I came across a blog post that’s been doing the rounds in SF/F circles. It’s by Michael Gallagher of Upstream Reviews, and it’s entitled A Whitewashed Tomb: SFWA’s Best Can’t Sell Books. Here’s the central thesis of the post:
As the creep of leftist identity politics has spread throughout the organization, a startling erosion of quality came with it […] SFWA’s mission has turned from celebrating quality storytelling to secular preaching. A series of recently leaked screenshots of NPD Bookscan sales figures show that reader demand for some of sci-fi’s most well-known (and politically vociferous) names are faring absolutely abysmally.
The post spotlights NPD sales rankings for five authors. In two cases — John Scalzi and Mary Robinette Kowal — the figures indicate that the writers were reasonably successful, but not enough for lasting spots on the recent bestseller lists. Fair enough.
The remaining three authors are subjected to outright mockery, starting with Cat Rambo:
Rambo “has a sales record that’s all but nonexistent”, remarks Gallagher, who points out that only her latest book You Sexy Thing has noteworthy sales figures. There are significant factors here that the post fails to analyse, however.
As well as being the highest-selling book in the chart, You Sexy Thing is the only one put out by a major publisher — namely, Macmillan. Of the rest, the overwhelming majority were put out by Lightning Source, a print-on-demand service; the only two exceptions are labelled simply “unsourced publishers”. So, what we’re looking at here is the career of a small-press author who only in the past few months had a book out via a big publisher. Note, also, that the data here covers only physical copies; no information is provided as to how many ebook copies have been bought. To put that in context, Rambo’s most recent independently-published work, Exiles of Tabat, is available at Amazon as a $17.55 paperback or a $3.71 ebook; stop to think how many potential readers choose the ebook over the paperback. The NPD data shows that the Exiles of Tabet print-on-demand paperback has sold 12 copies; this tells us little about Rambo’s success as an indie author whose bread-and-butter is ebooks.
Next, the post covers NPD data for Jeffe Kennedy, and the story is similar: all but two of the books covered are print-on-demand Lightning Source publications, and so have moved predictably small numbers of copies. After this comes Jason Sanford, who is referred to variously as “Jason Stanford” and “Jason Stamford” in the post. “Jason Stanford’s data shows an abysmal 116 copies sold across six titles going back to November of 2019”, gloats Gallagher. But all of these six books are small-press. Again, how many readers of independent fiction are we expected to believe choose print-on-demand paperbacks over ebooks?
Gallagher’s rationale for choosing to focus primarily on independent authors within SFWA is not entirely clear. He identifies the five authors he has chosen as “SFWA’s best” and “some of sci-fi’s most well-known (and politically vociferous) names”; these labels might conceivably fit Scalzi and Kowal, but applying them to small-press authors like Cat Rambo, Jeffe Kennedy and Jason Sanford is a stretch. Yes, Kennedy and Rambo are respectively current and former presidents of SFWA; but this is a role that surely depends on organisational ability rather than mass mainstream success. Sanford, meanwhile, appears to be better known for his blogging than his stories. So, these are independent authors who seem to have gained recognition for their sidelines, rather than their fiction.
Having disparaged its five chosen authors, the post sets up three big names as counterweights:
How are things going on the other end of the sci-fi and fantasy spectrum? Larry Correia’s success with several separate series now speaks for itself. He’s landed on the New York Times bestseller list twice. John Ringo, Mil Sci-Fi auteur has been on the list three times. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files has found a ravenous fan base that’s followed him for seventeen novels. These are authors whose work is big on fantastical people and monsters, heavy on magic and gunfire and intrigue. Their stories are sought out by an audience who have overdosed on political and social strife, and turn to escapist literature as a salve for a world-weary mind.
The political narrative is clear. Larry Correia and John Ringo are both outspoken conservatives; Jim Butcher has, to the best of my knowledge, kept his political views to himself, but was championed by Correia’s Sad Puppies campaign years ago and remains well-liked in those circles. Gallagher is evidently trying to divide the SF/F scene into poorly-selling left-wing writers and blockbuster right-wing authors. But once again, the facts are more complicated.
Although Gallagher focuses primarily on small-press authors in his coverage of SFWA, he jumps to the big publishers with Correia, Ringo and Butcher (even Correia and Ringo, who are published by the independently-owned Baen Books, benefit from Simon & Schuster distributing their work). Now, let’s stop to consider just how many writers have been left out of this eight-author overview. Gallagher could have mentioned Carrie Vaughn, Charles E. Gannon, Fonda Lee or Jonathan Mayberry — all SFWA members, all known for their fiction rather than their blogging or group-organisation, all surely deserving candidates for the title of “SFWA’s best”. But he didn’t.
It’s also worth considering how Gallagher could have cast his net wider when he came to cite bestselling authors. A look at the current New York Times bestseller lists indicates that the fantasy blockbusters of today are Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library and Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles — books that, as far as I can see, have never been adopted by any particular faction in the culture wars. But, of course, “write like John Ringo” suits Upstream Reviews’ agenda rather more than “write like Madeline Miller”. Another author who disrupts the narrative is Stephen King, both an outspoken Democrat and a New York Times bestseller as recently as 2020. All of these writers call the post’s simplistic “right popular, left unpopular” divide into serious question.
Then we come to the final, most significant point. Upstream Reviews (which promises “only the best in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery & thrillers”) turns out to be devoted largely to promoting independently-published work. The blog staff — Brian Gallagher, Robert Kroese and Declan Finn — are themselves small-press writers. I don’t have their sales data at hand, so I can’t confirm whether or not they’ve moved more print-on-demand paperbacks than Cat Rambo has. I can point out, however, that the most recent crowdfunding campaign from Declan Finn’s publisher was a failure, attracting just 18 backers and less than a quarter of its funding goal.
That’s small-press publishing for you. It’s a struggle to get noticed, and it’s hard to stay noticed. Anyone in the field is going to have some grim stories of bleak periods, and should be able to recognize when a fellow indie is facing similar hurdles.
Small press indie authors mocking other small-press indie authors for being small-press indie authors? Sorry, but that’s just embarrassing.