Sunday, July 24, 2011

Redefining the Brass Ring For Science Fiction Romance

Buzzzzzz. I’m going to stir up the proverbial hornet’s nest a bit here, so buyer beware!

Would you rather be a Big Fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

Big fish make a big splash (you know, when doing their fishy acrobatics or whatever). That’s how I envision science fiction romance making a name for itself in the digital market.

Here’s why:

With many agents currently re-evaluating their role in the publishing process and authors seemingly being dropped left and right, is going after that increasingly elusive traditional print contract worth an author’s time and investment?

Yes, it’s a lovely dream, with its promise of a nice advance and mainstream exposure, but I think it’s a dream tied to the publishing industry of the past. In other words, it’s tied into the myth that every book has bestseller potential, along with the idea of celebrity authors. Unfortunately, reality has painted an entirely different picture.

Another way of looking at the issue is that SFR means nothing—nothing—to NY without humongous sales to prove its worth. That is a fact. And Big 6 publishers aren’t willing to take the risk of releasing SFR in numbers/print runs large enough to generate those big sales. If they’re not doing it for established authors, then why would they bother with debut ones?

I once read that when submitting to publishers/agents, authors should start “at the top.” Well, what does “the top” mean any more? A top where the doors are firmly shut? A top where distribution venues are crumbling into dust (Borders, I’m looking at you)?

Yes, paranormal romance broke out of the niche and went mainstream. But that happened over six years ago (counting from the release of Christine Feehan’s DARK PRINCE). We’re in a different time. The publishing industry is a far, far different animal then when paranormal romance made its mark. Different times call for different approaches.

And when mega-publishers like Harlequin start creating digital arms, you know change is in the air.

So why should authors writing a niche subgenre like SFR view traditional publishers as the only brass ring in town? In the time it would take to submit and hear back from 50 agents (if even that many will look at SFR submissions), an author could conceivably have written three four, five, six, or even seven shorts/novellas and sold them to epubs/small press publishers. And have made money from them within a year’s time!

Can we ignore that kind of math?

Here’s some math that will shed more light on the situation from Everything You Wanted to Know About Digital Publishing But Were Afraid To Ask: A Q&A With Maya Banks:

It is absolutely true that last year I made more in digital publishing than I did with Harlequin, Berkley and Ballantine combined. (and the year before too) I think I nudged out thethree publishers by about 20k. I grossed about 600k so you can do the math there.

How does a 30k advance from a traditional print publisher stack up against 600k in ebook sales? 600k wipes the floor with 30k, that’s how. That’s also the type of “top” worth an author’s blood, sweat, and tears. I doubt Ms. Banks made any kind of advance on her first ebook, but it seems to me her risk (and hard work) paid off.

Here’s some more math (of the anecdotal kind): I have more sci-fi romance to read than ever before—with no thanks to Big 6 publishers. 99.9% of my  new release TBR pile is SFR ebooks. In fact, I recently learned about three ebook sales within the same week—and that’s just what came to my inbox. Digital publishers have a much faster turnaround time than traditional print ones.

So, authors, if you want me and other SFR fans to read your books sooner rather than later, think about which strategy is more in your favor.

I propose that we forget about thinking in terms of “top.” SFR is a subgenre that demands a more creative kind of strategy. Like going sideways. Or diagonal.

Key elements of said strategy include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

*First and foremost, build sci-fi romance in the digital market. Feed the fish in the small pond until it’s too large to ignore.

*Take advantage of the freedom digital publishing offers to tell the stories you really want to write.

*Submit your SFR manuscripts where they’re wanted—needed—by folks who Get It. They already know this subgenre’s worth. They are also fans. With epubs, the doors are already open. You can’t beat that kind of validation.

*Treat the publication of SFR books like a business. There’s a creative side, a business side, and a marketing side. New markets and new technology demand the development of new skills. Learn them, or risk being left behind.

*Use the existing—and free—resources. The Web is loaded with information about navigating the ebook market at no cost to you. Have questions about epub contract terms? Plenty of authors are happy to help out. Have a sale to announce? Enlist those with blogs/Twitter/Facebook/Google + networks to help spread the word. And so on.

*Pay it forward by helping other authors in the same fashion (probably one of the most important strategies).

Undoubtedly for many writers, it’s a challenge to wrap one’s mind around the shift from the traditional publishing model to new ones. The publishing industry is in a period of transition. There are so many choices to make and goals to re-evaluate.

While print contracts are a laudable goal, and power to the authors who make it there, for most others it’s not realistic anymore. But that’s where the power of ebooks comes in. My hope is that by redefining the brass ring for science fiction romance, we (readers and authors) can benefit from a new approach to making this subgenre a success.

Whatever your thoughts on this subject, I would love to hear them.


  1. You Go, Gir!

    I've been of the "Agents are slitting their own throats" mode for quite some time.

    I never really cared for the idea that somebody who wasn't even born yet when I read my first SF books can make a decision about my writing.

    SFR is a wonderful amalgamation of genres. Romance is hideously popular and SF is where the geeky boys are. Why not have both?

    Those who do not keep up will be left behind.

  2. Well said! Keeping up with the changing/evolving publishing business is important for every writer.

    Writers have more control now than ever before.

    Check out these blogs --

    Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    The Business Rusch: Popcorn Kittens

    Bob Mayer
    ebooks as the new mass market paperback

    Dean Wesley Smith
    The New World of Publishing

    Don't get left in the dark.

    This is a great time to be a writer!

  3. Back in the late 90's, when I first stumbled onto digital publishing, I thought it would be the boost authors needed to shift some power our way, finally! It's always going to be challenging, probably, but there is hope again. We have options. That's a good thing. :-) Great post!

  4. @Marva Not all agents, apparently: Bookends literary agency has now become a publisher:

    Beyond The Page Publishing

    (via Dear Author)

    They say they'll accept all genres, but as an agency they didn't have a track record as far as SFR.

    Interesting addendum, eh?

    @Carol Thanks for the links!

    @Pauline I agree, it's amazing how ebooks have started to level the playing field.

  5. Interesting analysis. I agree, niche genres will probably fare much better in the independent epublishing scene than the publishing mainstream--which may not even be the "mainstream" in 10 years. SFR isn't the only thing I write, but I'm trying out the indie route for now instead of the more traditional agent/publisher path.

  6. You raise some excellent points, Heather, and provide plenty of food for thought, as always. Thanks for posting this!

    What an interesting footnote on Bookends. Hmmm...

    Thanks for the related links, Carol R. As you said, this is a great time to be a writer...and it's an exciting time.

    There are so many stairways to success in this brave new world of publishing.

  7. @Joe Good point about the face of mainstream changing in the future. Best of luck with your projects!

    @Laurie It seems to me that in terms of publishing, some stairways have gotten longer, while others have been shortened, if that makes sense. At least authors have more than one staircase from which to choose.

  8. Publishing is certainly a Wild Wild West right now. So many new things happening all the time. I'm glad that e-publishers are contracting SFR.

    In my 'real' life I know many friends and relatives who now own e-readers, all within the past couple years, but especially this year. At least five people I know got e-readers for Christmas. These are not readers who were already online with the erotic romance phenomena but come from eclectic reading backgrounds. Who knows what trends these new e-readers will spark? Hopefully SFR!

  9. While I haven't considered going the indie route at this point, I've pretty much known from the start that my books are more likely to find a home with epublishers than traditional print. Why? Because as you said, even the more established epublishers are willing to take on the genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres the Big 6 shy away from. And that's fine with me. I'm happy to have a publisher that's in the thick of things.

    I think SFR is working its way out of niche-dom, thanks to the digital age and amazing stories. So Yay!

    As for the agent question, I signed with mine after getting the pub offer. She knew from the get-go there would be no money upfront. Her confidence was beyond encouraging, and I appreciate having her at my back for future works and to help navigate the ever-changing world of publishing. Even if we don't make boat loads of cash right away ; )

  10. I DVD'd the JK Rowling story that was on Lifetime this weekend. Missed the first half hour, but saw the writing parts. It was interesting to watch and brought back a lot of memories to my first steps into publishing. Made me understand better why some authors just can't quit reaching for the NY/big publishing. She lived THE dream and I can remember having it.

    You have to get beat up by the realities of the business before you realize that dreams can take different forms. I think the key to being happy in this business is being able to be flexible and focus on what brings you to the process. For me, that is writing. I love writing, I love writing MY stories, my way. For others, it is different. Just as we are all different in what we write and how we write, it is okay to be different in what we want our publishing experience to be. In how we realize our dream of being published.

    What is sad is when some diminish others because their dreams aren't the same. But it was most interesting to see her story.


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