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January 1999

Letters on this page:

  • Greg Ketter echoes James Van Hise
  • James Van Hise on book dealers at cons
  • Douglas McKinney and Thornton Kimes respond to Steve Perry
  • Paul Di Filippo with news about the Jack Gaughan estate
  • Steve Perry responds to John Savage
  • John Ordover responds to Steve Perry

    December letters:
  • John Savage responds to Steve Perry

    Dear Locus,
         Responding to James Van Hise's letter in the Jan. 1999 Locus [see below] regarding book dealers at SF conventions:
         I still, after 25 years, attend some SF conventions as a book dealer, but most times it's just not worth it. The majority of the attendees really don't care for books. They would rather buy media materials, trinkets, and clothing. I've found it is not generally feasible to have more than one or two booksellers at any but the largest of conventions, because there aren't enough people to support the books.
         Our local convention, MiniCon, has attracted upwards of 4000 people in recent years, and there are less booksellers interested in attending each year. Granted, with two fine SF bookstores in the area (Uncle Hugo's and my own DreamHaven), the locals really don't have to buy their books at the convention. But there just isn't the interest in books there once was. You could encourage more booksellers to attend -- once. I'll bet they wouldn't return after facing dismal sales and high costs. I think that convention dealer's rooms have settled out into what the fans generally want -- i.e. not books. That's their choice.
         Some conventions, like World Fantasy Convention, are almost all books. Until recently, most dealers even made money. But, with stiffening competition from the web, chain stores, and other media, selling books at a convention is unlikely to be a particularly rewarding experience, if it ever was.

    --Greg Ketter
    DreamHaven Books

    Dear Locus,
         Recent experiences have made me wonder when science fiction conventions stopped being about people who read and write books. I'm not talking about Creation and other media conventions where concentration on books is a lost cause, but actual SF conventions. The Worldcon seems to be the last of the SF conventions where book dealers can still be found in reasonable numbers in the dealers room.
         At Westercons and the annual L.A. Loscon, the dealers rooms have two or three book dealers (at most), and the rest are selling jewelry, posters, t-shirts, games, and CDs. What brought this to a head was in October when I flew to Denver to attend the annual MileHiCon. Out of thirty-some dealers, I was one of only four book dealers. I talked to one of the book dealers, and he described his experience in September at DragonCon, which is bigger than the biggest World SF Con. It drew some 12,000 people and had 150 tables in the dealers room, with a total of four book dealers. Those four book dealers made a lot of money due to the lack of competition. This is not the way it used to be. I could live with the situation if it was at least a 50/50 split, but 90/10 is beyond the pale, and I place the blame fully at the feet of the convention committees.
         To use L.A.'s Loscon as an example (there were two book dealers at the last one I attended I have stopped going as a result), in 1993 a book dealer I know attended Loscon, and at the end of the convention, said he wanted a table for next year, but was told they were already sold out! When he complained that no one had told him they were already accepting reservations, he was yelled at for complaining! Clearly the convention didn't care if they lost another book dealer. The same hotel where Loscon is held has two book fairs a year where I see several dealers specializing in SF who never attend Loscon, but might if their attendance were solicited. There is also an annual paperback show held in Los Angeles which 50 book dealers attend. The monthly comic book shows in Los Angeles have SF book dealers who don't attend Loscon, as does the annual San Diego Comicon. I remember when Loscon used to have a minimum of a hundred people waiting to get in when it opened to the public at 10 a.m. on Friday at the last one I attended, I arrived just before 10 a.m. on Friday and five people were waiting to get in. The reason for the attendance slacking off on this and other SF conventions might be more obvious than the people running them care to believe.

    --James Van Hise
    (reprinted from the January 1999 Locus Magazine)

    (Tue 26 Jan 99)

    Dear Locus,
         Despite the fact that on many levels I disagree with Steve Perry's opinions, I must applaud him (and Locus) for opening a forum for discussion. Some may call it inciting a riot, but whenever two or more people with opposing views come together, there's a decent chance of verbal violence. Hopefully, those operating on blind rage and prejudice will be ignored in favor of those who are at least willing to consider other opinions and engage in a meaningful debate.
         Frankly, I think that tie-ins will be with us, and be successful, for a very long time. Primarily this is because they are food for the lowest common denominator consumers, who don't really want anything more exotic taking up precious room on their plates. In fact, the so-called popcorn and Coke of genre books serve to satiate the hunger and satisfy the tastes of many fans. Taking into account that people are generally happy to go on consuming the same stuff over and over again until they finally become bored with it or discover that their tastes have changed, it's no surprise that Star Trek, Star Wars, and their literary descendants have continued to flourish.
         As long as readers keep buying tie-in novels (and now short stories), there will be plenty of it on the shelves for them to choose from. That's how it works. There will always be writers who will agree to accept lower royalties and advances to mass produce the stuff, because there will always be writers who are struggling to make ends meet or who aren't successful at writing anything else. There is ample supply because of the great demand. Don't expect publishing companies (especially large ones that must continually increase sales to keep their fattened bosses and shareholders gorged and happy) to cut or even slow production. They're doing exactly what they've been told to by their customers, and they don't have any reason to want to collect unemployment.
         Personally, I used to read quite a bit of the Star Trek and Star Wars stuff before I decided it was too bland, stale, and even nauseating (on occasion) to satisfy my tastes. Many of the books were poorly written, due to either their writers' lack of talent, or their rush to produce at an assembly line pace. Since then, I have struggled to find books by talented authors who have been forced into virtual exile by current publishing and marketing mismanagement. I have seen the film industry pump out computer-enhanced special effects snoozers that willfully trade plot and character development for box office receipts. I have seen too many good writers allow their names to be put on the covers of shallow, uninspired, repetitive junk, even when they have achieved the popularity and financial success that would enable them to publish least common denominator masterpieces.
         If I had to blame anyone for the continued proliferation of tie-ins and other sub-par books throughout the genre, it would be the fans who are too lazy to try something different. Then again, is it their fault they happened to have fallen into the flood of sewage, and just don't have the strength to resist it? Nobody's going to close the valve, at least not as long as pumping tons of sewage appears to be more profitable than delivering a few pounds of gold. If you're happy with the rats, then that's your decision. For myself, I'd much rather go out and pan for gold; it may be tougher to find, but it's infinitely more rewarding.

    --Douglas McKinney
    Fri 15 Jan 1999

    Dear Locus,
         Thank Ghod for Steve Perry! Besides the screed on book series' that appeared on your on-line incarnation, this "sky is falling" thing about science fiction falling down and not getting up again is my other pet peeve. Gordon van Gelder of F&SF recently publicly disagreed with his own in-house doomsayer, wunderkind Jonathan Lethem, on this very topic.
         I thanked him too, and also said, in that letter, that I thought that some SF authors (like Joe Haldeman, if you in readerland read his interview in this mag a few months ago [July 1997 --ed.]) are afflicted with a form of self-hatred. They "don't get no respect" from the Salman Rushdie (et al.)-loving crowd.
         Who needs that? If you want to, as Haldeman does, write a literary/at least semi-Great American Novel, what's stoppin' you?
         The thing about snobbish readers is true, but we aren't monolithic about what we snub. I frequently gush about books/authors I think someone will like, but one day had a stunning experience talking to another SF fan who has never and will never read anything SF written by a woman! His favorite male author list appeared to be very short too. Ghod Dhaan!
         I like meat'n'potatoes SF/F. I've reread several of the few Star Trek novels that are worth reading quite a few times, as well as books by Mercedes Lackey and David Weber, sometimes 'cuz I have a Linus-with-his-security-blanket need to.

