How popular is Science Fiction?

    This morning I got up wondering just how popular is science fiction. Google makes a wonderful barometer of popular culture so I did a bunch of searches and put them into Excel. Since I mainly was interested in trying to find out if Robert A. Heinlein was maintaining his popularity after death, I tried to select enough writers for comparison to give a good gauge of things. I searched on names using double quotes to get more accurate returns. Like this: “Robert Heinlein”

    To make comparisons to other genres and pop culture as a whole, I put in SF authors, mystery authors, classic authors, famous historical names, and some pop icons from when I was growing up and now. The results are thus:

God

495,000,000

Jesus

176,000,000

Science Fiction

145,000,000

Britney Spears

64,500,000

Beatles

63,300,000

Moses

31,000,000

J. R. R. Tolkien

21,900,000

Plato

21,000,000

Bob Dylan

20,200,000

Galileo

19,000,000

Charles Dickens

15,700,000

Stephen King

13,700,000

J. K. Rowling

12,200,000

Socrates

10,900,000

Beach Boys

9,190,000

George Lucas

6,870,000

Jane Austen

6,390,000

Tom Clancy

4,940,000

Terry Pratchett

4,870,000

George Orwell

4,770,000

Douglas Adams

4,380,000

Jules Verne

4,340,000

John Grisham

3,450,000

Byrds

2,750,000

Isaac Asimov

2,670,000

James Joyce

2,440,000

H. G. Wells

2,390,000

Kurt Vonnegut

2,190,000

Janet Evanovich

1,710,000

George R. R. Martin

1,580,000

Orson Scott Card

1,570,000

Jack Kerouac

1,520,000

Mary Higgins Clark

1,440,000

Frank Herbert

1,420,000

William Gibson

1,400,000

Michael Connelly

1,400,000

Audrey Niffenegger

994,000

Neal Stephenson

869,000

Robert Heinlein

733,000

Yann Martel

693,000

Sue Grafton

671,000

Edgar Rice Burroughs

636,000

Elmore Leonard

588,000

Cormac McCarthy

518,000

Arthur C. Clarke

443,000

Philip K. Dick

442,000

Michael Chabon

426,000

Connie Willis

288,000

David Brin

281,000

Harold Robbins

221,000

Theodore Sturgeon

214,000

Vernor Vinge

204,000

John Scalzi

182,000

Sara Paretsky

179,000

A. E. Van Vogt

128,000

Kage Baker

89,400

Roger Zelazny

52,100

John W. Campbell

33,500

E. E. Smith

21,000

 

    The phrase “science fiction” did pretty well when compared to “God” and “Jesus.” But it’s a little weird to think that Britney Spears has one third the popularity of the world’s most famous holy figure, and she’s three times more popular than Bob Dylan or Plato, and a touch more popular than the Fab Four. Further it is quite revealing that the SciFi authors with the most popularity are the guys who write silly SF books. And how bizarre is it that James Joyce is sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and H. G. Wells?

    As you can see, my guy Heinlein is just below the middle in popularity. Now I have to wonder if being alive helps or hurts. Jane Austen trumps Tom Clancy, and Philip K. Dick beats out Michael Chabon, but just barely and that’s comparing a lifetime of work, by an author with cult status and many movies made from his stories to a young writer with a very small backlog of books to his credit. How can we explain that? I can’t help but wonder if you get more press when you’re alive. Heinlein is just a touch more popular than Yann Martel who had just one bestselling book, The Life of Pi.

    Doing a search on ["The Life of Pi" Martel] brings up 48,500 hits, and searching on ["Stranger in a Strange Land" Heinlein] produces 188,000 hits. Thus doing book to book competitions produces different results over comparing author names. I’ll save that analysis for my next post and compare a long list of books to see how that barometer works.

    Cormac McCarthy just won a Pulitzer, and has a movie out with Oscar buzz and he’s about two thirds as popular as Heinlein, and a little more than twice as popular as Vernor Vinge who is probably a whole lot less famous. Heinlein is a legend in the science fiction world. Vernor Vinge is a rather famous guy among computer dudes, and since the web was created by said dudes, that may influence his overall popularity.

    Now I have to wonder, if you want to be a famous writer would it help sales to get busted for drunk driving, have a notorious marital dust-up, shave you head for photographers – oh wait, maybe it’s all of that while being a dumb blonde wearing skimpy outfits singing suggestive songs? Would J. K. Rowling get more hits on Google if she wore fewer clothes? If you search on Marilyn Monroe you get 11,500,000 hits, so is being blonde and female a fame factor?

    The main thing that helps I think, at least for writers, is if they have movies created from their books. Heinlein hasn’t been that lucky in this department, with his main success being Starship Troopers. Would Stephen King be as famous if none of his books had been filmed? After Have Space Suit-Will Travel becomes a movie it might generate considerable more than 9,550 hits. We’ll have to wait and see if I’m proven right. But generally when you search on a book title that has been made into a movie, movie sites come up first.

    John W. Campbell and E. E. Smith were giants in their day – back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. “Astounding Science Fiction” gets 63,200 hits, so Campbell’s magazine has remained more popular than his famous editing. Evidently writing the classic “Who Goes There?” which was made into a hit movie twice, as The Thing from Another World and The Thing, didn’t make Campbell a household name. Or maybe that’s a lesson for not writing under a pen name.

JWH

8 Responses

  1. If you google-search “Robert A. Heinlein,” as he is frequently credited, you add another 170,000 Google spottings, which gets him up over Stephenson.

  2. I considered “Robert A. Heinlein” which got 169,000 and “Robert Anson Heinlein” which totaled 46,500, but I don’t know if it’s cumulative.

    On pages that referred to RAH as Robert A. Heinlein when first mentioned might would have dropped to calling him Robert Heinlein from then on, so it wouldn’t mean adding 170,000 more hits, but maybe just 20,000 where the page only referred to RAH with the middle initial.

    Jim

  3. John, you’re everywhere, aren’t you?

    Interesting ‘low granularity’ take on things. I wonder what the results would look like for individual authors if you were to search for, say “Robert A. Heinlein” and/not “Science Fiction”…

    or “Jesus” and “Science Fiction”

  4. Strangely enough [Jesus "science fiction"] produces 555,000 hits. And “Robert Heinlein” without “science fiction” finds 465,000 hits. More telling is “Britney Spears” without “sex” produces 8,380,000, which means about 56 million of her hits do mention her and the word sex.

    By the way, ["Robert Heinlein" sex] produces 142,000 hits. RAH is no Britney, but ["Frank Herbert" sex] produces only 94,700 hits from a pool of links twice as large as Heinlein’s, so I have to wonder if Heinlein would have been a whole lot less popular if he hadn’t written any novels after Starship Troopers.

    Google is a lot of fun.

  5. Fascinating that God and Jesus top the list. Isn’t Google fun? Googling things is my past-time when I’m bored at work.

    I ran across your blog recently, have been enjoying your insightful posts about Sci Fi. I really enjoy Sci Fi as well, just love a great discussion about its merits and contributions to literature. I look forward to reading more.

  6. [...] 23, 2008 by jameswharris     After playing around yesterday trying to find ways to see how popular science fiction was, I decided to use the same techniques to identify Robert A. Heinlein’s most loved [...]

  7. What an interesting way to determine popularity! I found this while searching for figures on sci-fi popularity, but I was expecting things like 4% of readers, or 12% of books sold. I wouldn’t have thought of relative googleability.

  8. [...] indebted to blogger Jim Harris for a piece he’s posted showing the number of Google hits for science fiction as a topic, and [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,129 other followers

%d bloggers like this: