According to a February 2003 report in Locus magazine, science fiction and fantasy titles represent nearly 10% of all trade books sold. Last year, 2,241 such books were published, an increase of 4% over 2001, which was up by 12%.
In today's sluggish economy, however, more books doesn't necessarily translate into more sales, which is why one idea recently floated in England has engendered so much conversation on both sides of the pond—taking the fantasy out of science fiction. Jane Johnson, publishing director of Voyager at HarperCollins UK, was the first to make the heretical suggestion. In an interview in PN (Publishing News) earlier this year, she said, "Fantasy and SF are completely different genres, as we've always known, but they get lumped together in the bookshops. That puts off a lot of people who would read fantasy, but don't pay any attention to it when it's tucked away under science fiction."
Given the immense popularity of the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Johnson's point about fantasy's ability to soar has not been lost on other publishers. But Bantam Spectra editor Anne Groell, herself a fantasy writer, worries about what might happen to SF. The danger, as she sees it, "is we're going to kill science fiction if we separate fantasy. SF is struggling right now; it's much harder to sell."
No matter where publishers stand on the issue of separation, mass market distribution remains an ongoing concern. Tor Books senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, manager of SF and fantasy, describes distribution as "a process of fabulous consolidation. In essence, we've gone from a patchwork of several hundred ID distributors to three. Demonstrably, this has been bad for the mass market; you just see books by famous authors. If it hadn't been for the growth of Barnes & Noble and Borders, science fiction would be in terrible straits."
Pricing, too, is up for debate. According to Eos senior editor Diana Gill, "A few years ago, Eos did a number of books that were priced at $3.99, and no one bought them. In this economy, price is a factor for everyone." The problem is further complicated by a shift in reading habits. "Trade paperback used to be an impossible format," continues Gill. "That has definitely changed. Booksellers are preferring it; readers are preferring it."
Isn't It Romantic, Mysterious, Supernatural?: SF for Women
While some publishers eagerly await market reaction to Harlequin's new romance/fantasy line, Luna Books (see sidebar, p. 28), others have begun to woo women with individual titles. Two years ago, Tor launched its Women in Fantasy marketing program, with posters, bookmarks, reading group guides and shelf talkers, as well as targeted ads online and in romance and science fiction magazines. The idea behind it, explains Nielsen Hayden, "is to demonstrate to booksellers and distributors that fantasy is not something that boys read." Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Avatar (Apr. 2003), the final volume in the series Kushiel's Legacy, and Juliet Marillier's Wolfskin (Feb. 2003), the start of her Saga of the Light Isles series, will both get Women in Fantasy treatment.
For editor Jaime Levine, who directs nine-year-old Warner Aspect, "the jury's still out on launching authors in hardcover. The readership is fundamentally mass market. They like to read a lot of books and get their money's worth." Still, she has no doubt that hardcover is the right format for Midnight Harvest (Sept.) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Levine tells PW, "Chelsea had already made her name with the vampire Saint-Germain, before Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton."
Bantam Spectra's Groell concurs about SF's mass market appeal: "We have a debut novel that's wonderfully commercial, Stephen Woodworth's Through Violet Eyes [Apr.], a paranormal thriller. We were going to do it in hardcover, but we decided to put it in mass market for summer. We can blow it out of the water." As a more literary novel, Chris Moriarty's first book, the near-future thriller Spin State (Oct.), will be in trade paper. "It's an amazing SF novel," Groell enthuses. "It's one of the best things I've seen in forever."
"Recently, women have really been looking for women writers," notes Eos's Gill, who will publish four first-time female novelists next year, including Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking (June), about a witch turned bounty hunter. "We're thinking of cross-promoting to the romance and mainstream audiences that have made supernatural fantasy fiction so hot," Gill says. Kristine Smith, who won the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, is attracting fans of both genders with her military adventures; her new Eos book, Contact Imminent, will be out in November.
