Who Lost Scott Westerfeld?
The estimable Paul Di Filippo shows up in the comment thread for “Why YA,” explaining why he holds the contrary view that a robust YA sf/f market is not necessarily a good thing for adult sf/f. I’ll leave to others to argue most of his several points of contention, if they so choose, but there’s one I’d like to tackle myself. Di Filippo’s main complaint is thus:
In a nutshell: every book of YA SF written means one less book of “adult” SF written by that author.
In all likelihood, we will never see another EVOLUTION’S DARLING by Scott Westerfeld, given the success of his YA stuff.
So the genre is deprived on that level.
The genre is certainly deprived, I agree. But not for the reason Di Filippo suggests. The reason we might not see another Evolution’s Darling from Scott has almost nothing to do with the fact he’s successfully writing YA, and quite a lot to with the fact that adult SF/F didn’t make it worth his time to continue in the field.
(Note: I’ve not talked to Scott about what I’m about to write, so don’t blame any of my speculation here on him.)
The first issue, predictably enough, is money. I don’t know what Scott got for his five adult SF novels, but I guarantee you it wasn’t very much. I don’t know what he would have gotten for adult novel #6, but whatever that amount would have been, I also pretty much guarantee you it wouldn’t have been what he got paid to write Young Adult. If the adult sf/f genre is deprived of additional Scott Westerfeld work (or the work of any SF/F author), one reason is because the genre is endemically cheap, not because the author is merely frittering away his talent writing for teens.
And this is not the case merely because Scott is now successful and naturally commands better advances, although he is and he does. Off the top of my head, and without naming any names, I can think of two sf/f authors who have sold rather fewer books to readers than I have, who recently got advances that were about twice the top amount I’ve been offered so far, because those advances were for books in YA. And those books only have to be half to two-thirds as long as mine have to be, which is a real knife twister, if you ask me.
This is not necessarily a complaint about what I’m paid; I’m being paid just fine, now that the back end’s kicked in. Thanks to my writing income in other fields, I didn’t have to Ramen up while waiting for my royalties. I wouldn’t mind larger advances, but the semi-annual bundles of cash I get from Tor are nice too. But note well that I am one of the relative few writers who receives a significant amount of income from my book royalties; the pay most writers get is what they get from their advances. This being the case, it’s really no wonder why so many writers of adult science fiction and fantasy have been crossing over into Young Adult, or at least have been trying very hard to do so. If you’re trying to make a living writing, why wouldn’t you write for the people who pay you more money for fewer words — and who are, if the numbers tell us anything, generally doing a better job of selling the work they do have?
Which is the second point: part of the reason YA sf/f pays more than adult sf/f is that it sells more — for whatever reasons, it gets more books into buyers’ hands. To get back to Scott for a moment, let’s face it: There has to be some reason that Scott was a bit of a flop (sorry, Scott) in adult science fiction, while being a huge success in YA. It’s not that his skill somehow advanced moving from one genre to the next, since Scott’s adult SF was critically praised; for example, Evolution’s Darling was a New York Times Notable Book and a special citation winner at the Philip K Dick Awards. And speaking from personal taste, his Succession books — The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds — are so good that I gleefully stole whole chunks of his action plotting when I wrote my own action scenes in The Ghost Brigades. Scott’s YA is excellent, but it is not so excellent, relative to his adult work, that it should sell exponentially better.
Nor can this be chalked up entirely to “well, kids just stop reading when they’re adults,” since adult fiction in general sells substantially more than juvenile fiction, and the top adult fiction titles sell more than the top YA titles, when the author of the YA is not JK Rowling. Adults read fiction just fine, thanks. And they even read science fiction and fantasy just fine, too, and in impressive numbers, as long as it’s handled outside of genre. Stephenie Meyer — primarily a YA author, note — is about to top the adult bestseller charts with The Host, which is flat-out science fiction, albeit handled by Little, Brown rather than Orbit, Hachette’s SF arm. Likewise, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon have sold hundred of thousands of copies of their science fiction works, cleverly disguised as mainstream fiction. And then there’s J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts, who sells unspeakably huge numbers of science fiction police procedurals, just not shelved in the SF/F section. This may suggest that YA readers do graduate to reading adult science fiction and fantasy, they just don’t want to be seen in the SF/F section of the bookstore when they do it.
The fact of the matter is that adult science fiction (and to a lesser extent adult fantasy) has a harder time marketing itself to readers. There are lots of reasons for this, some relating to structural issues in the book business and some just cultural issues, but it’s a real problem. I think it’s being addressed — I know I’ve had a lot of discussions with the Tor folks about it (and for the record I think Tor’s done a pretty good job getting more than the usual suspects to read my own work). But it’s a long way from where we are to where the genre needs to be, and I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone.
Structurally there is no bar to writing in both YA and adult fields: Stephenie Meyer’s doing it, James Patterson is doing it, Robert Heinlein did it, and it’s probably true that Scott Westerfeld could easily do it as well, if he so chose. Some significant portion of Scott’s YA audience would likely follow him into adult territory, as some significant portion of Meyer’s crowd is following her; this would pretty much automatically make a new adult Westerfeld book one of the biggest-selling SF titles of its year. He could write another Evolution’s Darling if he wanted. But the real question is whether anyone in adult science fiction would actually make it worth his time to do so, with money and marketing.
I’m skeptical. I suspect if the adult sf/f genre had made it worth his time in the first place, he’d still be writing in it. Which is to say the loss of Scott Westerfeld to the adult sf/f genre is a self-inflicted wound.