Exploring the Subgenres of Science Fiction

Welcome to the daunting final installment of my subgenre series — the long-awaited behemoth, Science Fiction.

Sci-fi is most often synonymous with spaceships, aliens, technology, robots, and to some, Star Trek or Star Wars. But there’s more to it than that.  Just like Fantasy sports a whopping 31 subgenres, Science Fiction contains a plethora of subtle variations, each deserving of its own subcategory. A shocking 37 subcategories, to be exact. (And I thought Fantasy was bad!) Now you know why I had to keep deferring this one. That’s a lot of research! Ready to find out what these 37 subcategories are? Then let’s get to it.

Hard Science Fiction

This is the subgenre most people think of when they hear “Science Fiction.” Drawing from the “hard” sciences — physics, astronomy, chemistry– Hard Science Fiction is not for those easily lost by conceptual details. Scientific realism trumps the more mundane aspects of character or plot development, placing this subgenre’s focus on things like exploration and discovery instead. Expect a lot of attention to be paid to process explanations and technology, and if this is a genre you want to write, expect to put in hefty amounts of research. Plausibility is king in this field. If it’s not believable, that ship’s not gonna fly. (Pun intended.)

Star Trek is the most notable example of Hard Sci-fi. There is character development across the series, but that’s not the main focus. I mean, they say it right in the opening sequence. The mission is to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” That same slogan applies to pretty much everything in this category.

Soft Science Fiction

The exact opposite of Hard Sci-fi, Soft Sci-fi puts the emphasis on character and plot, with the scientific aspects taking a backseat. This subgenre focuses on what are considered the “soft” sciences– anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology, etc.  Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series would fall in this category. Deceptively starting off as a Fantasy with just a light hint of Sci-fi, later books in the series reveal a heavier Sci-fi slant. But the focus is largely on the characters and cultures, with very clear influence from the disciplines of anthropology and political science.

Military Science Fiction

The name says it all on this one. Military Science Fiction revolves around a distinctly militaristic theme. Usually, the characters are part of the military and the plot involves some kind of war. For those fans of the video game world, Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy and Bungie’s Halo series are prime examples of this type of story.

Robot Fiction

Another one where the name is pretty self-explanatory. Works in this category place heavy focus on the science of robotics. Isaac Asimov is one of the most prominent pioneers of this subgenre, but you’ll see this theme a lot in films. 2004’s I, Robot springs to mind as a popular example of these kinds of stories.

Social Science Fiction

Social Science Fiction is an interesting creature. It relies heavily on the influence of Social Science to extrapolate and then criticize future societies. So at its heart, it’s a genre bent on satire, on delivering criticisms and moral messages about our own society through the filter of a fictional, future one.  This subgenre shares a lot of similarities with Dystopian Fiction in that sense. Notable, and probably familiar, examples include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Space Opera

For those of you who pictured the operatic blue alien from The Fifth Element, I’m sorry to say, you’re wrong. This subgenre has nothing to do with music. It does, however, bear a slight resemblance to its more earthly counterpart — the Soap Opera.

Space Operas are adventure stories. Romanticized and melodramatic sometimes, but still. They usually center around a sympathetic hero going up against insane odds in an epic battle to save the universe.  Good always wins in a Space Opera, and if you can’t guess the notable work I’m alluding to yet, here’s a hint: it features light-sabers, Wookies, and a princess in a slave outfit. 😉

That’s right, Star Wars was, and is, considered a Space Opera. (Alternatively, it’s also known as a Science Fantasy, for the same thematic reasons.)

So although this subgenre may have some intrinsic ties to the much-ridiculed Soap Opera, don’t let that color your feelings. Star Wars is one of the most successful Science Fiction franchises of all time, and if it can survive being called a Space Opera, your work probably can too.


Steampunk is an strange one, spawning an entire subculture as well as a subgenre. It’s often set in an industrialized not-so-distant, alternate future, with heavy influences from 19th century Victorian England and the American Wild West. Strange combo, no? It may also contain elements of Fantasy, Horror, or Historical Fiction. The main requirement, though, is that a story in this category must include steam-technology and a 19th century perspective on everything from machinery to fashion. Examples include the work of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as well as more contemporary author, Phillip Pullman.  But with the rapidly growing popularity of this cultural movement, Steampunk will likely have several more notable titles soon.


