Reflections on science fiction, writing and the publishing business

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I just read the most current issues of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Forum and Bulletin. There were some issues raised that I think are worth thinking about.

One is what to do about changes in technology and the resulting new kinds of publishing, especially desktop publishing and e-publishing.

It is never easy to set up a new publishing house or magazine, but changes in technology make it easier for small presses and little magazines to exist. Is a sale to a small press or an e-magazine a professional sale (a big issue for SFWA members, who are seriously into being professional)? Is it okay to put work on the Internet for free? What makes a professional these days?

A second issue is changes in the traditional publishing industry, due to media consolidation, which make being a midlist writer increasingly difficult. The old days of gentleman and lady publishers, who cared about Art, are long over. What matters now is profit, and writers who don’t make enough money for the corporation are quickly dropped. Norman Spinrad calls publishing, especially SF publishing, dysfunctional; and he may well be right. (I think he means incompetent, as well as driven by greed.)

As writers find they can’t sell to the traditional New York publishing houses or to the handful of surviving professional SF magazines, they turn to other outlets, which leads us back to issue one.

In fairness, I have to say the SF magazines are not owned by giant multi-national corporations, nor are they driven by greed. Their problem is the market place. It is simply very difficult for a magazine devoted to any kind of fiction to surive.

All my experiences with the SF magazines have been good. They are a labor of love by people who work very hard simply to keep their magazines (and my markets) going.

The third issue is the graying of the core readership. In spite of the importance of SF and fantasy ideas in popular culture, people aren’t reading SF, it is argued. If this is so, what kind of future do SF writers have?

Finally, there is the fact that most SFWA members don’t make a living by writing SF and probably never have. Tom Easton has a graceful essay on this topic in the Bulletin.

Given all this, what is a SF writer? And where are we going from here?

Lyda Morehouse, SF writer and personal friend, wrote in the Loft Literary Center Schedule:

Science fiction and fantasy often get a bad rap as the genre of Star Wars, Star Trek et al. However, if a person actually reads the literature currently being written in the SF/F genres, they will find a surprising array of social and political commentary that talks not so much about the future as the present. SF/F is the genre of radicalism, in my opinion. To write effective SF/F. a writer needs a keen awareness of the here and now and a willingness to take risks.

In contrast to this, Norman Spinrad in the SFWA Forum sees SF writers as becoming more conservative as their audience decreases. They are writing tired space operas and tedious technophilic “hard SF,” retro science fiction for the graying, fannish core readership, rather than trying to reach out to the rest of the world.

So, SF tropes fill popular culture, and mainstream literary authors (as Spinrad points out) are writing more and more fiction that is fantastic in one way or another. At least some prominent SF authors appear to have moved into this new mainstream, which is more welcoming to nonrealistic fiction. William Gibson’s most recent novel is cutting edge present, rather than cutting edge future; and only the presence of voodoo gods takes it outside the world as we know it.

As all of this happens, the SF writers who are left behind in the genre become more and more confused about what they should be writing and where their audience lies.

Or so the argument goes.