science fiction vs. fantasy

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

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

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

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

16 responses to “science fiction vs. fantasy

  1. There’s at least one writer who says he’ll no longer sell sf under his own name because his fantasy books sell much better — and the poorer sf sales were ruining his statistics, making his books look less profitable to the chain stores.
    Fantasy used to be the hard-to-sell spec-fic. (Though people who say there was no fantasy market before LOTR’s US publication are wrong.) I wonder what changed?
    I also wonder why Starships and Sorcery fiction tends to be packaged as science fiction, even if the starships run on magic.

    • I also wonder why Starships and Sorcery fiction tends to be packaged as science fiction, even if the starships run on magic.
      Because, to most people, starships do run on magic — just like, oh, transit buses.
      I wonder what changed?
      I think it may have something to do with the people who are looking for that hit of sensawonda.
      A couple years ago, I had a talk with a reader who had just “found” the Liaden Universe(R). She was, so she told me, mainly a fantasy and romance reader, had tried sci-fi and found it just “too hard.” The Liaden stories, though, she said were “just like fantasy,” and she wondered if there were More Like That. I gave her a list of that I thought might get her started, and spent the next while mulling over this “just like fantasy” comment.
      What I finally figured out was that she had meant to say (I think) that the Liaden stories were “accessible.” You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to read them; they’re obviously not “predictive” — as SF (wrongly, IMHO) bears the burden of being a predictive literature. Also, there are those who avoid SF because of its unpredictability — you never know what you’re going to get. While this is equally true of fantasy, somehow that aspect is either ignored by readers or considered to be less important.

      • I think it may have something to do with the people who are looking for that hit of sensawonda.
        I think this is true, and have heard it or something similar from several sources. SF, folks complain, just isn’t fun anymore. It’s depressing/work/insert-your-fave-complaint-here. If genres were veggies, it would be bitter Brussels Sprouts.
        I’ve rattled elsewhere that part of this may be due to the broken promises of science in everyday life–here it is 2005, and we’re not riding around in air cars, living on the moon, or teleporting. Cancer still kills. Nuke power fizzled.
        As someone who is writing SF and hopes to write fantasy, I’m noticing a difference in my anticipation/perception of the exercise. A friend who read the synopsis of the first fantasy said that when she thought of the story afterward, one of the sensual images that struck her was “burgundy velvet.” There was a lushness to the story and the world that she wanted to experience, and while some of this might have been due to the hints I put into the story, I think she brought a lot of it with her. Fantasy may have a non-sexual sensual hook to it that makes people want to visit a world. While it may not dull the harder edges of a story, it may make it so they don’t hurt as much.
        Some character-based SF may contain some of that promise–I don’t think mine does.
        Just some thought in between dashes outside to move the sprinklers…

  2. It’s who you are. So, what do you do when you get a book that is going to be a long road for both of you? I don’t know about everyone else, but if I believe in that writer and in that story, I take a deep breath, give them the honest truth about what I think our chances are, and then we go for it. The first time I ever did that, it took me nearly three years to sell the novel in question. And it’s now into many printings and the author has sold several more novels. So, there.
    Wow. Will you be my – oh, wait. Dayum, I’m lucky.
    Speaking of which, there will be something for you to read, rather soon (sending out near the weekend, I think). And the second book – begun last week – is at not quite ten thousand words…

  3. …her agent encouraged her to write fantasy rather than science fiction, because the former sells better than the latter. Naturally, she wanted to know why. Hmmm…..
    I think this also relates to the success of Star Wars as a story world. Lucas’ basic premise is more fantasy based than hard scifi. Light sabers are nifty but not much different in effect than swords, while the Force is metaphysical. (Well, it was in the three movies I saw.)

  4. Interesting post. Thank you.

  5. It’s not just what you do. It’s who you are.
    Amen.
    Every writer has at least one “best-beloved book” in them, the one that may never sell, but is what s/he, as storyteller, is all about. And you either take a chance on writing that story, or you regret it forever after.
    Finding an agent who understands that, as the commercials say — priceless.
    (waves at agent, echoing what was said earlier. Although I had the advantage of ‘auditioning’ you via other deals, so it wasn’t luck but perception on my part… *grin*)

  6. As the success of Star Wars has shown us, it’s not the spaceships and the blasters and robots that turn people off of Sci-Fi. It’s the lack of Story. I don’t mean plot–any joker can make a plot, but a plot without Story is just a skeleton waiting for flesh.
    J.R.R. Tolkien used the terms Story and Fairy Story interchangably, to speak of the same concept. I want to include a small excerpt of his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” If anyone has not read it, find it here. What this does is illucidate what I think we ought to be attempting.

