Who are my Top 10 SF writers? How do you objectively quantify author rankings? What factors contribute to the success of an author? I decided to answer some of these questions, at least in regard to my own personal rankings of SF writers.
There were three converging factors that made this analysis possible.
First, I’ve been reading and collecting SF and fantasy books for a long time. By now, somewhat unsurprisingly, my collection has grown to thousands of books. It also expanded immensely when I inherited my Dad’s (extremely eclectic) book collection. However, it’s a curated collection, which basically means that I make an effort to retain only those books that I’m likely to want to read again someday, or loan to others, or both. The books that I don’t keep get traded in (for more books, of course) at Richard McKay Used Books in Manassas, VA.
Second, I’m a web architect in my day job, which is a fancy way of saying that I build large-scale (and expensive) web applications. Naturally, I built custom software to help me catalogue my collection, which means that I have access to a lot of information about the books I own. I record such data elements as when the book was first published, when the edition I own was published, the page count, an Amazon link for each book, the author(s) of a book, etc.
Third, I had heard that being a successful author requires two things:
- Writing good books.
- Writing lots of books.
Since my collection is catalogued in a database, I thought it would be interesting to see who the top authors were in terms of total number of books (including books written or edited by the author). Here’s the list:
||C. J. Cherryh
||Marion Zimmer Bradley
||S. M. Stirling
||E. C. Tubb
||George R. R. Martin
So, why are these authors in my top 10? Some of them are obviously top SF writers, such as award-winning authors C. J. Cherryh, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson and George R. R. Martin. But, E. C. Tubb?
1. Andre Norton: Most of her books would be considered YA today, but that category didn’t exist when she was writing. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, she was probably the top “gateway drug” for the SF field, even more so than Heinlein’s roughly eight famous juveniles. And boy, I was hooked on her, and so was my Dad.
She wrote squeaky clean SF adventure stories. Her books were generally short, between 150 and 250 pages, and she wrote about four of them per year. Many of them were organized into different series such as the Time Traders, Witch World, and others. We bought them (with Dad’s money) faithfully as soon as they hit the bookshelves.
Her novel Witch World, the first of that series, was nominated for a Hugo award in 1967. She was designated a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in 1983. After her death in 1993, the SFWA, which also operates the Nebula awards, created the Andre Norton Award for YA fiction in the SF and fantasy genres.
2. C. J. Cherryh: She’s simply a great SF writer, with a capacity for world building and realistic aliens that’s virtually unmatched in the field. Most of her books are organized into a very loosely coupled future history, the Alliance/Union series, that’s pretty extraordinary in it’s scope. Two of the books in that series, Downbelow Station and Cyteen, have won the Hugo award. A third, The Pride of Chanur, was nominated for the Hugo award — this is, perhaps, my favorite SF novel.
She also writes some excellent fantasy stories. I pretty much buy anything that she writes.
3. Poul Anderson: He’s probably the top SF writer to not break into that heady stratosphere where folks like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein reside. His most famous creation is a wide-ranging future history now retroactively referred to as the Technic History series. He was extremely prolific, and wrote both accomplished novels as well as superb stories at shorter lengths. He’s one of the top authors when counting major awards such as the Hugos and Nebulas.
4. Larry Niven: He’s a major, award-winning SF writer; he’s also produced top-notch works in collaboration with other writers, notably Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes and Michael Flynn. Some of his most famous collaborations include The Mote in God’s Eye with Jerry Pournelle, the Dream Park series with Steven Barnes, and the Heorot series with both Steven Barnes and Jerry Pournelle.
He’s probably best known for his Known Space series, of which the most widely recognized book is the best-selling Ringworld. That series has also spawned a lengthy anthology series, The Man-Kzin Wars, set during a time period in Niven’s elaborate future history that he wasn’t particularly comfortable writing about himself.
5. Marion Zimmer Bradley: She was a top-selling SF/fantasy writer back when it was a seriously male-dominated field. Her biggest claims to fame are her Darkover series and her top-selling book, The Mists of Avalon. Her Darkover series is inspiring, covering several distinct ages in the history of a colony planet re-contacted by an interstellar civilization after a long fall. It’s also a great example of “bullet-proofing” a series so that no one publisher can bring it to an end. Her non-series books are more eclectic, but there are some real gems there, too. Even now, I think she’s a highly underrated writer.
6. David Weber: He’s probably the top-selling writer of military SF, mostly thanks to his lengthy Honor Harrington series. He’s prolific and generally entertaining, even with his lesser books. Since his books tend to be quite lengthy, I often purchase the hardcovers (particularly with the Honor Harrington series). Accordingly despite being ranked 6th in terms of total books, he’s probably the author that’s gotten the most money from me (that would be another interesting data exploration, but I don’t have the data to support it right now).
7. S. M. Stirling: He’s been writing solid adventure SF stories steadily for years, with his most successful books being his Nantucket series, about the island of Nantucket being transposed with all of its inhabitants into the Bronze age; and his novels of the Change, about a future in which the laws of physics are changed to preclude key technological developments such as engines, gun powder, etc.
8. Jerry Pournelle: Although not especially prolific, he’s in the top 10 due to a bunch of converging factors. He’s written some excellent books on his own, such as King David’s Spaceship (certainly one of my favorite book titles). He’s been a top-notch collaborator, most notably with Larry Niven; their collaborations include classic novels like The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, etc. He’s also produced a number of anthology series, including There Will Be War and War World.
9. E. C. Tubb: He’s a bit of an outlier. I might classify him more as a pulp-style writer. His most famous creation is the Dumarest series, which is sort of like the SF equivalent of The Fugitive. Since that series ran to 31 volumes in its original run, that explains how he’s hit the top 10. It’s also an excellent example of a thoughtfully designed serial; someday, it could make an excellent TV series.
10. George R.R. Martin: He’s not an especially prolific author. He’s most famous for A Game of Thrones, which spawned the TV series of the same name. He’s in the top 10, though, mostly because of his long-running Wild Cards anthology series, now at 21 volumes.
Runner-ups include the late Robert Adams, at 25 books thanks to his Horseclans and Castaways in Time series; and William H. Keith, who writes so many books under so many different names that it’s hard to figure out how many of his books I actually own.
In a way, these results are evidence of the long tail operating in embryonic form even in traditional publishing. As an author, you sold books when your books appeared on bookshelves in stores. By being prolific, you might have multiple books on the shelf for readers to notice and, hopefully, buy. If your books were organized into series, and the series proved popular, readers would look for the other books in the series, thereby generating more sales.
Interestingly, an author could also augment their shelf space, and their sales, by editing an anthology series. Some of the anthologies series spawned by these authors include:
- Darkover anthologies – Marion Zimmer Bradley
- Merovingian anthologies – C. J. Cherryh
- Wild Cards – George R. R. Martin
- Man-Kzin Wars – Larry Niven
- War World – Jerry Pournelle
- There Will Be War – Jerry Pournelle
- Worlds of Honor – David Weber
- Witch World anthologies – Andre Norton
To some extent, an author’s revenue depended on how many books he or she had available for sale. These Top 10 authors seem to have been successful because they wrote good books and were prolific. They also enhanced their earning potential by organizing their work into popular series, which made readers want to track down other books in the series, and by moonlighting as editors, which helped introduce them to new audiences as well as increasing their shelf space.