Media Tie-Ins, Part I: Mucking the Field

13 December 1998

I suppose that one out of three isn't bad—it gets one an astounding salary in baseball. But I cannot leave Mr. Perry's other varieties of manure in the December Locus ("Will the Real Dodo Please Stand Up") to decompose alone. In the guise of asking for less poison to be spewed at him and his "fellow hacks" (his words), he has in fact justified some of the poison.

Mr. Perry's first point is correct. Speculative fiction publishing will change, but not die, over the next few years. This is inevitible. One must remember that the true book-length novel of speculative fiction is only a half-century old or so. In many ways, those changes will be for the better; perhaps in some, they will be for the worse. I, for one, will not be sorry to see the demise of the current marketing system established by the entrenched New York publishers—a system that celebrates brand identity over style, let alone substance. Nor will I be sorry to see the end of the long discount and the wasteful distribution system that has built up since World War II.

The article starts to lose its way, though, with the second pile of manure. Mr. Perry's point begins as follows:

Media fiction tie-ins accounted for 15% of new science fiction and fantasy titles in 1997. Which means, if my math skills have not left me entirely, that books other than said media tie-ins must have accounted for 85% of new titles. That doesn’t sound quite as overwhelming as the sci-fi po-lice make it out to be, does it?

This is an egregious misuse of statistics. First, it assumes that "media tie-ins" does not include gaming tie-ins, or shared-world garbage (such as some of what Mr. Perry writes), or "Famous Author Presents" manure. But, aside from this problem, Mr. Perry already refuted this silly assertion with his remark about "the few super-writers like King and Clancy and Auel and Grisham." Together, these four writers publish (in an average year) about 0.01% of all new titles. An elephant may move slowly, but it will squash you a lot flatter than fifty hummingbirds. The annual total turnover from these authors—both in sales and author compensation—is immense. Because publishers want to clone that turnover, that's what the marketing dorks will approve for acquisition.

This is relevant to "media tie-ins." Look up the New York Times bestseller lists for the last four or five years. Well in excess of 15% of the bestsellers that are speculative fiction are "media tie-ins" of some kind or another. So Mr. Perry's point just sort of fades into the background as irrelevant. Given the trend over the last several years toward fewer total titles and more media tie-in titles, and given those bestseller numbers, one must wonder whether traditional publishing can or will continue to support enough non-tie-in material for speculative fiction to survive under the New York publishing system. (This need not be a bad thing. Ask Mr. Spinrad…)

The third pile of manure stinks the most. Mr. Perry's argument that Star Warstm and Star Trektm have "revitalized" the field has a certain naïve charm to it. They are, by themselves, far from inherently bad. While the execution of the properties is horribly uneven, some Star Trektm episodes, movies, and novelizations have at least brought some of speculative fiction's themes to a wider audience. (I can't say the same for Star Warstm, but that's another issue entirely.) But Mr. Perry's own arrogance becomes clear in this paragraph:

A lot of fans would like to take everything written after H.G. Wells (or at least Robert A. Heinlein) and wish it into the cornfield. They pray to Ghod that all that light shined into our ghetto by those nasty movie and TV folks will go away, so they can play with their propeller beanies in peace and feel better because they know and the mundanes don't. Here's your wake-up call, folks—we’re living here in the future now, and the days of the secret handshake and moral superiority when we could call "them" mundanes are gone. And you know what? Good riddance.

Mr. Perry is half right. Some fans (although I believe a far from significant portion these days) really do wish more-contemporary material "into the cornfield." But that is exactly what the tie-in properties are not. Star Warstm and Star Trektm novelizations as a group are a lot closer to pre-Campbell science fiction (minus some of the racial, sexual, and ideological bigotry) than they are to anything since, even Heinlein. If "Doc" Smith's writing skills had been better, one might not be able to tell the difference between the Lensmen and the Jeditm Knights. Fantasy gaming properties as a group are a lot closer to the old Weird Tales/Robert E. Howard (minus almost none of the racial, sexual, and ideological bigotry) than they are to anything since. In other words, tie-ins represent a retreat to the ghetto, not an attempt to break out of it.

OK, I'm a literary snob. So there. My literary snobbery says that there isn't a hell of a lot of speculative fiction written before Dangerous Visions that should stay out of the cornfield. My mantra is simple: Formula Fiction Is Bad—in 1990s media tie-ins or 1940s science fiction; in Grisham or "Doc" Smith; in late Heinlein or Howard. And one does not "join the current century before it rolls into the next" by recycling the same tired formulae in fresh new (or New Age) clothing that is just as substantial as the Emperor's in Anderson's fairy tale. Whether written in 1938 or 1998, there is no there there.

Sturgeon was an optimist. Maybe I am too, because I expect every author to care enough about the words she or he is consenting to have published under her or his name to try to avoid hackery. Nobody will always succeed, but tie-ins (as a group) represent not even trying.

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