Thursday, February 11, 2010

SF for Teens and Academic Publishing

I just finished THE INTER-GALACTIC PLAYGROUND (McFarland, 2009), a book by Farah Mendlesohn on science fiction for children and teenagers. She has a lively, highly readable style, not something one can take for granted in academic writing. I enjoyed this study much more than, for example, a book published a couple of years ago on teen vampire fiction. That book, to my disappointment, wasn’t an overview of the subgenre but a narrowly focused discussion of a few novels that the author considered representative of various trends in YA vampire fiction. In effect, her selection bias dominated the work. Mendlesohn’s INTER-GALACTIC PLAYGROUND, in contrast, relies on her reading of over 400 novels as well as a reader survey she conducted. I got the impression that her strong opinions are based on a deep and broad knowledge of the field and a genuine love for it. No surprise there, since I’ve heard her speak several times at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and she’s always fascinating to listen to even when I disagree with her.

One of her major premises is that the “juveniles” of the 1950s and earlier are not equivalent to the “YA” fiction of more recent decades. The crucial difference she sees is that earlier novels such as Heinlein’s and Norton’s focused on gaining knowledge, exploring, moving from home outward to the world of adult work, and accomplishing significant things. More recent SF novels for children and youth tend to focus on interpersonal relationships (on the dubious grounds, refuted by reader statements and the author’s own observation, that all teenagers want to read “issue” books about characters like themselves) rather than the actual science of science fiction. Not that both elements don’t exist in fiction at all periods, but the emphasis, she maintains, has changed. Her examples seem to support this thesis. Since almost all my reading of recent YA fiction has been in fantasy rather than SF, I didn’t notice that phenomenon until this book pointed it out. Mendlesohn doesn’t condemn relationship-oriented and home-oriented fiction as such, but she’s concerned that it doesn’t provide a “gateway” into adult science fiction the way the SF of earlier-generation writers did. In other words, young readers who like the current YA speculative fiction won’t necessarily like contemporary adult SF, since the themes and plots are so different.

Along the way, Mendlesohn questions the “boys don’t read” truism—partly on the grounds that, for the people who make public statements on such issues, the kinds of things boys like to read (e.g., genre fiction, media tie-ins, and nonfiction, and I would add graphic novels) “don’t count”—and the assumption that children aren’t a “market” because their reading experiences are supposedly under the control of parents and teachers. She challenges the dominant pedagogical cliches that children can't handle narrative complexity, don't like didactic fiction, and want "relevance" and "books about people like them." She also discusses the Reading Child, the kind of reader most of us probably were while growing up, the “extreme sport” book lover who devours the printed word constantly—a type generally ignored in studies of children's reading habits. MUCH to ponder in this book, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if it weren’t priced at something like $45.00 on For a trade paperback—the rule rather than the exception for scholarly publications. If the subject interests you at all, try to borrow this monograph through interlibrary loan, the way I did.

The cost brings up another ponder-worthy point, which makes me gnash my teeth and scream at the monitor almost every time I search out a cool-sounding work of literary criticism on Don’t these publishers WANT anyone to buy their books? Are they really content to sell only to libraries and those few academic specialists for whom a particular work is so central to their field that they have no choice but to fork over the exorbitant price to own it? Admittedly, I’m an author, not a publisher, and my only direct experience with academic presses has through been my own three overpriced scholarly books. However, I’ve had lots of nice-looking trade paperbacks of my novels released by my e-publishers through print-on-demand technology, priced at $16.00 or less, like most trade paperbacks in the chain bookstores. If the Internet equivalent of a small press, operating on a very thin budget, can produce a POD book at an affordable price, why can’t a university press even come close? I’m willing to believe editors and proofreaders at university presses and other scholarly publishers are paid more than their counterparts at e-pubs (almost anybody would be), but THAT much more? And, yes, academic books have end notes and indices, but that’s just a matter of using the right word processing software, isn’t it? Are academic presses so mired in the practices of the past that they can’t make efficient use of new technology, or is there some other factor I’m missing?

