put all those into one big box... eventually, to cover all those different locations, we have to widen the scope to the point where the label ceases to function as an address. Then we just have one big box labelled 'Over There Somewhere' and a bunch of us standing around arguing about where the fucking hell 'There' is. That's the void of meaning I was talking about. You end up with it all being sent to this one big sorting office where everyone from all across the city has to come and hunt through that big box of SF, unpacking it, unpacking the boxes within boxes, to try and find what they're looking for.

In a way, I think you could see non-genre "SF" as "individually boxed" packages all chucked into that big uber-box because, well, they look like the sort of stuff that belongs vaguely in that part of town the sorting office serves. In some ways this pays off because the core audience for all the weird individualistic shit rattling around inside the huge SF box is used to hanging around that sorting office; they've spent so long there that whole communities and sub-communities have developed with a sort of word-of-mouth distribution system. Labellings like New Wave allow someone to grab a box, say, hey, this is for you guys, and chuck it over to a crowd in one corner of the room; a lot of these sub-genres, I'd say, are no more genres than SF as a whole. As long as we keep distributing non-generic SF as generic SF though we have to accept the fact, I think, that we're sending it to the sorting office where all the porno addicts pick up their stuff, and that a huge wad of potential readers are just not going to come downtown, push their way through the guys in dirty macs, risking flashers and frotage, to spend hours trawling through the drech for a piece of literary brilliance masquerading as a nudie mag.

There is a danger in the non-genre approach, in marketing this Modernist-fiction-based-on-imaginative-conceits as mainstream so that it gets distributed through the big sorting office uptown. While it might well stand more chance of reaching a (wider) target market there, an inverted snobbery about the mainstream has developed, I think, to the extent that many SF readers and writers point-blank refuse to consider the mainstream as a valid market, thinking of it all as essentially realist and dismissive of any imaginative fiction. But I think that there's enough of an eclectic spirit in the SF readership right now that it should be possible to shrug off genre classification as an irrelevance without that being perceived as crossing some sort of goddamn imaginary wire and "going over to the enemy". There is no enemy.

Anyhoo, yes, my approach is Modernist, consciously using a technique of fragmentation I think of as a literary form of Cubism, and I guess this is part of why I witter on about such matters. I try not to be overly analytic about it all cause that can lead to sterile intellectual wankery, but it's a fair cop - I'm a Modernist through and through, and I'm interested in the wry twist of fate by which other such quite madly ambitious fiction - works I'd also loosely classify as Modernist - are packaged and sold as "genre". I haven't read Stamping Butterflies yet but it sounds like a fair example from what I've heard of it. JeffV's City Of Saints And Madmen strikes me as coming from that same literary tradition, as do Danielewski's House Of Leaves, Moorcock's Cornelius novels and a whole shitload more. Those are just the more obvious examples I can think of off the top of my head. I think even less obvious examples are there to be found throughout the history of the field.
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barrie
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 05:05 am:   

'In the ghetto' rant: a point by point refutation

1) Let's examine your assertion that science fiction writers are whores in red leather miniskirts, with reference to esteemed practitioners of the genre:

Gary Gibson: recently turned pro and does indeed wear leather
Phil Raines: uses his tongue better'n a 20 dollar whore
Neil Williamson: 'feel free, but anything else will cost you'
Al Duncan: 2nd alley Blytheswood Square
Arthur C. Clarke: NEVER!

Wash your mouth out, right now!

2) If SF writers really were whores then the immediate corollary would be that agents and publishers must be pimps and panderers. You see how quickly your logic breaks down?

Q..E..fucking..D
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jigsaw
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 06:08 am:   

hi, er, ok . . .

"Then we just have one big box labelled 'Over There Somewhere' and a bunch of us standing around arguing about where the fucking hell 'There' is"

isn’t this precisely the current situation? if you go into a bookshop you literally get a couple of shelves labeled ‘nerds, geeks and people prepared to be seen buying and reading sf/f only please, and not you tossers who don’t know about space opera. thanks’ whereas crime, sagas, porn, non-genre, detective, chit-lit rub shoulders and shelve together. sf excludes itself - it’s not that the mainstream pushed it out, it’s that sf refuses to associate even remotely with - from these broadbrush descriptions so vigorously that it’s put itself ‘over there’ and keeps insisting it’s different and special. it’s not crime – no way, not in a million – it’s criminal-historical-pseudoscientifical-romantical (in the subgenre of noir-15thc.-alternate-mass-murderer-history) but it likes to be called sf, thank you very much and has nothing to do with that load of mass market rubbish ‘over there’ . . .

and then sf doesn’t tend to get mainstream reviews? well go figure . . . but there are hundreds of magazines which cover it in exhausting detail. lets have a whole magazine devoted to the meaning of tribbles in episode whatever of a minor series and reviews books (but won’t touch <sigh> anything that’s not sf. chick-lit, crime, saga, literary, non genre . . . . anything else can take a fucking hike) /films/games/etc at the same time and all – great. but no one writing in the genre ‘specially wants to get reviewed in it – reviews have to come from the big ‘out there’ before they’re any good. and defining the sub genre ever more tightly in the hope of getting respectability and mainstream reviews as a result is just deluded. the new weird doesn’t get mainstream reviews, really good books do.

so yes sf can package it’s books in tiny genres to target the people who like it . . . but if you do that you get a readership of four, because everyone else who looks at the package see its labeled ‘not for you, so get your sticky mitts off, you sad saga-loving aga-hugger’. or maybe sf could stop doing that – and stop bloody worrying about what it is and what it does, and what it represents endlessly - and recognize that a book is a book is a book. they look the same, they smell the same and they’re all just words on pages, so who gives a shit what it’s called?

readers can make nominal generic distinctions by themselves. authors, publishers et al already know what they’re dealing with, so where is the point in having a box/package/genre beyond something very broadbrush at all?
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gary gibson
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 06:12 am:   

Still don't buy it, Al, now I see what your argument actually is: that boxing all these different mini-genres together doesn't work. 'Course it works. Those people you mention who like this kind of weird shit together with that other kind of weird shit aren't restricted to going to the sf section of a bookshop. They're entirely capable of finding weird shit wherever they go.

Bundling them together works for the reasons many writers fail to appreciate but many editors and publishers do. When you put 'this' and 'this' together, they sell. The only place the argument stands is the recent example of UK bookshops placing trad fantasy titles away from the sf and seeing improving sales (also using nongeneric cover art will play a part in this: the covers being used for these books is startingto look a hell of a lot better). That makes sense because trad fantasy and science fiction in all its varied formats don't really have that much in common except in terms ofthe kind of hardcore audiences we encounter in writing groups or conventions.

On the other hand, if you separated out all those mini sf genres - alt history, space opera, whatever, and moved them apart (which is what I think you're saying) - you're going to end up confusing the hell out of the average shopper, who is perfectly capable of finding what they want and spending the time to get it on their own without worrying about distinctions.

By the way, Roadmarks, for all the weirdness that drew me in, isn't really a good example: Silverberg's Book of SKulls would be far better. Roadmarks is very definitely genre. Cross-dimensional highways? Check. Marquis de Sade and a giant remote controlled T-Rex? Check. Android killing machine retired to contemplative life of pot-making? Check. Guest appearances by unnamed but clearly recognisable pulp fiction heroes, particularly Doc Savage? Check.

If you really want to talk outreach to the greater literary community, then see what happens if you bundle certain books with different covers for different audiences, a la the Harry Potter adult/kid covers. Take the Silverberg, chuck it out with a mainstream cover, sit back and wait and see what happens. I think Skulls, for one, could gain a mainstream audience who otherwise might not have access to it. Also consider that there are some mainstream-published books which might benefit from the reverse treatment: although sometimes (and I speak from experience here) that's simply a question of cross-shelving a title in more than one section of a shop. I'm talking House of Leaves here: I would never have known of it if somebody hadn't mentioned it to me - and that, after all, is one fo the best ways a writer can gain real exposure: word of mouth and personal recommendation.

"many SF readers and writers point-blank refuse to consider the mainstream as a valid market..."
-nope, can't see that one, sorry. Maybe a hardcore minority you might run into occasionally at cons, but they're far from representative (and I don't think I've met anyone actually like that over the age of 18). I'd say the vast, huge majority of sf readers read other stuff as well. It's just that some people _prefer_ sf, and make their choices based on their taste, not their prejudices.
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 06:16 am:   

Yer missing the point, Baz. I'm not asserting that "science fiction writers are whores in red leather miniskirts". I'm saying they're harlequins dolled up in those Sci-Fi slut skirts, licking their lips under the streetlight, and saying, "come and get it, big boy" but actually offering something else entirely. Song-and-dance masquerading as a peep show. Not blowjobs. Not formula. Not genre. Not Sci-Fi. And saying, "yeah, we're not Sci-Fi; we're SF" is just a cop-out so we can stay in the ghetto with our big fat slapper Momma.

We can keep on saying it:

We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF.

But the rest of the world will just nod and smile at the crazy people.
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gary gibson
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 06:38 am:   

Perhaps you'll recall the usual distinction, that sf represents the generally better quality written word, and sci fi is the stuff you get on telly, most frequently awful? There seems to be a clear difference to me.

