3
April

Whither Fandom?

14 Comments

I like to think I’m fairly upbeat on this blog, but I’ve been thinking about something lately, and I wanted to air it here, where maybe it’ll provoke some discussion. I think when I do stuff like this, I’m subconsciously hoping some wise voice will come out of the woodwork and tell me that everything will be okay, which is what I really want to hear.

(Keep in mind, I’ve done no actual statistical research here, I am MUSING. I am thinking out loud. If you’ve got hard numbers to prove me wrong, please do so. It would actually make me feel a lot better).

I just got off a mini signing tour (I hit Pandemonium in Boston and Flights of Fantasy in Albany, supposedly with Tobias Buckell, but he was taken ill at the last minute). In Albany, I had the opportunity to chat at length with Joe Berlant, who has (like my dear friend the late George Scithers) led a life in fandom and been the organizing hand behind many cons.

The conversation turned (as it always seems to these days) to the future of publishing. Maria Perry (who owns Flights of Fantasy) talked a bit about how all the major publishing houses were cutting back on sales staff (most importantly the reps who come out to stores like hers to pitch titles) directing folks to websites instead. We wondered if the Peer Comparison Model for executive salaries is part of the problem for major publishing houses (it sure is for many other big businesses), with the people who actually do the work of making/selling the product (sales reps, marketing and publicity staff, editorial and art staff) getting cut in order to afford higher and higher executive compensation in the face of shrinking profits. We talked about amazon’s predatory business style, the rise of ePiracy, the increasing competition for reader time and dollars in more sophisticated video games and better, cheaper and more readily accessible video entertainment.

The light at the end of the tunnel, we hoped, was the voracity of readers. And here’s where I got really sad. We agreed that the key was young people doing what I had done in my youth: discovering science-fiction and fantasy, getting addicted to it, and becoming committed to reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on for the rest of my days. We talked about examples of that and I began to think I  might be witnessing a trend.

Just as there’s a streamlining/centralizing of businesses providing books (only ONE book superstore – B&N, and only SIX major publishing houses, and only really ONE or TWO major places to buy books online), there seems to be a streamlining/centralization of the things people are fans of. I remember being a very broad reader inside genre even in my youth, typically following as many as twenty authors at once. I didn’t care if it was a blockbuster or a midlister. I didn’t wait for Oprah or the Today Show to start buzzing about a book. I explored on my own. It was the *genre* I was committed to, and I couldn’t wait to read every story that existed in it.

So, yeah. Kids are reading. But are they reading *more* than Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and now *maybe* George R. R. Martin? Are they using these as jumping points to move on to Steven Gould, or Greg Van Eekhout, or Sam Sykes, or rediscovering Piers Anthony, or Steven R. Donaldson, or Robin Hobb? And sure, they’re eating up the recent blockbuster franchises in the cinema (Jackson’s Lord of the Rings flicks, the Spider Man and Iron Man movies, Frank Miller’s 300), but is that leading them to read paper comics or their digital equivalent, and once they do, are they moving on to the more obscure titles? Garth Ennis? Warren Ellis? Bill Willingham? Mark Smylie?

Maybe someone out there has done a statistical study on this. I’m not sure, and it troubles me.

Here’s something else. I grew up in fandom. I was a fan LONG before I was a pro, and I still go to cons (now for work) with the same wide-eyed wonder I did in my youth. My very first con was Lunacon in Rye, New York, and I remember running around the halls of the Hilton LARPing a game based on Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. I just went to that same con again. I had an absolute blast (meeting Howard Tayler and listening to his keynote speech was the highlight of the con), but I had to admit that the event was much smaller and much . . . well . . . grayer, than I remembered. Joe (who has got a few gray hairs himself, lord love him) nodded sagely at this point and agreed. You see it at all the major city cons, Philcon, Balticon. He pointed out that Albacon 2011 had been cancelled due to a lack of members.

I remember attending Arisia and Boskone roughly a month apart. Both were in Boston at the exact same hotel. Boskone is a literary con, and it showed the same signs of shrinkage and age that the other city cons I just mentioned did. Arisia was vibrant and bustling by comparison, but it wasn’t literary at all. The primary focus of the con seemed to be anime, sexual kink and the sort of rampant celebration of geekdom that you get at the major “professional cons” (for-profit cons organized by pros, instead of fan run events – I’m referring to SDCC, NYCC and maybe DragonCon, does ICon fall into this category as well?). What little literary programming there was played second fiddle to the other stuff I was seeing there. Here were the young people, the next generation of SF/F fans, and I wasn’t convinced they were reading beyond the blockbusters.