    “The magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.”
    “Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.
    “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”

    I myself have wondered at the fault in Science Fiction. I think that if one’s aim is to write a treatise of Technical, Anthropological, or Social science (the primary sciences of SF), then that author is seeking Primary Belief in this, the Primary World. Story comes in, as Tolkien says above, when one “commands Secondary Belief” in his Secondary World. How best is this belief achieved? Through characters. Does Science Fiction lack characters that readers can identify with?
    I wonder if perhaps the author of Fantasy is more loyal to the spirit of Story than the author of Science Fiction. Is the Science Fiction novel less escape from harsh reality, and more illucidation of that reality? If so, is the market merely in a phase for consumption of the escape?
    Tolkien says it better than I here:

    “Actually the question: What is the origin of the fairy element? lands us ultimately in the same fundamental inquiry; but there are many elements in fairy-stories (such as this detachable heart, or swan-robes, magic rings, arbitrary prohibitions, wicked stepmothers, and even fairies themselves) that can be studied without tackling this main question. Such studies are, however, scientific (at least in intent); they are the pursuit of folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself—but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgments.”

    • Something else interesting I found in that:

      They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction. These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway-station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world-town will do. They may abandon the “full Victorian panoply” for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends.” It is part of the essential malady of such days— producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery— that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.

      Deep…

    • Is the Science Fiction novel less escape from harsh reality, and more illucidation of that reality?
      I’d say, absolutely, and that that observation goes to the decline of SF in recent years.
      But identification with characters begs a huge question. Assuming a relatively comparable level of craft between SF authors and fantasy authors, there must be some reason why a starship captain or anthropologist of aliens or future soldier, e.g., seems less credible or identifiable-with nowadays than an elf or werewolf or incognito prince, e.g. And I can’t for the life of me see why.
      Any thoughts?

      • Perhaps it is the hearkening to a simpler time. Maybe when you couldn’t blast your way out of a sticky situation, but instead had to get your hands dirty. I know there’s something far more appealing to me about going on a journey on horseback, with naught but your wits and your sword to save you. To sleep out under the stars, roast game over an open fire, and to look your enemy in the eye when you face him. There’s that communion with the earth that appeals to many people.
        Sci-Fi was bigger when we didn’t know so much about space. The race to the moon certainly ginned up a lot of interest in the 60’s, and the expansion of NASA after that. Plus the popularity of Star Trek as a regular series kept that interest high. I just think a lot of it is generational. Those who were intrigued by space and the stars are older and buying fewer books than the younger, more voracious readers. And the Lord of the Rings films has created a new generation of geek.

  7. I used to read a great deal of science fiction, but along the way I grew disenchanted. Partly it was because sf writers seemed to forget that story is about people, not just tech and Grand Concept. Good sf doesn’t forget that, but too much of what I was reading at the time did. I drifted to fantasy and other genres because I wanted to read about what made people tick rather than what made machines tick. Someone else mentioned lushness in fantasy, and that’s part of it, too–for me, it’s the lushness of spirit as much as the lushness of tactile things and worldbuilding.

  8. sf v fantasy
    In the romance community, I’ve heard many writers pondering why paranormal romance is so hot right now. The best answer I’ve heard to date is that when the world gets ugly (war, disillusionment with the government, poor economy, whatever…) people look more for escape, wanting the impossible to be possible, magic. A natural extension of this might be that when we’re pessimistic about our real world we are naturally pessimistic about the future. A great deal of science fiction is set in the future. Another comment talked about fantasy as warmer. I think many people see technology as cold. Magic is also more often internal. In many stories the magic comes from within the magic user. We tend to see technology as more external, reliant on someone else’s intelligence and skill. Perhaps we are drawn to magic because we want to see in ourselves the ability to shape the world around us and our future into something better than it might now be.

    • Re: sf v fantasy
      annathepiper sent me to this thread in response to a post on my lj enquiring into why SF writer websites suck.
      The SF vs. fantasy issue has intrigued me for years: I came to writing SF from working in it, basically, as an advocate for space exploration. Unsurprisingly, fantasy wasn’t very popular ar all in the community I came from.
      Yours is the first convincing explanation that I’ve come across.
      I think that our world has gotten so impersonal, so out of individual control or influence, that the stories that appeal reflect both the desire for power and the belief that nothing can make a difference. Thus, special-but-slightly-hapless heroes like Buffy or Spiderman – or the hobbits.
      Technology as cold/external/Apollonian vs. fantasy as warm/internal/Dionysian makes a *lot* of sense and goes a long way to explain the market shift.
      It’d be interesting to see sales statistics, but I bet that there was a sea change between 1999 and 2001, between the high water mark of the dot-com bubble and the Long Boom, and the moment after a jetliner took down the World Trade Center. I can see faith in technology evaporating…

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