Similarly, Laura Anne Gilman, executive editor of Roc Books, an imprint of NAL, is encouraging romance readers to make the genre switch. "Romance readers are the most likely to look beyond their own shelves. They very much rely on word of mouth. Anne Bishop [The House of Gaian, Oct.], S.L. Viehl [Blade Dancer, Aug.], and Carol Berg [Song of the Beast, May] are three of our up-and comers who have gotten a wonderful boost from the romance audience," says Gilman. For Valentine's Day, NAL is doing a trade paperback anthology of romantic fantasy, Irresistible Forces (Feb.), with stories by Lois McMaster Bujold and Mary Jo Putney, among others.
"Charlaine Harris is one of our bright lights," says Susan Allison, associate editorial director of the Berkley Publishing Group and editor-in-chief of Ace. "She actually came out of the mystery world, which illustrates that the barriers between genres, particularly in fantasy, are a little softer than in the past." Harris, who writes about a Southern waitress and her no-good vampire boyfriend, Bill, won an Anthony award for best original paperback mystery for her first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, even though it was marked fantasy on the spine. Her followup, Club Dead (Ace, May), was the number one paperback on the Independent Mystery Bookseller's list for May.
Ace has long been enticing crossover mystery and romance readers for its Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton. She started as a midlist paperback author for Ace, before moving to Jove for her new hardcover, Cerulean Sins (Apr.), which hit the New York Times list at #2. "I think this illustrates that the process of creating bestsellers by building on paperback success is absolutely not dead," says Allison. Roc is trying for the same success with Lyda Morehouse, whose cross-genre SF novel Archangel Protocol won a Shamus Award this year. The third book in her tetralogy, Messiah Node, came out last month.
Some like it hot, which is the market for 11-year-old Circlet Press in Cambridge, Mass., which blends erotica and fantasy. Left with a five-figure debt as a result of the bankruptcy of distributor LPC, it has been forced to cut its list to two or three titles a season. Recent releases include Francesca Lia Block's Nymph (May) and an anniversary collection edited by press founder Cecilia Tan, Erotic Fantasy: The Best of Circlet Press (June). There are also tamer SF books geared specifically to women, like the Earthkeep series by Sally Miller Gearhart, author of the feminist classic Wanderground. Book two of the trilogy, The Magister (Spinster's Ink), came out in April.
"The biggest niche in fantasy is huge, epic fantasy," says DAW Books president and publisher Betsy Wollheim. DAW, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, is one of the few SF/fantasy houses to weight its list much more heavily toward fantasy—two-thirds/one-third. Despite more sluggish sales for science fiction, most houses still maintain an even split, although Wollheim says that DAW's decision is "partly because there's more fantasy being written." U.K. editor Jane Johnson, writing under the name Jude Fisher, is on DAW's list with Wild Magic (July), part of the Fool's Gold saga. Other upcoming fantasies include Kristen Britain's First Rider's Call (Aug.) and Tad Williams's first stand-alone novel, complete in one volume, The War of the Flowers (May). Bethany House strives for more soul-stirring fiction with The Light of Eidon (July), the first book in the epic series Legends of the Guardian King.
A number of SF and fantasy authors are so popular that, in essence, they form their own brand. That's the case with David Eddings and his wife, Leigh Eddings, who will launch their Dreamers series in October with The Elder Gods (Warner Aspect), and Gregory Benford, author of the far-future novel Beyond Infinity (Warner Aspect, Mar.). George R.R. Martin falls into this niche with his Song of Ice and Fire series (Bantam Spectra), which has 800,000 copies in print. Book four, A Feast for Crows, will be out next spring. Eos's Hugo Award—winning author Dan Simmons has sold more than one million copies of the three-part Hyperion series. His new epic, Ilium (July), contains elements of both The Iliad and The Tempest. Putnam has high hopes—understandably—for the debut work by Nick Sagan, son of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, Idlewild (Aug.), a cross between mystery and fantasy.
At Ace, the good news in fantasy is that Ursula K. Le Guin is back writing after a hiatus. "Now in her 70s, Le Guin is writing more than ever and is at the peak of her form," says Allison. Evidently so: this past April, she won a Nebula Award for The Other Wind. To expand Le Guin's readership, Ace, which holds the author's paperback rights, will issue one book a month in mass market, starting in August with The Telling . According to Allison, "Ultimately, for a writer like Le Guin, trade paper is going to be where the books stay in print the longest. Mass market is a little more spontaneous. We think that a reader who happens on a mass market book perhaps takes a chance on a writer he or she has heard about but never read."
