Thursday, November 27, 2008

No Market For Sci Fi Comedy

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the above logo. But if anyone's tired of seeing it, have pity on the rest of the world. Before long Evil UnLtd will be taking over the globe.

Alas, not with any help from Harper Collins.

After the book rocketed to the top last month, this is what the assigned editor had to say about it:

"Evil UnLtd is well-written, sharp, witty, and absolutely succeeds in transporting the reader to a curious and lush unknown world. The book avoids much of the self-importance that ruins a lot of science-fiction, and I found your ‘Dr. Evil’ antagonist Dexter Snide and his bumbling antics to be refreshingly comic.

The plot is strong and coupled with your very accessible and extremely clean prose the reader is quickly pulled along by your story. That said, there are definitely things you could improve. It sometimes moves a little too fast...take care with this kind of small issue if you want your writing to be perfect.

I definitely enjoyed the way that you use the (supposed) antagonist’s point of view as the main voice of the narrative and made the story of Rolph Stengun – the more classic kind of protagonist – of secondary importance. I found that device unexpected and interesting, and it’s exactly this kind of hook that will make your book stand out to a reader, professional or otherwise.

It’s clear that you’ve written a well paced, witty, well-constructed book. But, for me at least, there’s still one central concern – you need to write with a market in mind. On the one hand, science fiction is actually a very small and targeted niche, and general readers, even those who love comedy, are unlikely to pick up a book in this genre. And on the other hand, I worry that your humor and your farcical tone might also alienate the core science fiction readership who would indeed give it a go. Yes, there are some very popular writers who’ve had success with this kind of book – Douglas Adams, of course, and to a lesser extent Terry Pratchett (though his fantasy world is more accessible to general readers than a sci-fi setting) – but these are notable exceptions, definitely not rules. As a publisher I worry that the market for this would be too small to make it a viable proposal for me.

Hope this input is helpful - thank you for sharing this with us and I wish you the best of luck!"

Naturally enough, there's a lot in there I agree with wholeheartedly. So, let's just examine the other part.

For one thing, they cite Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett as exceptions and not the rule. And it's true, those authors are exceptional. But it strikes me that the publishing industry have appointed those exceptions as 'the rule'. That is, if you're not Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, you're not coming in. So, pray tell, how are other exceptions ever going to break 'the rule'? When the product is - according to their own appraisal - "well-written, sharp, witty, and absolutely succeeds..." etc, doesn't that hint of exception?

It seems to me that all it takes to market a product like that is a bit of vision and imagination. Vision and imagination can't be exclusively the province of the writer, surely? I also have heaps of ideas as to how this particular hot property of mine - this 'franchise', if you like - could be marketed. So surely marketing people have ideas too?

One of the ideas Harper Collins had was to launch a new SF imprint, Angry Robot, due to launch in July of next year. Harper Collins is big, so possibly nobody at Angry Robot is even aware of Evil UnLtd. To me it sounds just their cup of a good source of Brownian motion.

Angry Robot. Whichever marketing person came up with that clearly wanted to suggest SF that rebelled or broke the mould in some way. Good name. But if they're not willing to actually do that with their creative output, then they may as well just call themselves Robot.

Breaking the mould, with this bold new concept - with "this kind of hook that will make your book stand out to a reader, professional or otherwise" - is one of the key things that Evil is about. So if you're listening, Angry Robot, I think we're made for one another.

That aside, obviously the thing to do now is to approach other publishers. Perhaps even consider self-publishing. Time and publishers will tell. Of course, if it comes to the self-publishing option, I'm going to have to consider the marketing side carefully. There's no way I can compete with a major publisher in terms of the level of investment, but of course where I can compete is in ideas. Vision and imagination.

For now, a few points to consider regarding the allegedly non-existent market for sci-fi comedy.

The year is 2008. Doctor Who, following on the tail of shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X Files and others, has popularised SF/Fantasy to the degree of really broadening its mainstream appeal. Even Torchwood is more popular than it should be. Next year sees a Doctor Who hiatus from our screens. A gap.

Doctor Who books are incredibly popular, as I understand it. Yes, they're designed to appeal to the kids' market, but a) older fans snap them up still and b) where's the light SF adventure for the adults?

2009 sees the release of a sixth Hitch-Hikers book by Eoin Colfer. Clearly the Douglas Adams estate feel there's still a market for SF comedy. Since Douglas Adams is one of the exceptions and the series has a huge cult following, very likely this will sell pretty well. It's an old franchise and has proven its longevity, but what's also very likely is that, no matter how good a job Eoin does, people will be feeling the need for something actually new, fresh and original. Something that they don't have to compare with past glories.

2009, so I've heard, will also see the production of a handful of Red Dwarf TV specials. Again, huge cult following. Again an old franchise. Same applies.

The timing is ripe for Evil UnLtd.

I'll be reducing the uploaded sample on authonomy to the first three chapters, which is what Harper Collins and other publishers look at, but do please take a look for yourselves and comment here. You'll see on the book's page, page after page of comments from readers of all genres - people who don't do Sci-Fi, people who do - attesting to the fact that they loved it, that they would buy the book, that they look forward to having it - along with other books to come in the series - on their actual bookshelves at home. It's my belief you'll find a sci-fi comedy with mainstream appeal, series potential (I'm working on Volume 2 already) and much more besides.

Presumably most of the people who commented on authonomy were writers and therefore more discerning and not representative of the reading public? But let's say for the sake of argument that the appeal is not as mainstream as I've been led to believe by all those different people, all those diverse points of view. Would that even then lead us to believe that there's "No Market For Sci-Fi Comedy"?

I don't think so. What do you think?

Evil UnLtd. Coming to a bookstore near you. We just need to find out when.


MediumRob said...

"Angry robot"

Sounds a bit like someone at HC is a JJ Abrams/Lost/Fringe/Alias fan, Bad Robot being the name of his production company.

SAF said...

It does have that kind of ring to it. The fact that there is a character named Evil Robot in the book just makes them even more ideally suited.

IZP said...

Well, my feeling is they don't have budget/imagination to take forward(sorry) what you do. ie. they want a slush pile with peer review filtering it down but after that they only actually want stuff that already fits their current ranges/analysis of what's selling right now that they might copy.

Could you scriptify it easily?

Cast a couple of old Who actors and a bird off of some current telly and it'll be Obverse Audios' first big hit.

I'm really sorry to read this, because my gut feeling is that you've been a bit arsed around with here.

SAF said...

Thanks, Ian.

"Could you scriptify it easily?"

It should be very easily scriptified as, once upon a time, I envisaged a radio series with Richard E Grant as Dexter Snide :-) and I wrote the scripts for the first two 30-minute episodes 4 or 5 years ago. I think they need sharpening up and what have you. But they do exist.

Meanwhile, there's also the TV option although that would be expensive. But if Joss Whedon happens to be looking in, it could be kind of like Firefly meets Doctor Horrible. Without the singing. Although that could be arranged. :-)

Jack Norell said...

Simon, seriously, HC is jerking you around. I've looked at some of the book, and it's very very sharp. OK, when it comes to my reading, I can be a bizarre goofball: Loving Terry Pratchett, and others, who play with their genres. Your book has a place in the market, and it would sell. As you've pointed out, SciFi and fantasy both are quite popular in the mainstream. Your comedic slant adds flavour to what can often be a pretty bland book category. I'd love to see this in print, and to buy it.

SAF said...

Wow, many thanks for the vote of confidence. I am now on a mission to get this out there where it belongs!

alexander... said...

There's no market for comedy thrillers, either Simes.

In fact, let's just cut to the chase.

There's no market.

SAF said...

Lol. Yeah, apparently.

I think what they're really saying is, "Our marketing department can't market these books." Which, if you think about it, is a real slap in the face for their marketing department: like saying they can't do their jobs. If I was in marketing I'd take that as a challenge :-)

IZP said...

By the way Simon, check out page 72 of the bumper RTD email book.

SAF said...

You're talking of A Writer's Tale, yeah? I don't actually have that.

IZP said...

He explains his debt to the family in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath in what looks like it was a top to bottom rewrite of Pompeii.

SAF said...

Ha! I want to believe you're pulling my leg, but if that's true, that's classic.

Mockingbird said...

I think, and this is something that I've already discussed with Alexander, that you, he and Richard were the best options for uptake by HC on last month's editor's desk. What I think is happening, is that HC have sort of dug themselves a big pit here. I read your crits back to back... very revealing when examined as a chunk like that. I do get the vague sense that Authonomy was created in the Bull market, and now that we're in a world wide Bear market, they are scrambling to retrench a bit. If nothing gets picked up this month, I think they might be looking at a minor revolt..... people are getting a bit restless...... One of their problems is the immediacy of the internet, people expect things to happen so much faster. So the chosen twelve come along in time to stave off a peasant's revolt with us all heading for the hills with a sack of grain under one arm and our mss under the other. Question: knowing what you now know, are you going to send Evil UnLtd off to Angry Robot, or are you going to take a punt on other Sci Fi publishers.

SAF said...

I'm very sceptical about the 'chosen 12' thing. I'm a little sceptical about authonomy, except that there have been some really really good aspects to the experience. Some worth more than money and publishing contracts. I'm not sure about a direct approach to Angry Robot, might be worth a shot, but at the same time there are other publishers to approach out there and I'm not sure I want HC to make money off me now. If Angry Robot happens to hear about Evil and approaches me in the meantime, well, I'll be happy to talk to them :-)

Mockingbird said...

I hope the chosen twelve thing is actually on the up and up... because people I'm kinda fond of have been called, and I would hate to think that they're just getting their chains yanked. I think Authonomy is a good shot, but I think they need to adopt a different approach. For starters, they don't have all the genres on Authonomy in their own print lists.

Hannah PS said...

If I were you I'd send my stuff to this new imprint through the normal channels. Can't hurt. Besides, as you say they might not even know who you are - the only way they're going to get to know you is if you get in touch!

SAF said...

Good advice and duly noted, Hannah. I'll get on it...!