All this worries me. The SF/F genre and community are my lifeblood. They reared me, drove me, sustain me even today. It’s my tribe and my home. And a tribe is only as vibrant as the next generation coming up within it. I understand that I can’t say that SF/F fandom is dying any more than I can say that publishing, bookstores or print media is dying. But I do think it’s *changing* just as those other arenas are.

I just hope that it’s changing for the better, and that there’ll be room for dinosaurs like me in the new order that evolves.

  • I think it’s a legitimate concern you have, though it’s hard for any of us to say whether people who read the blockbusters actually read other things in the genre.  We do really need a statistical study on that.

    That said, I do share many of your fears about fandom:  namely, that so many people read genre, and yet they don’t, because genre for them are the twelve or so books in the last year that happened to sell like hotcakes at a hotcakes festival.   don’t think it counts to call oneself a genre reader if the only genre book you’ve read are what you were forced to read in school and the one blockbuster you consumed because everyone else was.

    But there’s a lot of data we need to make any claims about any of this.  Where’s a sociologist when we need one?

  • I’ve been thinking along these lines too, lately, and I believe that the shrinking of conventions can be traced to two factors: 1.) the emergence of mega-cons like SDCC, NYCC and DragonCon, and 2.) the rise of the internet and social media. Mega-conventions are popular because not only do they offer something for pretty much everyone, they are also big enough to draw in the biggest names in media. They also happen to be very expensive to attend, so most fans tend to save up their money and skip smaller cons so that they can afford to hit the huge ones each year.

    Then there is the internet. More than anything else, conventions were about getting together and hanging out with people who shared your interests – especially back in the day, when sf/fantasy wasn’t mainstream. The first convention I ever attended was Kubla Kahn, back in 1982, and it was a revelation for me. I will never forget that feeling of kinship, of family, that I experienced at the convention. It felt like coming home.

    Now, however, you can find people with similar interests with just a few clicks of the keyboard. Y0u can participate in fandom from the comfort of your home. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s changed the nature of conventions forever. Now, it’s increasingly about parties, and kink, and costuming – things that you can’t get through an online experience. So I definitely think that the Golden Age of conventions has passed. There will be fewer and fewer each year, and the ones that remain will cater to an entirely different segment of fandom than us old-timers once knew.

    Now, having said all this, I don’t believe that readers are becoming narrower in focus as well. Casual readers might focus on just the book or series of the moment, but I don’t know that they constitute the majority of readers today. People that love to read will devour books by the stack, the same as they always have.

  • There I was, reading your blog, when my name came up. I don’t have the kind of stats you’re asking about either. But I do have some observations about con-going fandom that I’ve formed over the last few years. And, yeah, the cons I’ve gone to that were put on by a local fan group have seemed smaller and grayer to me. But the ones put on quasi-professionally — and I include SDCC in this, since the full-time staff comprises only small percentage of the people running the con, and it’s not a for-profit business — give me hope that there are enough young, enthusiastic fans with broad and varied interests to keep the field (whatever “the field” is), alive and vibrant. It’s not the fandom of 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago, but it’s large in number and broad in interest.

    At SDCC, the panels I’ve been on haven’t included big names, but they still draw 20 – 50 audience members, and that’s with all kinds of competition from Hollywood-driven events and big-name authors and all that.

  • Amanda Bonilla

    I think the “selling” of SF/F and reading in general is going to fall on teachers, librarians, and peers. I live in a super small town and our one local bookstore stocks NOTHING in SF/F and our one public library is even worse. Kids need to be encouraged to read beyond what is trending and teachers need to foster the love of reading by letting students explore rather than simply shove mind-numbing curriculum down their throats. Likewise, I’d like to see more authors being invited to speak at schools. Whether we write YA or not, enthusiasm can be contagious and it only takes one child’s curiosity to spread to others. 

    Not everyone can afford a Kindle or Nook. The ease of one-click shopping isn’t available to everyone, especially now that families are counting their pennies more than ever. It’s disheartening to see bookstores closing across the country. We need more Indie bookstores and big retail chains alike that support the SF/F genre. 

    This is the Youtube generation. Teens spend hours surfing the site for crazy videos. The fandom is still present, there’s just too many options. I can’t completely knock it, though. My son has taught himself to dance and play the piano from Youtube videos. With school, friends, sports, video games, and the internet, his time is already spread thin. And let’s face it: kids have a short attention span as it is. The trend will come back around to reading, comic books, graphic novels, etc., and young readers will be there ready to consume whatever we writers can dish out. 

  •   I’ve seen China Mieville pack in 2,000 people to hear him talk at SDCC, while that is a small fraction of the crowd there that is HUGE compared to other conventions.  
    Yea those darn kids are on the lawn, but I think they’ll turn out ok. 

  • As much as I hate the Amazon monopoly of online books, I do have to say I take heart in the boom of the e-book industry. 
    Yes, it is harder to buy a paper book, a fact that concerns me, because RAR I’m a dinosaur and I refuse to sacrifice that delicious new print smell on release day. 
    But, those who BUT the kindle, the nook, the i-whatsit, are people who buy BOOKS. LOTS of books. I’m not as in touch with this latest Twilight reading generation, but the slightly older generation, kids in College now, are still devouring books. Sci-fi, mystery, urban fantasy. 
    I look at these kids in jealousy, b/c I’ll be honest.  My ‘to-read’ list ALWAYS exceeds my budget, and my decisions on books to buy on release day often boil down to my personal relationship with the Author, or the series. 
    When I embrace a book, I embrace it to the depth of knowing EVERY detail. It becomes a need and a PASSION. I will dig (and HAVE dug) change out of the couch cushions, laundry, and car seats just to scrape together enough for the next paperback. (Another beef with amazon. They don’t take quarters online.)
    I see a lot of the same passion in the younger kids I know, I just envy the fact that most of them, lacking kids and mortgages, find it easier to buy all the books.
    I don’t think fandom will ever die. Nor will the printed word. I just think we’ll have to see it merge and grow in ways we cannot predict. No one can predict where fandom will burst forth (One word: Bronies) and flower, but wherever it does, if we encourage it, we’ll see it branch into other genres and continue to catch fire. 
    So, don’t despair. I just hope the publishing houses are willing to be as flexible as they need to be to embrace the changing demands out there. 

  • Fandom has always been initiated, promoted and propagated by itself. Those who are potential fans will sooner or later run across something that flips that switch, and they will start digging. I definitely know that’s what happened to me – my first SFF book was an anthology, MAN ON THE MOON, that was just sitting around at a garage sale for a nickel (yes, it was that long ago). I read it and wondered what this amazing stuff was. I eventually found it at my local public library and read the ENTIRE section (which wasn’t big, being a small-town library in the rural South, but it was there) in a matter of months. Every time there was a new SFF title in the local or school library, I grabbed it. That’s the sine qua non of fandom: one work that piques the curiosity.

    As for cons… well, let’s be honest. They’re a lot more expensive these days, especially considering the skyrocketing cost of hotels. So, in general, the people who go are financially comfortable or have been planning for that one trip for quite some time. It’s a matter of dollars for a lot of people. Heck, there are a pile of cons *I’D* like to go to but are simply out of reasonable reach for me, both financially and time-wise (employers take a dim view of people wanting to take every Friday and Monday off 😀 ).

    I’m not worried for fandom. There have always been Our People, the Sensitive Fannish Faces, the geeks who are proud of being geeks. And, for the first time in recorded history, geekdom is actually getting towards being considered cool by the mainstream. Not there yet (and I hope it never is completely). But we are here and we will always be here.

  • As far as convention numbers go, I think Mike Lee beat everyone to the punch. The internet is one big convention. In the past few months my habits have been “Read a book, find the author online” with twitter or blogs. Some of the people here have been going to cons longer than I’ve been alive so I can’t comment for real on what trends were back in ’82, but back then it seems that cons were one of the best ways to find new stuff and such. The Internet Convention (which I am now dubbing NetCon12, I hope it’s not a thing elsewhere) does that for me. I found you and Sam Sykes via Scalzi’s blog. I found my current read, Seanan McGuire, via Jim Hines. Espicially since I don’t have a decent physical bookstore anymore, what better way to find something good to read than through people you already like.