Humorous fantasy is another subgenre on the rise, after being nearly killed off a decade ago. "Having learned our lesson, we're being careful to nurture, not overwhelm the market," says Roc's Gilman, singling out writers like Barb and J.C. Hendee for "their homage to adventure fantasy, with just the right touch of self-aware humor." Last January, this couple's Dhampir went into several printings; their next book, Thief of Lives, is due in January. Pocket is also mining the humor vein with Peter David's fantasies featuring antihero Sir Apropos of Nothing—the third, Tong Lashing, is due in August. Two years ago, Sterling Publishing began distributing Gollancz, which has parodies of two megaselling fantasy authors in September. In Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel, Barry and Ermine are married and have given birth to a muddle; Adam Roberts's The Soddit: Cashing in Again spoofs Tolkien's The Hobbit.
For Roc's Gilman, format and price are key when it comes to fantasy. "I don't think about getting books on the bestseller lists," she says. "I want them to have healthy sales and a long career." She adds that the publisher is offering "a number of mass markets we're keeping at $5.99. I'm very much a fan of the inexpensive mass market. I'll take someone to hardcover if there's a market, not for reviews." Because Caitlin R. Kiernan writes contemporary, urban fantasy (a genre just starting to see a resurgence), Gilman published her debut novel, last year's Silk, in mass market. "We realized that her readership was coming from the graphic novel," says Gilman, explaining the shift to trade paper for Kiernan's Low Red Moon (Nov.).
In an unusual fantasy crossover, Ace is preparing to publish the second of two fantasies by bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry. Allison calls them "lovely books, reminiscent of C. S. Lewis." The first, Tathea, came out as a trade paperback reprint last year; it was originally published by a small press. Come, Armageddon will be a September hardcover release. Also in the C.S. Lewis tradition is F.W. Faller's A Sword for the Immerland King; this first of seven projected volumes in the Portals of Tessalindria series was published in April by DPI (Discipleship Publications International, in Billerica, Mass.)
There continues to be a strong market for fantasy role-playing books and games from publisher Wizards of the Coast, a division of Hasbro. According to Peter Archer, director of book publishing, "Because we have such a dedicated and mature fan base, we continue to sell backlist. The original Dragonlance Chronicles sell 30,000—40,000 copies a year. Publishing fiction for fans like this is like building cars for auto mechanics." R.A. Salvatore (The Lone Drow, The Hunter's Blade trilogy, Oct.) and Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman (Dragons of Spring Dawning, Dragonlance Chronicles, Sept.) started their writing careers with Wizards of the Coast, which continues to seek out new talent. Recently it issued a call for book proposals for new Forgotten Realms novels. Wizards of the Coast even has a free online writing workshop for those who want to learn more about crafting SF novels to help hone their book proposal skills.
The British Are Coming
"I can't quite explain why, but British SF and fantasy writers are particularly hot right now," says Betsy Mitchell, editor-in-chief at Del Rey. "This new, younger generation of writers has been galvanizing readers." She credits Richard Morgan, whose Broken Angels (Feb.), features a hero with a penchant for violence and action, and Peter F. Hamilton, author of the 24th-century adventure Pandora's Star, for abetting the boom—"They're very cinematic in their writing. They're raising the bar for everybody." Fantasy writer Sarah Ash is also part of the invasion. Although she was published in Britain a decade ago, Lord of Snow and Shadows (Bantam Spectra, Aug.), book one of The Tears of Artamon trilogy, is her first U.S. publication.
"We've been buying a surprising number of British writers lately," agrees Ace's Allison. One author she singles out is British physicist Alastair Reynolds, who is bucking the fantasy trend with his hard SF novel Chasm City (Ace, June).In paperback it was #7 on the SF/Fantasy list for the Borders Group; his hardcover novel, Redemption Ark, came out at the same time. Other Ace writers from abroad include Ian R. MacLeod (The Light Ages, May) and Chaz Brenchley (The Devil in the Dust, June). Another British-born favorite, Lian Hearn (Grass for His Pillow, Riverhead, Aug.), now lives in Australia.