Cyberpunk is Sci-Fi’s answer to the Detective/Crime Novel. Its settings are typically dark and gritty, with a heavy emphasis placed on advanced technology. Plots often revolve around the degradation of society and the abuse of technology. Hackers, Artificial Intelligence and Megacorporations spying on the world are all elements seen in these high-intensity thrill rides. The work of Phillip K. Dick falls largely under this category, making him one of the most well-known authors in this field.


Biopunk is pretty much the same as Cyberpunk, but instead of an emphasis on technology, it focuses on the biological. Genetic modification and DNA engineering are common in this subgenre, providing a cautionary look at the downside to messing with biology. The Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells would be a prime example, although it technically predates the creation of this category.


Another cousin of the previous “punk” categories, Nanopunk focuses on a specific set of technology — nanotechnology. Michael Chricton’s Prey, as well as NBC’s recent hit show, Revolution, are both examples.

Superhero Fiction

Ah yes, a subgenre full of dudes in tights and capes, and women wearing barely-there spandex and magic-powered accessories. I don’t think there’s a person alive who isn’t familiar with this category, (don’t lie, you know you went through the towel-turned-cape wearing phase when you were a kid) although it’s much more popular in the visual mediums– TV, film, video games, and comic books.

The basic idea is exactly what you’d expect, a “good” protagonist dressed in an elaborate costume faces off against a supervillain. Often, both hero and villain have superhuman abilities, making their battles nothing less than epic. Which is why we continue to reboot these narratives over and over and over again. I mean, seriously, what are we on, like our 8th Batman?

Scientific Romance

No, this isn’t a combination of Sci-Fi and Romance, although that does exist. (It’s considered Science Fiction Romance, in case you forgot. 😉 ) Scientific Romance is actually an archaic term that was the genre’s original name. Now, it refers specifically to works from the late 19th to early 20th centuries or ones that are purposely written to sound that way. H.G Wells, Jules Vern, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are considered part of this category, largely because they were writing during that time frame, pioneering the genre.

Gothic Science Fiction

I find it interesting that this isn’t lumped into Horror Sci-Fi, but rather is given its own designation. Gothic Science Fiction is what it claims– a combination of Gothic-minded elements and Sci-fi. Vampires and Zombies are frequent visitors here. The most common plot is the attempt to explain monsters through science. There’s heavy emphasis placed on the biological explanation of these more-typically mythological creatures while still maintaining that darker, Gothic edge. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Mundane Science Fiction

This subgenre very closely resembles Hard Sci-fi, except there’s no interstellar travel or alien life forms. Fascinatingly enough, part of this subgenre is a position that things like worm holes, warp drives, and multi-galaxy exploration (all things typically found in Hard Sci-fi) are speculative wish-fulfillment and could never really happen. (Which I suppose makes the choice of “mundane” in the title fairly appropriate.) Instead, this subgenre focuses on stories that could happen, and often contain scientific data that can be, or has been, corroborated by scientists. Geoff Ryman and the short story anthology he edited, When It Changed: Science Into Fiction, are the most prominent names associated with this subgenre.

Horror Science-fiction

Just like it sounds, this is a combination of Horror and Sci-fi. Pairing the adrenaline inducing gore and violence of Horror with Sci-fi’s action-based futures, this is a powerful combination. Alien invasions, mad scientists, experiments gone wrong, there’s really no end to the number of ways Sci-fi can terrify us. Resident Evil, The Body-snatchers, The Alien Franchise, even The Terminator, are all examples of just how lucrative this category can be.

Comic Sci-fi

Again, pretty straight-forward. In fact, so straight-forward that all I should have to say is this: Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. See? Enough said, right?

But seriously, this is a combination of Comedy and Sci-fi. It exploits the elements of Science Fiction for comic relief, often leaning toward satire, as in our example above.