I also don't think anybody wants to stay in the ghetto, as larger audiences equal larger advances.
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Phil Raines
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 07:37 am:   

Hey Al -

When you pull a long thread, you pull a doozy. That flame's crisped my day nicely.

Just a thought - but maybe one of the advantages of putting ourselves in the ghetto (and I agree with you that we do) is that it gives some of us a better perspective on the big bad wider world. Most 'SF' fans I come across are among the best-read people I know - not just what's called 'SF', but mainstream books as well. We're not just fans of a particular genre, but through our interest in what makes that genre distinctive - tropes, techniques, curious personal habits of the writers themselves - a lot of us become interested in what makes mainstream, indeed, *all*, writing distinctive.

That suggests there may be two groups in the ghetto - those who were born there, and those who choose to live there because the rent's cheap and the bars are cool. Modernist slumming scum, I say - driving up the prices for the simple fan-boys living down here. Turf them out before they gentrify the area.

For John K - this is nothing compared to a normal Glasgow Saturday night... ;)

And for Bazza, you can have my tongue any time you like, honey.

Phil



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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 08:05 am:   

Gary:

Ah... so if it's Sci-Fi then it's shit; if it's good, then it can't be Sci-Fi?

The visual/written media distinction is smoke and mirrors; the quality distinction of SF and Sci-Fi kicks in just the same when it comes to formulaic work in the written media (L. Ron Hubbard, for example) and non-formulaic work in the visual media (Kubrik's 2001, for example). I see no objective difference between Sci-Fi and SF other than the fact that one is generic fiction, formula fiction, genre fiction, while the other is non-generic, non-formula... essentially non-genre.

We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF. We're not Sci-Fi; we're SF.

I say it again. In the words of the Three Stooges: woop woop woop woop.

Thing is, larger audiences outside the ghetto are also less certain audiences. It's more of a risk to scrap a genre identifier which is basically used to target a stable, hardcore, but smaller market. So it suits us to sell it as SF... along with the Sci-Fi.

"If you really want to talk outreach to the greater literary community, then see what happens if you bundle certain books with different covers for different audiences, a la the Harry Potter adult/kid covers. Take the Silverberg, chuck it out with a mainstream cover, sit back and wait and see what happens. I think Skulls, for one, could gain a mainstream audience who otherwise might not have access to it."

You mean if "you simply released it in a plain black-and-white cover as a "modern classic"."?

"Also consider that there are some mainstream-published books which might benefit from the reverse treatment... I'm talking House of Leaves here:"

So you mean a book like House Of Leaves might not be read by SF/F fans because some might be less aware of what's going on outside the ghetto? More, um, insular?

"When you put 'this' and 'this' together, they sell."

Exactly. I'm just saying that if 'this1' is SF and 'this2' is Sci-Fi, that's our choice and it ain't no good getting pissy about being lumped in with pulp shite. Further, I'm saying that 'this1' = SF and 'this2' = Mainstream is actually a more rational grouping. It's a commercially riskier strategy if it excludes the SF & Sci-Fi grouping, but I think the type of cross-shelving you're talking about is way rarer than it should be, so at the moment we might well be forced to make the hard choice and go one way or the other. But cross-shelving is exactly what I'm talking about, what we should be aiming for. Fuck yeah. As I say, I think we'd be better off if we faced up to our double heritage - genre Sci-Fi and experimental Mainstream; we can learn from both of them and we could use our similarities to both of them in order to expand sales individually and for imaginative fiction in general.
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 08:32 am:   

Jigsaw: Bang on.

Phil: We almost all grew up in the ghetto, I suspect, apart from a very few of those freaky experimentalists who live here cause it's the only place they can do mime in drag and not get laughed at by children. So some take the subway uptown regularly, some don't step outside the Village. Thing is, if we are well-read outwith 'SF', if we are interested in the "tropes, techniques, curious personal habits of the writers themselves" that make all writing distinctive, and those qualities come to inform our own writing, I think a lot of the time what we're coming out with might well sell like hotcakes uptown if we try it out.
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gary gibson
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 08:40 am:   

Re: "if it's good, then it can't be Sci-Fi?" On the contrary, I would never be so pedantic. The quality of what we often see on tv as opposed to on the written page has a lot more to do with the values and commercial requirements of visual media as opposed to books, where no effects budget is required. There are also levels of expectation: stuff like Enterprise is aimed at an audience willing to switch its brain off. Some sf isn't, some is, but I'm willing to bet the brain-off button is deliberately employed a lot more in tv science fiction because the audience requirements are different.

"So you mean a book like House Of Leaves might not be read by SF/F fans because some might be less aware of what's going on outside the ghetto"
No, that's misreading my comment. Bookshops are big places, where it's very hard for any book to get our attention, and House of Leaves and other books can get lost before they find their audience. It's not about being insular: it's about not happening to spot the book where it's shelved in with ten thousand other books.

Also, you're assuming again that some readers have a ghetto mentality. We're actually quite lucky, Al, because people know exactly where in a bookshop to find us. If you and I were writing 'mainstream', I genuinely suspect our chances of getting noticed and reviewed might be a good bit harder. It doesn't mean people will miss out on us because that's where we're shelved; people who deliberately avoid a section of a bookshop because they're snobs are people who've made up their mind regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Changing their minds is a worthless pursuit.

"You mean if "you simply released it in a plain black-and-white cover as a "modern classic"."?
Sure. If that makes it sell.

"it ain't no good getting pissy about being lumped in with pulp shite"
Pissy? I'm not getting pissy. Who's getting pissy? Who *are* these people in the pissy habit? Again, 'pulp shite' is fairly meaningless unless you're going to cite specific examples. And even then, it's still back down to what you like, and what you don't like. One man's poison, etc.
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jigsaw
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 08:51 am:   

cheers, and likewise :-)

mainstreaming is commercially a lot riskier, 'cos you're in danger of losing a dedicated audience in favour of an undecided one. and a lot of publishers won't do that. if it's a choice between being really popular in a ghetto or really small in the great big world, which way do you jump? cross-shelving, attractive and effective as the idea is, is far more difficult to do than it sounds: the real trick is convincing a bookshop to put a book with a Tor UK/Gollancz/HC/Orbit on the shelves with mainstream fiction so people have a chance to pick it up. sf label, sf shelf
and if you can figure out how to do that, bottle it quick and flog it to publishers . . .
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 10:52 am:   

"...stuff like Enterprise is aimed at an audience willing to switch its brain off."

Agreed. But I think this is also true of Battlefield Earth, Tek Wars, Demons of Dune, Dune Buggies Of Dune and countless media spin-offs and formula product. I read all the way up to Chapter House Dune, btw. More fool me. I don't cite specific examples partly because my memory is shit and partly because I never read that much formula. I do read a fair amount of stuff that still gets classed as SF but it's more stuff like Book Of Skulls, true. Give me something more than the purely generic, though - an Existentialist Space Opera, say - and I'll read it with pleasure. Brain on. Cool.

But it's not just low expectations in terms of "brain on" requirements - originality and complexity. The really definitive feature of generic fiction, as I see it, is negative expectations in terms of "brain on" requirements. Full-blown generic formula fiction requires the opposite - familiarity and simplicity. You may not agree, but I think there is a tendency within the SF community to a) differentiate SF and Sci-Fi on pretty much those brain on, brain off terms, and b) to blame the lack of respect in the mainstream on the inability of outsiders to distinguish one from the other.

"We're actually quite lucky, Al, because people know exactly where in a bookshop to find us"

Luck has nothing to do with it. People know exactly where to find us because:

1. "Brain off" formula fiction sells shitloads.
2. Segregating it makes it easier to sell.
3. SF works as a blanket term for a whole bunch of such formulas with a common audience.

It's not luck. It's shrewdness.

The fact that...

4. "Brain on" non-generic non-formula fiction uses the trappings of those formulas.

... means that me and you can both be marketed to that audience. Angel Stations can be sold as SF; Vellum can be sold as SF/Fantasy. I'm not complaining about this. Cool. Works for me. I'm just suggesting that it's a bit disingenuous to be proud of the distinction (a) above while shrewdly capitalising on the similarities.

More to the point, though, our willingness to shrewdly capitalise on such similarities makes point (b) look a bit shaky. Point (b) in your own words:

"[P]eople who deliberately avoid a section of a bookshop because they're snobs are people who've made up their mind regardless of any evidence to the contrary"

Straw man. I say they avoid that section of the bookshop because...

1. "Brain off" formula fiction is shite if you want "brain on" fiction.
2. The segregation of that shite makes it easier to avoid.
3. Science Fiction is used as a blanket term for a whole bunch of such formulas with a common audience.

and...

4. "Brain on" non-generic non-formula imaginative fiction, aka SF, exploits that cosy niche.

Snobs? Maybe they don't try too hard, but they're not sodding psychic, you know. If they have no reason to think there's anything in the box but shit why should they go rooting around in it for the diamonds? But no, it's them, of course. They're snobs. I'm "assuming a ghetto mentality"? You're demonstrating it, Gary, by dismissing folk who might well enjoy reading your books, assuming unfairly that their rationale is snobbery, that they're too poncy and uptown to come down to our neck of the woods. That is the ghetto mentality.

I see no evidence of snobbery against non-generic imaginative fiction. All I see is unwillingness to dig through dross to get to the diamonds, and a dislike for the junk we make no attempt to distinguish ourselves from. Why should I care? As you say...

