“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.

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

WHM reports on the quantitative 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.

Many thanks to all of you who took my survey on “Literary” SF&F and self-publishing novel length fiction. As of earlier today when I turned the survey off there were 32 total respondents. That’s not a huge sample size (although it’s larger than I thought it would be). Nor was the survey itself built to produce anything approaching scientific validity so even though there are numbers below they shouldn’t be taken as anything but an interesting snapshot of a limited SF&F readership where that limit is “is connected to me in some way or is connected to someone who is connected to me” and “was willing to fill out the survey”.


As I wrote on the introduction to the survey: “This survey is motivated partly out of self-interest — there’s a chance I might self-publish genre fiction in the future. But it’s also reflective of my general curiosity about how novel-length SF&F w/literary elements is perceived by those who regularly purchase that kind fiction as well as my overall interest in the publication and reception of genre fiction, which you’ll sometimes see me musing (or ranting) about on Twitter or my author/critic website.”

In particular, what I’m interested in is a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form. It seems to me that self-publishing short work is generally acceptable across most of the SF&F readership. However, novel-length work is less acceptable (or perhaps simply less of interest). It’s especially less acceptable if the author does not have some sort of editorial imprimatur. If your publisher cancelled your series, then maybe self-publishing is an okay route to finish the series. But if you have no track record in novel length fiction then  And it’s even less acceptable or perhaps more skeptically viewed if the author is presenting themselves as more toward the literary side of the SF&F ecosystem.

In terms of methodology:

  1. I did not ask for any sort of demographic data. I didn’t know how many respondents I would get and the fewer you get the less useful that becomes. I also wanted the survey to be as quick as possible to fill out. Note that this is a major blind spot in the survey and anyone who is purporting to truly provide a portrait of the field should collect some form of demographic data.
  2. I did not ask respondents to identify themselves, although a few chose to do so in their additional comments.
  3. I linked to the survey via my Twitter account, personal Facebook account, and on a web forum I participate on where most of the participants have an interest in SF&F. It’s not a wide sphere of distribution. However, based upon my knowledge of those groups, I think it’s safe to say that I drew upon a fairly wide spectrum of SF&F fans. If someone were to do this type of survey in a more robust way, they would have asked some questions about literary preferences and genre consumptions patterns so that they could identify some groups to compare data against. I didn’t do that.
  4. I ask about price because it seems to me that self-publishing is seen as down market and traditional publishing as up market (or just: the real market) and that debut authors are an especial risk so if those assumptions are correct then the pricing should reflect the calculations that go into a consumer deciding how much of a risk the novel is.


On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy? Where 1 = wouldn't buy it and 5 = would totally buy it. Results: 1 = 6.3%; 2 = 25%; 3 = 25%; 4 = 34.4%; 5 = 9.4%
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Assuming you do decide to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy what factors would be most important in helping you take a chance on the novel?
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Because the answers to this question were really long, they don’t show up in the image so here’s the key to the graph above. Note that respondents could select 1-3 of the options that they thought applied most to the situation:

  1. Debut novelist has established record of short stories I like (43.8%)
  2. The novel gets a good review from a reviewer I respect (56.3%)
  3. The novel gets recommended to me by a friend or acquaintance whose tastes I trust (81.3%)
  4. The cover, marketing copy and excerpt from the novel interest me (25%)
  5. I’m friends or acquaintances with the author and I like what they have written on Twitter, Facebook, their personal blog, etc. (34.4%)
  6. The novel has good Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Library Thing and/or Goodreads ratings and reviews (25%)
  7. The author does a podcast or online/print publication interview that intrigues me (25%)
  8. Other (no responses for this option).
What's the highest price point you'd consider paying for an ebook edition of this debut novel if one or more of items in the previous question were to take place? Results: $7-12 = 40.6%; $6.99 = 3.1%; $5.99 = 18.8%; $4.99 = 21.9% ; $3.99 = 9.4%; $2.99 = 0%; $1.99 = 6.3%
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What's the highest price point that would make it a no brainer purchase? Results: $6.99 = 9.4%; $5.99 = 3.1%; $4.99 = 12.5%; $3.99 = 3.1%; $2.99 = 34.4%; $1.99 = 18.8%; $.99 = 18.8%
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One of the truisms in the self-publishing scene is that making a print-on-demand trade paperback available alongside the ebook is a must. Is the presence of a trade paperback version of a self-published debut novel something that you value?. Results: 50% = no; 25% = prefer paperbacks; 12.5% = because might want to buy paperback if really like book ; 12.5% = yes, because paperback shows self-publishers is serious
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Here’s what jumped out to me:

  • I’d say that based on the results of question one, there’s cautious optimism for a self-published “literary” SF&F novel — if, of course, it meets all the standards it would need to in order to present itself professionally
  • No surprises, I think, in the most important factors that would lead folks to buy such a novel. Word of mouth is still king. Reviewers matter (and probably matter more in this particular situation). The track record of short stories is a bit higher than I would have expected, but I suppose it makes a lot of sense — that track record would matter to fans buying a self-published novel for the same reason that editors at traditional publishers would see it as a factor: it’s a way of assessing if the writer can write well, and if you like their sensibility.
  • On the pricing, I was a bit surprised that respondents were willing to go as high as some of them did, but, then again, I think it shows that if someone perceives the novel as interesting and good quality, that they’re willing to pay for that. On the other hand, it wasn’t surprising that the $0.99-2.99 is the sweet spot for no-brainer buying of a novel. That’s long been the conventional wisdom among self-publishers and traditional publishers have also started to use the same pricing tactic.
  • When it comes to offering a paperback: I find it interesting that the main reason that the self-publishing conventional wisdom provides for doing so wasn’t much of a factor.

For the qualitative results (the comments that people submitted) I need to spend some time summarizing and excerpting them so those results will come in a future post. Thanks again to everyone who participated!

Also see: qualitative results from the survey

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