Science Fantasy

This is a blend of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Duh, right?) that lends a sheen of scientific realism to things that could never really exist. This is a squishy subgenre at best, and has never been truly solidified with a description. Surprisingly, one of my all-time favorite series, Shannara, by Terry Brooks, is considered this. I never knew that. See? Even I learn something doing these posts.

Apocalyptic Science Fiction

These next two subcategories are very tightly linked. Apocalyptic Science Fiction is all about the end of days, the downfall of civilization. The whole story leads up to some cataclysmic event that destroys life as we know it. Sometimes we survive, sometimes we don’t. But once disaster strikes, the story’s over. Otherwise, it becomes part of the next subgenre.

Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

If Apocalyptic is about the disaster itself, Post-apocalyptic naturally features what happens next, after the crisis. Often it includes desolate landscapes, a much smaller population, and sometimes even a return to medieval, or non-technology-enhanced ways of life. Apocalyptic fiction is often depressing, but Post-apocalyptic brings a sense of hope with it, revolving around themes like survival and rebirth/rebuild.

Zombie Fiction

I know what you’re thinking: Doesn’t this belong in Horror? Well, that depends entirely on the storytelling approach. When the emphasis is placed on the fear created by a Zombie Apocalypse, and violence and gore play a major role, then yes, I would tend to agree that it’s more fitting in Horror. But when the focus of the story is on an infectious contagion sweeping through the world, turning everyone to mindless, flesh-craving mutants, that’s Sci-fi’s realm. So it really just depends.

Alien Invasion

There seems to be a lot of these self-explanatory subgenres in Sci-fi, doesn’t there? Alien Invasion is exactly what you’d expect: Aliens invading Earth for the nefarious reasons of either destroying or enslaving mankind. This has been one of the most common storylines in Sci-fi; it’s right up there with Hard Sci-fi’s exploration and discovery. From War of the Worlds, to Independance Day, to Avatar, Alien Invasions have fascinated audiences. I wonder if we’ll find it so fascinating if it ever really happens?

Alien Conspiracy

Unlike Alien Invasion, where all hell breaks loose as massive ships descend from the sky, Alien Conspiracy takes a more subtle stance on the whole Alien thing. UFO sightings and abductions are fair game in this category and stories usually center on the conspiracy itself, on the journey to truth. Perhaps the most well-known example of this subgenre is The X-Files.

Time Travel

First popularized as a Sci-fi subgenre by H.G. Wells and The Time Machine, Time Travel is one of those things, like Historical, that crosses several genres. And, like Zombies, the designation between each is subtle and based on the approach. Time Travel without an explicit, scientific explanation would fall more in the realm of Fantasy, but when it’s based in science, like The Time Machine, it’s most definitely Sci-Fi. Other than that distinction, the idea is the same– traveling through time. End of story.

Alternate History

We’ve seen this header elsewhere. And just like its Fantasy counterpart, Sci-fi’s version is pretty straightforward. It’s a story rooted in history, but then deviates from that to create an alternate timeline. Pretty simple, no?

Parallel Worlds

This is the only subgenre that allows for pure speculation, more akin to Fantasy in many ways than its Sci-fi brothers. The idea is that there is a parallel universe to our own, where the world is either recognizable or very much not. Often including elements of Time Travel, Parallel Worlds is rife with endless possibilities for imaginative new twists. The most prominent and recent example I can think of is Fox’s cult hit, Fringe.

Lost Worlds

This subgenre features tales of adventure, discovering lost locations (islands, continents, planets, etc.) that tend to feature dinosaurs or other extinct creatures and cultures. Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth is a prime example of this type of fiction.

Dystopian Fiction

Just like Dystopian Fantasy (which isn’t an official subgenre yet), Dystopian Sci-fi is all about the opposite of Uptopia. Generally set in a near-future heavy with social unrest, Dystopian Fiction explores things like police states, repression, and dictatorship. They also commonly feature rebellions. This subgenre has seen a recent boost in popularity, especially with the YA audience, claiming such heavy-hitters as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy and Marie Lu’s Legend Series.