"Changing their minds is a worthless pursuit."

10-20% of each book sold is not worthless.
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JV
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 12:08 pm:   

I can only go by anecdotal evidence and my "upbringing," which was to have one foot firmly on terra mainstream literary and one foot firmly on terra genre. Does this mean my pants split on occasion? Sure. But I like it here. City of Saints in the US sold well through Prime because it got reviewed in both genre and "literary" publications. It probably reached more genre readers (although it's a mistake to separate the readers out, since I know plenty of people who regularly comb the mainstream section of the bookstore and the genre section--including me!) than mainstream literary readers, but I know it reached some or I wouldn't be getting invites to colleges and crap like that.

I do suspect it's different in the UK, since thus far I'd say my audience is almost exclusively genre over there, although my next novel will be released as a general Pan Mac novel, to try to capture a little bit of the mainstream lit. audience.

I find this all such a false division anyway, since I do think of fantasy as a style or way of looking at the world. I find lots and lots of fantasists who are NOT fantastical at all. They might as well be writing about ball bearings and working at the five-and-dime. Which is fine, but I find just as much "fantasy" and that particular surreal and magic realist outlook on life, infusing the fiction, in mainstream books in which nothing "fantastical" happens at all.

I'm continually bemused by this falsehood of us against them, since it assumes every university in the US is part of some kind of conspiracy, for example.

Engage in dialog with people you don't know. You'll find you have a lot more in common with them than you think.

JeffV
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 12:47 pm:   

Why SF is used in relation to "brain on" non-genre fiction.

Why Sci-Fi is associated with "brain off" formula fiction, written as well as media.
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AliceB
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 01:50 pm:   

Playing devil's advocate: Vellum's just come out, and you've been put in charge of the bookstore. How would you shelve it? (Big display in front or in the aisle isn't an option b/c Harry Potter has taken over all of the display areas.) And where would you put all the Star Trek and Sword and Sorcery? (The garbage isn't an option because you actually want to make money after the Harry Potters have sold out.)

AliceB
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Minz
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 01:57 pm:   

Imagine a bookstore with every single book published in just the past two years. All shelved alphabetically. Spine out. Not divided by genre.

Now try and find a book you like in ten minutes. How about fifteen.

Don't get me wrong, obviously you could find something you like, and you'd be more likely to see something you wouldn't normally be looking for. But the whole point is to make it easier to find the audience.

The genre divider exists as a tool designed to help reach an audience that, get this, is looking for the kind of story that is lumped into said genre. These marketing divisions wouldn't exist if they weren't useful _as way to reach readers_. Too many times, people try and lay the blame at the feet of editors, publishers, marketing people, etc. BS. They exist because they've been proven to work in getting the books to their intended audience. Are there unfortunate side effects? You bet. But the genre exists as a way to actually try and help the reader find the books amid all the clutter. And most readers willing to buy trade books are older. With busy lives. Anything you can do to make it easier for them to find the kind of book they like, you do.

Let me ask you one simple question: Where's the first place you go when you enter a bookstore? The SF section mayhaps? Better yet, where do the readers a genre publisher reaches consistently go? It really is simple, no matter how imperfect.

And you're absolutely right that it's safer to be a big fish in a little pond than jumping into the ocean. There are plenty of examples that break this rule (Time Travelers Wife, Norell & Strange, Lovely Bones, etc), but there are many, many other novels none of us ever heard of that went nowhere in the mainstream world. It's a tough choice. And most of the major genre houses do publish at least some experimental, literary, odd, whatever, fiction. But it'll never be the staple. For the obvious reasons.

It's not a ghetto. It's a clubhouse. And I like the strange posters we've got hangin on the walls.
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gary gibson
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 03:44 pm:   

"You're demonstrating it (snobbishness), Gary, by dismissing folk who might well enjoy reading your books, assuming unfairly that their rationale is snobbery..."

I’m dismissing no-one but that tiny minority who behave appallingly on finding out I write sf. I've got no problem whatsoever at all with somebody who simply isn't interested in sf, whether for intellectually defined reasons or simply a question of preference.

A comment Jeff made got me thinking – I’ve seen shows on TV where, say, an American pundit of some nature will tell us (in Britain) how we look from the other side of the pond. I’m sure there’s been similar shows over there, with some British pundit offering some views on how Britain or the world sees America. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get hold of someone regarded as, I don’t know, some kind of ‘mainstream fiction pundit’ and get them to write something about how we in sf look from over there? It would be cool to get that kind of exterior analysis from the likes of Michael Chabon, or someone from the McSweeney’s crowd – or maybe horrifying …

Maybe we need a thread in here somewhere, about books outside of sf we want to recommend or talk about. That would be interesting. I could do with some recommendations.
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John Klima
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 05:22 pm:   

Gary:

Here's a thread of recommended Literature in Translation stuff that I started a year ago.

http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/481/1292.html?1082563339

This stuff may be borderline genre since often non-English speaker's writing seems very alien/otherworldly, in a good way.

I'm sure what you're saying has been started somewhere, but like Minz's horrible bookstore, it's finding it that's the problem.

JK
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John Klima
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 05:27 pm:   

Experimental fiction:

http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/15/158.html?1066180748

Graphic Novels/Comic Books:

http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/15/1287.html?1068692876

There could be more, but I think I'm in danger of enabling you.

JK
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John Klima
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 05:28 pm:   

Oh, and Mike Jasper and Ellen Datlow run 'this is what I've been reading' threads, so you could peruse those for ideas.

JK
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2005 - 07:30 pm:   

AliceB: Right now, I'd cross-shelve it. In the SF/Fantasy section (right along there with the Sword & Sorcery) and in the mainstream. If it has to be one or the other, well, I'll take whatever option PanMac think will sell the book best. I half wonder if the networked nature of the SF/F community might make it possible to stock the book as mainstream, literature in general, but use every available option to promote it as SF to that audience too, but I don't know. I just don't want to exclude either audience.

Star Trek? I'd have that in a Media section right beside the SF, a fairly standard set-up in a lot of bookshops. Actually, I think you could theoretically have a similar separate sub-section (again right beside the SF/Fantasy) for stuff like Michael Chabon, Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Lethem, McSweeney's, Argosy, etc., works which clearly stretch the genre definition right to its limits but are also clearly of interest to a lot of SF/Fantasy readers. The Forbidden Planet store in Glasgow actually does now have a shelf off in a corner (a tiny one) for stuff like that; It's not really carried through as far as it could be (it seems to be a bit of a Michael Chabon & McSweeney's Anthology Corner at the moment), and I might well be wrong in thinking that's a viable strategy, but it's a shelf that draws me, and I assume that it's because I'm not alone that the shelf exists.

Minz: When I go into Forbidden Planet, it's that shelf I go to first (after checking the comics, to be honest); and I honestly wonder why that couldn't work in a larger bookstore (where as often as not, these days, I know exactly what I'm looking for but may virtually have to toss a coin to decide whether to check SF or Mainstream first). There's enough of that sort of stuff to fill one tall bookcase, I'd think. It wouldn't have to be labelled seperately; very often the media tie-ins are just stuck at the end of the SF/Fantasy section and you know what it is just by looking at it. If media fans are targeted separately, why not those who'd be interested in the more literary/experimental/whatever? Just one bookcase at the other end (the end furthest out into the store maybe?) and you fill it with stuff like House Of Leaves, McSweeney's and so on. Dad on one side, Mum on the other, and a big fat SF/Fantasy section in between sharing a fair lot in common with both. Like the media, that literary/experimental/whatever stuff would stand out instantly as that section to those who know what's in that section even if they don't have a name for that section and don't really care to box it up with one. The important point is that it might also catch the eye of a passing reader who wouldn't really go looking for SF but might well have their curiosity picqued by the less gauche but just as striking images that these sort of books have.

Anyway, I certainly don't want to see everything laid out in one big Fiction section, and I do accept the reality of the SF label as marketing tool, the whole commercial reasoning behind that. OK, so I was using colourful rhetoric in that rant, a few wild swings at a sacred cow or two, but I'm really not trying to lay blame on anyone's doorstep. I just don't buy the double-think where Minz's "unfortunate side-effects" are seen as the Big Bad Mainstream sneering at Poor Little SF... rather than a simple, natural trade-off between kudos and cash. Me, I'll happily face the unfortunate side-effects rather than not get the money medicine; but if those side-effects are flatulence and bad breath, hey, let's not have illusions about why we don't go down well in polite company.

I mean I like the posters too, in the end. I do think the place can be a bit seedy or a bit kitsch, whether you see it as a clubhouse or a ghetto, but I kinda like the fleapit cinema aesthetic. I did try to make the point that there's a vitality and freedom that goes along with that. That I think the ghetto has served as a breeding ground for a lot of experimental, literary, odd, whatever, fiction, able to be put out there and sold as SF. I just think there's maybe a chance right now to open up the market a bit if we ditch the 'Us' and 'Them' nonsense.
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Phil Raines
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 01:45 am:   

Al

Your point about the FP's 'Weird Shit' shelf is a good one. The thing about genre dividers is that they're evolving all the time, the boundaries shifting with taste (and whether those tastes are set by us as readers or publishers as taste-setters is a longer debate). Book-bundling in bookstores has changed to cope with changing tastes. When I first started reading SF, libraries and bookstores tended to throw SF in with other fiction (admittedly, the days before the book supermarkets) - you used to have to look for the yellow Gollancz spines along the shelf. Post-Star Wars, SF seemed to become more visible - first getting its own space in larger bookstores, second by further literary cell division with the appearance of sub-shelves dedicated to media tie-ins and graphic novels. I wonder if the genre (however defined) is changing again and there's an interest in a form of cross-over cross-shelving, along the lines of what Al was talking about in FP. Call it a revolution, call it marketing, but when I go into a bookstore now, the first place I go to is the New Fiction section, not SF.