    I think the whole NetCon12 thing is only going to get bigger though. The same people who like to read about swords and spaceships and future tech are often the same type of people who are early adopters of technology. Ubiquitous blogging, twitter, picture feeds… this is all stuff that was futuristic ten years ago. The stuff we all read about is becoming closer to the truth. And that’s all fancy and fun. If you told me when I was a kid that I could have conversations with someone who’s book I read… I would have never believed a word of it.

    As far as origins of fandom… well I inherited that. I had Lord of the Rings read to me when I was ten and then started reading my parent’s books, skipping kids books all together. Asamov, Lackey, Bradley. YA didn’t exist in the early 90s, or at least no one pointed it out to me so I just went for that. Every nerd is obligated to pass it down to another as I fully intend to with my unborn kid, who already has a plush AT-AT.

  • As far as convention numbers go, I think Mike Lee beat everyone to the punch. The internet is one big convention. In the past few months my habits have been “Read a book, find the author online” with twitter or blogs. Some of the people here have been going to cons longer than I’ve been alive so I can’t comment for real on what trends were back in ’82, but back then it seems that cons were one of the best ways to find new stuff and such. The Internet Convention (which I am now dubbing NetCon12, I hope it’s not a thing elsewhere) does that for me. I found you and Sam Sykes via Scalzi’s blog. I found my current read, Seanan McGuire, via Jim Hines. Espicially since I don’t have a decent physical bookstore anymore, what better way to find something good to read than through people you already like.

    I think the whole NetCon12 thing is only going to get bigger though. The same people who like to read about swords and spaceships and future tech are often the same type of people who are early adopters of technology. Ubiquitous blogging, twitter, picture feeds… this is all stuff that was futuristic ten years ago. The stuff we all read about is becoming closer to the truth. And that’s all fancy and fun. If you told me when I was a kid that I could have conversations with someone who’s book I read… I would have never believed a word of it.

    As far as origins of fandom… well I inherited that. I had Lord of the Rings read to me when I was ten and then started reading my parent’s books, skipping kids books all together. Asamov, Lackey, Bradley. YA didn’t exist in the early 90s, or at least no one pointed it out to me so I just went for that. Every nerd is obligated to pass it down to another as I fully intend to with my unborn kid, who already has a plush AT-AT.

  • My opinion on the cons being smaller and grayer, and not having newer and younger people attending, is in part that most of those cons have minimal web presence.  And what presence they do have isn’t updated very often.  Like Lunacon–I looked at going last year, but ultimately I decided not to because I had no idea who would be there aside from the GOHs, and no clue what the panel schedule might be like.  There were probably about 4 cons I looked into that were like that.  I’m not likely to go if I don’t know who’s going to be there, and if the website doesn’t have that info more than a week before, I’m not going to go back to look.

    I-Con did have a lot of younger people, but it was more of a media con with more focus on gaming and celebs.  Though most of the celebs weren’t big, they were recognizable.  But the organization was horrible.  Rob and I wouldn’t have gone again this year if Cam Banks hadn’t been there.  I would’ve gotten more from going to Conbust at Smith college, which is a *tiny* con, but it’s a decent attendance, decent guests, and quite a few panels on writing as well as media and gaming.  And because Conbust is organized by college students, they have a regularly updated website.

    I don’t think I’d be too worried about the fandom and what people read, though.  I’ve seen quite a few people who’ve read stuff like Twilight or Eragon who, from those, went looking for something similar and came across Jim Butcher’s series and found his forums where there are always more reading suggestions.  That one’s just my own experience, but I’m sure there are a variety of others that are somewhat similar.  And then there are the fans like all of us commenting here who will always continue suggesting books and encourage reading.  I buy books for my nieces and nephews for birthdays and Christmas, and I have a tendency to get them stuff that trends more toward sf/f than anything else.

    Ohh…that reminds me, Rob bought a box set of John Carter books since we saw the movie.  I’ll have to read those soon.

  • I can’t speak much to cons as I’ve only ever been to two (my first ever con I got drunk with Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell, the second I got drunk next to GRRM – yes there was over a decade between the two) – they’re a lot farther apart geographically and chronologically here in Australia. But I used to find out about books through perusing bookshelves and recommendations from friends and occasionally through my librarian (she got me onto Eddings & McCaffrey after I plowed through Tolkien, Alexander and Lewis).

    I now get recommendations from blogs, authors, Facebook, Twitter, discussion boards, emails, newsletters (mainly form publishers), and browsing online book stores (mainly bookdepository). If I as a 34 year old curmudgeon can understand and appreciate how to do that, then so too can the youth. I wouldn’t have found your book except for Facebook, I’d have maybe not known about Peat except for Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.