Space Western

Yep, space cowboys. (Oh, come on, you know you were thinking it.) Combining the ideology of frontier America with intergalactic travel may sound like a ridiculous concept, but it’s actually a pretty potent combination. How many of you have heard of a little show by the name of Firefly? **Waits for the fanboy/girl squealing to die down.** Yeah, exactly. That’s a Space Western. Enough said, right?

Retro Futurism

This subgenre can boiled down to a phrase: “The future as seen from the past.” It has to conform to a vision of the future presented by artists pre-1960, creating a nostalgic blend of elements to showcase a timeline that could have been but never was. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Rocketeer, and even The Phantom all qualify for this category.

Recursive Science Fiction

How’s this for a convoluted subgenre? Recursive Science Fiction is Science Fiction about Science Fiction. The best way I can describe it is that it’s a framed narrative often featuring a protagonist writing a science fiction story. Fortunately, it’s rare, so I wouldn’t dwell on this one if I were you.


Landing somewhere between Literary and Speculative Fiction, Slipstream is just plain weird. It’s actually known as the “fiction of strangeness.” It actively tries to break the conventions of genre, crossing between the various styles with ease. A good Slipstream will leave you feeling confused and uncomfortable, and is often accompanied by a resounding, “WTF?” But hey, to each their own!

Anthropological Science Fiction

This subgenre is rooted entirely in the discipline of Anthropology. It seeks to portray races and cultures to the same scientific degree that anthropologists do, even if those races and cultures are entirely fictitious. Notable names under this header include Ursula K. Le Guin, Chad Oliver, and Michael Bishop.

And that concludes our long, sometimes arduous, journey through the many literary subgenres. Next week, I’ll return to my previous style of snarky commentary on something random. (Which really means I have no idea what to write about now and will spend the next 4-5 days scrabbling for a topic.) Thanks for sticking around and if you happen to have a topic request, feel free to send it via the Contact page. (Like seriously, no idea what to write about. Suggestions would be mighty helpful! 😉 )


Dark and Urban and Contemporary, Oh My! (Defining Fantasy Subgenres)

I remember, back in the day, (nothing makes you feel old like starting a sentence with “back in the day”) Fantasy and Sci-fi were commonly known by only two genre names– Fantasy and Sci-fi. OK, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. There were probably a few subgenres, but those only really mattered if you were inside the publishing industry. Readers didn’t care about the distinction. Maybe they still don’t. I don’t know. But bookstores do, and the Mighty Zon’s recommendation algorithms definitely do. Classifying your book with the correct genre headers can mean the difference between actually finding readers and getting lost in a sea of other titles like a piece of driftwood. But with a plethora of subgenres to choose from, how is a writer supposed to figure out where their book fits?

Fantasy alone has 31 recognized subcategories. 31! So it’s no surprise that the distinctions between them can begin to blur. I know. I’m guilty of doing it myself. On any given occasion, I’ll declare Unmoving either Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy or some combination of the two. Because the truth is, I didn’t really understand the difference. In my mind, they were virtually the same thing.

Further research proved that although Urban and Contemporary are indeed very similar, they also have distinct differences that set them apart. Curious what those distinctions are? I thought you might be. Which is why I’m going to use my newfound knowledge to give you a break down of the more common Fantasy subgenres. That way you can declare your work a Comic/Arthurian/Steampunk masterpiece with confidence. Or, you know, whatever combination of subgenres it happens to be. 😉

Alternate History Fantasy

This type of Fantasy takes real world events and creates an alternate outcome, resulting in a fictitious world that may still resemble ours. For example, Alternate History asks questions like, “What if we had lost World War 1 or 2?” The resulting progression of history from that deviating point would be the goal of the story, allowing the author to play with imaginary elements (including the light use of magic) while keeping the believability of the timeline.