They produce short print runs on the assumption that only a few specialists will want the books enough to pay the high prices and that most copies will be sold to libraries. The short print runs (apparently—see above Re POD) lead to high prices per copy, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy, because of course nobody except libraries can afford to buy them. (And libraries' budgets are being cut.) Every year a few lit-crit books come out that I WOULD buy if they weren’t priced so ridiculously. Not to mention my own two vampire-related out-of-print books still being offered in POD editions at costs so astronomical that I’m always surprised my annual royalty statement shows two or three copies sold each year. I’d love to have them available in a form people could afford. Aargh. (No, I can’t take back the rights and reissue them myself. They were published so long ago that I don’t have the files in usable form anymore, if at all. Also, one is an anthology of articles by other people. I wish I COULD do that with my other book from that same publisher, which was my dissertation; I made what turned out to be the unwise decision of selling it to a different academic press when the original publisher switched to POD only, and I’ve never received a single check from the second publisher. They’re offering the book at something like $99.00.)

We’ve often discussed the Fiction Delivery System here. But there are also problems with the Nonfiction Delivery System, especially in academia. The required publication credits for tenure keep escalating while the available publishing outlets, for economic reasons, keep shrinking. What’s the answer? E-books? As an e-published author, I’m an enthusiastic proponent of electronic publishing as a response to niche markets, such as the tiny number of readers who might want a narrowly focused monograph on some specialized topic, yet those few people want that work very, very much. Or will there be a future solution nobody has thought of yet?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. I wish there was some way to show academic publishers that a private market exists for their books--if the price is lower. There are also many of these types of books I would love to own, if I could actually afford them. I've seen books upwards of $200 or even $300--why? They're not any longer than books that cost $30.

    They may be so entrenched they aren't listening, but it might be they don't realize they can make more in sales if the general public can afford their books than they will just selling them overpriced to educational establishments and libraries.

    Even if they only lower the price after 5 years, at least we would be able to get the books eventually.

    I love POD and e-books, and I still wonder if they will eventually level the playing field. Lulu (for example) has no quality control, but it does have a rating system, allowing readers to rate the quality of the books. With Amazon now accepting high-rated lulu books into its system, the next 10 years should be interesting.

  2. I'll confess right off the bat that I haven't read the Juveniles from the 50's! But I will say that I think modern YA novels are extremely character driven, which I love. :)

    I would really enjoy seeing more YA science fiction because I think it's a bit sparse on the ground right now. It's something I may consider attempting to tackle in the future. :)

    But I can see the author's point about losing science fiction YA readers as they transition to adult science fiction novels. I think many times--though not always, obviously--the story in adult science fiction is more plot-driven. That's one of the reasons I sought out (and LOVE) Linnea's work. Because it's not just about the bad guys chasing the good guys on the ship. It's about the good guys dealing with their own flaws, too. They are still trying to work out who they are and whether they like that person.

    I don't think kids today are looking for issue books, but I think they are looking for something they can relate to, whether it's on a space station or in the back of a covered wagon. Young adults are always dealing with finding out who they are--in the context of their family, social structure, society in general, etc. YA novels that reflect that struggle will ring true to them.

  3. Indexing is a specialty that requires more than a little specialized knowledge, and a lot of practice to do well. Letting a computer do it is a good way to get an index no one can find anything in, and handing the job to the author isn't an improvement. {resigned smile}

    That said, paying an indexer shoudln't add that much to the price of a book. Small print runs explain more. Unfortunately, academic publishers primarily sell textbooks to university students. They sell a few copies to libraries, but not many. They usually aren't selling to researchers. Professors get complimentary copies in hopes they'll choose this publisher's text for their classes instead of their competitor's.