Phil
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 04:30 am:   

So here's a few questions then, thrown out in the hope that someone out there actually working in the industry might give some answers...

Is cross-shelving, as Jigsaw says, more difficult than it sounds, and if so why?

Would a "Weird Shit" shelf (not labelled as such but simply there as a sub-section of SF, as a halfway-house between a shelving section and a display stand) be productive or counter-productive as a marketing strategy?

Assuming you include old as well as new (maybe poach certain stuff from the mainstream? Burroughs, Whittemore, Dodge?) is there enough of such stuff out there to sustain this?

Do people percieve a trend in tastes over the last X year(s) towards this kind of stuff (a feedback loop from the successes?), or is any illusion of that just a temporary blip?

Is that kind of shelving a problem because it depends on staff recognising books that fit that niche, and you can't guarantee that level of knowledge in a larger bookstore, so you'd then have to come up with a new label - 'SF/Literary', 'Literary Fantasy' or some-such - to allow people to separate these out?

How likely/unlikely does it seem that a display/shelf sub-section of weird-shit-cum-high-brow would grab passers-by on a superficial level?

Is there a difference in terms of styles of cover art that comes into play here? It seems to me that in the UK at least there's a tendency to try and mark these books out visually and that this has resulted in a "look" that's not consistent across these books but is often at least distinct in many ways from more traditional SFnal designs, no?

From an editor / agent / publisher's perspective is it a niche market worth targeting?

From a writer's perspective, do you think it would help or hinder your sales?

From a fan's perspective, would it help or hinder your buying?

I'm just curious about these practicalities, keen to push ideas about the SF/Mainstream borderland around for, well, fairly obvious reasons.
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jigsaw
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 06:04 am:   

if you cross shelve and double-cover a book to make it work, how do you make sure people who want a literary cover, or don't, get the edition they expect?

re: niches, targeting a specific audience is good, but wouldn't it reduce the number of people who buy the book - and is that a good thing - for authors, fans, publishers, if it leads to fewer books/authors being published rather than more? creating a litsf niche might make it loads easier to find the books right up until they all stopped getting published . . .
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John Klima
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 06:12 am:   

"Is that kind of shelving a problem because it depends on staff recognising books that fit that niche, and you can't guarantee that level of knowledge in a larger bookstore, so you'd then have to come up with a new label - 'SF/Literary', 'Literary Fantasy' or some-such - to allow people to separate these out?"

Yes. Having worked in a large bookstore, most of the staff knows a fair amount about one thing. And when they move to a different section, they trust the computer to tell them where to go. And if the book's labelled wrong in the computer, they'll shelve it in the wrong spot, or look for it in the wrong spot.

And today, I think the people who staff a bookstore are not very literary. Walk into a large chain store and ask if they have a copy of THE SCARLET LETTER. Most of them will check the computer first. The answer should be 'yes.'

Now I can't speak for outside of the US, but I know that the large chain bookstores drive a lot of the segmentation of books into categories. And it's a company-wide decision because they all use the same shelf-stocking software. To add a new category is extremely difficult. When I was a fiction manager, I had to fight to get anthologies, meida-tie-ins, etc. not shelved in among the rest of the science fiction and fantasy. I also had to fight to get people to not shelve Star Trek books alphabetical by author. I would say, "They're numbered, put them in number order. That's how people look for them."

You would need a break out novel that sold well that you could point out as the example of what you were talking about for the bookstores to understand its potential and consider creating a new category in their store. A place like FP is independent (or only a few stores at most?) and has more leeway in what they can do with shelving.

A friend of mine in college who worked at a small independent bookstore on campus used to stick random books in the New York Times shelves and people would buy them without looking at them since it was on the NYT shelf, and it was a title they hadn't read before.

I hate going into the fiction section of a bookstore. It takes me so long to get through it to see if there's anything for me to buy. I just don't do it. So, if an author I really liked had a novel that got shoved into the mainstream fiction section, I probably wouldn't find it. I mistakenly found the Peter Straub edited CONJUNCTIONS (a magazine) because someone had filed it under 'BARD' (the publisher) in the fiction section.

At least in the US, you'd have a hard time getting this to work, and I think most of the problem would be when it got down to workers putting books on the shelves. As long as the computer told them what to do they'd be fine, but if the computer was wrong, no one would know until it was too late. (this is the case where the computer says there's 1 in the store, but no one can find it...because there's a fucking dog on the cover or something and some jack ass stuck it in the dog section because they didn't want to look the book up)

JK
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John Klima
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 06:15 am:   

"if you cross shelve and double-cover a book to make it work, how do you make sure people who want a literary cover, or don't, get the edition they expect?"

You have to find a publisher willing to put the money into making two versions of the same book. Somewhere else on this board someone was talking about an author who had a four-book series. Series can have diminishing sales as it goes on, and since most stores automate their reordering process, the author could be faced with the first three books in the series being in print and on the shelf, with the final book going out of print and being unavailable. Great, eh?

JK
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jigsaw
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 06:44 am:   

yeah - common sense doesn't seem to have a lot to do with publishing . . .

so if you find someone to put up that money, would you do the book under two different isbns thens? from what i've heard even when they can double publish it's a logistical nightmare for the distributors: either you get two books with the same author and title but different isbns, or one book where you have to guess if stores want it packaged literary or packaged genre.
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gary gibson
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 06:53 am:   

"I hate going into the fiction section of a bookstore. It takes me so long to get through it to see if there's anything for me to buy."

I have the same problem. Where do you start? I tend to go on recommendation, or sometimes when stuff regarded as sort of borderline enters the attention of message boards like this. An excellent example would be Glen David Gold's 'Carter Beats The Devil'.

You know ... I've been thinking that the thing that draws us to sf and the 'pop culture/weird' stuff Phil and Al were talking about isn't related to the subject matter, it's more to do with the approach - the 'attitude', as if there's a kind of shared world view that sometimes also gets reflected in non-genre material. Maybe it's something to do with the way so much sf is about the world being transformed (Ballard, Bear, Varley, take your pick), where non-genre can very crudely indeed be defined as material where regardless of what potential environment-transforming ideas exist in the context of the story, by the end the world goes back to exactly where it was.

What's also curious is that there's a kind of parallel argument in the mainstream world right now, best exemplified by Michael Chabon's introduction to (I think) 'Thrilling Tales', where he talks about the stranglehold of 'moment of epiphany' stories in the mainstream market. While some of us are trying to push towards *them*, some of them are trying to push towards *us* ...
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AliceB
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 07:10 am:   

From a fan perspective, I'd love a "weird shit" shelf since I have the hardest time finding what I want. I don't know if it'd increase sales, but it sure helped the chick-lit genre and, in YA, to separate out some of the fantasy. I wonder if publishers pushed it whether that would overcome the inertia and difficulties John laid out--however we'd have to have publishers clearly label the books as "weird shit", because my experience as a consumer in the larger stores is that unless you luck out, a worker views the difference between Brin, Bradley and Bradbury as a few inches of shelf space.

Other question--who gets to define who's in the category if we're going to include stuff that's already been published?

Alice
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neilw
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 07:37 am:   

Odd you should mention recommendations, Gary. That's mostly how I chose the books I'm going to buy too.

And coincidentally, a report today claims that word of mouth is the best way to shift copies (if you can manage it).

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/4311303.stm
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Minz
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 07:41 am:   

Is cross-shelving, as Jigsaw says, more difficult than it sounds, and if so why?

>>John's dead-on about the problem with who's doing the shelving. Most bookstores these days are paying crap money to people who don't know that much about books (or, have very specific, limited tastes). Also, more fundamentally, stores won't shelve books in more than one place (at least, most stores won't). And when it comes to the chains (who drive the sales of the kinds of books we're talking about), bad enough getting the frontline employees to shelve a book properly, publishers have one shot, and one shot only of convincing the chains to buy the book. And you cannot go to both the sf buyer and the fiction buyer (for the entire chain, mind you). It's one or the other, and that's how it'll be shelved. Period. Using FP as an example is simply impractical--there are maybe a dozen good independent SF specialty stores left in the US. That's it. (Heck, there aren't that many indepedent stores period. The number has dropped, seemingly exponentially, over the past couple of decades.)


Would a "Weird Shit" shelf (not labelled as such but simply there as a sub-section of SF, as a halfway-house between a shelving section and a display stand) be productive or counter-productive as a marketing strategy?

>>Further subdividing would probably make it worse--it's important to make certain your core audience does know where to go to find your books, but you don't want it getting to the point where they're looking at just one shelf (though it some stores, that _is_ the sf section).


>>Assuming you include old as well as new (maybe poach certain stuff from the mainstream? Burroughs, Whittemore, Dodge?) is there enough of such stuff out there to sustain this?