Arthurian Fantasy

Just like the name implies, this includes any story inspired by the King Arthur legends. Whether it’s a literal retelling or simply based within that world, this subgenre is fairly straight-forward. Probably one of the most well-known examples of this is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Comic Fantasy

This is the spoof category, where you’ll find over-the-top situations featuring Fantasy elements. Whether humorous or satirical, this subgenre is meant to amuse. Common examples include the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony, Monty Python (I know, not a book) and to some extent, The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Contemporary/Modern Fantasy

Contemporary Fantasy simply means it’s Fantasy set in modern times. Magic and magical creatures mix with the everyday world we all know. The important thing that distinguishes this from Urban Fantasy is the location. Unlike Urban Fantasy, Contemporary can take place in any setting, as long as the time period is current. It also tends to be lighter in tone than its Urban counterpart.

Cross-Over Fantasy

When I first saw this, I thought it was referring to the blending of Fantasy with other non-Fantasy genres. But actually, it refers to stories where the characters can cross between realms and/or time periods. The only example I can think of that fits would be the Magic Kingdom of Landover series by Terry Brooks.

Dark Fantasy

Ah, my favorite subgenre and the one that most of my work falls into. Dark Fantasy contains elements of Horror, so you’ll see a lot of the darker supernatural creatures appear here. But it also refers to the overall tone of a piece. Dark Fantasy is grittier than it’s more traditional brethren, dealing with the nastier bits of humanity’s psyche. There can be (and often is) a significant amount of violence and gore and it usually contains themes meant to make a reader slightly uncomfortable. So even if there are no vampires, werewolves, demons, etc, a novel can still be classed Dark, simply by it’s voice and subtext.

Dystopian Fantasy

I don’t think is actually considered it’s own subgenre yet, but trust me, it will be soon. Thanks to the likes of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, Dystopian Fantasy has rocketed up the popularity charts. Fantasy has long played with utopian ideals, containing societies/races in perfect balance with nature, where peace and love reign. Dystopian is the exact opposite. The apocalypse has happened and humanity is suffering under the thumb of a dictatorial society that believes it’s utopian. Usually containing a lot of Sci-Fi elements as well, this subgenre features a lot of rebellion and “down with the man!” mentalities. But hiding beneath that is a cautionary message of hope that humanity can still manage to avoid such a desolate fate.

Epic/High Fantasy

Otherwise known as your stereotypical idea of Fantasy. This is the bread and butter of the genre and the one I expected to write in when I first started out. (It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I found the intricacies of personality and psychology far more fascinating than the intricacies of politics and fictitious cultures.) Hallmarks of this subgenre include immense, sprawling worlds with rich histories and more detail than most readers would ever care to know. Expect to see hand-drawn maps and be introduced to intricately crafted cultures, magic and political maneuvering. Think Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Enough said, right?

Fairy Tales/Mythology

What would Fantasy be without Fairy Tales and Mythology? Although many of the original Fairy Tales have been watered down for modern sensibilities, the original stories were often violent, dark and twisted, meant to terrify children into learning a lesson. This is a subgenre rich in the history of storytelling, drawing on thousands of years of cultural traditions and is an endless well of inspiration for Fantasy writers. Many of the books currently on the market can be boiled down to the retelling of a Fairy Tale or Myth, including my own WIP, which draws loosely from Sleeping Beauty.

Heroic Fantasy

Where Epic Fantasy focuses on the world and the overarching idea of good vs. evil, Heroic Fantasy focuses on the characters, primarily– you guessed it– the hero. Think of Epic Fantasy as a birds eye view and Heroic Fantasy as the close-up. Often, it will feel very similar to Epic/High Fantasy, with medieval settings, magical creatures, and good vs. evil. But it will stay closer to the hero’s personal journey and growth as a character, and often features a true damsel-in-distress.

Historical Fantasy

Historical Fantasy is the long lost brother of Historical Fiction. It takes an actual time or event from history and blends in Fantasy elements similar to the way Contemporary and Urban Fantasy do. Starting to get confused yet? Yeah, me too.

Low Fantasy

High Fantasy consists of large sweeping worlds, epic battles and a ton of detail, right? So it’s safe to assume that Low Fantasy is the exact opposite. It usually contains little to no magic and more ordinary surroundings. This is a subgenre that is rarely used anymore, since it appears that writers who want this sort of thing tend to aim for the more contemporary variations– Modern or Urban or even Juvenile (strictly for kids). Kind of makes you wonder why it’s still considered a thing if no one uses it, huh?