Some British publishers' SF books are coming here as part of distribution agreements. Trafalgar Square in North Pomfret, Vt., for one, has been taking on more genre fiction over the past year. Its list includes Tom Holt's comic novels Here Come the Sun and Odds and Gods, which have been combined in Divine Comedies (Orbit, Aug.), and the Discworld spinoff Nancy Ogg's Cookbook (Corgi, Aug.) by Terry Pratchett, Stephen Briggs and Paul Kidby. Dufour Editions in Chester Springs, Pa., carries reissues of British classics, such as 40-year-old Goose of Hermogenes: A Gothick Fantasy (Peter Owen, Sept.) by Ithell Colquhoun.
Old Players, New Frontiers
Although 20-year-old Baen Books publishes a full range of science fiction and fantasy, it is best known for its military SF, another genre that's won the battle for fans. "I started the whole thing," Jim Baen claims, "by programmatically publishing the works of Gordon R. Dickson and Jerry Pournelle back when publishing was pretty down on the military. My predilection was thought quite wicked at the time." To keep sales strong, Baen has been trying to give added value to its books. For example, for John Ringo, who writes about military readiness, Baen bound a CD-ROM—with some of the author's backlist, a screen saver and a role-playing game—into his most recent novel, Hell's Faire (May), which hit #22 on the New York Times bestseller list. Ringo's There Will be Dragons (Nov.), which marks the start of a new adventure series, will also be packaged with a CD-ROM, as will David Drake's The Far Side of the Stars (Oct.).
Del Rey's military SF Starfirst series has been so successful that it plans to move the books from mass market into hardcover starting with Lazarus Rising (Dec.) by David Sherman and Dan Cragg. "We're doing this one in low-priced hardcover, $19.95," says Mitchell. "There's so much price consciousness now, especially in recent months with the economy so slow. Doing it in hardcover won't work unless you can price it low." Elizabeth Moon switched publishers to Del Rey for her new series with a heroine who is tough as nails, Trading Danger (Oct.), also out in hardcover.
Judging by the increased number of hardcovers over the past decade in what was once a mass market genre, science fiction and fantasy have become a collectors' market. "We can put out a backlist novel with a new cover and see a bump in sales because of the collectors," observes Wizards of the Coast's Archer. Sterling publishes to a different side of this market with its Paper Tiger line of SF art books. "The hardcovers, when you do them right, have fairly high prices and strong backlist," says president and CEO Charles Nurnberg. "Brom's Darkwerks was just a phenomenon. We sold close to 30,000 copies and the returns rate was infinitesimal, 1%. He has a new book in paper this season, Offerings (Oct.). In hardcover we sold 15,000 and the returns rate was 2%—for a $30 book."
Warner Aspect continues to be one of the few publishers dedicated to promoting African-American SF. Its first collection of speculative fiction by black writers won a World Fantasy Award when it was published in 2000. This winter, Warner Aspect is doing a sequel, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (Jan.), with 30 stories from the early 20th century through today, including contributions from Charles Johnson and Walter Mosely.
Four Walls, Eight Windows might seem an unlikely entrant in the science fiction field, but in fact the New York—based small press publishes SF titles with a literary twist, such as Michael Moorcock's The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (Oct.) and Richard Calder's The Twist (Dec.). "We're interested in wonderful writing that is incidentally science fiction," explains publisher John Oakes.
To Market, to Market
Tor's Nielsen Hayden, who maintains a Web log (nielsenhayden.com/electrolite) about politics and culture that attracts about 1,000 visitors daily, scouts for authors on the Web. "I go to places where conversations might be taking place, just as lots of editors hang around in the right bars," he explains. Among the writers he's discovered online are Cory Doctorow (Eastern Standard Tribe, Feb.), co-editor of boingboing.net, where he serialized his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Nov.).
