Last year was sluggish for book sales and gloomy for publishing personnel, with layoffs, hiring freezes, and cutbacks at an all-time high. Given that the recession is far from over, now would seem like a risky time to launch a new publishing venture, even for the most stable houses. Yet several publishers are doing just that.

As the cracks in the economy widened in 2008 and yawned into chasms in 2009, a number of new and daring lines and imprints opened their doors. Some were begun by large publishers who saw potential for growth, others by smaller companies with an eye for producing chancier fare that many publishers are unwilling to take on at a time when tried and true books are paying the bills. Whatever their sizes, all have one thing in common: a strong interest in science fiction and fantasy.

Much like the “recession-proof” romance genre, these two fields have seen steady sales and loyal readership throughout the ongoing crisis—particularly in such genre staples as high fantasy, space opera, and the behemoth of Star Trek, into which J.J. Abrams’s popular “reboot” movie breathed new life in 2009.

“Our longstanding Star Trek publishing program continues to chug along,” says Anthony Ziccardi, vice president and deputy publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books, which launched in September 2009 as the combination of Pocket Books’ hardcover and trade paperbacks and the Simon Spotlight Entertainment imprint. “More than 35 years since the franchise started, we are still publishing a new Star Trek title each month. Our backlist sales are up and our story lines are fresh and more in line with what the fans want.”

High Fantasy and Angry Robots

While such varied genres as women’s fiction, memoir, and pop culture books fall under Gallery’s aegis, the imprint’s science fiction and fantasy arm is mighty, particularly when it comes to gaming titles. Along with its Star Trek line, the imprint, says Ziccardi, has “a longstanding relationship with Blizzard Entertainment,” the company behind smash hit video games World of Warcraft and Diablo.

“What was once considered a mass market—only genre has now become a bestselling hardcover, trade, and mass program for Gallery,” he says. “In fact, our first World of Warcraft hardcover was a New York Times bestseller, and we are about to release our first Star Craft title.” More traditional fantasy and science fiction titles have much the same readership as gaming tie-ins. Ziccardi says that Gallery is also dipping into sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy. Currently, the imprint is focusing on writers like Chris Evans, whose Iron Elves books have received critical acclaim and strong sales. “Epic fantasy is very challenging to break into and takes time to develop authors,” Zaccardi explains. “However, we feel we have a nice stable of authors with potential to break out in the category.”

Other new imprints are hoping to break out in different ways, including into the edgy territory of young adult readers, which Angry Robot Books assistant editor Lee Harris calls “post-YA.” To meet these readers’ interests, HarperCollins UK launched Angry Robot in March 2009 with a specialty in what Harris describes as “literature with adrenaline, for the X-Box generation”—books that don’t typically fit into the pat categories that have long ruled science fiction and fantasy publishing. “As readers, publishing director Marc Gascoigne and I want to publish books we can feel passionate about, and finding new and exciting blends helps to fuel that passion.”

So far, these blends have included Kaaron Warren’s dreamy survival tale, Walking the Tree; Ian Whates’s debut novel, City of Dreams & Nightmare, which follows a young street urchin through a byzantine city of secrets; and Maurice Broaddus’s King Maker, a retelling of the Arthurian mythos involving street gangs. King Maker has garnered significant attention for its cover art—a face-forward head-to-toe image of the black protagonist. In the wake of “whitewashing” scandals around Bloomsbury USA, which depicted the dark-skinned heroines of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar and Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass as white on their respective book jackets, racially accurate cover images are a big deal, but Harris says it never crossed the minds of anyone at Angry Robot that they were doing something political.

“When a decision is made to feature the characters on the cover, of course you get them as accurate as you can. Why on earth wouldn’t you?” he asks. “When the cover for King Maker started getting the levels of positive attention that it did, we were naturally delighted, but at the same time slightly mystified—it never occurred to us to do anything differently. And we don’t deserve the kudos that seem to have inadvertently come our way.”

Reaching Readers of Color

Heated online discussions of race and racism in speculative fiction also led to the birth of Tu Books in 2009. “The RaceFail discussions helped me to articulate why as an editor I was drawn so much to stories that were more multicultural,” says Stacy Whitman, a YA editor formerly of Mirrorstone Books, who began Tu as a small press dedicated to YA fantasy and science fiction featuring characters of color. Whitman, who had recently been laid off, notes that the company was also a way of creating “my own job in a jobless market.”

As word of Whitman’s venture spread through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, donations began rolling in via Kickstarter, a fund-raising Web site. “Bloggers saw a need, saw that we were setting out to fill that need, and talked about it with their friends and followers,” says Whitman. “I think their enthusiasm shows how many people think there’s a place for what we’re trying to do.”

The Kickstarter campaign drew the attention of publisher Lee & Low, which specializes in multicultural books for children, and the house acquired Tu as an imprint last month. The acquisition was an ideal fit, says Whitman. Working with an established publisher that shares her values allows her to produce more books while retaining much of the independence she had as Tu’s owner—independence that includes seeking out and accepting books by first-time authors.

“We hope that the variety of authors we publish will be as diverse as the characters they write about,” Whitman says. “I want to be sure, especially for underrepresented groups whose voices have been taken from them historically—Native American tribes come to mind—that our books represent a voice from their group. But I think it’s also possible and welcome for writers to write cross-culturally, because who wants books to be completely segregated by race or culture?”

