To label or not to label? The marketing of science fiction

Niall Harrison, a man whose critical writings on science fiction make my reviews look like the feeble amateur mutterings they are, has a post on LiveJournal about the labelling of novels as science fiction (and/or the unlabelling of science fiction novels to pass them off as ‘straight’ fiction). It’s a subject close to my heart, so I thought I’d chip in with my opinions.

Harrison seems to be taking a similar side on this subject to my own, but (I think) for different reasons. His argument *for* SF works being labelled as such is based on the principle of ‘honesty to the reader’, and he backs this up with the notion that most works ‘unlabelled’ are done so out of a desire to make them more marketable, and from a certain snobbery that genre fiction has long been a victim of.

I support these ideas, and am inclined to believe that the ‘ghettoisation’ of genre fiction is an elitist move analagous to the music industry’s shunning of a huge successive chain of genres from rock’n’roll onwards; basically, they don’t want the purists to feel that they are consuming a product that has somehow been tainted by a sordid and unsavoury movement. Truth and perception in these situations is, of course, a hard distinction to make, and I would be dishonest to not admit that my opinions are biased by my position firmly in the science fiction camp, at least as a reader and aspiring writer.

But that’s just the opinion of one man (me) with an axe to grind. Where I think I can supply a more relevant and fresh opinion by putting my day-job hat on, and arguing from the point of view of a library employee.

First of all, it would be a mistake to claim that marketing plays no part in the business of libraries. We want those books to move; to go off the shelves, and come back in the hands of a person who wants more of the same, or something new, whatever. However, we do not have the issues that booksellers have to deal with; once we have a book, it’s on the catalogue and that’s it. We don’t have a set number to sell before clearing our margins. Profit is (at least as far as book lending is concerned) not an issue. What we are interested in is getting the right books into the borrower’s hands.

Which is why I think labelling is important; and indeed it is often done very poorly in some libraries at the cataloguing stage. Obfuscatory practices by publishers make this job harder to do; if the cataloguer (as is often the case) has no interest in genre fiction, they will find it hard to accurately place a book in the right section. Indeed, it has been a personal silent crusade of mine since starting my job to rescue practically untouched books from the main fiction sequence and place them in the SF/Fantasy shelves – where, to my gratification, they sometimes start to move more often, largely due to the small size of our SF collection and the readers being hungry for new material.

In an ideal world (yes, I know; this is hypothetical, bear with me), I’d love to see ALL fiction in one unbroken sequence by author. Fiction is fiction is fiction, and the genre lines are drawn in different places by almost everyone (as the ongoing ‘what is/isn’t SF’ debates prove), so why not let people make up their own minds and browse the entire world of fiction as one corpus?

Well, because people are fussy. Especially genre fans! (Though at this point I would argue that most fans of the ‘literary novel’ are actually just as stuck in a self-imposed ghetto as the average SF fan – the only real difference being that the literary fan has the publishing industry supporting his claims of artistic superiority for his choice of reading material.) Borrowers (and, from what I am told, buyers) of books have a bloody good idea of what they want before they enter a library or shop. It is a challenge for the vendor/lender to get the buyer/borrower to step ‘outside the comfort zone’. Reader development is all about trying to stretch borrowers into new worlds. And it’s bloody hard work.

Hence, I argue that labelling, right at the publishing stage and onwards, is crucial, provided one regards the reader’s satisfaction as the ultimate aim. It helps people to ‘get what they want from their book experience’, to use corporate library parlance. In which case an SF fan shouldn’t have to trawl through countless family sagas, historical reinterpretations and ‘literary’ titles to lay his/her hands on something with AI and space colonies in it; nor should the literary novel reader have to be put off the search for the latest lit-fic gem by a bunch of books with aliens on the front cover. (Cliches used for illustrative purposes, hold your fire!)

Of course, this is where providing Joe Public with what they want can jar with the reader development side of things. Those little labels (or lack of) on the spine of a book can mean the difference between a book getting borrowed or sitting where it is. They make it hard to say to an SF fan, “try this, it has some similar ideas to what you’re reading”, and send them off with something like Niffenegger’s ‘Time Traveller’s Wife’. And likewise they make it hard to convince someone who praises the works of Iain Banks that they may get a kick out of the books that are adorned with his middle initial as well. It’s a balancing act; in my opinion, reader development is wasted on 75% of customers. The other 25% are open-minded enough to take a chance on something. For the others, we need the labels.

As a final salvo (and admittedly slightly derailing aspects of my argument, but there you go), the most frustrating thing of all is to have books migrate to the main fiction sequence just because they happen to be popular to the point of ubiquity (Douglas Adams, for example), or because they have been marketed with as little emphasis on the genre aspects as possible (Clarke’s ‘Strange and Norrell’). To end on a genuine anecdote to illustrate my point, I once suggested to a borrower who had been steadily devouring the ‘Hitch-hiker’ books that maybe he’d like to give some other science fiction a try, as we had just got some good new titles in.

“Oh, but I don’t like science fiction!”, said the borrower.

“Aren’t Douglas Adams’ books science fiction?”, asked I.

“Well of course not, and you should know, what with working here! If they were science fiction, they’d have one of those little labels on the spine!”

(As a final postscript, after mentioning him earlier on, I have personally found that Iain (M.) Banks provides a great bridge (sorry) between the genre shelves and the main sequence. If someone reads one half of his output, they quite often warm to the other with a bit of encouragement!)

One thought on “To label or not to label? The marketing of science fiction”

  1. Yeah, I agree we need truth in labeling. It would be nice to have a lot of finer distinctions in science fiction.

    I am in the Star Wars is not science fiction camp. I really don’t like the fact that SF and fantasy are put together but that was going on before I got hooked on SF. There is a site on the net with a blurb from 1977 where the producers of Star Wars point out that it is not sci-fi. They call it space fantasy. I recognizedthat it was not SF at the time but I doubt that many 10 year olds did or would have cared. but now they are 40 somethings. Do they care about the difference between Star Wars and Harry Potter and that you can’t learn anything about SCIENCE from either one?

    Do we need to lable real SCIENCE Fiction?

    Plenty of people that make a big deal about literary merits don’t seem to give a damn about science.


Leave a Reply