Science Fiction Repair Shop: Fringe Benefits

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-08-29 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

I've long felt the main problems with SF&F are things that stem from the perverse incentives created by publishing. Publishing's a business with disgustingly small profit margins, so experimentation and risk are discouraged. At the very least, you want to make back your investment or minimize your losses; at the most, you want to sell millions of copies or have your work turned into a major multimedia franchise.

Now, over the last few years, things have opened up a little. Mainstream publishers of SF&F are taking slightly more calculated risks. We have more authors who aren't the same old straight white guys now than we ever did in the field, and that right there is a massive boon.

But there are still too many of the wrong kinds of expectations about what kinds of works we should nurture: flabby cycles of work over individual stories that can stand on their own feet, for instance. Too much of what gets published feels like the first draft of something that would just end up as a movie or a TV series — that is to say, something that exists as a book not because it could only exist as a book, but because that's just one possible incarnation it could take. (I'm fully aware that this situation is not itself new, either; I'm also convinced it's now more corrosive than ever.) And all of this sets a bad example for both readers and writers. Readers get trained on all this as being the norm or the ideal, and writers believe it's their duty to produce things that conform to that norm or ideal.

To my mind, this seems like the solution ought to be self-publishing, the super-indie press. And here and there we have self-published authors whose works I'd defend as being as good as, or superior to, anything from a professional publisher. I have no shame in admitting that two such people are good friends. (I leave any discussion of whether or not I'm any good to other people; I just try to do my best.)

But most of what's out there in indiespace is either unreadable dreck or depressing retreads of popular work, and I console myself with the thought that maybe this is just the laws of averages at work. Bad writing is everywhere, and perhaps we should on balance expect more of it in indie circles, because it tends to lack the evolutionary pressure of economic incentives. A bad writer can self-publish forever without ever spending a dime, and there's nothing to stop them save for them either getting bored or dropping dead.

On the other hand, this is also the very best thing about the field. A good story doesn't have to be a bestseller to deserve to exist, or even an any-kind-of-seller at all. It just takes the will for someone to write it up and put it out there. The hard part is getting it to be noticed anywhere outside of its own circle, and the big-publisher money needed to get good work in front of audiences who for the most part are not made of curious tastemakers comes at the cost of becoming a conservative, fear-driven enterprise.

Yet everyone I know who works at the fringes to get stuff out there because they love it, and not because they want to retire early to a windmill in the Pyrenees, is happiest and most fulfilled when they follow that impulse. I am conversant with a couple of folks in the boutique home video space, one of the niche labels that licenses oddball foreign titles or grindhouse "classics" or long out-of-print anime. They said recently in a panel discussion that in the past, they've had many opportunities to license titles that they were damn sure were going to make them a zillion bucks, and every single time they did this, they ended up with bupkis. And, conversely, every single time they went with licensing stuff that they were drawn to personally, because they wanted to see it in print here, it paid the bills and then some.

The more I circle this issue, the more I come back to the same question: Why do it? If you do it because you are genuinely concerned about putting Good Stuff out there, then it seems more likely that you will structure things so that you can take the risks that are worth taking, because you won't be basing your ability to eat on it. Most importantly, you don't get into the horrible trap of putting out some commercial product now so you can get the money later to do what you really want. I have never seen a single instance of this ever working out. It has always degenerated into a death spiral of one money-chasing exercise following another.

When I got into this game, I had to ask myself hard questions about what I really wanted and why. I had to admit that my models were not other authors, or even other publishing companies. They were the indie bands who pooled their couch-change scrapings to press split 7" records with each other, who sold their albums out of the trunks of their cars at gigs, who performed in peoples' basements, and who broke up and went their merry ways when it wasn't fun anymore. And sometimes, every now and then, you had from that scene a Soundgarden or a Killing Joke or a Skinny Puppy. What they admired most, and what I did, too, was not commercial success, but finding an area in which they could do what they wanted for the people that wanted it.

I'm skeptical of the idea that all SF&F publishing would benefit from being turned over to the indies and left alone, because we clearly need editors — or at the very least sincere critics — to sift the wheat from the chaff (and the dog hair). But I'm growing more convinced that as with music, in a field that's still this trend-driven, all the most interesting and truly groundbreaking work can only come from the fringes, especially when those fringes are populated by people who do this because they love it and to hell with the money.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop publishing science fiction self-publishing