You'll never, ever, convince the chains to shelve "fiction" in the "sf" section, nor further subdivide (too limiting--okay, actually, if a certain type of book is so rampantly successful, as are its imitators, it could happen. But not artificially--you could try to affect it, through massive marketing and publicity, but that'd be a dubious effort at best. The market would have to force it--i.e. enough readers keep coming back for more of it). Brave New World will always be fiction, same with Fahrenheit 451. The smart individual store (or smart employee in individual store--and this includes chain stores with smart employees--Borders seems to be better at this than B&N from my personal experience, though that sampling is tiny) will get the Bradbury in both places, but the system won't account for it. It's too impractical to implement. Heck, even after a publisher pays for front-of-store placement (oops, I mean gets involved in a co-op incentive program, for all you anti-trust lawyers out there), often times employees won't get the books out there in the proper place and time, and publishers are _paying_ for this placement--oops, I mean helping sponsor it.


Do people percieve a trend in tastes over the last X year(s) towards this kind of stuff (a feedback loop from the successes?), or is any illusion of that just a temporary blip?

>>Check out Korda's book about 100 years of bestsellers. You'll find this debate within genre is simply a microcosm of the classic argument about literary merit v pure commercialism that's been going on forever. The bottom line is that there are fad books, there are the occasional literary works that become bestsellers (and you can try and predict when the time is right for this), but most bestsellers (and most easily predictable) are the pure popcorn entertainment books. Folks want something that will distract them from their lives and put them somewhere else for a few hours. Plain and simple. It is we, the in-bred overread, who go on and on about this stuff, and that's certainly nothing new. (Somewhat analogous forms of this debate go back to Dickens, Alexander Pope, etc.)

And yes, trends can form new and different genres. But the fiction we're talking about here probably isn't enough of a sales driver to make it happen. (Yes, there are books that could be categorized within this subgenre that are huge bestsellers, but it's not because of the genre, it's the writer and the work. Heck, look at Horror. Nearly defunct as a genre in bookstores, despite the fact that any number of bestsellers are really horror writers--King, Rice, Hamilton, etc, etc)


Is that kind of shelving a problem because it depends on staff recognising books that fit that niche, and you can't guarantee that level of knowledge in a larger bookstore, so you'd then have to come up with a new label - 'SF/Literary', 'Literary Fantasy' or some-such - to allow people to separate these out?

>>YES. Partly. I think I covered this above.


How likely/unlikely does it seem that a display/shelf sub-section of weird-shit-cum-high-brow would grab passers-by on a superficial level?

>>Unlikely. IMNSHO. Of course, there's room in the cracks for things like Staff Picks, etc, where some of this stuff ends up getting extra attention. (Or B&N's New Discoveries program, etc.) If you really believe it could be a successful mainstream work, publish it as mainstream, but then try and advertise in genre places. Get the author to conventions. Submit to genre awards. But it will not be the target of your efforts, merely a sidebar.


Is there a difference in terms of styles of cover art that comes into play here? It seems to me that in the UK at least there's a tendency to try and mark these books out visually and that this has resulted in a "look" that's not consistent across these books but is often at least distinct in many ways from more traditional SFnal designs, no?

>>Covers are extremely important, and the discussion could be long and interesting. I'm not ready to start this debate. I'm already wasting too much time on this, if you'll forgive my bluntness. Though I will comment that the UK has started using more and more packaging that moves away from a traditional genre look, even for works that are unabashedly genre (check out Jennifer Fallon's MEDALON on amazon.co.uk, v US cover on amazon.com)


From an editor / agent / publisher's perspective is it a niche market worth targeting?

>>Not in and of itself. Ideally, you want the best of both worlds, but that could lead to greater failure. Many a book has suffered from people in book industry (from your own marketing and sales people, to the bookstore buyers, to the reviewers, etc) not understanding what the heck a book is. Harsh reality check: book buyers for the chains here in the US get pitched thousands of books a year. Even the individual sales person from a publisher usually has dozens, if not hundreds of titles they are trying to pitch in a single sales session. So most of books get less than a minute's attention. That's how long a sales person has to convince the buyer to order some copies. Sales people have to pick their spots, and if a book is not easily quatifiable, and you can't explain where you want to shelve it, you could be screwed. That being said, chains are trying things--as mentioned somewhere around here (this thread, somewhere else on NS?), in the UK they are shelving fantasy separately. Borders (in US) is forming partnerships with leading genre publishers to get better educated and informed on their sales products (yes, I just called books sales products. It's a POV thing.)
But no, niche marketing to this level would be somewhat self-defeating. A subset of a subset in inherently smaller.

But I'll throw you all a bone here: publishers are looking for the creme-de-la-creme of this stuff. In truth, it's a heckuva lot easier getting real book junkies interested in something cool, wierd and fresh (ala Mieville, or Carroll, or Wolfe, or whatever), than the next fantasy trilogy. More readers want that fantasy trilogy, but reviewers, bookstore buyers, sales people, etc, are much more turned on by something different. Making that sell to the consumer isn't as easy (folks like their McDonalds McFantasies), but the industry people are always looking for something new to excite them.
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Minz
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 07:49 am:   

The different covers thing: Publishers will do this for a big book, but it doesn't affect how it's shelved--not two ISBNs, not two different books, not put in more than one place (other than general shelves, and special promo sections). It's mostly a marketing gimmic to say "Hey, we think this is important."

It's more common, of course, for covers to vary by format (i.e. different hc cover v mm cover). And it's much more likely to see varying covers within a single edition on a mass market than a trade edition, oftentimes depending upon intended market (do a different cover for ID market (airports, grocery stores, etc) v retail market(bookstores)).
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jigsaw
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 08:10 am:   

Minz you're my new god ;)
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al duncan
Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2005 - 09:37 am:   

By fuck! I mean, wow... thanks everyone for the straight-talking, hard-nosed, sheer bloody detail of your responses, bluntness and all. Minz, thanks for the blow-by-blow and, hell, it's refreshing to see books described as sales products.

So by the sounds of it, it does, at the moment, just come down to that tough choice:

1. Publish as mainstream but market also through SF - cons, mags, whatever. More chance of sinking without trace. Wider sales available.

2. Publish as SF and exploit the steady fan base. Forget the mainstream. More chance of getting an audience. Narrower sales available.

*sigh*

"...this debate within genre is simply a microcosm of the classic argument about literary merit v pure commercialism..."

I dream of both kudos and cash, Minz. Both of them. And kudos mainly as a way to get more cash. :-)
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al duncan
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 06:11 am:   

"I've been thinking that the thing that draws us to sf and the 'pop culture/weird' stuff Phil and Al were talking about isn't related to the subject matter, it's more to do with the approach" - Gary

Reading through that link I posted, to the encyclopaedia article on SF, I think the term "Structural Fabulation" makes sense in this context. It's horribly poncy, and at the end of the day I reckon the truth is more along the "SF is what's published as SF" lines, but I think that expansion of the acronym is a good term for the techique I was trying to describe in the blog rant as the "imaginative conceit". And I think it explains why works where the fantastic elements are played down, often non-scientific, sometimes virtually non-existent, have huge appeal to fans of this technique and can, depending on the vagaries of circumstance, be sold either as SF or as mainstream. I think a prime example of this is Jeff Ford's The Portrait Of Mrs Charbuque which could easily have been marketed as a mainstream novel, which bears very little family resemblance to any, say, Space Opera, but which, if we see SF as "Structural Fabulation", suddenly makes perfect sense as that kind of fiction. I think that makes sense of why House Of Leaves, Carter Beats The Devil, and all the other "mainstream" works mentioned on this thread hold such appeal; and that's why I was, rantwise, kicking against the idea of SF as a genre. If SF is a technique rather than (or as much as) a genre, then these are SF. And firmly in the mainstream.

To turn that definition on its head, I think you could maybe call some of the SF that gets sold alongside it "Symbolic Formulation". While Structural Fabulation creates these imaginative conceits or explores pre-existing ones - recognisable tropes - in innovative ways, tries to restructure them, to give us a different angle, Symbolic Formulation simply grabs them as symbols, conventional ciphers, and snaps them into place in a formula structure. The approach is uncritical, uncreative, uninspired and uninspiring. It's exemplified in media fiction and self-derivative uber-serials.

The two approaches exist in a symbiotic or mutually parasitic relationship, so close together it can be hard to tell the difference. But if you're a regular reader of this type of fiction, or a writer of it, you're far more likely to spot the difference in approach. Structural Fabulation does use conventions that have been formalised, that have become markers of the various Symbolic Formulation sub-genres, but there's no reason why a balls-to-the-wall Space Opera novel built from the most traditional materials cannot, in its approach, be Structural Fabulation. People who are unfamiliar with the field, who perhaps don't even think about how writers sit down and work hard to come up with this stuff, are unaware of the difference in approach; what they are familiar with is the vast morass of televisual or cinematic examples of Symbolic Formulation (largely identified to them as SF), and the substantial subset of mainstream made up of literary examples of Structural Fabulation (largely identified to them as just "modern classics").

