As a novelist, I’d honestly rather see my books hit the top 100 sci-fi list in the Kindle store than the New York Times for one simple reason–money. I’m a full-time genre fiction author scratching a living from the aether one ebook at a time. And thanks to things like keywords, tags, SEO, Amazon killbot-algorithms and Facebook I can do so by writing almost any sort of fiction I choose as long as I abide by the new set of rules still being forged in the fires of the briny ebook cauldron. Those rules seem to be guided by a few dynamics (drum roll please).
In the not so distant past an evil committee chaired by Oprah and staffed by the likes of Big Brother, Rupert Murdoch, and a rogue zerg overlord made all the decisions on what books were allowed shelf space (and thus sales) at the corner Barnes and Noble. For decades the triad has remained romance, mysteries and thrillers. Science fiction has long been accepted with a wink and a nod as the android Cinderella sweeping out the storeroom (where literary fiction camps out on permanent smoke break).
Ebooks have changed all that. Can I get an amen? How about a Qapla? Because this change is a good fortune indeed for the geeky among us, both writer and reader. As any geek knows, things starting in “i” or “e” tend to be improved (an iPhone is better than a phone, right?).
Ebooks have changed the way we see shelf space. Virtual shelf space is endless, and the better a search engine or algorithm, the better I can scavenge that shelf space for exactly what I want. Alien invasions? Dieselpunk? Weird Western? Zombie apocalypse? Werewolf on vampire space opera romance? (okay, I couldn’t find anything on that last one, but maybe someday soon).
The Reading Elite
The first people to notice and take advantage of all this new shelf space have been the upper echelon known in the biz as the reading elite–the nightlight warriors. These are the sort of readers who digest over a 100 books a year, sometimes as much as a book a day.
Always on the prowl for a cheaper and easier way to feed their addiction, these readers were early adaptors to ereading devices. And these people ain’t reading off of Oprah’s suggested list. Most importantly, they migrate from genre to genre. After overgrazing one area they move on to the next, consuming everything from literary masterpieces to over-cooked schlock.
Thanks to ebooks, this reading elite has recently discovered wallowing holes such as urban fiction, steampunk and zombie apocalypse. I’m not saying these small micro-niches didn’t exist before. I’m saying they have suddenly and fantastically burst into commercial sustainability.
Books that ten years ago would have been lost in the morass of spine-ville, somewhere on a dusty back-room shelf (“Oh Jimmy, don’t go back there. Those books are so garish and lewd”) are suddenly successful. Small micro-niches that had gone unnoticed are discovered and devoured, and then grazed out. The elite moves on.
Sure the rest of the reading world fumbles along behind, and to them steampunk is new and shiny for several more years. But the commercial reality is that the elite has already represented half of total sales in just the first few years.
Time to Market
Thus timing is the trick. For authors at the forefront of a new sub-genre surge they’ve most likely languished for years, but eventually find their payday (Cherie Priest). For Johnny-come-latelys the momentum for commercial viability is difficult to develop.
This market volatility is what has crippled traditional publishing the most. When two to three years is your timeline from concept to shelf, it’s difficult to forecast the movements of the elite (which are needed to make money–paper money). If a niche has trended up, people in traditional publishing know indies will pump hundreds of titles into it before they can publish one.
Put these three dynamics together, and what does it mean for joe or jane reader? It means new and exciting things to read for years to come. Eventually things will settle down. Sub-genre surges will lessen in severity as the shear number of them will inevitably divide the herd. The volume of ereader adaptors will lessen as the technology nears its saturation point (the next big splashes will be outside of the U.S.).
What does all this mean for the likes of me? Well, I’ve spent the last few years writing what I’ve wanted–pulpy, weird-Western, conspiracy theory driven, alternate-history dieselpunk. While I haven’t won the sub-genre lottery (maybe my payday’s still coming), it’s possible for me to scratch out a living. The idea of which would have been unthinkable even four years ago.