Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell Memorial, Heinlein, Hal Clement, Skylark, Galaxy, and Seiun Award-winning author of twenty-three science-fiction novels, including the trilogy of Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, which won Canada’s Aurora Award for the Best of the Decade, and the #1 Locus bestsellers Calculating God, Triggers, and Quantum Night. Rob holds two honorary doctorates and is a Member of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Canadian government. Find him online at sfwriter.com.
The Future Waits for No One
At the beginning of July 2019, I finished writing my twenty-fourth novel. How long will it be before you get to see it? You’d think, perhaps, in our high-tech computerized age, that it should take far less time for a publisher to get a novel out to readers than it does for an author to create the manuscript in the first place. But in almost all cases you’d be wrong.
Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and westerns are collectively referred to as commercial fiction: they are, as far as both the publishers that print them and the retailers that sell them are concerned, simply product.
Decades ago, when Barnes and Noble (which still limps along) and Borders (now defunct) decided to copy the supply-chain management techniques of grocery and department stores, wherein Christmas goodies are ordered in April and Easter treats in the autumn, publishers had no choice but to kowtow. The fastest, under normal circumstances, that a book could come to market was eight months after it was completed.
With both publishers and booksellers routinely burned by authors (yes, we deserve some blame too) who were late in delivering their books, B&N shifted from ordering books that authors had been contracted to deliver to waiting until they were fully edited, with cover art finalized. Oh, sure, a political exposé can be brought to market quickly to cash in on current events, but that almost never happens in the fiction biz.
So, it takes eight months or more to accommodate the lead-time the big booksellers insisted on, plus whatever time the publisher wanted to spend working on the book (and the time the author needed to make revisions requested by an editor), including copyediting, proofreading, getting advance reading copies (“bound galleys”) out to solicit cover blurbs from other authors, and so on. That’s probably three months of work in most cases, but who needs stress in their lives? Most editors will want a comfy six months to get all that done, and then they build in a cushion just in case something goes wrong. On average, for a commissioned book from an established novelist, it’ll be eighteen months after the author types “The End” before it’s on bookstore shelves.
And for uncommissioned books? For new writers hoping to break in? Well, Tor and other big houses are saying the waiting time in their slush pile is now up to two years—meaning a book finished January 1, 2020, might be in book stores July 1, 2023.
Does this have a deleterious effect on mysteries? Probably not. Romances? The stories are eternal. Westerns? They’re set in the past anyway. Fantasy? The past or some made-up realm. But science fiction? The literature of the future? Can it stand still for a year and a half or more awaiting publication?
Many of my colleagues have already said they’ve given up writing near-future SF. It’s too hard. As Ray Kurzweil tells us, change is exponential rather than linear; as Gordon Moore preached a half-century ago in the law that bears his name, computing power doubles, or more, in the time it takes traditional publishers to bring a book to market.
Far-future SF is easy. Arthur C. Clarke gave us all a get-out-of-jail-free card (his Third Law, coined the same year, 1965, as Moore’s Law): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In other words, if you’re willing to shoot a century or a millennium down the road, you might as well be writing fantasy.
But near-future SF (or SF set in the present day, which is my own specialty) is a different breed. Originally, all science fiction was of that type: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and almost all of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (even the framing story of The Time Machine) were contemporary tales, set at about the same time they were first published.
Now, my own next novel happens to be historical science fiction: it’s a secret history of the Manhattan Project called The Oppenheimer Alternative, set in 1943 through 1967; I have no fear of the future catching up with it before it hits the shelves.
But I did want it out before a very specific date: July 16, 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the birth of the atomic age, with the Trinity Test in New Mexico (and three weeks later, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first atomic bomb being used on humans, with the attack on Hiroshima). There’s no question in my mind that there will be enormous promotional opportunities for a novel about J. Robert Oppenheimer next summer (not that publishers have any clue whatsoever of how to promote science fiction beyond the standard SF readership, but that’s a topic for another column).
Of course, knowing what I know, I should have had the book finished at least eighteen months before the magic date. Sadly, real life intervened, and much of my 2018 was taken up caring for my declining father, who finally passed away at the end of that year at the age of ninety-four.
Surely, though, with still a full year to work with (remember, I finished the manuscript at the beginning of July 2019), one of the major publishers could be nimble enough, under the circumstances, to get my book out in time for the anniversary? Nah-uh. We even tried 47North, the professional science-fiction publishing imprint of Amazon.com, which cares not one whit about Barnes and Noble’s supply-chain management but, although they loved the book, they too couldn’t move that fast.
So, I’m going to self-publish The Oppenheimer Alternative, and all will be well for that novel. But what about future books? Specifically, what about near-future books? Will self-publishing be the only way going forward for science-fiction authors to bring timely visions to market?
I remember when 2020 was just an eye-test score; now it’s upon us. Can a new author writing in 2020 really wait until 2024, 2025, or later, to see his or her vision of the near future in print? Can even our established masters of near-future SF afford to see eighteen months of dead time between when they crystallize their prognostications and when the public gets to read them?
Science fiction has been declining as a publishing category for decades, and near-future science fiction, the important kind that helps us, as a species, grapple with the decisions we must make to ensure a desirable tomorrow, is becoming an untenable exercise anywhere but self-publishing. It’s a pity—but the future waits for no one.
Copyright © 2019 by Robert J. Sawyer