Literary Fantasy

Literary Fantasy was created for all the snobby writers who didn’t want to be left out of the fun. (Just kidding.) This subgenre focuses on the actual writing rather than the other elements of storytelling. It uses things like format and style to deliver its message, often creating progressive narratives that don’t appeal to the mass market. Just like the Literary genre is aimed at a niche of highly intelligent readers, Literary Fantasy targets readers who like a little imagination in their pretension. 😉

Magic Realism

This refers to the type of magic included in a tale, and as such, is most often seen paired with another subgenre. Magic Realism means that magic is an accepted part of the story’s world and operates under a strict set of rules. There are no unexplained, miraculous saves by magic allowed in this subgenre and using magic is often followed by negative consequences. The need for implements and tools to channel magical abilities is also commonplace here, giving magic a requirement of skill and work rather than mere blessed luck.

New Weird/Slipstream

This is a sister subgenre to Literary in that it actively tries to break the conventions of Fantasy. The landscapes and characters are often bizarre and the language can be highly stylized or poetic.

Paranormal Fantasy

This subgenre has seen a massive boost over the past decade, thanks to the ever-popular variation of Paranormal Romance. By it’s most basic definition, Paranormal means anything not normal. (Well, no S*** Sherlock, you don’t say.) So the same cast of inhuman creatures that show up in Contemporary, Dark and Urban Fantasy show up here. (Man, those vampires and werewolves really get around!) The most common plots seen in this subgenre are the romantic ones, which are often combined with a detective/police element. (Because only sexy cops can see the supernatural apparently.) But you will also see the age old battle of good vs evil and heroes trying to stop the subhuman from taking over the world.

Romantic Fantasy

This subgenre combines Romance with Fantasy in one powerhouse combination. How is that different from Paranormal Romance, you ask? Paranormal Romance is usually dark and gritty, and Romantic Fantasy doesn’t have to be. Romantic Fantasy focuses on the romance itself, relying on the question of “will they or won’t they” to drive the plot, while the love story can simply be an added bonus in Paranormal Romance.

Sword and Sorcery

This is another staple of the Fantasy genre. Back in the early days, (Ack! There it is again! The reminder that I’m old) if you weren’t writing Epic Fantasy, you were considered Sword and Sorcery. This is an action-driven subgenre, with sword-wielding heroes facing off against magic-wielding villains in brutal battles to the death. It’s kind of similar to Heroic Fantasy in that way, where the war between good and evil takes center stage. But where Heroic Fantasy focuses on the character, Sword and Sorcery cares about the badass fight scenes.

Steampunk Fantasy

This is another fairly new subcategory. Pulling from the Steampunk movement, Steampunk Fantasy lives in an alternate universe where combustion was never discovered. Technology is reminiscent of the old west, with steam-powered everything, and the settings are usually Gothic or Victorian with a definite feel of the Industrial Revolution. Plots in this subgenre typically pull from similar themes as Dark and Urban Fantasy, with those promiscuous vampires, werewolves and demons popping up yet again. The important thing about this subgenre is the adherence to the rules of Steampunk.

Urban Fantasy

Last, but not least, we have Urban Fantasy. As mentioned above, during our definition of Contemporary Fantasy, Urban Fantasy is dark by nature. It’s gritty and bloody and showcases the uglier side of humanity. And it absolutely has to take place in a city. Hence the “urban” designation. But, unlike Contemporary/Modern Fantasy, that city can be in any time period. Most often, it will be current times, but it doesn’t have to be. Which is why you’ll also see a lot of the Urban style in Steampunk and Paranormal.

So, there you have it. A cheat sheet to some of the more popular Fantasy subgenres. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so if you feel I’ve overlooked an important one, (or gotten the definitions completely wrong) feel free to add/fix it via the comments below. As you can see, many of these subgenres overlap or can be combined to create new ones, making the task of defining your book all the harder. But hopefully I’ve helped clarify things, at least a little. I know I’m much more confident defining my work now, after learning all of these. Are you?