    The way we find authors and books to read has changed in that it’s a lot more online and ephemeral than it used to be; it’s not so much face to face as keyboard to keyboard.

    I personally think that’s brilliant as I now have friends all over the world who recommend me books and not just my librarian, close friends or the strange bearded man camping in the SFF section of my local bookstore. On the other hand it does mean, I’d assume, smaller and more focused cons, but as I said I’ve not really attended them before so don’t know much beyond what I read and see on sites like yours.

    Either way I think fandom and being able to recommend not just the blockbuster authors is still up there – and likely growing – but has so many new avenues to explore that it really is quite exciting.

    Hell Myke, just look at your own relative success with your first novel: do you think you’d have gotten the sales you have if the only way to find out about or for you to promote your books was cons, word of mouth, shelf space and maybe mags like Locus? I highly doubt it… or it’d at least have been more of a slow-burn debut than the explosion of goblin-stomping glee that it appears to have been.

    🙂

  • I can’t speak much to cons as I’ve only ever been to two (my first ever con I got drunk with Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell, the second I got drunk next to GRRM – yes there was over a decade between the two) – they’re a lot farther apart geographically and chronologically here in Australia. But I used to find out about books through perusing bookshelves and recommendations from friends and occasionally through my librarian (she got me onto Eddings & McCaffrey after I plowed through Tolkien, Alexander and Lewis).

    I now get recommendations from blogs, authors, Facebook, Twitter, discussion boards, emails, newsletters (mainly form publishers), and browsing online book stores (mainly bookdepository). If I as a 34 year old curmudgeon can understand and appreciate how to do that, then so too can the youth. I wouldn’t have found your book except for Facebook, I’d have maybe not known about Peat except for Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.

    The way we find authors and books to read has changed in that it’s a lot more online and ephemeral than it used to be; it’s not so much face to face as keyboard to keyboard.

    I personally think that’s brilliant as I now have friends all over the world who recommend me books and not just my librarian, close friends or the strange bearded man camping in the SFF section of my local bookstore. On the other hand it does mean, I’d assume, smaller and more focused cons, but as I said I’ve not really attended them before so don’t know much beyond what I read and see on sites like yours.

    Either way I think fandom and being able to recommend not just the blockbuster authors is still up there – and likely growing – but has so many new avenues to explore that it really is quite exciting.

    Hell Myke, just look at your own relative success with your first novel: do you think you’d have gotten the sales you have if the only way to find out about or for you to promote your books was cons, word of mouth, shelf space and maybe mags like Locus? I highly doubt it… or it’d at least have been more of a slow-burn debut than the explosion of goblin-stomping glee that it appears to have been.

    🙂

  • Acyd3273

    I just attended Wondercon in Anaheim and while it was very much like SDCC was 10 years ago it was still more of a pop-culture con than a comic book convention.

    The Internet will be the downfall of all thing good and holy. Ok maybe not but it is changing things drastically and quickly. As a guy who still likes to curl up with a good book or comic book I find myself with my iPad in hand far more than I’d like to admit. I have little time between work and raising a family to get to a book store or to the local comic shop. I’ve had to make some compromises. All of my DC titles are digital and my Marvel titles are paper. For very two digital books I buy I try to go down to the local B&N and purchase a paper one.

    What I find interesting is how the Internet is changing the author/fan interaction. I follow a couple of authors not because I dig their books but because they’re funny on twitter, or has a good web page/blog. Chuck Wendig is like this for me. I’m not really interested in his novels but his writing advice and wit is awesome. As we move into a new era of publishing it seems that authors are going to have to diversify even more but also the fans will have to diversify as well. I don’t think this is good or bad, just different.

  • Nicholas Shectman

    Boskone may be old and grey compared to some but this year’s con was the largest since 1988.  Small e-book focused publishers are profitable now that they have thrown off the crushing yoke of the paperback book “return” mechanism (in which only the cover is returned, as proof of destruction of the book, and the small press is stuck with the printing cost).  And inside some of those larger, media-focused cons like DragonCon and Arisia is a surprisingly good literature program.  Just because it’s buried under 500 items you’re not interested in doesn’t mean there’s less of the stuff you want, and 85% of the members not going doesn’t add up to any fewer people attending that programming than back when it was at a convention 1/10 the size.