CONTENT IS KING

I had an opportunity to chat with Joanna Penn on her Creative Penn Podcast and the concept of writers as “content providers” came up. This is something I’ve been preaching for at least nine years now, as this former Grasping for the Wind post from 2011 will attest to…

 

I’ve long ago lost track of how many times I’ve publicly identified myself as a “content provider.” Most of the time, this has been in regards to the rise of the e-book. How do I feel about this upstart new format (or so it seemed in 2011!) that seemingly turns the very concept of the book and how it’s published on its head? Well, I respond, over and over again:

I’m a content provider, and I’m happy to see that content published in whatever form people are willing to buy—whatever form will get me the biggest audience.

And if that means e-books—and it does now, by the way, and e-books are clearly moving toward being the dominate format at least for adult fiction and nonfiction by the end of 2014—then e-books it is.

 

Pausing here for a second in 2020 to defend what was a perfectly reasonable assumption in 2011. There was no reason then, and there remains no reason now, that the publishing industry itself didn’t force the e-book down readers’ throats. It is such a better business model for the perpetually low-profit publishing industry, tied as they were then and are now, to retail outlets constantly on the verge of collapse, but who still demand full returnability… Don’t even get me started. However, though I felt myself in the minority nine years ago as someone who loves the book as an artifact, turns out I’m not so alone as I thought. E-books hit a certain percentage of the marketplace and plateaued. People are still reading, and they still appear to prefer paper books, and, of course, audiobooks, which continue to be a significant force in the publishing biz. But now, back to 2011…

 

But what does this mean, “content provider”? I know, it sounds kinda corporate, kinda sell-outy… Ugh, how I hate that. With a nod to my friend, director James Merendino (what’s he up to?—I should shoot him an email—I said nine years ago and didn’t…), from his brilliant film SLC Punk, “I didn’t sell out, son, I bought in.”

No way, as author of the video game novelization Baldur’s Gate, do I have an artsy-fartsy leg to stand on. That one publication wiped out all my indie cred, despite years publishing poetry and flash fiction (before it was even called flash fiction) across the weird pre-internet landscape of the late-80s micropress boom… and really, does anyone care? Is anyone really keeping track?

The science fiction and fantasy genres have for decades suffered under the weight of a peculiar conservatism that I’m very happy to report is only now finally starting to dissipate. And by conservatism, I don’t mean in a political sense. By conservatism in this case, I mean a narrow view of what is acceptable behavior on the part of authors, publishers, and fellow readers.

I’ve sat in seminars at conventions being told that shared world/tie-in fiction was a cancer on the genre. I’ve heard stodgy New York SF editors rudely dismiss readers of the fantasy genre, and vice versa. I’ve worked with brilliant authors who’ve had to suffer through friends and relatives asking them when they’re going to write “a real book,” even while the tie-in they just finished is sitting on the New York Times best sellers list.

One of my former bosses at Wizards of the Coast once contacted the agent of a major fantasy author (I won’t say who, but you’ve read his stuff) with a serious offer to write for us, only to have the agent laugh in her face and refuse even to go to the author with any offer. The world will never know if he’d have done it if his agent wasn’t irresponsibly “protecting” him from a real opportunity based on some package of entirely unsupported prejudices.

But now there seems to be a real change in the air. Is it the so-called “Death of the Midlist” that followed the book retail collapse? (I meant Borders closing up after helping to almost annihilate independent bookstores, which started to come back strong only to be elbowed in the face by COVID-19…) Is it finally a recognition that tie-ins, when well written, responsibly edited, and based on great properties are just as “real” as any of a particular author’s original work? Whatever the reason, Greg Bear’s written a Halo novel—but then he wrote a Star Trek book years ago, too. I know. I’ve read it. And Michael Moorcock wrote a Dr. Who book—and why not? Moorcock’s a Brit—no way he wasn’t a lifelong Dr. Who fan. Tie-ins aren’t just the launching pad anymore—places where authors get their feet wet before they move on to their “real” careers. Now those streams flow both ways.

 

Unfortunately here I have to step in from 2020 and bemoan the apparent collapse of the tie-in novel. We still see a few, but nowhere near what was maybe its peek around 1999-2005-ish? Do we blame online fan fiction? Do we blame an audience of young men who more or less stopped reading completely in favor of online gaming? Subject for another post, I suppose, though I will probably find it too depressing to write. Anyway…

 

A smart young author has to—repeat, has to—keep his or her mind open to opportunities to do what we do. We’re content providers, storytellers. And if we want to make a living doing that, we have to be professionals, which means we have to walk through the doors that are open. That doesn’t mean you have to write anything and everything that comes your way, but don’t reject any work, any opportunity to reach an audience, out of hand.

Science fiction and fantasy are huge right now (and remain so in 2020), the reach of the genres far outpacing the numbers coming out of the publishing business. There’s science fiction on TV: (warning: blasts from the past ahead!) I’ve been watching the new season of Dr. Who and lovin’ it, my DVR is set up to capture the Falling Skies pilot (I don’t even remember that), and I’m suffering through the Fringe hiatus as best I can (I got over it.). For Father’s Day on Sunday my wife and kids are taking me to see Green Lantern (I liked that movie… don’t judge me!). I saw X-Men: First Class while I was in LA for E3. Super 8 is selling tons of tickets, and the summer movie season has lots more SF and superheroes still to go.

 

Sigh… remember when there used to be a “summer movie season”? Anyway, the wall to wall SF, fantasy, and horror on TV has only grown in the last nine years: Game of Thrones, Dark, Tales From the Loop, Upload, Dispatches from Elsewhere… and on and on…

 

Then there are games… more games… game after game after game both electronic and “analog”—practically all of them are SF or fantasy in some way. E3 (2011) was full of SF and fantasy properties, mixed in with a small scattering of sports, music, and fitness games. Oh, boy, do I want that Aliens: Colonial Marines game (and I got it, and I played it), Rift is looking like the heir apparent to World of Warcraft (it wasn’t), and the 40k Space Marine game looks fraggin’ amazing (and it was and I played it all the way through)…

The list of my friends and professional acquaintances who write for either or both of the analog and digital gaming businesses is too long to recite here. Opportunities abound. What else? Could you write comic books? Screenplays? TV? Any sort of online content vehicle—even one you create yourself? Publish a novel or ongoing serial in blog form? Audio short stories or short plays in podcast form? Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones we make for ourselves.

Look at all those hungry vessels just waiting to be filled up with interesting stories. So does refusing to limit myself only to my super detailed, massive original epic fantasy series make me a sell out?

I don’t care.

I get paid to tell stories.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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E-book only still, at least for now…

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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