“Literary” SF&F and self-publishing: qualitative results

WHM reports on the qualitative results from the 32-respondent survey he did looking to evaluate the perceptions of value/interest in a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form.

In a previous post, I presented the qualitative results of my survey of self-publishing and literary SF&F. Quite a few respondents also provided comments. Because some were okay with me quoting them and others preferred that I not share, I’m going to do a bit of a mishmash here. If anyone who commented wants to clarify or add additional comments, feel free to do so below.


Will Ellwood (@fragmad) said: “I want SF&F to advance an argument. This holds true for novels published via ‘traditional’ routes as well as self-published material. A good example of ‘literary’ SF which has been self-published is Ian Sales Apollo Not-Quite-Quartet, which advances an aesthetic argument and is identifiable as the work of an individual author rather than a work which has been massaged for mass consumption.”

Other respondents said that they like literary SF but feel that is a sub-genre that is often likely to be highly politicized (which is a turn-off) or that they don’t trust the majority of titles presented in that category to also be entertaining because it so often isn’t (and that it being self-pubbed means that it already has two strikes against it). On the other hand, a respondent said that “for me, one of the big promises of self-publishing was that it would make quirky, offbeat and niche works available that the big publishers wouldn’t normally pick up.”

One respondent made the point that if an author is going to claim to be literary SF&F, they better be able to prove it: “The sample chapter’s quality will be very important in deciding to buy. Have enough bad experiences with indie writers cover copy touting literary qualities that aren’t there.”


Several of the commenters reinforced the quantitative results that suggested that what matters most is a perception of quality by the reader (especially via recommendations).

Mike said: “if I’m interested in a book, whether it’s self-published or not has essentially no relevance to whether I would buy it or the amount of money I’d be willing to pay for it. I don’t generally feel that whether a book was traditionally published or self-published provides much useful information about the book’s quality, and by the time I’m willing to spend any amount of money on a book, I’ve usually already been convinced of its quality.”

Another respondent said: “I don’t trust self-pubbed books generally, so to buy one I would really need to have a strong recommendation from someone I trust a lot.”

And another said: “More likely to be interested if the book has had an editor work on it.”

A respondent who preferred to not be quoted directly but was okay with me summarizing their comments said that the motivation of the author to self-publish and their previous experiences in/with the publishing industry are an important factor in if they’d be willing to give a book chance. For example, if an author is self-publishing because their work is considered by mainstream publishers to be too experimental or difficult then that’s a different thing than if they’re just doing it because the work wasn’t good enough.

Some respondents have strong feelings on format:

One respondent said: “My answers to the third and fourth questions are invalid because I would not by an ebook, ever. I will not read an ebook.”

Dave added: “Rather than print-on-demand I would first look for an audiobook version narrated by a good reader. I find I satisfy 75% of my fiction habit through audiobooks. I love printed versions the most, but audiobooks come in a close second. I usually start with the audiobook and then buy a print version as well, when it becomes a favorite. An ebook is also a gateway to a print book but I use it much less often.”

I would note that some genre-oriented self-publishers have had a lot of success with audiobook editions (although I’m not aware of debut authors launching with an audiobook). Audiobooks require either a partner or a large up-front investment. Some literary SF&F might also not translate well to audio form. On the other hand, if the novel has particularly beautiful and flowing prose and a strong voice, it might do very well in the form.


A few respondents made some observations on the marketplace for literary SF&F:

One respondent said: “For me, one of the big promises of self-publishing was that it would make quirky, offbeat and niche works available that the big publishers wouldn’t normally pick up. Hence, I feel it’s a pity that self-published SFF has become a wasteland of werebear romance and military SF straight from Baen’s slushpile, because it had the potential of becoming so much more.”

I’m sure there are oases to be found in the wasteland, but I agree with overarching point of the comment: there’s so much stuff that it’s hard to find the stuff that would be interesting to me.

Another said: “I think part of the issue with self pubbed literary spec fic may be the competition vs firmly genre stuff on Amazon — that is, the difficulties of category differentiation of a relatively small vertical. On a completely different note, while I’m sure extra $ from POD are nice bonus not to be ignored, I don’t think it offers much more than marginal benefit for most, vs the multiplicative possibilities of other strategies (serialization with strategic sales, bundles, collaborations).”

And finally, a comment on who among literary SF&F writers are more likely to have success self-publishing: “I would only recommend it for VERY well established short fiction writers or those with TONS of community connections. Selling outside of your circle will be super hard so your circle needs to be big.”

Thanks for all the comments, folks. To be honest, neither the qualitative nor quantitative results made things much clearer for my personal situation. Of course, I wasn’t really looking for that anyway. My biggest take-away is that there might be more of a market for self-published literary SF&F than currently exists, but that it will likely be a difficult thing to crack/nurture.

NOTE: first time commenters are put in moderation; once moderated, any future comments are published right away.

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