Is Science Fiction Dead?

Failed Rocket Test

Over at the Cirsova blog, editor P. Alexander shares a recent anecdote that may have significant implications for professional science fiction authors.
Action, Adventure, and Romance are stronger selling points than pulp, sci-fi and fantasy. I think that navel gazing explanations of throw-backs, periods, Campbellians, Futurians, the Pulp Rev, etc. will make eyes glaze over and should be avoided. I typically never take it that far, and even mentioning the pulps at all tends to evoke a dead-eyed stare from most folks.
We've known for a while that science fiction is the worst-selling genre.

Author Earnings - Genre Sales

Combining Alex's anecdotal evidence with Author Earnings' hard data, it would seem that "science fiction" as a genre label in book marketing fails to engage the reading public. Does that mean the tropes, style, and ideas associated with science fiction stories are no longer relevant?

I don't think so. The blanket statement "science fiction is dead" is easy to refute by pointing to the popularity of SF tropes and concepts in movies, television, games, etc.

What I do think has happened is that the gatekeepers who usurped the genre in the late 30s have tried to associate "science fiction" with "anti-escapist hard SF" in the public consciousness, and they've succeeded.

This engineered souring of public opinion toward the broad term "science fiction" has had a negative knock-on effect in other SF subgenres. Several best selling authors who write what would have been immediately recognizable as science fiction during the pulp era have told me that their attempts to publish stories billed as space operas have met with little success.

That's despite the fact that space opera is actually the most popular SF subgenre in the world if you count movies and games. It's not that people stopped liking space opera, it's that the gatekeepers memory-holed Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so people don't know what "space opera" means anymore.

Take a couple of currently best selling SF series for example. Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Galaxy's Edge is the biggest thing since dihydrogen monoxide. Look at the Amazon categories they've got the Kindle edition listed in:

Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > War
Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Men's Adventure

Sure, the print version is listed under Science Fiction, but it's in the Space Marine subcategory, which takes advantage of one of the most popular SF tropes in movies and games.

We see pretty much the same thing when we look at Winged Hussars by best seller Mark Wandrey.

Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Action & Adventure
Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Men's Adventure

The print version of Mark's book is also listed under Science Fiction, but in the Colonization subcategory.

This evidence tends to support my earlier advocacy for carefully choosing the right Amazon categories as a sales tool. The market has shifted away from people actively seeking out books in broad genres. Instead, readers find books by searching for specific keywords, and Amazon's algorithm recommends books based on users' purchase history cross-referenced by KDP subcategory.

On a related note, the penultimate draft of the final installment in my award-winning action/adventure/romance series The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV is now complete. It won't take long to make final revisions, after which I plan to test out some of the Amazon subcategory juju I've been researching. I look forward to letting you know how it works post-launch.

Reminder: now is the time to get the first three Soul Cycle books before the final volume's release next month! Also, there are still slots open for advance reviewers, so if you'd like a free advance copy of OR and you're willing to leave an Amazon review on launch day, contact me via the "Send Me an Email" button at the top of the left sidebar.

The Soul Cycle - Brian Niemeier


  1. Interesting. I'll have to keep this in mind in my roundup searches. And if the two biggest breakouts of the year are doing this, more have to be as well.

  2. Very interesting, and something I'll definitely keep in mind for my upcoming release (and maybe even regarding my book that's already out.)

    1. I experimented with the categories of a couple of my existing books, but I don't have enough data points yet to determine if there was an effect.

      That said, let us know how it works for you.

  3. Concur. I'm going to have to keep this in mind when I go from writing to marketing. Time to dig into the most popular terms for books that broadly fit SF/F, but aren't necessarily shelved there.

  4. People hear Science Fiction and they think boring people talking about boring things while nothing happens except the author strokes their own ego at the audience's expense.

    Pulps weren't sold as "Pulps", they were sold as action and adventure. And that is exactly what they are.

    I'm planning on experimenting a bit with these tags when I finally get Grey Cat Blues out there. I'm certain that "Science Fiction" isn't going to get any eyes on it since it doesn't get any eyes on anything these days.

    1. Exactly right. There was a story making the rounds on G+ recently wherein a hard SF author who peaked in the 50s talked about what he called "the game". This game consisted of spergy hard SF nerds combing through his books to find violations of then-current scientific understandings while he obsessively tried to make as few mistakes as possible while writing.

      Sounds like as much fun as watching paint dry while licking frozen flagpoles.

  5. Brian and friends,
    Very intetesting. How do you choose the keywords/ subgenres?

    1. That's an excellent question for Nick, Jason, or Mark, but I don't think they'd tell you for free. I wouldn't ;)

      The rest of us will just have to experiment.

    2. Brian,

      red faced at my innocence at that question.
      OK but on a much more general note: do writers choose the genres or is an algorithm?
      I suspect that it's Amazon but I could be quite mistaken

  6. Concur that "SF is dead" relates to SF having the FUN vampired out of it. I never thought "SF" or "Space Opera" when my 3rd grade teacher decided that our chapter-per-lunch reading was going to be "Galactic Patrol".

    After about three chapters of her reading it to us kiddie sponges, I was a "Doc Smith" fan forever.

    Travel, adventure, wondrous technology, and thrilling skyhook cliffhanger action!

    Choose your tags accordingly, ladies and gents!