Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mapping Smutty SFF - Part 2: Market Forces

Goldilocks: Not Just a Character in My Gender-swapped Slashfic

 So starting out as a new writer and wanting to write SFF and basically finding that my brand of SFF isn’t considered Real SFF(TM)...wasn’t really an easy thing. Fuck, it still isn’t an easy thing, and it’s still something I struggle with all the time. As I talked about last time, the distance between what I call “Pro” SFF and what I call Smutty SFF is...rather large. This is maybe changing, fairly slowly, but market realities are something that crop up a lot when thinking about what to write and how to focus as a writer hoping to make money. Because thus enters the impossible task of balancing not self-rejecting and aiming your stories for venues you think you can sell to. It’s a task complicated by the lingering dread that, as a writer, you’ll always be wrong.

It’s a Goldilocks situation, but one in reverse and one that’s constantly shifting. If your story is too queer and happy or focuses too heavily on romance, it’s unlikely to fit in at SFWA-qualifying markets. If it doesn’t feature a Happily Ever After or Happily For Now ending, or if the brand of queer isn’t popular enough, it’s a harder sell to the larger romance presses. Instead of shooting for a happy medium between the two as being the perfect fit, market forces push writers to choose and embrace a binary system where SFF with queer romantic plots and SFF w/o queer romantic plots must be kept separate.

Obviously, there are some exceptions to the rule. Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Book Smugglers have both put out a number of stories that feature strong and joyous queer relationships that split the distance between “just” SFF and SFF romance. Lethe Press puts out a lot that’s queer and SFF without necessarily focusing on romance, and even Dreamspinner has an imprint that is about explicitly queer characters but not romance. It’s out there, but it’s not all that talked about and when it is, it’s often from a lens of either a romance reader or a “just” SFF reader.

Market Spotlight: Beneath Ceaseless Skies

There’s aren’t too many SFWA-qualifying short fiction markets that seem especially keen to publish Smutty SFF, but BCS might be a great place to start if your style runs into fantasy. It’s not someplace that you’re going to be able to tune into every issue and find works that celebrate queer characters and relationships, but there are quite a few stories in its extensive backlist that fit the bill, and many that are presented in audio format as well. I am very impressed with the work that BCS does issue after issue to put out nicely paired stories, and quite often there is queer content, and occasionally there is queer romance as well, though as with many more “pro” venues, tragedy has a tendency to win out over HEA/HFN (but hey, I’m guilty of it, too…). It is fantasy-specific, but it’s also published some of my absolute favorite Smutty SFF stories full stop, including an amazing novella from R.B. Lemberg recently, “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power.” People, go read it! BCS is also a non-profit, so give some support if you can!

And it’s a self-feeding problem. Because readers looking for or wanting SFF that falls into the area between SFF romance and SFF w/o romance can’t exactly trust either side to provide for them what they want. I know from experience that if you can’t find what you really want, you either make do or leave. Those who make due are essentially used to justify not diversifying content and those who leave are given up on. It’s what capitalism does, and it’s helped by a number of factors. The result is that it can often feel, as a writer, that there is no right decision. Even trying to write what I hope will sell instead of what I most want to write doesn’t mean that I will succeed, but it does mean that the writing itself is less rewarding.

Anecdote Time!

Here’s a real-life example. I decided not too long ego to start writing a novel, a SFF mystery with psychics that is not a romance but that has some queer sex and a lot of weird. And writing it terrifies me. Why? A few reasons, really. First, I have no idea what I’ll do with it when/if I finish it. Do I try to get an agent? Do I send it to a smaller queer press that does open submissions? What do I do? To be clear, I know many writers who have written novels that I would want desperately to read that either haven’t found representation or who did find representation but didn’t sell their works to publishers, or who are finding it very difficult to. Obviously, I want to tell these people “Keep writing!” “I believe in your work!” “I really fucking want to read your novel!” But I’m not a book buyer. I’m not an editor. In the face of a vast and, if not outright hostile, sharply apathetic market, what can you say to someone writing stories that might not fit.

