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CONTENT IS KING

I’ve long ago lost track of how many times I’ve publicly identified myself as a “content provider.” Most of the time, this has been in regards to the rise of the e-book. How do I feel about this upstart new format that seemingly turns the very concept of the book and how it’s published on its head? Well, I respond, over and over again, I’m a content provider, and I’m happy to see that content published in whatever form people are willing to buy—whatever form will get me the biggest audience. And if that means e-books—and it does now, by the way, and e-books are clearly moving toward being the dominate format at least for adult fiction and nonfiction by the end of 2014—then e-books it is.

But what does this mean, “content provider”? I know, it sounds kinda corporate, kinda sell-outy . . . Ugh, how I hate that.

With a nod to my friend, director James Merendino (what’s he up to?—I should shoot him an email), from his brilliant film SLC Punk, “I didn’t sell out, son, I bought in.”

No way, as author of the video game novelization Baldur’s Gate, do I have an artsy-fartsy leg to stand on. That one publication wiped out all my indie cred, despite years publishing poetry and flash fiction (before it was called flash fiction) across the weird pre-internet landscape of the late-80s micropress boom . . . and really, does anyone care? Is anyone really keeping track?

The science fiction and fantasy genres have for decades suffered under the weight of a peculiar conservatism that I’m very happy to report is only now finally starting to dissipate.

And by conservatism, I don’t mean in a political sense. There have been great SF/fantasy novels written by political conservatives and social liberals alike, and I’m happy to read freely across those sorts of party lines. By conservatism in this case, I mean a narrow view of what is acceptable behavior on the part of authors, publishers, and fellow readers.

I’ve sat in seminars at conventions being told that shared world/tie-in fiction was a cancer on the genre. I’ve heard stodgy New York SF editors rudely dismiss readers of the fantasy genre, and vice versa. I’ve worked with brilliant authors who’ve had to suffer through friends and relatives asking them when they’re going to write “a real book,” even while the tie-in they just finished is sitting on the New York Times best sellers list.

One of my former bosses at Wizards of the Coast once contacted the agent of a major fantasy author (I won’t say who, but you’ve read his stuff) with a serious offer to write for us, only to have the agent laugh in her face and refuse even to go to the author with any offer. The world will never know if he’d have done it if his agent wasn’t irresponsibly “protecting” him from a real opportunity based on some package of entirely unsupported prejudices.

But now there seems to be a real change in the air. Is it the so-called “Death of the Midlist” that followed the book retail collapse? Is it finally a recognition that tie-ins, when well written, responsibly edited, and based on great properties are just as “real” as any of a particular author’s original work? Whatever the reason, Greg Bear’s written a Halo novel—but then he wrote a Star Trek book years ago, too. I know. I’ve read it. And Michael Moorcock wrote a Dr. Who book—and why not? Moorcock’s a Brit—no way he wasn’t a lifelong Dr. Who fan.

Tie-ins aren’t just the launching pad anymore—places where authors get their feet wet before they move on to their “real” careers. Now those streams flow both ways.

And a smart young author has to— repeat, has to—keep his or her mind open to opportunities to do what we do. We’re content providers, storytellers. And if we want to make a living doing that, we have to be professionals, which means we have to walk through the doors that are open.

That doesn’t mean you have to write anything and everything that comes your way, but don’t reject any work, any opportunity to reach an audience, out of hand.

Science fiction and fantasy are huge right now, the reach of the genres far outpacing the numbers coming out of the publishing business. There’s science fiction on TV: I’ve been watching the new season of Dr. Who and lovin’ it, my DVR is set up to capture the Falling Skies pilot, and I’m suffering through the Fringe hiatus as best I can. For Father’s Day on Sunday my wife and kids are taking me to see Green Lantern. I saw X-Men: First Class while I was in LA for E3. Super 8 is selling tons of tickets, and the summer movie season has lots more SF and superheroes still to go.

Then there are games. I’ve been playing League of Legends on my computer, and Pocket Legends on my android tablet . . . and more games . . . game after game after game both electronic and “analog”—practically all of them are SF or fantasy in some way. E3 was full of SF and fantasy properties, mixed in with a small scattering of sports, music, and fitness games. Oh, boy, do I want that Aliens: Colonial Marines game, Rift is looking like the heir apparent to World of Warcraft, and the 40k Space Marine game looks fraggin’ amazing . . .

The list of my friends and professional acquaintances who write for the gaming business is too long to recite here. I’ve been bugging comics editors to get me in on that biz. I have an agent pimping my fantasy screenplay around Hollywood. If they called me to join the writing staff of Fringe I would get to LA faster that Jethro appeared at the dinner table.

Look at all those hungry vessels just waiting to be filled up with interesting SF/fantasy stories. So does refusing to limit myself only to my super wonderful original SF novel make me a sell out?

I don’t care.

And on that note, I’d like to say thank you to Grasping for the Wind’s fearless leader John Ottinger for setting aside a few bytes for me every month for the past year. This has been a great place to spend a little time and share a few ideas, and I’ll be back as an avid follower. Has it really been a year already? Time flies when you’re having fun.

—Philip Athans


Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the recently-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.