To put a positive spin on this, aside from the somewhat dispiriting Catch-22 realities of publishing and selling SF, I really do think there's an underestimated appetite for Structural Fabulation out there. If that definition of approach applies to works like Carter Beats The Devil, Midnight's Children, and probably all the Magic Realists, (and talking of Catch-22, I think that might well be a bedfellow in the way it uses that imaginative conceit), then the niche market isn't necessarily for highest-of-the-high-brow, literary, experimentalist, cross-genre, overblown weirdness, but for works which may be much simpler and subtler, and therefore more palatable to a much broader audience.

One would hope.
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 07:16 am:   

it's a heckuva lot easier getting real book junkies interested in something cool, wierd and fresh (ala Mieville, or Carroll, or Wolfe, or whatever), than the next fantasy trilogy. More readers want that fantasy trilogy, but reviewers, bookstore buyers, sales people, etc, are much more turned on by something different. Making that sell to the consumer isn't as easy (folks like their McDonalds McFantasies), but the industry people are always looking for something new to excite them.

Sadly, this does seem to be the case. With the people I know who identify themselves as "fantasy readers", I can't get them to try anything that's not the latest psuedo-medieval fantasy epic. I have much better luck getting non-fantasy readers to try weird fantasy books.

I wonder how much that carries over to the general public. How easy is it to get "general readers" to try something different?
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AliceB
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 07:58 am:   

From my tiny family sample, getting "general readers" to try something different isn't as hard as trying to get them to a SF shelf in a bookstore. Total turn off. And trying to find the "something different" in the first place in a large store is beyond frustrating--browsing just doesn't work. Unless I have both the title of the book and the name of an author clearly in mind, sheer volume foils my attempts to find "Structural Fabulation" on either the SF or general fiction shelves.

And the flip side isn't better. I'm not at all convinced that folks who want the "regular stuff" would be pleased with the "something different" if they ran across it by mistake. I think back at one of Gordon Van Gelder's post in the thread about "The demise of the digest" (or something along those lines) where he reports still getting e-mails from readers aking, "Why weren't there any rocketships in the last issue?"

Although Minz thinks that further dividing things wouldn't help, I wonder. Unless consumers can find it, that "something different" won't get the push it deserves. So scratch that earlier post about the push coming from the publisher: it's one of those symbiotic relationships. If consumers ask for it, it'll be supplied, and marketers will realize that there's a niche so they'll divide it out so more people can find it and buy it, which will encourage more writers and publishers, and so on.

Have we reached the critical mass necessary for consumers/bookstores/publishers to realize there's this SF/mainstream sub-genre?

Alice
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AliceB
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 08:01 am:   

Robert, to be a little clearer, I meant by "general reader" someone who generally doesn't read SF. And by "regular stuff" I meant what Al calls "Symbolic Formulation".

Alice
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JV
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 08:29 am:   

It's all about the cover, and the identifiers on the cover, frankly. You can market anything as anything else if you have a flexible enough cover design. And remember--trade paperbacks especially get on the Borders display table with the genre mixed in with the mainstream, so the only thing screaming genre to the reader is the slant taken in the cover copy and the type of art used and the type of design.

Juliet Ulman at Bantam has been doing a good job of having her cake and eating it to. Harrison's Light had a cover that didn't say genre, and I saw that book on the general trade paper table and in the genre section. Same for Kirsten's Etched City. And same for the cover for their reissue of Veniss Underground.

The point isn't to disguise the genre-ness or the fantastical element. The point is, as Al has kinda said, I think, to provide all kinds of readers with a viable entry point to your particular book.

We experimented with this with Stepan Chapman's The Troika back in 1997 when I was doing the Ministry of Whimsy. We chose a cover that could have been hip mainstream or surreal genre and got reviews and attention from both sets of reviewers. It takes a lot more work and attention to detail, but it can be done. Granted, that was at the indie press level, so fewer copies than what the majors need to sell.

JeffV
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al duncan
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 09:06 am:   

Alice: I think if it's treated as an "SF/Mainstream sub-genre" we'll have a hard time convincing people for all the reasons Minz laid out.

However...

Jeff: It does seem like Ministry Of Whimsy, Night Shade, Golden Gryphon and the other indie publishers have really done a good job with a lot of books of getting that kind of broadly appealing look. Hip is right and "indie" seems such an appropriate word. It seems to me the readership we're talking about has exactly the same sensibility as the "indie" music fan. Eclectic taste, a demand for high quality, openness to experiments, preference for works which sustain (albums) rather than works which provide a quick fix (singles).

So...

Is "Indie" the right word for this cross-over fiction, not signifying a narrower sub-genre but signifying something broader - both independence from genre formula limitations, and independence from the conventions of contemporary realism? If you put a shelf in a bookshop labelled "Indie" would that push exactly the right button for the 20-35-year-old demographic of geek, freak and cool-but-meek who'll happily spend 50 quid a week on albums.
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Minz
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 09:46 am:   

"Indie" Fiction. Hmmmmmm...
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John Klima
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 10:36 am:   

"Indie" SF?

DIYSF?
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gary gibson
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 10:43 am:   

I think we've already been here, with slipstream, some years ago: way back in the day, I wrote an article where I argued slipstream was an approach, not an attitude, for a publishing project which was meant to be not so much cross-genre, more mixing stuff together that seemed cool whether or not it was sf - because it shared a certain *attitude*, or point of view.

Giving something a 'name', like 'indie' or 'slipstream', in my opinion, is a bad idea, because if you have a name, you have a definition, and then all you have is another genre title for people to argue over endlessly. If it's cool, that's enough. Don't weigh it down with titles.

Here's a question: how real are 'genre formula limitations'? I've heard stories, apocryphal or otherwise, about people writing outstanding novels they couldn't sell because publishers couldn't figure out how to market them - because they couldn't be easily bracketed. How true is that, or is it really the case that if a book is really good, it gets published?

It should further be said that occasional attempts at employing some of the ideas discussed in this strand have fallen on their face. As I said, 'slipstream' rapidly turned into a kind of literary equivalent of listening to a smiths album - kitchen sink drama with a notional fragment of magic realism chucked in, for one. MOre specifically, some years ago a small book publisher here in Scotland (called Dog and Bone) fell flat on its face because they decided to transcend genre limitations by not putting any genre titles on any of their books, which were an eclectic mix ranging from thrillers, to sf, mainstream. Alisdair Gray was quite heavily involved (he also did all the covers). Because none of the books said 'crime', or 'sf' or the like on the back cover, nobody knew where to shelve them, so they all ended up in the 'scottish' section of bookshops - meaning stuck in between the books on tartan and the books on Edinburgh Castle. In other words, they disappeared.
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JV
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 11:40 am:   

Gary: Here's a question: how real are 'genre formula limitations'? I've heard stories, apocryphal or otherwise, about people writing outstanding novels they couldn't sell because publishers couldn't figure out how to market them - because they couldn't be easily bracketed. How true is that, or is it really the case that if a book is really good, it gets published?

It happens. The Troika by Stepan Chapman was rejected by more than 130 publishers and went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award.

Veniss was rejected by everybody on the first go-around. As was City of Saints.

And yet, here we are...

Jeff
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 11:50 am:   

I don't think an "indie" shelf would be any better than a "weird" shelf or any other new shelf. What will likely happen is nobody will know that "Book X" is supposed to be in the indie section, so they'll look in the normal sections and miss it (very few people will ask for help finding it). So may get sales from the dedicated fans of weird or indie stuff, but will miss out on the causual browsers who won't know to look there.


I think Jeff's approach is the most likely to succeed - getting flexible covers and hoping people notice them in the new books section.
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al duncan
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 02:37 pm:   

"Slipstream" sounds poncy. It's not quite as intellectual-sounding as "interstitial" but it's definitely a bit too clever, too arch for its own good. Hence the Smiths effect. And a pun on "mainstream" is possibly utterly meaningless to someone coming at it from outside the genre; do non-genre readers actually even think of it as "mainstream" or do they just think of it as "literature" or "general fiction"? Nah. I mean, I sort of agree in terms of that type of 'name'; all those attempted tags and definitions smack of Movements. I don't give a fuck for manifestos; I'm just looking for a viable marketing strategy to reach a core audience whose tastes are largely defined by their eclecticism.

Me, I kinda like the phrase "Indie Fiction" because it seems a fairly straight mapping between media. Indie music >> Indie movies >> Indie fiction. It's instantly meaningful to the target audience already familiar with the term for *stuff they like*, where "slipstream" would never mean diddly to all but the initiated. But I'm not going to raise the flag for any "revolutionary Indie Movement". That would just be the same old same old "Brand New Thing".

BTW, I thought Dog And Bone actually failed to even put the word "fiction" on the back of the books? Surely they would have went into General Fiction otherwise?
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JV
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 03:32 pm:   

Minz would probably, based on his recent post on the Ted Chiang thread in General, disagree re covers. And he might be right.

Except I look at a lot of things outside of immediate book sales re the cover. Will this cover help get me an in to this conference or that arts center *outside* of genre? Because what that represents is access to a whole new set of contacts and potential readers as well as a possible short- or long-term visibility bump. You may say that's a finite benefit--so you meet 50 people at a mainstream convention. So what? Well, some of them will be reviewers. Some of them might work for bookstores. Some of them will know other people. Before you know it, you're trading contacts with them and vice versa, trading book recommendations, etc., and a nice little cross-pollination is going on. And so on and so forth. (And I should clarify--this isn't an effort on my part to get out of genre. I just want to be able to work both sides of the street with the same material, is all.)