    --Thornton Kimes

    Dear Locus,
         As a longtime friend of Nora Gaughan, daughter of famed SF artist Jack Gaughan, I have been asked by the family to notify the SF world of a recent development in the Gaughan estate. After years of cataloging, Jack's widow, Phoebe Adams Gaughan, is now offering selected works of Jack's for sale. Both B&W illos and full-color cover illustrations are for sale. For more information, contact:
    Phoebe Adams Gaughan
    93 Fair Street
    Kingston, NY 12401
         Phoebe Gaughan will be attending this year's Boskone with a selection of Jack's work.
         Thank you for your attention to this announcement.

    --Paul Di Filippo
    Wed 6 Jan 1999

    Dear Locus,
         I'll happily agree with one thing in John Savage's ill-aimed online potshot in my recent essay, "Will the Real Dodo Please Stand Up?"
         He is indeed a literary snob.
         However, any manure I might have shoveled in the piece can be considered but a few random bird speckles compared to the dinosaur flop Savage dumps with this howler:
    "My mantra is simple: Formula Fiction Is Bad ."
         Oh, really?
         With the exception of a couple of periods of "new wave" writing in our little house, the most recent being in the sixties, ALL science fiction and fantasy is formulaic. (Well, at least the publishable stuff is, and that's what we're talking about here. If Savage wants to put down his elitist poison pen and select a few genre novels he thinks are beyond his simple mantra, I'll be tickled pink to show him the formula in them.)

    --Steve Perry
    Tue 5 Jan 1999

    Dear Locus,
         Since I edit the Star Trek novels, and am clearly biased, I'm not going to comment directly on Steve's essay, but instead pose another question.
         Why is it that the science fiction genre is vulnerable to the intrusion of media tie in novels to an extent that no other genre is?
         Murder, She Wrote and Law and Order were and are far more popular shows than any science fiction that has even been on TV -- yet the Murder, She Wrote novels didn't sell well, and neither did the Law and Order novels. The Rockford Files and Columbo novels aren't setting the world on fire. So what's different about SF?
         So why would media books outsell even the most popular authors in the genre? Even the related field of fantasy doesn't have that problem. Here are some possible answers to think about:
         1) Could it be that the drive toward "literary" SF has left behind the core of the audience? That we're forgetting that all roads lead back to Lensmen with a stopover at Captain Future? If you look at some of the most popular non- media SF novels of recent years, such as Honor Harrington and Lois Bujold's books, they capture more of that spirit than most of what's published today. Going back farther, Ringworld certainly captured that "sense of wonder." What does that today?
         2) Another possibility is that SF has, lately, been painting a picture of the future that is far too bleak. If there's one thing Star Trek and Star Wars have in common, it's that both of them present futures (although Star Wars is ostensibly in the past, it feels like the future) that are fun to live in, where things got better. Has there been too much SF that says we'll live on a poisoned earth, that'll we'll be overwhelmed by scary cyberpunk technology, or some other dark portrait of the "Things to Come?" The occasional cautionary tale is fine, but have there been too many of them?
         3) Has it become naive to write about things getting better? When I read SF as a kid what attracted me was the sense that when I grew up, things would be better and I could have a hand in it. Are we losing the bright kids that were always the mainstay of the SF readership? Are we presenting the idealism that would hook them in, or are we writing apologia for ourselves, we who grew up and didn't change the world?
         4) Finally, it may be necessary to re-think what SF means in a world where the shuttle is building a space station, "ancient astronaut" means "John Glenn" and one recent newscast contained the line "...and those were the pictures from the Mars Rover. Switching to Earth Orbit, here's an update on the Mir/Shuttle rendezvous..."
         Truly, these are just talking points. I don't have any real answers. So at the risk of being redundant, let me restate the problem:
         The facts are:
    1) Media novels outsell almost everything else in science fiction.
    2) This isn't happening in other genres, even with novels based on TV shows way more popular than Star Trek or Babylon Five or any other TV SF.

         The Question is:
    "Why SF? What makes it vulnerable to the intrusion of media novels?"

         As Isaac Asimov said at the end of ''Pâté de foie gras'' ...
    "Any ideas?"

    --John Ordover
    Mon 4 Jan 1999

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