This is part of a series of posts about developments in English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK that caught my eye during 2017, along with predictions for 2018. I’ll explain why I’m restricting myself to these markets at the end*.
The boom is slowing.
How many science fiction books were bought in 2017 in America and the UK? How many authors earned enough to make a decent living? Is the audience expanding or contracting?
For those of us who earn our living as science-fiction writers, these are vital questions we must keep asking. I can’t feed my family on daydreams; I need to know whether my career remains viable. And yet the answers are difficult to come by, and made harder when trade bodies such as the American Association of Publishers and the UK’s Publishing Association are so keen to spin misleading narratives such as the one that says eBook sales are down (Reality Check: these trade bodies represent only a tiny minority of eBook publishers and their figures only tell us that their eBook sales are down.)
Nor can we turn to all the surveys that tell us the pitiful amount professional writers earn (Reality Check: none of them are based on representative data, and some conflate earnings of novelists with those of journalists, script writers and other forms of writer).
Consequently we’re forced to collate anecdotal evidence from as many people as possible, read all the trade figures, and use our inside knowledge and tools such as KDSPY to examine the charts and sales ranking on Amazon, where at the least a rough correlation can be made to unit sales and earnings (an attempt is made to summarize them at authorearnings.com).
BTW: This is why I urge anyone who wants to understand the state of science fiction publishing to spread their wings and consult widely different sources of data.
Anyway, here’s what I discerned during 2017.
The flood of science-fiction authors quitting the day job to write full time has slowed significantly, after peaking around 2013-14. However, quitting the day job was still a realistic possibility for some authors during 2017. Two of my friends have done so in recent weeks, and one of the surprises that impressed me personally in 2017 was discovering that authors I’d known for a while had actually been writing full-time for years.
The problem here is that it’s no longer possible to identify professional authors by visually inspecting the Amazon science fiction bestseller lists, something I once did. In 2017, a hypothetical self-publishing author earning a low six-figure income from Amazon sales of their science fiction books can do so while barely scratching the Top-100 of minor bestseller sub-lists, such as Space Marine and Galactic Empires. Being self-published, they will almost certainly never be mentioned in any traditional review or news medium (such as Locus Magazine — although there are a handful of review sites that freely mix up books from different types of publishing) and if they aren’t prominent in science fiction fandom (few are) then unless you move in the same social circles as the author you will probably never hear of them. And yet they will have sold hundreds of thousands of books; just not to you.
Elsewhere in science-fiction world, friends of mine are reporting a difficult year. I’m one of them, so I know what it feels like and understand how exhausting it can be when so many of one’s friends are killing it with their sales. In fact, despite the huge growth in the science fiction market in recent years, during 2017 I still heard some people complaining of the ‘death of the midlist’ (by which they mean that unless you’re a huge star, you can’t earn a living as a writer).
Although my year, and those of some friends, were not great, my reading of the data is that science fiction sales and audience both continued to grow in aggregate, though at a reduced rate.
I add that emphasis because earning a living as a science fiction writer is still extremely hard, and there are no guarantees of success no matter the quality of your writing or marketing. Although the number of authors earning good money has soared, the number of authors vying to claim a spot as a full-time SF pro has grown by an even greater amount, and this showed no signs of slacking during 2017.
The ‘boom’ in context. The number of authors earning a good living writing science fiction novels appears to have grown, but remains tiny (I estimate a highly speculative 200-300 authors). But for every one in this group, I estimate there are about 50-100 authors earning less.
To put that in perspective, when I sell a book on amazon, it’s a competition in which the reader has to choose mine over 150,000 other competing Kindle titles in the category of science fiction, each one instantly available at a click of a button.
Many readers are responding to the enormous volume of professionally produced books by retreating to a comfort zone of brands. As in every other industry, if consumers are overwhelmed with choice, they will turn to brands they recognize as delivering quality products, and perhaps also to recommendations from voices they trust. Despite many flaws (oh, don’t get me started on #?&*ing Amazon reviews <grrr> ), amazon.com has become the dominant voice of recommendation, and I would argue because it gives the most effective recommendations. I don’t get many things right in my predictions, but this is exactly what I said back in 2011, as did many others.
In 2017, John Scalzi, Margaret Atwood, Andy Weir, and Alistair Reynolds were successful consumer brands; so too were Sara King, Lindsay Buroker, Black Library, Star Wars, Baen Books, Christopher Nuttall, The Kutherian Gambit, and the Four Horsemen Universe (amongst many others).
Gollancz, Harper Voyager, Crown, and Head of Zeus are not successful consumer brands; most readers will tell you they have never heard of them. Bookstores, literary agents, and newspaper reviewers will certainly know these brands, but not everyday science fiction readers. These are business-to-business brands rather than business-to-consumer.
A key trend in 2017 was to see science fiction authors collaborating to boost their brands, or signing NewPub deals that would associate them with strong consumer brands.
Predictions for 2018
The race for brands will continue. Sales, audience, and also revenue will all increase during 2018, but only in aggregate. I predict 2018 will be the first year since 2010 when over 50% of professional science fiction authors selling into the Anglo-American market will report a year-on-year decline in earnings from their books.
Books that caught my eye in 2017
Space opera. Dark humor. Hard-as-diamond SF. The quirky Bobiverse books by Dennis E Taylor are all these things, but mostly to me these unique gems are just Bobiverse books. Like many of the key science fiction books that broke out of the core SF literary audience to sell in ridiculous amounts to mainstream readers, a great deal of that breakout was due to the huge success of the audio edition.
Kicking off in 2016 with the fabulously titled We are Legion (We are Bob), the books built strongly through word of mouth until at one point in 2017 Amazon’s new Amazon Charts was listing the first one as the most read fiction book. Taylor finished 2017 with the final book in the trilogy: All These Worlds.
During 2017, We are Legion (We are Bob) was the book I saw with the most personal recommendations and from the most widespread of sources; it was fascinating to see it grow its reputation month by month. There were other titles plenty of people were talking about last year, the TV tie-in edition of Handmaid’s Tale (1986) by Margaret Atwood for one, but nothing came close to Dennis E. Taylor’s masterpiece.
In fact, with Dennis E. Taylor being so successful and Jodi Taylor continuing to show during last year why she is one of the UK’s leading SF authors, 2017 taught me that I am very much a junior in the ranks of Taylor science fiction authors 🙂
Other posts in this series
Start reading The Battle of Cairo today.
Tim C. Taylor is a British author of popular science fiction who quit the day job in 2011. For a free starter library of exclusive stories, which make great jumping off points into his multiple book series, join the Legionaries by following THIS LINK.
*So, why restrict myself to English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK? It’s not that nothing else is going on of importance. For me personally, I am greatly indebted to my loyal fans in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. More generally, I suspect that in 25 years’ time, we’ll look back at this time and consider that not only were the biggest changes in SF publishing taking place outside of the English language, but that they will profoundly impact Anglo-American science fiction over the coming decade.
The reason is simply that it’s with the US and UK that I have the most meaningful data and consequently the deepest understanding of how those markets work. Also, I succeed or fail in earning my living as a writer by my success in selling to American readers, so I watch trends there like a hawk.