"We're one of the few people who've made money on electronic publishing," says Baen executive editor Toni Weisskopf. The house operates a WebScription service (www.Baen.com), which provides a month's worth of books in any e-book format for $15 a month, as well as a free library online. "What we've found," adds Weisskopf, "is if you put the first book in the series on the free library, you'll see other books move." For those who just want to chat, there's even a smoke-free destination: Baen's online Bar.
"The Internet is definitely where a lot of the fans are," says Gill at Eos, which makes good use of the Web (www.harpercollins.com/hc/features/eos/) to market its titles. The imprint's two-year-old online newsletter, Out of This World, has 4,000 subscribers. In 2001, Eos launched an advance reader review program— subscribers can sign up to receive an advance copy of an Eos title, review it and have the writeup posted on the Eos site.
"The Internet is not a panacea," cautions Roc's Gilman. "But we do find that presence helps. I encourage my authors to have a Web site." Roc publishes a newsletter on the Penguin Web site (www.penguin.com) and uses e-postcards and "snippets," electronic teasers, to get word of mouth going. Online ads, Gilman finds, may be helpful to booksellers, but not readers. "Hype," she says, "doesn't impress science fiction or fantasy readers. Story does."
"Harry Potter has made people more receptive to our titles," says White Wolf Publishing managing editor Phillippe Boulle, himself a White Wolf author (Vampire: The Wounded King, June). Five years ago, White Wolf, the number two role-playing game/book publisher after Wizards of the Coast, cut its list, and now publishes 20—24 books a year in mass market; the house hasn't done a hardcover in two years. "The Internet is important for us," Boulle reports. "We have a core fan base that tends to come by our Web site [www.white-wolf.com] for our forums. That allows us to contact fans directly."
As in many categories, SF publishers are only as strong as their backlist. Although updating covers is one of way to boost sales, so is creating omnibus editions, often in trade paperback. White Wolf put an omnibus of four Stewart Wieck Vampire Clan novels, The Fall of Atlanta (Aug.), into paper. Baen, however, is releasing its new MegaBook line in hardcover as part of its 20th-anniversary celebration. One of the first works slated for omnibus treatment under the new imprint is Elizabeth Moon's trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion (Oct.).
Backlist promotion has also taken a different turn with the successful cross-marketing of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and Brian Jacques. "A number of people are simultaneously publishing backlist titles in YA," says DAW's Wollheim, who is "seriously considering adding a YA line. (For more on YA fantasy, see feature, p. 36) Practically everything Mercedes Lackey's ever written could be marketed for YA. Probably more readers could find her." Lackey's Altan (Mar. 2004), a sequel to Joust, is no exception, she notes. Tor has already decided to start a YA line, which will draw on books from its adult SF list. One early book to benefit from what Nielsen Hayden calls "double dipping" is Crosstown Traffic (Nov.), the first book in Hugo Award—winning author Harry Turtledove's alternate history series, Gunpowder Empire. It will be published first in hardcover for an adult audience and shortly thereafter in paper for Tor Teen.
One unusual entrant into science fiction publishing, Wesleyan University Press, relies on both the trade and academic markets. "We have an early classics SF series, where we're doing a lot of Jules Verne—a couple have never been in English before," explains editor-in-chief Suzanna Tamminen. The series has worked out so well that Wesleyan is branching out to new SF titles. Its lead book this fall is an anthology, Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium (Sept.), edited by Marleen S. Barr. University of Nebraska also has a classics line, Bison Frontiers of Imagination, which republishes books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Under the Moons of Mars, May) and John Jacob Astor (A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future, Nov.). Oregon State University Press joins its UP colleagues with Hives of Dreams (Sept.), a collection of SF from the Pacific Northwest.
The sheer number and quality of science fiction and fantasy titles is clearly good news for book buyers, although it hasn't always translated into a similar increase in sales. "This unfortunately is a tough market," notes Bantam Spectra's Groell, who looks to a turnaround soon. "We're still soldiering on—we'd like to expand our market." For many publishers, genre-bending titles tinged with romance, mystery and paranormal elements have in fact attracted readers from other genres. And, while SF and fantasy sales are not exactly out of this world (with the notable exception of Ms. Rowling's youthful hero), many novels are reaching beyond the category's typical core audience—taking off, as it were, for new frontiers.