Small Press, Big Family

Not all of the category’s new presses are imprints of larger publishers. Canadian independent ChiZine Publications began as an offshoot of the critically acclaimed Chiaroscuro Webzine (or ChiZine), when copublisher Brett Alexander Savory lost his job as an editor at Scholastic Canada. Like Whitman, Savory and his wife, Sandra Kasturi, felt this was the push they needed to become their own bosses.

“We originally envisioned CZP as a quarterly print-on-demand press, something to supplement our full-time jobs,” says Savory. “But the recession really made it difficult to find another job in educational publishing, so we decided that if we were going to make a run at this publishing fiction thing, [we] might as well jump in with both feet.” CZP switched to offset publishing and now boasts 13 titles in print, with six more coming out in autumn 2010.

CZP focuses on what Savory calls “literary writing with dark genre material.” He says, “I suppose what we’re trying to do is popularize the idea that horror, SF, and fantasy don’t have to be so clichéd and full of cardboard characters. We try to avoid genre tropes, and put emphasis on characters and the writing voice itself.”

As independent businesspeople, Savory and Kasturi say they can put more emphasis on each book they publish, from design to marketing. “We definitely have closer relationships with our authors than big houses are able to, given the number of authors they have to deal with. Our authors get greater input into their covers, and more one-on-one time with regard to publicity and marketing ideas,” Savory explains. “Our authors have often remarked that CZP feels like a family, and that’s the feeling we strive to maintain.”

O, Brave New Digital World

Regardless of their mission or their target markets, these newcomers all share an understanding of the new media technologies that have been drastically reshaping publishing for the past five years. Whitman initially promoted Tu through her blog and an online video featuring children of color and authors talking about the importance of racial and cultural diversity in fantasy. As an employee of Lee & Low, she is now active on the imprint’s Facebook page and Twitter account. In keeping with Angry Robot’s hip, youthful image, Harris and Gascoigne created the Robot Army, which seeks to tap into the power of word-of-mouth marketing by offering free books and advance media scoops to review bloggers.

“You can’t control word-of-mouth advertising, of course, but building a list of bloggers and review sites, and developing a relationship with them, helps to begin the word-of-mouth process,” says Harris. “Marketing funds at most imprints are tight, particularly with midlist imprints such as ours. It’s a matter of focus, and the Robot Army is a terrific way to channel the enthusiasm of the many great book blogs that have emerged over the past few years.”

Another cost-controlling method that has gained popularity in the last decade is the e-book. Once stigmatized as the typo-riddled purview of self-publishers and fly-by-night small presses due to their low overhead costs, e-books have risen to prominence thanks to the advent of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader. E-books have become a standard product for many publishers—though typically as a sideline form of revenue. To date, the form has really taken hold only in the romance genre.

That’s going to change, according to Angela James, executive editor of Carina Press, a new (and entirely e-book) subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises. “I’ve been saying for several years that I think there’s opportunity in the digital SF/F genre specifically for a publisher who’s interested in building that market,” she says. “We are definitely interested.”

While most readers know Harlequin primarily as a romance and erotica publisher, Carina, which will release its first titles in June, is acquiring in a number of genres, including thrillers, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. The advantages of using digital publishing to do so, James explains, are numerous.

“Digital-first publishing allows for speed to market to be measured in months instead of years, publishing material that appeals to a niche audience, reacting quickly to trends and reader interests, and not having to put a book out of print after its initial print run or the first few months on sale,” James says. “I think all of those concepts are applicable to SF and fantasy because they’re universal to anyone in publishing—if you’ve been trying to get published or have been published, it’s likely you’ve had to worry about one or all of these issues.”

Likewise, authors and publishers all have to worry about marketing, a process increasingly frustrated by layoffs and tightened budgets even at the most solid houses. Since everyone at Carina is a seasoned veteran of digital publishing, James says, they are ready for the challenges.

“Digital-first publishers have been developing strategies in and comfort with things like bloggers, online review sites, and social media for years, whereas many traditional publishers are only recently entering the digital arena,” she explains. “At Carina, we’ve already begun working with authors on marketing and promotion. Our goal is not necessarily to do for them, but to help them discover, build, and utilize the tools that suit them, in order to give them a strong foundation in building their brand and connecting with readers. Are we also doing targeted marketing and promotion? Yes, but in today’s publishing market, we recognize that authors will also benefit from being given tools and ideas to promote themselves as well.”

The Road Ahead

As the economy continues to crawl toward recovery, time will tell how well each of these ventures fares in the marketplace. But that each is being birthed in the worst financial climate since the Great Depression is certainly no indicator of inevitable failure, just as opening during an economic boom is no guarantee of success.

Harris at Angry Robot says, “I’m not sure that any time is a good time to start a new business of this type. Conversely, I’m not convinced that any time is a particularly bad time. If we didn’t have the recession there would be plenty of other reasons to not do it, so the recession itself is almost an irrelevance. The best time to begin any new business—and publishing is no different in this respect—is when you are fired up over the idea and you’re sure you have the right people on board.”