Rare Hard-ish Data

In the midst of all the change happening in publishing, it’s hard to find hard data for large swaths of the industry. Sure, I have pretty hard data about what my sales are, but about the industry in general? Not so much. So, it’s with real joy that I came across this collection of data. For what it is, it’s fairly hard data, but even then, it’s has some real limitations.

So, without further delay, here it is: a site that breaks down Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 Fiction lists by Indie vs. Traditional, page count, price point, and genre. For example, here’s a chart showing for the breakdown for the top 100 in science fiction.

AmazonScienceFiction_091513Indies and small presses dominate the list with 60, compared to the Big 5 with 22. Also, the dominant price points seem to be $3 to $5 with pages counts in the 250-500 range. Paranormal and Urban fantasy looks similar:

AmazonParanormalAndUrbanFantasy_091513Again, the Indie/small outnumber the Big 5 by 69 to 27, and the dominant prices are $3 to $4 for 200 to 400 pages of story.

The other interesting chart is the Genre Popularity here:

AmazonGenrePopularity_091513This is one is harder to read. What I’m really wanting is a market share breakdown of the different genres, and this is not that. Instead, it’s where in the ultimate Top 100 Fiction list do these various genres’ top 100 books end up? For example, the top 100 mystery novels average out to at the 474th position overall. If we assume a standard deviation (a not-at-all safe assumption), we might conclude that the 50th best-selling mystery was the 474th best-selling book on all of Kindle. For science fiction, we end up at the 1203rd spot.

Now, there are plenty of caveats, many of which are listed on the page itself. Not all data is always available – you’ll note that the breakdown on many top 100 lists don’t add up to 100. Indies and small press have been lumped together. The site even goes on to say that “accuracy is not guaranteed,” but I suspect that’s a cover-your-ass disclaimer, not cover for outright deceit.

The bigger caveat is that this is for Amazon US Kindle sales. It tells us nothing about what’s happening on other e-book platforms like the Nook or Kobo, and it tells us even less about what’s happening in Barnes & Noble’s brick and mortar stores or all the various independent bookstores across the country. And it tells us nothing about what’s happening outside the US. So, in a very real sense, this data covers only a small section of the worldwide book market.

However, it’s harder data than I’m used to seeing anywhere else. Much of the coverage of print vs. e-book and indie vs. traditional publishers have been told with anecdotes and outliers. This, at least, is some hard-ish data, and it seems to say that indie publishing is a real force. Well… a real force in at least part of the market, in one format, on the one dominant platform.

It’s not much, but it is something.

What Genre Are Superhero Movies?

Let me start by saying I don’t have the answer to that question. Superman is an alien, so Sci-Fi, right? But Hellboy is a demon, so is it fantasy? Or do those two just fall into completely separate categories? But then there’s the Avengers, where the ultimate gadget man Tony Stark (a.k.a. “I am Iron Man”) is fighting alongside Thor, god of thunder from Norse mythology.

Or should I even bother? Maybe not. After all, superhero movies are usually the epitome of popcorn flicks, so apart from arguing whether the overdone effects can actually fit through the plot holes, maybe they’re not worthy of deep analysis. Then again, they put our human (and sometimes not-so-human) frailties into the crucible to extract something pure. Superman struggles against the ultimate limits of even his power. The Avengers put teamwork over individual ego. Batman faces his personal demons and decides to not be quite so grim after all.

But why care about the genre in particular? Because genres have rules, and those rules support a lot of story elements. That is, rather than limiting the story teller to the contents of this box, it cracks open the crate from the secret warehouse and dumps out all manner of things that work. I’m just trying to figure out which crates we’re opening up. Is time travel in the box? High technology? Godlike powers? How about magic? The ability to cheat death?

I’ll say that most superhero movies are relying on items from the science fiction crates. We have aliens, mutants, gamma ray overdoses, mysterious meteor showers, and so on. Even then, the leaps we make from these are far from what we allow in more traditional sci-fi fare. After all, in most SF, a lethal overdose of gamma radiation is, well… lethal. It’s not the source of anger-inspired super-strength.

But some of these heroes are clearly relying on stuff from the fantasy crates. The Mask used a magical artifact. The Ghost Rider has made a deal with the devil, and Hellboy is what… the devil’s own scion? These aren’t traditional fantasy tropes, or at least not from the epic Tolkien fantasy vein, but in the more modern genre of urban fantasy, these aren’t that strange.

Or maybe I’m trying to fit a triangular peg in either a round or square hole. Are superhero films really their own independent genre with its own crate of rules, tropes, and McGuffins? With both Marvel and DC mining their IP vaults, we might very well be headed there by volume alone. If we are, I’m not sure I know enough about superheroes to really say what those rules are.

What do you think?

Avoiding the Genre Trap

I want to write more than one genre of fiction. For that matter, I want to write some non-fiction as well. But a lot of writers end up writing in only one genre, the literary equivalent of type-casting. How does that happen, and how can I avoid it?