This is all complicated, of course, by the fact that writing often works in reverse of most traditional professions. We do the work first and then try to get paid. How do I justify spending hour and hours, days and weeks and months, on a project that might earn me nothing? Or slightly north of nothing. I’ll let you in on a secret—I don’t make a lot of money. I spend my 40+ hours a week at a union print shop and I make enough to live, but not much more. There’s medical debt and the need for a newer car and trying to not let my home fall apart. I make a little extra doing writing and reviewing, but it’s only “extra” in that it’s not regular. At this point I basically need to be earning something on the side to help ease the financial strain/have any hope of surviving something going wrong. I doubt I’m the only Smutty SFF writer in such a situation, or for whom being able to earn actual substantive money off of writing would be transforming. Perhaps I should just shut up and get a part time job and give up on writing, on reviewing, or anything but making sure I’m financially secure. But writing and reading are some of the few things that I really like in life, and being told to give them up because my passion is not popular or marketable enough is...well, difficult.

Further, and as I said before, even if a book does see the light of day, it has to contend with the gatekeepers of the field, with award committees that don’t think it fits, with reviewers who want a book to conform to what they can recognize as either romance or “just” SFF. Having been reviewed widely for both SFF romance and “pro” SFF, I can tell you that the landscape is pretty fucking bleak. Those who review the most are often the most conservative when it comes to works that straddle genre lines, and often those who are the best suited to reviewing are more likely to be overwhelmed with the need out there for quality reviewing. I’ve seen reviews of my works that take issue with the fact that it’s either not romantic enough or too romantic, depending on where the story appeared at. And while negative reviews might not prevent me from selling future stories, they do impact readers, and by extension sales. It’s simply hard to build buzz for a project that most people have trouble placing, because the distance between SFF romance and “pro” SFF is so large. There are very few places that review both romance and non-romance SFF. There are fewer still that do so with an eye and appreciation for queer content. There are a few, but again, neither SFF romance nor “pro” SFF are super welcoming for a newer writer who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere.

But okay, so what? I really don’t want to just make this series about me and my woes. So what do I suggest? For what you can. I hope you can write the stories you truly want to write, and I hope that they sell. If they don’t, and you need money, then I’m so sorry. You will ultimately have to decide how much to try and make your writing fit better so that you can tell as close to the stories you want most to tell as possible while still selling. It still might not work. There are no guarantees. Fuck. I’d say don’t discount the small presses, especially those who seem to be trying to put out what you’re writing. Often it means less money than you’d like, but often it does mean some money, and you’re splitting it with people who believe in your book and want to publish your stories.

If you’re a reader...consider becoming a reviewer as well. And, wherever possible, search out small-press books that sound good. Buy them if you have the money. Or get your library to order them. Advocate for the books you want, signal boost the projects you’re excited about. Be loud. Try not to be an asshole.

Market Spotlight: The Book Smugglers

So this is both a venue for stories and reviews. Starting life as a review blog, The Book Smugglers have since branched out into publishing as well and they are amazing. Their stories often defy genre expectations and get into delightfully smutty territory. “Superior” by Jessica Lack was one of my favorite stories last year, and Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap is OMGlob the best thing ever! If you are not reading the amazing stories they put out, you should be. And The Book Smugglers is also one of the best SFF review sites around, reading widely and not shying away from books that are marketed more as romance. They are a vital and affirming link connecting the more “pro” SFF venues and the SFF romance venues. From short stories to novellas to novels, they put out a lot of amazing stuff and a vast majority of it is joyously queer. Definitely go out and buy the hell out of their books and just pay attention. They are doing amazing work, and I hope they continue for a long, long time.

The market is a strange and often opaque thing. It serves financial interests first, which is to say it’s not often very concerned with justice. Its favorite phrase is “vote with your wallet,” perhaps the single least democratic phrase I have ever heard. But it is the reality of the situation, and it doesn’t mean that everyone making decisions based off of market realities is a terrible person. It does make it very difficult for those writing outside the more traditional lanes of SFF or romance, though. And it makes the question of whether to attempt to conform or to attempt to blaze a new trail all the more difficult and dangerous. For those having to make those decisions, fucking good luck. I hope you find joy and success.


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