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The digital future of genre

Posted June 27, 2013 into Books by John Birmingham

Last year was a dark time in publishing. The year before even worse. The Australian retail market contracted by 25%, mostly due to the collapse of Borders, which had itself driven a number of independents and smaller franchises to the wall.

There are glimmers of improvement about though. The end of Amazon's effective monoply on ebooks is one, and the return of genre, especially sci-fi another.

Sci Fi has been deader than Elvis as a publishing industry segment for a long time. A few authors make a good, not great, living. But otherwise the era of spaceships and big fucking ray guns was judged to be over.

Until punters started buying SF titles in bigger and bigger and ever accelerating numbers in electronic form. It seems that like comic books and short stories, genre and SF in particular have found something of a 'mass niche' on tablets and ereaders.

Wired has long piece about it here:

There are multiple theories for the genre dominance in digital publishing, including the appeal of anonymity offered by e-reader devices, which don’t display the cover of a potentially embarrassing book for all the world to see. As Antonia Senior wrote in The Guardian last year, ”I’m happier reading [trashy fiction] on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.”

But the digital delivery system also offers immediacy and ease of access for material that often is serialized and written to make you want to know what happens next, as soon as possible. Liate Stehlik, senior vice president and publisher at Harper Collins, subscribes to that idea, at least partially. Genre fans, she says, became “early adopters” of the digital format because e-books are the optimal format “for people who want to read a lot of books, quickly and frequently. Digital has replaced the paperback, certainly the paperback originals. I think the audience that gravitated to eBooks first really was that voracious reader, reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.”

For both Random House and Harper Collins, moving to a digital-first publishing model not only offers a higher return on investment for genre publishing, but also opens the door for those publishers to experiment in a much more cost-effective way than print. “It’s not that we couldn’t publish these books before,” Dobson said, “but [now] that a certain consumer has migrated online, and the ease of buying these books has grown that consumer base substantially.”

This sits well with my own judgment that the industry will shake itself out into two fields over the next ten years, with disposable fiction migrating mostly into digital. Doesn't mean you won't ever see a hardback or even paperback SF title in future. But most of those titles will probably be consumed on iPads and Kindles.

15 Responses to ‘The digital future of genre’

pi mumbles...

Posted June 27, 2013

I'd say that the other advantage that is helped via e-books is the simple volume of books that you can carry around with you. Many sci-fi books form part of a greater 'universe' (if only Mr Bankscould take a bow... sigh) and if you want to access these books on a whim, you'd need to carry along a crate with you.

I also re-read sci-fi in a way that I don't read in many other forms. The whole immersion thing. When you have all of these titles at your finger-tips, this is possible. Otherwise, it's back to the crate thing.

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Barnesm ducks in to say...

Posted June 27, 2013

"”I’m happier reading [trashy fiction] on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.” This is a contributing reason I think why 50 Shades of Grey was a monster best seller.

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pitpat puts forth...

Posted June 27, 2013

Certainly gels with my personal experience. Prior to my kindle I would re-read old books until I got the chance to get into the city. The best option in my neck of the woods is Berkelouws and they don't have a huge Sci Fi/ explodey range but have great thinky range. With various devices I now have multiple options and it is very very easy to pick a new title or even just browse a chapter or even try your luck in the 99c or free range.

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Trashman has opinions thus...

Posted June 27, 2013

God, I hope not. I only buy digital when there's no other option. I don't care what people think of what I read, I'm a geek to the grave.

Much prefer dead tree - I read faster and I enjoy it more. Don't ask me why.

Plus, I can sell it on second hand (but never one of yours JB!).

Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted June 27, 2013

I imagine Amazon is already setting up the ability to sell back your kindel edition. At a much reduced cost of course

Trashman ducks in to say...

Posted June 28, 2013

That way they control the second hand market as well.

It's only electrons, they don't physically exist and can be sold and then resold ad infinitum. At least a physical copy can only change hangs so many times before it falls apart.

They get their profit multiple times, you get a pittance and the author gots nothing.

Barnesm would have you know...

Posted June 28, 2013

I think you just successfully pitched the idea for Amazon.

Trashman puts forth...

Posted June 28, 2013


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tqft has opinions thus...

Posted June 27, 2013

I think the real money will be for the person who can make an AI editor rather than one of those pesky humans with bills to pay. At least some software that can do a lot of the grunt work.

Revenue will be determined as always by what people want and are prepared to pay. But costs? Someone somewhere probably has this idea in train. I was reading a post the other day by a person who does editing as a side job. She almost sent it back in digust as the just the formatting was making the work unreadable.

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Anthony is gonna tell you...

Posted June 27, 2013

But how am I going to get a signed copy of an e-book?

pi swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 27, 2013

liquid paper.

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Therbs reckons...

Posted June 27, 2013

Yep. Also franchise lines I reckon. The equivalents of Cussler and that bloke who did Red October. I also believe Dickens would have been into it like Havsy at a muppet capping.

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Murphy has opinions thus...

Posted June 28, 2013

Be nice if there were more SF out there that didn't pound one in the head with their particular ideological bible. I love science fiction but man most of what is out there these days is so much third hand, politically correct sermonizing thinly coated with something that might vaguely be called a plot.

The most recent novels I've read are by Ted Kosmatka, The Games and The Prophet of Bones respectively. Both are solidly plotted, character driven novels serviced by either crunchy SF in one case or crunchy SF in an alternate universe. Politics is a spice in the later novel, not the main course, side dish and three trips to the ice cream machine at Hometown Buffet.

Frankly, I wish I could find more novels that were like Ted's. If I want some half baked poli-sci sermon, I'll just crack open the latest generation of American History textbooks.



On the Outer Marches

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S.M. Stirling asserts...

Posted June 29, 2013

Yup. My royalties used to be derisory. They've gotten to be six-figure serious, and it's being overwhelmingly driven by ebooks.

They alter buying patterns, especially in genre(*). People read one book, and then go out and buy the entire series. Sometimes everything the author has ever done.

(*) apart from the particular genre known as "literary".

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Anders swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 29, 2013

Also the fact that they actually have a sci-fi section to shop in. That really helps.

Aside from GRRM, Pratchett and OH GOD ALL THE TWILIGHT, there's scant few Fantasy/SF titles on the average bookstore's shelves. Borders was where I got most of mine in recent years, before that (when I was in a state without any) it was second hand stores. But on an e-reader? It's a never ending slide down the "recommended" list.

I'm also a lifetime member of Singularity & Co's "Save the Sci-fi", which serves up bizarre classics. And I also really appreciated the Humble eBook Bundle which introduced me to the remarkable "Zoo City" by Lauren Beukes - that kind of bundled approach is probably my preferred way of getting exposed to new authors as the content is curated, but costs are still low.

Finally a shout-out to Boroondara Library Service for having a HUUUUGE SF collection that I have plundered over the years. Since moving to this area, they're a definite reason for my purchasing habits declining.

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