For starters, it happens to fewer authors than it appears. Quite a few of them write in multiple genres already, but they do so under different names. When their name is invested with a genre identity, like Anne Rice and the supernatural, it makes some sense to go with a different name for a different subject, such as the kinky erotica of Anne Rampling. This isn’t always the author’s choice, as it has often been forced by publishers, but a number of them have crossed genres under the guise of a new name.

But regardless of the name, there is still a real temptation to keep writing the same kind of thing. After all, if you crank out a great SF trilogy, you get pretty good at writing SF. While the nuts and bolts of writing SF would serve you well in fantasy or mystery, it would not be quite as simple. I suppose it’s the difference between building a second lawnmower vs. cobbling together a leaf blower. It’s simply easier to crank out the same old thing over and over.

Easier yes, but not as much fun, I would think. Having already done some genre jumping, I find I enjoy the mental muscles it exercises.

Then there’s the bird-in-the-hand issue of selling books before they’re written.  I’ve heard more than one author talk about how different things are once they’re selling books via a proposal. Once they’re a proven commodity, they can sell a book based on an outline a few chapters and then live on the advance while they actually write it. But publishers seem to want exactly what sold well last year, just newer. So, if your last SF novel was a success, they’ll want another successful SF novel.

One author described how his advances became something of a trap, because he felt he could no longer afford to branch out and try a different genre or experiment with some of his stranger ideas. While it might make a fabulous novel, even a commercially successful one, he knew he could never sell something that different on a proposal. So he stuck with what he knew, living from one advance to the next.

Most of all that, of course, is second or third hand information, but I confess that this is one of the things that pushed me towards self-publishing. I did not want to find myself in the position of writing a particular book simply because it was a lot like the last one. That’s hardly the only reason I went that way, but it did enter into my thinking.

The other thing I’m doing to avoid the genre trap is to write as much as I can and to do it in multiple genres. Certainly, I’m going to write some series books, but they won’t all be in the same genre, and some of them will definitely end so that others can begin. Right now I have three book projects strongly underway, with several others taking shape in the shadows.

Two of those are the first two books in a new SF/space opera series, set in the same universe as Beneath the Sky. These will follow the tale of a boy learning the truth about his parents and will eventually lead him into conflict with Father Chessman, a minor character from Beneath the Sky. The first of these, Ships of My Fathers, should be out this fall.

The other book that’s well in hand is the start of an urban fantasy series set in a Pittsburgh but stretches into other realms, ranging from Hell to the city of Fae. It’s less about the mighty magical powers coursing through the world and more about living in the nitty-gritty reality of that society. The first of these, Hell Bent, should be out early next year.

As for the other stuff that’s forming in the wings, I have a military SF series taking shape (also in the Beneath the Sky universe), two solo SF novels addressing more existential questions, a vampire series set in Japan, an epic fantasy of aging heroes, a mystery or two, and even some sketchy plots around romance and erotica. And then there’s the epic seventeen-novel future history that I’ll likely never write, as well as the many free-floating ideas that haven’t settled into a home yet.

If I go as far afield as romance, I’ll probably use a pen name, but I’d like to keep all of my SF and fantasy under my original name. There are enough successes like Elizabeth Moon and C.J. Cherryh who have spanned that pair of genres to prove it can be done. Whether mystery would go out under this name is an open question.

All I know is that I don’t want to end up writing book 17 of a series I’ve grown to hate, but perhaps I’m overly claustrophobic on that front. Maybe someone else would snuggle right on into that situation and be happy as a clam.

What about you? If you write, is your chosen genre a cozy sweater or a bear trap?

Top 100 Rigellian Quirks

Well, I was going to write about Amazon’s new Kindle lending library going live, but I haven’t had time to research the details yet. Why?

Because I got sucked into a massively long list of quirks about living in America. And why does that belong on a writing blog any more than offering up an excuse of playing too much World of Warcraft?

Because this stuff is pure creative gold in story telling. So much of what really sucks us into the other worlds of SF and fantasy is that sense of “not here and not now”. Sure, there’s the big stuff like rocket ships and dragons, but those are essentially tropes. You know it’s an SF story because of the rocket ship, while the dragon tells you it’s all a fantasy, and when the dragon attacks the rocket ship, you certainly know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

But the tropes don’t make it seem real. Instead, it’s the details like the kids running around on the ground beneath the dragon-rocket battle collecting the dragon scales that fell off. You can get nine coppers a piece for those, and that buys a lot of candy marbles — you know, those hard jawbreakers that kids shoot around the circle and then suck on their winnings, yeah, those things.

And while a list like the one I linked to above can get boring after a while (it’s LOOOONG) with endless comments about cheese, big cars, and strange money, it’s also great for coming up with those SF/F details. I won’t call them source material. After all, wizard cars are just as big as most American cars, so who would notice? However, I’ll call them good fertilizer for the brain when trying to come up with those things.

Like, for example, how on Rigel, the serving sizes at restaurants are so small, but that’s because you order several. “I’ll have the 2 ounce steak, the broccoli twig, the shrimp trio, the cup of snow peas, and a shot glass of the chicken broth to dip things in.”

Or how in Hell, it’s considered rude to wait for your host to start eating before you eat. That’s tantamount to accusing him of trying to poison you. But just in case, keep a bottle of emetic tucked into your boot.

Or how common national flags are on Vega-3, but that they all come down on Fridays for people to fly their family crests on Saturdays and their school flags on Sundays.

Or that fashion trend in New Ireland of shirt fabric having prints of vintage 1870’s newspapers on them.

So, take a wander down that list and think about what it means for the dog parks in the Martian dome cities.

Steampunk is a hard left turn

I am not really a fan of the steampunk genre, but I am very excited to see it doing so well.

Why? Well, let’s take a little trip down memory lane. When I started reading science fiction and fantasy, I looked upon the genres as existing on a speculative timeline. Science fiction stories were stories in the future following along one technological/sociological path or another. Fantasy stories were stories set in some mythical past, a medieval Europe that we’d like to believe might have existed if only THE MAN hadn’t stamped magic out of all the history books. Even horror existed on this timeline as well, making little circles around the present as tales that could be happening in the near present yet only showing up on the police report in the Tuesday paper.

Simple timeline with a little horror nearby

I liked it. It was a neatly contained metaphor for the larger speculative fiction genre. SF is over there on the right, and all those epic fantasies are over there on the left, while the horror folks are in the middle, shambling one step ahead of the zombies. All the genres had their place, and every genre was staying in that place. Truthfully, I doubt it was really ever that simple, but for me at least, it was an innocent delusion.

Alternate history was the first crack in my lovely façade. Robert E. Lee got himself an AK-47, and the modern island of Nantucket was relocated to the twelfth century B.C. From there things flowed forward as you would expect… well, not really as you’d expect, come on! But at least the tales stuck with real world physics. There was no magic driving the plot forward, just good old gunpowder and steel. I could imagine that as an odd split off of SF. It was merely a more fully developed time travel genre without all the angst over paradoxes. My nice little timeline adjusted to allow for this SF throwback.

Then came urban fantasy. It wasn’t the epic fantasy of old with elves, swords, and vast battles against the goblin king’s army. In that respect, I’m going to lump Harry Potter and some of the other modern YA fantasy into this pile as well. These stories are taking place in a modern setting with fantastical elements. In many cases, e.g. Dresden Files and Harry Potter, these fantastic elements are behind the scenes of the larger world. We the readers are getting a glimpse of the magic that the authorities keep telling us does not truly exist. I tried to cram that into my timeline and figured it was a bit like the horror genre. It was happening now, just that we were only seeing the fringes of it.

But as I read further, some of these fantasy worlds held the fantastical elements out for all to see. Perhaps they were set in the near future after some big event triggered magic’s resurgence in the world, or maybe they were set in the current year with that big event decades in the past. Or perhaps the fantastical elements are grafted on wholesale to our world, and we simply have a very different history of fighting the necromancer Hitler and his horde of genetically superior zombies, leading us to a world where we’re regretting our decision to ally ourselves with the Lycan empire and the former Ukrainian republics.

Those tales pretty much shattered my notion of a timeline, because there was nothing linear about this. These tales of fantasy could no longer be considered the little horror-like swirls hiding beneath the surface of the present. They were clearly a new direction, but at least they were centered on the present. It let me look then on the timeline as a present-centered story universe and had me wondering where else we might go from here.

But then steampunk came along, and I had to say WTF! (Or as my wife is fond of saying, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!”) There is nothing present-based about steampunk. It’s not even really historically based. It’s the Victorian age that never was. I can’t even call it alternate history, because they’re not taking some future or present science and taking it back. Instead, steampunk has taken science and technology that never really was and made it as real as science fiction’s phasers and warp drive. This left me with only being able to describe steampunk as a hard left turn. It waves to Queen Victoria and goes off in its own direction.

And it’s heading the direction of some fairly rich destinations. I have run into odd variations that mix in magic, horror, and the paranormal. Some even take steampunk into future directions – not future from our present, but steampunk plus eighty years. Dieselpunk? Biopunk? Who knows where this is going?

As I said at the beginning, I’m not really a fan of steampunk, but I am very excited about steampunk. These kinds of hard turns from the narrow boundaries of the various speculative fiction genres not only provide fertile ground for telling new stories, but they rattle the notion that our genres should even have boundaries. Cross-genre tales used to be impossible to market because we couldn’t figure out where to stick them in the bookstores. Now cross-genre is the fertile flood plain between the banks of our old genre rivers.

There’s an old maxim that there are really only two stories, or is it three, or perhaps twenty-seven, but as we keep reusing archetypes and journeys and a young hero’s coming of age, we are to some degree retelling stories we’ve all heard a hundred times before. This maxim tells us that all the rest is just window dressing. But if so, I’m very happy with the new curtains.