I honestly do not mind building up a readership from the ground floor and doing it over time. Even one reader at a time. It's what I've been consciously working on for the last five years.

JeffV
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JV
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 03:33 pm:   

Al:

I like "indie," too, because when I look at films and music, those are the kinds that influence me and seem to be speaking to me.

It seems to me, too, that if "small press" would stop calling itself "small press" and start calling itself "indie press" it would negate the negative connotation of being small.

JeffV
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Minz
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 04:32 pm:   

>>It seems to me, too, that if "small press" would stop calling itself "small press" and start calling itself "indie press" it would negate the negative connotation of being small.

Now that would be a smart use of the term Indie.

And I'm all for more mainstream covers, artsy covers, whatever. It depends upon the book.
Take a look at this cover:
Medalon UK

What do you think?
Without looking elsewhere, what type of novel do you think this is?
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gary gibson
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 04:52 pm:   

well ... y'know, 'demon child' there at the bottom plus the word 'trilogy' ... gives you a fairly strong idea of what it might be about? But I fully get what you mean.

I heard a story at a con about a certain well-regarded UK sf writer who didn't have very good sales with his first couple of books. He got picked up after losing his contract (I'm floating on some quite vague memories here), then got signed up by somebody else who started putting out his books with a very non-typical style of cover - closer to say, the covers for the non-sf iain banks books here in the UK than you might expect.

I can't remember who it was, but I noticed a fantasy novel in Waterstones the other day that had a two-tone cover: a photograph of a ruined castle done very stylishly - and a lot less 'arr, dragons and swords' looking than you'd expect. gosh darn, it looked downright respectable.
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Minz
Posted on Friday, March 04, 2005 - 08:03 pm:   

OK, here's the US cover for MEDALON:
Medalon US
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al duncan
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 06:09 am:   

Aye, carumba! That US cover would make me run a mile. The UK cover looks much more enticing although, admittedly, if the book didn't live up to my expectations of something more than bog-standard dragons-and-princesses "Symbolic Formulation" (which is what the US cover virtually shouts at you) then I'd be disappointed. You do have "fantasy" and "demon child" to tell you what it *is*, and the suggestion of mystical, Aztec(?) carvings bottom-left gives a flavour of strange, ancient cultures, a hint of the exotic. But I think the US cover sorta tells you what it is in such delimited terms it suggests strongly that it is *not* anything more than McDonalds McFantasy.

More specifically: the way I see it, the blue-tinted female face on black plays a little to Goth / noir femme fatale imagery but the expression of the face steers it away from the overly postured look of, say, those Anne Rice pretty-boy covers, so it's not High Arch vampire yaoi. I'd think the UK cover would be aiming at an audience more oriented to dark fantasy, maybe more style-conscious, where the US cover would be aimed at a more girly 'Unicorn Riders Of Floroleal' market, a more traditional, possibly con-going fantasy readership.

So, when you say "It depends on the book", is Medallon an example of the right book for the UK type of cover or the wrong book?
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gary gibson
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 06:48 am:   

What we really need is some information on how marketing and art divisions in publishing companies make cover art decisions. Are there any online resources out there about this kind of thing? I'll have a trawl around, but if anyone knows of one ...?
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 07:28 am:   

That US cover screams "traditional fantasy" (to put it politely). I'd completely skip it. But the UK cover would interest me a bit. I might think "it seems like fantasy, but might be a bit more interesting". And Demon Child Trilogy sounds better than Hythrum Chronicles.

So I guess the questions are
1) Would the traditional fantasy readers still buy in the same numbers with the UK cover?
2) Would non-fantasy readers buy in higher numbers with the UK cover?
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JV
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 08:33 am:   

Let me take a stab at this:

(1) Traditional heroic fantasy readers wouldn't even look at the UK cover, unless they'd read previous work by the author.
(2) I think readers of horror and dark fantasy would look at the first cover, perhaps even thriller readers. But would they then take the book home once they looked further and saw it was heroic fantasy?

Neither cover is aimed at the mainstream, but the UK cover is more aimed at the mainstream, obviously. However, given the recent trends in UK mainstream lit. cover designs, I'd have to say that UK cover still looks too genre. Even commercial UK fiction has a penchant for bright colors, edgy designs, and often experiments with typography.

Did I get any of it right? :-)

JeffV
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 08:38 am:   

As Robert above asks: Would the traditional fantasy readers still buy in the same numbers with the UK cover?

This is an important question because there is a huge traditional fantasy market out there and I don't think they'd pick up a book that looked like the UK cover. Although trad fant isn't my taste, if it was I sure wouldn't pick up the UK book.
I'd be curious to see how the respective covers do in their markets.
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gary gibson
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 08:40 am:   

Here's an interesting link to a paper written by a student on this very subject: http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/cns/2003-03-07/15.asp

(Without a sticker, a book must compete for a reader's attention. Since book advertising is practically nonexistent, a book's jacket is often the only advertisement a book is ever going to get.
John Galvin, a sales associate at Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street in Manhattan, said that customers occasionally ask him for a book based on its cover. "People tend to remember the colors more than the author or the title," he said. "They'll come in and ask for that blue book with white type that we were stocking five months ago.")

... and, particularly interesting, a piece by John Jarrold on cover art, from computer's crownest: http://www.computercrowsnest.com/sfnews2/02_may/news0502_2.shtml

( I would certainly include Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s covers in the list of cutting-edge artwork styles in UK science fiction publishing - but let’s not forget that the words are the most important thing of all.

We are selling more than five times as many paperbacks as Jon’s previous publisher, and I have no doubt that this can, partially, be put down to the covers, which have excited much comment both from the book trade - and if we don’t interest the trade, they don’t take the book, and the public doesn’t get the chance to read it - and the reading public, who are in touch regularly congratulating Earthlight on this design style.)
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T Andrews
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 08:41 am:   

The most offending aspect of both covers (to this reader) is the part where it says: Book One. That would turn me away completely. But I suppose that's another can of worms entirely.

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StephenB
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 11:56 am:   

The UK cover's way better. But I can see the American cover appealing more to young readers. Epic fantasy is probably one of the most popular and commercialy profitable sub-genres out there. But I think that the writers who are standing out now and getting the most critical and commercial success in that sub-genre, are the ones who are doing there own thing, writing non-traditional, traditional fantasy.

I don;t read a lot of the sub-genre anymore, but I think Steven Erickson is an example of one of the more innovative and now, popular, authors writing epic fantasy. I know that initially the American publishers wouldn't publish his Malazan series because they thought it was too complex for an American audience. So it was initially published in Britain, Canada, and I think Australia, where it's been successful. When the American publishers picked up the series, they tried to put on this silly, more "traditional" fantasy cover, that didn't even reflect the work. I think fans complained, and so they're going to use the UK cover art now. This is saying something about how some American publishers view the American audience.

I think most readers are always looking for quality and originality, in any genre. Although, I'm sure there're also some who want cookie-cutter media-tie-in type stuff. And I think that American publishers often under estimate many of their readers.
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StephenB
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 12:16 pm:   

Regarding small press, I think they're producing better books. Like many here, as a book collector, I prefer the limited run hardcovers from the indie presses. But ultimately, it's the content that's most important, obviously.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 04:42 pm:   

StephenB,
Just to clarify, you're talking about Steven Erikson.

Steve Erickson is a very untraditional writer of fantasy. I've always put him in my Cross-genre camp.
(Days Between Stations, Tours of the Black Clock,etc.)
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StephenB
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 05:12 pm:   

Yes, Steven Erikson, my bad, I even have some of his books. He also writes more mainstream type stuff under the name Steven Lundin.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, March 05, 2005 - 09:17 pm:   

Aha! StephenB, I had no idea.
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Minz
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 09:26 am:   

From Publishers Weekly
Medalon is a country ringed by hostile, heathen nations and beset by internal politics filled with blackmail, backbiting and single-minded power-mongering-at least that's how it seems to R'shiel Tenragen, the wayward 18-year-old daughter of the First Sister of the Blade and the appealing heroine of Australian author Fallon's sparkling high fantasy debut. In Medalon, the Sisterhood has systematically stamped out any trace of religion and the heathenish belief in the gods and in the Harshini, mythical, magical beings who some think bridge the gap between gods and men. But suppose that the Harshini really did exist and that they are living still. Suppose that the gods have given the Harshini a task so big and so difficult that they nearly can't encompass it. Worse yet, suppose that R'shiel, a postulant of the Sisterhood, becomes part of this Herculean task. Fallon ponders all these possibilities and more in this satisfying melodrama, stocked with well-developed characters with clear motivations that carry them through a series of byzantine plots and counterplots, a mini-rebellion and even face-to-face contact with a variety of gods.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist
The Sisters of the Blade, backed by warriors known as the Defenders, have ruled Medalon for two centuries, forbidding pagan worship or belief in any god. The people of Karien, to the north, are fanatic worshipers of a single god, and to the south, fervent belief in the heathen gods prevails. Eighteen-year-old R'shiel has long fought her coldhearted mother's domination, but her half-brother, Tarja, is a colonel in the Defenders. When their mother becomes First Sister, however, the two defy her machinations and, forced to flee for their lives, get caught up in a rebellion against the Sisterhood. Also part of the mix are the mysterious Harshini, who were assumed to be extinct, and the gods themselves, who readily mix in human affairs as they search for the Demon Child they had created to destroy an evil god. In her first novel, beginning the Hythrun Chronicles, Australian author Fallon conjures a viable, richly detailed world and its disparate societies. Characterizations, including those of the interfering gods, are well realized, and the suspense is palpable throughout. Sally Estes
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


So now which do you think is the right cover?
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Minz
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 09:31 am:   

Hey T:

Interesting comment. Of course, from a publishers perspective, the accounts actually like to be able to put "Book One" on a cover, the thinking being that this large audience of epic fantasy might take a flyer on the first book of a series in order to see if they like it. Subsequent books will simply be labelled as part of the series without numbers attached. (Just the conventional wisdom--and I bet it's safe to assume you don't care for McFantasy, no matter how well done.)
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al duncan
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 09:58 am:   

Hmmm. By the sounds of that write-up, MEDALON is plain old McFantasy... or at least, burger and fries made by a fry cook in that Soul Food Cafe. I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt in terms of quality. Could well be top-notch burger and fries.

