An interesting discussion prompted by Charlee Alden’s post over at Smart Girls Love SciFi this week took up the matter of how best to define success for science fiction romance as a genre. As individual writers, the decisions we make will not only make or break our own careers, but expand or contract the small foothold SFR has made in the publishing industry.
Charlee noted that, historically, SFR has been best served by the digital publishing industry and has grown as digital publishing has grown. Indie publishers, small presses, self-pubbers and the digital-first trend among traditional publishers have all benefited SFR, primarily by having an open mind about the genre. As a consequence, online is the no doubt the first stop for readers looking for SFR. Since SFR fans are a pretty tech-savvy bunch, this hasn’t been a problem.
Still, many SFR writers, like any other writers, cling to the dream of seeing their work in print. The book may be a “dying” medium to some, but the hard-copy (that is, paper) publishing industry still controls 70% of sales. Charlee asks whether the SFR community should continue to work toward more traditional publication as a goal. That’s not a bad question to ask. Will we ever have the respect we’re due if we don’t have a certain number of titles and authors in print? It’s easy to marginalize digital and indie presses, though the RWA did give its first RITA to a digital-first publisher title in 2013. Maybe over time the “gloss” attached to traditional publishing will tarnish completely, in which case, why all the fuss? (I have to say, personally, though, that it is very hard to give up this particularly goal.)
No matter what format the books are published in, however, it seems clear SFR has not yet found the magic formula to break out from its “niche” status and appeal to a broader reading audience. What would it take for the genre to find that larger audience?
Some suggestions were made in the comments to Charlee’s article. Melisse Aires thinks ensemble stories, particularly space operas, would be popular, since readers are already familiar with the concept from television and movies. The same writer stresses that series are necessary to build reader loyalty. Both concepts are key to success in other romance subgenres, particularly paranormal and contemporary, where readers hang on tenterhooks waiting for the next book in the Black Dagger Brotherhood (J.R.Ward) or Virgin River (Robyn Carr) series, featuring characters they know from previous novels.
I’m pinning my hopes for success on these concepts with my Interstellar Rescue series, companion novels that stand alone, but share both a world and several characters.
I also believe it helps to have a strong romantic arc and to aim for that romance audience, a much bigger, more welcoming group than the science fiction readership.
Then, of course, you might try for something completely different. Pauline Baird Jones would love to do a web series. It would certainly bring more interest from a new segment of the public.
Science fiction romance has been standing on the brink of breakout success for a long time. We’ve managed liftoff, but we keep waiting for that one novel or author to help us achieve escape velocity. Maybe it won’t work that way. Maybe it will be more like achieving critical mass, one exceptional novel or series at a time. The only way to accomplish that is to keep writing.
Charlie Jane Anders has some excellent advice for fledgling SF writers in 10 THINGS THAT EVERY BRAND NEW CREATOR OF SCIENCEFICTION SHOULD KNOW at io9.com. That certainly includes any SFR writer, newbie or otherwise.