It’s been a good half a year for two particular adult dystopian science-fiction backlist titles. In the months following the election of President Trump, George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale shot to the top of the charts. Both titles landed on the NPD BookScan and Amazon bestseller lists for print and Kindle e-books, respectively, for the first half of 2017, and both were newly released in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April.
So why aren’t there more sci-fi dystopian titles from the deep backlist on the bestselling lists?
In a way, the time was particularly right for these two titles. 1984, set in a world ruled by an authoritarian government that monitors how its population acts, speaks, and thinks, skyrocketed to the top of the charts after the use of the term “alternative facts” by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway reminded readers of the novel’s famous term “doublespeak.” The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a world run by a small group of white, straight men, imagines the persecution and subjugation of people of color, LGBTQ people, and women. It didn’t hurt that Hulu adapted The Handmaid’s Tale into a TV series with Mad Men star Elizabeth Moss earlier this year.
Yet other titles appear to be equally relevant. John Brunner’s Club of Rome Quartet—comprised of the novels Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider—was released in the late 1960s and ’70s and correctly predicted, respectively, overpopulation, a U.S. mired in weapons proliferation and interracial violence, pollution-related ecological disasters, and the emergence of computer viruses.
Or consider, on the more popular end, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which Harper published in a new hardcover edition this May for the book’s 85th anniversary. The novel predicts a situation in which advances in mass production, reproduction, and medical treatments have led to a society dominated by a rigid class structure and the intake of antidepressant and hallucinogenic drugs.
Yet Brunner remains all but ignored in the media cycle, and the new hardcover of Brave New World has sold 525 copies to date, according to NPD BookScan (although the trade paperback, ever a classroom favorite, has sold more than 80,000 this year, with 4,000 in the first week of July alone).
Jaime Levine, publisher at Diversion Books, said her company publishes the e-book versions of C.L. Moore’s “quintessential dystopian book,” Doomsday Morning, and Ursula LeGuin’s environmental sci-fi classic The Lathe of Heaven. But, she added, “I can’t say that I had been monitoring an uptick in trend.”
She’s not the only one. “There isn’t a spike of interest in Stand on Zanzibar, although we’ve got a lot of books like that in our deep backlist,” said Tor Books associate publisher Patrick Nielsen Hayden. “I love that book. I’m part of the reason we brought it back into print [in 2011]. But it’s kind of an artifact of its time.”
That said, Tor is “taking some advantage in the upsurge of activism,” Nielsen Hayden added, by marketing more recent backlist titles like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Kristen Simmons’s Article Five directly to indie booksellers, including, in the case of the Doctorow, a mailing from the author.
On the other hand, John Siciliano, executive editor Penguin Classics, has “seen a lot of demand” for Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a Russian dystopian novel that inspired 1984, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, along with its sister imprint Signet’s successes with Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. And Open Road Integrated Media, which publishes the other three Brunner titles in e-book (and The Sheep Look Up in paperback, as of 2016), acquired those rights and re-released those titles in 2014, and has promoted the e-books in four pieces on its digital media verticals The Portalist and Early Bird Books.
“The reason we do these is twofold,” said executive v-p of marketing Mary McAveney. “We want to keep pushing these books out, and we’re seeing that there are consumers looking for them. From a marketing perspective, I feel like nothing that is backlist is getting enough attention these days.”
Betsy Mitchell, who works as a consultant for Open Road acquiring and republishing backlist sci-fi and fantasy, adds that the publisher also has the e-book versions of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. “She was ahead of her time,” Mitchell added. “She actually has a demagogic president whose tagline is ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”
What seems clear, thanks to Orwell and Atwood, is that backlist dystopian sci-fi titles can be a gold mine for publishers who promote them at just the right time—and there’s no better time for sci-fi than a period of political upheaval. Or, as Nielsen Hayden puts it, “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.”