I'd say it's pretty clear that the US cover, while I personally hate it, is the right one on that basis. It says "BURGERS HERE" loud and clear. Readers drawn in by the UK cover's darker, more noirish look might well, I suspect, read the blurb on the back, realise that it's burger (as opposed to, I don't know, fried chicken) and put it back on the shelf, while the core audience for high fantasy might well pass it by.

These are just my gut instincts, right enough - as Ellen says, it would be interesting to see how these covers fly in their respective markets - but I'd be surprised if the US cover wasn't more successful.
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Minz
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 10:48 am:   

As the US editor who came up with the cover concept, I'd agree with your assessment, Al, and indeed I think the Hythrun Chronicles are very tasty burger and fries--but undoubtedly burger and fries. Right up the gut of genre, with fun characters, some entertaining dialog, and your fairly standard us against the world fantasy plot. And while I think the UK cover looks way more cool, I just cannot picture it as the right cover.

That being said, in general, the UK has more sophisticated covers, and probably 8 times out of 10, artistically I prefer the UK cover. But that doesn't make it a good selling point, at least not in the US market.
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T Andrews
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 11:45 am:   

Hi Minz. I used to enjoy a McTrilogy or three, back when I had lots of reading time and no dependants to spend my money on. I'm a different demographic now. Time and money have made me a picky, but not snobbish, reader. I'd love to read more McFantasy, but not at the expense of better stuff. Excellent McFantasy is out there...it's just hard to find.
If I see that a book is part of a series, I assume that book one will leave loose ends and partially developed themes, etc. Obviously I'm generalizing, but those are the red flags that 'Book One' of a trilogy raises for me. I'd wait and listen to word-of-mouth after all three books have been out, and then consider it.
I wonder how many other readers see 'Book One' and get psychotropic drug-like flashbacks of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and run from the book store groaning?
Al, your point about the US cover being more appropriate is probably quite right.
As an aside: when is someone going to populate a fantasy world with dragons that ride humans? THAT would be an interesting cover...:-)
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Sunday, March 06, 2005 - 04:37 pm:   

T: I get that sort of Jordan flashback. I was quite content to read trad fantasy for years, but finally got fed up with him, so I started stories that actually end. I found I enjoyed them a lot, and didn't need to invest the same amount of time in reading them.
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gary gibson
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 04:43 am:   

"That being said, in general, the UK has more sophisticated covers, and probably 8 times out of 10, artistically I prefer the UK cover. But that doesn't make it a good selling point, at least not in the US market."

Yeah, I guess the UK cover is ambiguous, and appeals more to people like me and Al, who don't go for trad fantasy: but we're not the typical audience. I think I mentioned or quoted something above about the cover being one of a book's few opportunities at advertising, and given that there's still a large and healthy audience out there for trad fantasy, I agree with Minz that the US cover does make sound economic sense: you're telling people what exactly what they're getting, and although it might put off some people who might otherwise pick up the UK edition, it would have the greater benefit of drawing the attention of a far larger, and guaranteed, trad fantasy audience.
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Minz
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 10:19 am:   

Hey T:

Try out GARDENS OF THE MOON by Steven Erikson. Fabulous BFF. (Yes, it's first of ten, but each novel works on its own, each adding to the tapestry. It's Epic Fantasy for grownups.) And, of course, I do recommend the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin.

As for dragons riding humans, I highly recommend Carol Emshwiller's wonderful novel THE MOUNT (a tpb that came out from Small Beer a coupla years ago). Not quite the same thing, but close enough.

BTW: that's not a dragon on the Medalon cover. That's a demon meld in the shape of a dragon (i.e. lots of impish demons melding themselves into a single dragonshape)
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 11:27 am:   

Martin is somebody I'm still willing to read.
I've been recommended Erikson several times. I never realized his stuff could work on it's own. That makes be a bit more interested.

I also need to read more Erickson. Arc d'X is all I've read so far.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 12:13 pm:   

I love Erickson's early novels, even if they're far from perfect--they have some marvelous images.
Rubicon Beach and Days Between Stations
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Minz
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 01:34 pm:   

Wrong Erikson, Robert & Ellen. GARDENS OF THE MOON author is completely different person. And the Steve Erickson you're thinking of does have a brand new novel out (though the title escapes me).
(The "c" in the last name is the author of Arc d'X)
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 02:01 pm:   

Um, Jim...if you scroll up you'll see that that was my point--and we were deliberately moving the discussion to Steve Erickson ;-)
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T Andrews
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 02:39 pm:   

Minz, thanks very much for the recommendations! Much appreciated. I haven't read any of them. Yet!
Now that you've further explained the 'dragon' on the cover, it makes the story inside seem more appealing.

I hate to judge a book by its cover almost as much as I hated making my fingers type that cliche at the start of this sentence.
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 03:03 pm:   

Minz - maybe I wasn't totally clear. What I meant was you have got me interested in Erikson. I also need to read more of the other guy, Erickson.

To further add to the confusion, there's also Steve Ericsson, who directed a short film, Lyckantropen.
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StephenB
Posted on Monday, March 07, 2005 - 08:32 pm:   

Try out GARDENS OF THE MOON by Steven Erikson. Fabulous BFF. (Yes, it's first of ten, but each novel works on its own, each adding to the tapestry. It's Epic Fantasy for grownups.) And, of course, I do recommend the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin.

Those are the two Epic fantasy series I follow, Minz. Both worth reading, forsure.
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minz
Posted on Tuesday, March 08, 2005 - 05:54 am:   

oops. Pardon my loose and sloppy threadreading.
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Sean Wallace
Posted on Wednesday, March 09, 2005 - 05:36 am:   

I'm toss in my two cents, over Medalon . . . and I don't think anyone pointed this out, but the British cover strikes me as being almost like a movie poster. I almost expected to see a list of cast members near the bottom of the cover . . . and this turned me off in five seconds flat. The US cover is far better, in representing the contents and in targeting its intended end-consumer (those that love epic multi-volume fantasies).
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John Klima
Posted on Wednesday, March 09, 2005 - 08:17 am:   

Cover design is an interesting beasty. There are many good books that I've skipped because I did not like the cover. For example: TUMBLING AFTER, THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME, many of PYR's titles.... Even though the books are by authors I like (or authors I have good recommendations for), I haven't picked up the book and have little inclination to do so. Is this fair? Probably not. As Gary said, it's really the words inside that matter.

For me, I don't want to see people on a cover. I want the cover to be abstract so that while I read the novel I don't have the cover's image of the protagonist in my head and I can come up with my own image. I prefer the British Medalon design, but as others have already said, it does not represent what the inside of the book is like. Having redesigned some fantasy covers, I know that often the correct art direction for the book is not necessarily creating a piece of art you'd want to hang on your wall.

Of course, designing books so that I'll like them would probably lead to selling fewer books.

JK
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al duncan
Posted on Wednesday, March 09, 2005 - 08:41 am:   

The real turn-off for me isn't the figurative nature of the cover so much as it's that awful cartoonish quality given by the colour, all bright and shiny and clean, like the world is in Technicolour and Cinemascope. That immediately tells me "Nope. This world has no real grime, no real poverty, no real suffering, no real sorrow. It's a world of china dolls and tin soldiers. Nothing to see here. Move along."
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Douglas Lain
Posted on Thursday, March 17, 2005 - 05:34 pm:   

I just read your rant and think you're goddamned brilliant.
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Jan S.
Posted on Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 09:21 am:   

I found this board by following a link from Elizabeth Bear's blog, so I thank her for that. What a mind-croggling rant, Hal Duncan: thank you for shining a klieglight on what had been a very murky subject for me, and in the process opening so many doors and windows in my head. Wow. Thanks also to all who've posted here, as the discussion is to my brain as eating the finest, most satisfying chocolate fudge is to my tastebuds: sheer delight.
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paulw
Posted on Friday, April 07, 2006 - 01:34 pm:   

From John Klima:

"Cover design is an interesting beasty. There are many good books that I've skipped because I did not like the cover. For example: TUMBLING AFTER . . ."

Arrrgh! I warned them about that cover, I fought with them about that cover, I lost sleep over that damn cover. And even worse, I lost sales over that damn cover. Now, guess what, a new cover for the trade edition. I guess you can all imagine how good that makes me feel!

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