This post was originally posted over at Realms & Galaxies: Celebrating SFF on the 29th of December 2009.
Since I’m the only SFF reviewer from South Africa and in South Africa, I thought that it was way past time to post this ‘article’ / ‘essay’ (or whatever it turns out to be) and get all of you outside SA an inside-seat to the state of SFF here. 🙂
So, where to start? I guess the best place would be my introduction to SFF.
Comics. Argue if you want, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be the same for many of you out there. My parents got me started with Wendy, Casper, Spooky, and later, Archie. This is what started me reading, and you can be damn sure I’m always grateful for that. 🙂 Pretty soon I graduated to the comics and characters that we all know – Superman, Batman, etc and the first comic I remember reading from DC was an issue of Flash, in the post-Invasion days, where Wally West was homeless and buggered. (This is probably why Wally West, and The Flash, is my favourite DC character – yes, way above Batman, even).
You see, comics opened up such a massive world for my imagination to play in that I was completely hooked, and by the time I was in my first year of High School, I had a collection in excess of 1000 different comics. By then I had already started reading actual books (we’re not that backward here!), but I still see comics as my first taste of SFF, and I collect what I can today, too. 🙂
I also read plenty of books, too, but these were along the lines of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys stories. The first adult book I read was Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and I was nine years old (blame my dad for leaving his books lying around!). After King, I never touched another book meant for my age-group. 🙂
The first Fantasy book I ever read was David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, and that led to me reading every Fantasy book in our school library in less than a year (granted, that’s not such a big claim, since there weren’t that many books to begin with, but still, the hunger started there). The first SF book I ever read? Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And what an introduction those books were! Eddings (may his name always burn brightly) showed me magic, evil, battles; Clarke showed me the gorgeous beauty of space and the true meaning of the word ‘extra terrestrial’ (sorry, Spielberg), and from then on, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Sometimes I would focus on SF for an entire year, and then Fantasy – I marveled at Clarke and Lee’s Rama Cycle, was completely blown away by The Reality Dysfunction, and holy hell, when I discovered Robert Jordan… Let’s just say that Fantasy really became fantastic!
But the question that I’m going to try and answer here is this: is the rest of South Africa the same?
As the first part of my answer, here’s a shocker for you – a fact that will go a long way to explaining just why I’m the only reviewer in South Africa:
A book needs to sell between 2000 and 5000 copies to be a national BESTSELLER. I can see you doing a double-take, but that’s the average. To put it even more in perspective, there are about 60000 to 70000 active readers in South Africa, and those numbers are split between every kind of book you can imagine.
What sells well here? Cookery books, Misery Memoirs, biographies, business books, and fiction along the lines of Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel, etc.
Now, when I started working as a bookseller in 2001, I immediately felt at home in the SF section; ‘S’ for Science Fiction, and ‘F’ for Fantasy. Don’t worry, I shook my head, too. Talk about not caring about the distinctions, right?
Anyway, one of the first things I noticed was that readers of SFF here were and are starved for material to read, and this problem has two parts;
The first, and, I suppose, most important, part of the problem, is how long we have to wait for books. You see, because we’re such a small market here, our publishers / distributors have to acquire rights to get the books into the market. What this means for us is that we have to wait an average of 3 months from the date of publication for the books to hit our shelves. With the huge international publications such as the Harry Potter novels and The Lost Symbol that period is null and void, but with everything else the 3-month rule applies. (Sometimes we strike it lucky – case in point, Peter V Brett’s The Painted Man; the publisher’s here sent me a copy in late July 2008, and my review of it was the review that got me started in the blogosphere.)
The second aspect of the problem is that there isn’t much book knowledge among book sellers here. I’m not saying that the majority of us are complete dunces, but book sellers here think they know a lot and don’t actually know as much as they think they know. The knowledge we do have must, necessarily, be focused on the books that make the most money in our market, and none of those books include anything from SFF (once again, JK Rowling would be the exception to the rule). I’m an aberration, of course. 😀
A smaller, though no less important, part of the problem is that every bookseller or manager has their own opinion on what will sell and where it should be sectioned. A good example of this would be Cormack McCarthy’s The Road; I took it out of Fiction (mainstream, non-genre if you like) and put it in Science Fiction & Fantasy (we’re lucky enough to have the section named as such in the our shop). What happened? 3 copies sold in a week, whereas in Fiction, 3 copies didn’t sell in a month. Now it’s a mainstay of my section (yes, I’m in charge of SFF in our store) and when I tell people that the book they’re looking at is by the same author of No Country for Old Men, they seem a bit shocked. You see, there are just some books that don’t sell in sections where they should normally go, so experimentation is needed in our market.
Now, my section pulls in more money than any other section in the shop, and this is directly sure to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga books being sectioned there – I’m pretty damn excited to see how my section will hold up once sales start dropping off, but thankfully, it wont be happening any time soon. Why did I section Meyer in SFF? Well, it just didn’t fit anywhere else. Plus, why pass up the opportunity to show off the non-vampire stuff? Browsing in my section opens up universes. 🙂
But there are still books that don’t sell. 😦
Gemmell, for instance, has dropped off quite a bit – but James Barclay is rising to the occasion. Steven Erikson is consistently a good seller, and so is Robert Jordan, as is Trudi Canavan and (brace yourselves) Terry Goodkind. (Hey, no matter what Terry says, I will put his books in SFF!) On the SF side of things, well, that’s a bit of a struggle, unfortunately. 😦 Sales for SF are slow and sporadic. Why? Blame Peter Jackson, I s’pose, but I think this goes deeper.
So see, we South Africans are a strange people. Our history makes us farmers, predominantly; that’s the foundation we come from. And farmers don’t have time to read. Centuries and decades down the line, you’ve got people who read at school, because they have to. You see, it’s just not an important part of life here, it isn’t encouraged. Sad, but true. The situation is changing, thanks to the likes of Rowling and Meyer (not so much Peter Jackson – I still get customers saying that they tried to read The Lord of the Rings but didn’t like it because Tolkien left out scenes that were in the movies); more people are reading here, teenagers, yes, but they are reading. This leads to sales across the board, but still not as much as I would like to see.
I’ve been blogging now for a year and four months, and I’ve run a couple of giveaways which have completely failed. Either readers here are inherently distrustful of anything free, or they just weren’t interested. I also consistently get more visits from the USA and UK than SA, even though everyone I know is on Facebook, so it’s not a problem of internet access. As long as I can read, though, I’ll be blogging and reviewing, and I’ve now got a reputation among SA publishers that I need to uphold, anyway. 🙂
These are the reasons why the SFF market in SA is so small, and the only thing we can hope for is that (and this is a fact, not me being egotistical) more book sellers like me get into the book trade. We also need the publishers to take a more active role in bringing more SFF into SA, but that depends on sales. And above all, as book sellers, we need to make damn sure that all of our customers keep coming back. More sales means that we can experiment with them, take chances, and get them to read outside their comfort zone.
The small SFF market leaves us with another problem, though; loads and loads of people writing SFF, but no-one getting published. 😦
So, there we go. We’ve got an uphill climb, all the time, but damn it, it’s an incredible climb with spectacular views! 🙂