Monday, April 12, 2010

Ebooks & Science Fiction Romance: A Match Made In Digital Heaven

Science fiction romance, like paranormal and erotic romance before it, has a vested interest in the digital market—so much so that it ignores this alliance at its peril. The ebook market is “exploding”, according to a recent IDPF survey. And while “the U.S. represents the largest single market for books…this will change, especially for ebooks.” Also, ebooks may very well inherit the role of the mass market paperback.

However, unlike its predecessors, SFR has a further advantage in that e-reader technology, social networking, and the current publishing industry upheavals are making it much easier for readers to connect with the stories.

Yes, you heard me right—I did say publishing industry upheavals. How on Earth can that be a good thing for science fiction romance? Allow me to explain.

In Why Books Are The Length They Are, author Charlie Stross notes that “…the length of a novel varies depending on the prevailing publishing industry distribution model when it's written.” In other words, length is dictated by factors such as binding costs/issues, price elasticity of demand, a historical consolidation of the wholesale sector from the 1980s-90s, and the rise of the specialist bookstore chains.

But wait a minute, you exclaim—ebooks don’t have binds! My dear ladies and gentlemen, that fact is a very, very good thing for science fiction romance.

Here’s why: Mr. Stross concludes his article by predicting that “…if ebooks become a major sales channel and authors are still writing professional quality work for money, and readers are finding some way to pay them — we may see a revival of other formats: novellas for one (they're undergoing a renaissance in SF publishing among the smaller publishers), the Dickensian serial for another, and the gigantic shoebox-sized monster for a third.”

Think about it. The 300-page novel mentality is one based on market and economic conditions, not just art. Nor does it account for advances in digital technology. With ebooks, science fiction romance stories can come in all shapes and sizes. Word count limits will become increasingly flexible in either direction. Authors can experiment with stories of varying lengths and flavors, which in turn provides readers with wider variety and choices.

In fact, books are part of a larger trend toward digitization. Literary agent Nathan Bransford notes, “Everything that can be digitized is being digitized because it's cheaper and easier to send pixels around the world than physical objects. First it was music, then newspapers, then movies. Books are next in line.”

Mr. Bransford lists a number of reasons for embracing the digital trend in books. Basically, technology will improve, ebooks will become cheaper, accessibility to ebooks will increase, and habits will change. In another post, he sums up an article by industry guru Mike Shatzkin (With New Opportunities Come New Challenges) who discussed how a digital publishing landscape might give traditional print publishers a run for their money. Pay close attention, because this one is especially relevant to science fiction romance:

The new era may favor multi-niche publishers who specialize because they are adept at building followers interested in certain topics, and this doesn't play to traditional publishers' strengths.

Mr. Shatzkin provides a caveat, however: “There’s a great deal of new opportunity out there but a lot of it is in pennies, not hundred dollar bills.” Uh, so what else is new? We know SFR is a labor of love, not a get-rich-quick scheme. Right now, it's kind of a slow burn subgenre.

But burn it does.

Despite the challenges, the opportunities may unfold faster than we think. Thanks to the agency model, we are currently witnessing an Apple price fixing scheme, one that’s enabled by five major publishers. It will inevitably result in “Higher prices and fewer retail channels.” Make no mistake: By raising ebook prices in an attempt to drive readers back to print, the overall intent is to prevent the growth of the digital market. In fact, former Random House CEO Peter Olson recently took a tough love approach when he wrote that “Traditional trade book publishers are scared” about the growing ebook market. He also reported that "In a sense, many book publishers are trying to buy time, to postpone a reckoning with reality."

But readers are a savvy—and frugal—lot. Disgruntled by the effects of the agency model, they will increasingly flock to other sources for their book-buying needs—namely, digital/independent/small press publishers. This is where digital publishers especially will stand to gain, by providing both mainstream and niche ebooks at an affordable price—and minus all that DRM drama.

This is especially true for genre readers like SFR fans. We’ve always had to seek our favorite stories off the beaten path. But now, with its epic Frankenstein fear of the digital market, the major, mainstream print publishers (two notable exceptions are Harlequin and its Carina Press endeavor) are actually helping to create a significant market for such niche genres.

Why wait? Take advantage of it right now.

The reality, of course, is that it will still take a few years for digital/small press publishers to build their catalogues and for everyone involved to recoup the investment of blood, sweat, and tears. And even though a golden digital age for books may be on the horizon, there are still a fair number of challenges to overcome.

I propose that the challenges are actually an opportunity for science fiction romance, even if we don’t yet know what all of those opportunities are. While we wait for the technology, pricing, and distribution issues to sort themselves out, let’s start making the proverbial lemonade.

Here are some ingredients authors can use now to plan for the explosion in the digital market:

* Write your SFR stories, as many as you can. Vary the settings, lengths, and heat levels.

* Join an SFR critique/writers support groups (like this one!). Strength in numbers, y’all.

* Submit, submit, submit to digital publishers (aspiring authors: consider making that your Number One Goal. Midlist authors, don’t rule out this option just yet. Or consider swinging both ways).

* Follow the trail of those frugal/disgruntled readers, especially those early adapters of ebook technology. Build that all-important back list with digital publishers, and/or ones that support a consumer-friendly ebook division/store.

* Become Web savvy, HTML savvy, Photoshop savvy, and any savvy required to navigate the digital landscape and market.

* Do that social networking thingy. This could be as simple as being an active visitor to all the SFR-friendly blogs and forums.

* Build your blog, Web site, or Twitter following. Provide entertaining, SFR content consistently.

I’m sure you may know others, and I sure would love to hear them. Basically, it boils down to adjusting our expectations of what constitutes a science fiction romance story, its medium, and its method of distribution. Once that happens, possibilities will arise that we didn’t even know existed.


  1. Yea for Heather! Great post! This is exactly what SFR authors and readers need to know-- hear. It took me some time to realize this and go for the epublishing world. But go I did and I plan to continue. I agree with you that this is a golden opportunity for SFR authors.

    Thanks for the advice and I've already started networking in many of the ways you suggested.
    I just finished building my new SFR website that will be a sub domain within my original site, but I can link it separately as I have here on the Brigade!

    Forbidden Love my SFR novella will release at Red Rose on May 20. And I say to all SFR authors out there, the sky is not our limit! Go for the gold in epublishing!

  2. PS Still working on links to my new SFR website. My name in the comments on these posts does link back to my blog, but my name in the blogroll will link directly to my SFR website.

    Link here if you'd like to take a look or click on my name in the blogroll here on SFRB and that should take you there too.

    Again, thanks to Heather for her ever watchful eyes and advice for SFR authors!

  3. Very interesting and exciting post, Heather. As a confirmed and devoted nook owner, I love the digital age.

    However, two things give me pause. ;-)

    * Write your SFR stories, as many as you can. Vary the settings, lengths, and heat levels.*

    May I add a caveat? Study and know reader expectations of both genres (SF and romance) as well as the accepted tropes of both genres BEFORE you "write as many stories as you can." Not all of you are old enough to remember the last "futuristic boom" which damned near killed our subgenre, and what killed it was a vertiable avalanche of "questionably constructed" sf/r novels.

    I judge several national romance writing contests, okay? I SEE this stuff. It reads like Mel Brooks' SPACEBALLS except the writers aren't trying to be campy or funny.

    I've said this before and I'll say it again: adding a starship to a scene doesn't make the book SFR any more than adding a horse makes it a western.

    * Submit, submit, submit to digital publishers (aspiring authors: consider making that your Number One Goal. Midlist authors, don’t rule out this option just yet. Or consider swinging both ways).

    Most major NY houses already do digital. Bantam does--aggressively--and they own my digital rights. I can't, contractually, submit to a separate digital house if Bantam has the print book. Small press authors have--and SHOULD have--a lot more leeway and often can, yes, scatter their stories hither and yon to maximize exposure. NY authors already get that, for the most part.

    Further, if an author is agented, it's the agent's job to place the MS and if for some odd reason the NY house doesn't offer digital (I'm not sure Dorchester does), then an author placing her MS with a digital house without consulting her agent is shooting her/himself in the foot. IMHO and IMHE. Not to mention possibly violating contract.

    What I would encourage SFR authors to also do here is to look at audio rights. My agent just sold my Dock Five Universe books to Audible, and the talk on the street, as she put it, is that SF and SFR is hot in audio right now and the audio book companies are having a tough time finding it (gee, I wonder why? Maybe because we're rarely categorized properly?). I have no clue how an unagented author would approach Audible but I can't see why a house such as Samhain or Ellora's Cave can't do so. People who like and read SF and it's subgenres are, well, often geeky. Like me. ;-) They like their tech toys and iPods and audio books are tech toys. It's a natural match. ;-)
    ~Linnea, seeking more coffee now...

  4. I think someone should put Linnea's comment in a post of its own. It's not my day, so I can't. Maybe post her cover art while you're at it.

    Fellow Skiffy Rommers, graphics are pretty! Put more cover art and stuff in your posts!

  5. Thought-provoking and inspiring post, Heather. (Must come back to follow all those links.)

    Hmm, audio...very interesting idea.

  6. A wealth of valuable info in here - thanks to Heather and Linnea.

  7. Excellent stuff! (And Linnea, you do need to post - your comments are often as informative as the blog)

    Those of us who have followed the e-revolution (and been in it up to our necks) heard the cries in the wilderness that print books would be a thing of the past. I still think that's not happening - but it's fun to watch the variety of eBook options suddenly blossom and to watch the publishers and distribution giants scramble to adapt.

    Change is survival, kids. E-volution :)

  8. I was lucky that I was already in small press world when I wrote THE KEY because my editor called it the BAB (big a** book). It was wonderful to let the story come and find a place for it. No question the print version is high priced for an unknown author, but the digital edition is a friendly 6.99 (and down if you watch sales, etc.)

    I've written another BAB and a novella (yes, it really is shorter, comes in at 30,000 wds I believe), so a big YES for Heather's post.

    And speaking to the audio book thing, Books in Motion jumped on THE KEY (it was like a one week turnaround?) and I'm hoping they'll also go for GIRL GONE NOVA (releasing this month) when I submit it. BIM audio books end up in Audible, so its a route in if you don't have an agent and work with a small press.

    And speaking as a reader who almost exclusively reads digital, YES! Please get those books into digital! I can't tell you how many times I've headed over to online sites to look up a book and found it not available in digital or just plain hard to find in digital. Make sure you have direct links to your books in ALL formats. Sometimes I'll go the extra mile and sometimes I just don't have time.
    Go SFR brigade!

  9. I love the idea of serials! I would just hope they would be priced about the same in the end, like you pay the novel's price for the subscription or something.

  10. Wonderful advice, Heather. Thanks so much for sharing this here!

  11. Thanks for reading, everyone!

    Kaye, love the SFR section! I'll be sure to link to it during my monthly roundup in May.

    Thanks for the insights, Linnea! Much appreciated.

    Most major NY houses already do digital

    I should have clarified that I meant for authors to consider going digital-first. Not to bring home the bacon (although it could happen, sizzle, sizzle), but to plant seeds, cross pollinate, and so forth.

    And I do believe most if not all digital publishers consider agented submissions, bless them! ;)

    Pauline, I agree, there are some great digital deals out there. Thanks for your input.

    Writer and Cat--Serials, *I know*. Anyone game for resurrecting the penny dreadfuls, digital style? Maybe a steampunk romance...?! With illustrations and stuff. That'd be kewl.


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