    I often wish their books would be more widely available, but they don't have many advertising connections to the general public. They usually limit their advertising to universitites and academic journals. That often doesn't reach enough people to allow for wider print runs. {half smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. The children of the 1950's Juviniles' SF are adults now and their grandchildren have shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum, as is perfectly natural for any succeeding generation finding its way. And just like any older generation, they just don't get it. My personal opinion is that the decades between, the 1960's and 70's, emphasized sex rather than relationship, assuming children were a burden and that these children certainly did not need a high level of attention from their parents. Then, there were the equally selfish '80's, but things started shifting back. Now, we're in this generation which is seeking strong relationships and resenting those they ought to have had, but didn't.

    Think of TWILIGHT'S success and notice how Bella, an only child from a broken home, latched on to the Cullens, a large, close-knit family with parents who still adored each other. I haven't read the book, but I've read hundreds of readers' opinions of the book on-line. This is one of the book's big strengths, according to them.

    Children are small humans who need an extrorinarily high amount of personal love attention from their parents and grandparents. Teens are in a critical, sensitive phase between childhood and adulthood. Their emotional needs cannot be trivialized.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the older SF readers just don't get that, because they cut their teeth in the decades before. Thus, they're often not as welcoming of today's teens as they need to be.

    Ironically, this is not true of Science Fiction in the movies. Notice has the new blood infused into the new Star Trek moved scored well.

  5. "Indexing is a specialty that requires more than a little specialized knowledge, and a lot of practice to do well. Letting a computer do it is a good way to get an index no one can find anything in, and handing the job to the author isn't an improvement. {resigned smile}"

    Good points -- I wasn't thinking in terms of an automated indexing program. (I have never seen one in action, but I can imagine with a shudder what the result would be like.) I just meant that a good word processing program would format the entries on the page at no extra cost over any other kind of formatting. I was visualizing the work being done by the author, I guess. I did the indices for my three books from UMI Research Press myself, because I got a $100 advance for doing it (versus no advance if I didn't). Although I had no previous training in that task, I think I did a decent job. But I can see where an author without my love for classification and list-making might not.

    "That said, paying an indexer shouldn't add that much to the price of a book"

    I wouldn't think so.

  6. "she’s concerned that it doesn’t provide a “gateway” into adult science fiction"

    However, it DOES provide a gateway into adult Science Fiction ROMANCE, which can only be a good thing around here. This is why I'd love to see more SFR novels written for the 18 to 25 age group. Right now, almost all heroines are between the ages of 25 and 35. From looking around the Blogosphere, it seems most SFR readers are 30-plus. If we don't bridge the gap (which is soooo ready to be bridged) SFR will die with us, along with old SF, in my opinion.

  7. "This is why I'd love to see more SFR novels written for the 18 to 25 age group. Right now, almost all heroines are between the ages of 25 and 35."

    On the other hand, there's lots of PARANORMAL romance for teenagers. Young readers who grow up enjoying those books may make a lateral move into the very similar SFR readership. Personally, I write and mostly read romance based on fantasy and horror tropes, but I've also read several books by Susan Grant and, thanks to this blog, have tried some other SF romances. And of course "Amok Time" is one of my top 3 favorite STAR TREK episodes. (In case you wonder, the other 2 are "Journey to Babel" and "The Trouble with Tribbles.")

  8. If you can do a good index, more power to you. Tho I think $100 is entirely too cheap. Unfortunately, a lot of authors cannot make an index anyone else can find anything in, but make an index anyway. {lop-sided smile}

    "Boys don't read?" that's almost as good as "Boys only read books about boys, but girls read books about both boys and girls." I have yet to find a male human who read as a child who doesn't object to that one - usually both strenously and vociferously. {Amsued Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  9. Funny you should mention that, Anne, because you just described me. *grin*

    I don't know anything about the cost of academic books, but as a sometime YA writer I'm very interested in studies of what teens and tweens are reading. Thanks for talking about this book!

  10. {Laugh} Thanks Joe. {SMILE} It's just that all the guys I've talked to said that they're perfectly happy reading about a girl "as long as the girl does interesting things." I can't claim a statistically meaningful sample, but that is the usual answer. {BIG GRIN}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin