Monday, November 5, 2012

"Eagerness to please," and the weakness of database marketing for directing the future of SF/F

Today I read this fascinating and challenging article from Damien Walter on the state of SF/F, which says essentially that science fiction and fantasy are too eager to please, and mentions among other things that Walter thinks Ursula K. LeGuin would have trouble getting published as a debut author today. His idea is that we aren't seeing the really edgy questions asked and explored because publishers want to please as many people as possible.

The whole thing reminds me of the response I got when I overshared (I meant to share it, but inadvertently overshared it) a petition asking LEGO to include more girl figures in their sets and to take girls into account in their marketing. I was told by a few notable folks that people send a message to LEGO when they purchase, and that LEGO has received the message and is acting accordingly, and too bad if I didn't like that.

In the current model of marketing, purchase patterns dictate how a company responds. I'm very familiar with this, and how these patterns are researched and how they are used to make planning decisions. In fact, my husband is a direct marketer and works in precisely this area: the analysis of purchase and customer behavior databases.

This is why I know that these people aren't seeing the whole picture.

Think about it. The premise here is that we base base marketing decisions on detailed analysis of purchase history and other customer behavior over a period of time. The problem is that purchase history and customer behavior are all made in relation to an existing product line, which is itself the result of analysis of customer behavior in relation to the last iteration of that product line. Even if a company is looking at the product lines of its competitors, the whole process is inbred. It is not possible for a company to receive any data on the probability that customers will buy something they have never seen in the product line before, unless that company already has a history of bringing out startlingly new products on a regular basis (after all, to define a trend, we need a large sample size!). There are some companies that do this (I'm immediately thinking of Apple, but there are others).

The longer this method is used, the more likely that the products that result will become more and more refined to existing usage patterns. This might be fine for electronics, or office supplies, but for books, music, or anything else requiring leaps of creativity, it is stifling.

The immediate response that I expect to hear will be how indie publishing is the way to go and that this is the trend that will refresh our experience of science fiction and fantasy. However, I really think that what we're looking for is a balance between traditional publishers, small publishers, and independent publishers. Amazon is a huge corporate wrench in the mix that will also have to be dealt with.

The world is complex out there right now, but I personally don't think it's a good idea to stay conservative and stick with the tried-and-true because creative endeavors thrive on the new, and desperately need innovation, whether it's a novel combination of classical elements or something no one has considered before. I hope that we'll soon see a shift away from the marketers and back toward the editors in what kind of books are chosen for traditional publication. If it's a question of handing that decision to someone who has read the book, or someone who's looking just at the numbers, I'll give it to the person who has read the book every time.