Channels of Distribution

Over the past week, I’ve been involved in several conversations about the changes to the way we find and consume media. And it got me thinking. Over the past 5-10 years, there really has been a dramatic shift in the way consumers find and purchase entertainment. Gone are the CD store dinosaurs where I got my first job, except for a couple that refuse to face the music. (Yes, horrible pun intended. 😉 ) Gone are the days of browsing genre aisles of shiny new books in Borders (now just depressing, vacant buildings scattered across America like the remnants of a zombie apocalypse). Even the way we watch TV has changed, our schedules no longer dictated by the networks. But is that a bad thing?

Most articles you read talk about this shift from the perspective of the artists, the people creating the products. But what about the impact it’s had on the consumers, on the way people buy? That’s what caught my interest and made me realize just how much my own buying habits have altered over the past few years. Yours probably have too.

Until the digital era began, entertainment industries, whether music, literature, or film, were all dominated by the same business model– large companies that acted as gatekeepers, filtering the creative content the public received. Record labels told us which artists were worthy, the “Big 6” publishing houses defined what “good” literature was, and large film/TV studios determined which movies and shows made the cut and when we were supposed to watch them. But then suddenly, consumers were given choices. Upstarts like iTunes, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix challenged the traditional, declaring that there shouldn’t be a middle man between artists and consumers. And we liked it.

This shift has taken the vast majority of power away from the gatekeeper companies, resulting in larger royalties for artists, a broader spectrum of content and an overall increase in interaction between artists and their fans. But it’s also created a mess of the shopping landscape. From an artist’s standpoint, yes, having to get through the gatekeepers made things more difficult. It sometimes seemed unfair to be forced to bow to their rules and standards, to compromise artistic vision in the name of profit. But the one thing they did was make it easy on consumers. They placed content where it could be easily found, creating focused avenues that shopper’s knew to go to when they were looking for that type of entertainment.

All that has changed. The majority of entertainment consumption seems to happen over the internet now, thanks to the advent of iPods, eReaders and Tablet Computers. And we all know how vast the internet is. So how do people find things? How do they discover new artists, new authors, or TV shows from around the world? How do they wade through an unfiltered swamp of products without the direction the gatekeepers always provided?

I think there are only a handful of strategies:

  1. Personal Recommendations from friends, family or professional reviewers.
  2. Website Algorithms that recommend based off previous purchases — think Amazon’s recommendations, iTunes Genius, or Pandora Internet Radio type services.
  3. Random browsing.

Things like bestseller lists, or recommendations based on your previous purchases and what other people bought after viewing the same product have become far more important in a shopping environment overwhelmed by billions of titles. But while this approach to filtering content can give the illusion of a more personalized shopping experience, there’s one flaw– the lack of a vetting process.

With self-publishing becoming such an easy option for every type of media, the markets are being flooded with products that are released prematurely, leaving consumers to wade through the bog, looking for the gems among the crap. Which, I think, gives rise to the stereotype that self-published equals bad as customers become more and more frustrated with the lack of quality. The gatekeepers might have controlled what the public received, but they also had a built-in quality assurance system. Regardless of personal taste, people could trust that the products they were getting were something of quality that would be worth their hard-earned money. Now that those gatekeepers are being sidestepped, that expectation of professional-grade work is often disappointed.

So we can’t have it both ways apparently. At least not yet. On the one side, we enjoy the wider diversity of content, supporting indie artists in all genres with enthusiasm. But on the other, we complain about the lack of quality in a majority of products, feeling that we’re wasting our time and money on rubbish. Where’s the happy medium?

I expect that the next few years will continue to see a significant shift in the way consumers approach entertainment as both artists and customers adjust to these new shopping strategies. I think that eventually the customers themselves will become the gatekeepers, and that the quality products will rise to the top because they deserve to, not because they’re backed by a large company. But it does beg the question of what purpose the traditional avenues of distribution, the record labels, publishing houses and film studios, will serve in the future. Will they adjust to the changing times, taking on a different role, or will they eventually go the way of Borders, disappearing into nostalgia? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.