Hungry for SF: Genre Crossovers Retain Fans and Attract New Readers | Genre Spotlight

August 2012 LJ Cover

Cover of the August 2012 LJ Issue

It’s not your typical New Yorker cover: a spaceman, a robot, and a sea monster break through a wall to crash a literary cocktail party. Marking the magazine’s first sf issue in its 87-year history, the June 4 and June 11, 2012, cover titled “Crashing the Gate” by cartoonist Daniel Clowes symbolizes the current breaking down of the boundaries that have long separated mainstream fiction from its genre categories. Where does general fiction end and sf, fantasy, and horror ­begin?

“We are seeing more genre fiction packaged as mainstream fiction (to name but a few: Glen Duncan, Justin Cronin, Eowin Ivey, Erin Morgenstern),” says Prime Books senior editor Paula Guran. There’s also an overall increase in genre crossovers rather than “pure” single-genre books, she says.

It’s clear to Tim Holman, publisher of Hachette’s Orbit Books sf/fantasy imprint, too, that science fictional and fantastical stories and ideas can excite a huge number of readers. “It’s a great time to be connecting these stories with readers who might be reluctant to venture into the sf/fantasy section but would love to read more authors like—for example—George R.R. Martin, Haruki Murakami, Charlaine Harris, and Stephen King.”

As they build new audiences, publishers also want to remain connected to their core readers. Can genre purists, or readers who just seek a fantastical escape, find titles that truly speak to them, whether traveling across the galaxy or into the underworld? Perhaps crossovers are just what Doctor Who ordered to perpetuate speculative fiction’s readership. The following survey of fall 2012 and winter 2013 titles illustrates the willingness of readers of all stripes to sit at the same table to feed on the fantastical imagination.

Entering the atmosphere

As best-selling sf/fantasy authors like Harris, Kim Harrison, and Raymond E. Feist wind down their popular series, fresh talents are emerging this year to capture the hearts and minds of readers. “It’s encouraging to see excitement for new writers,” notes Holman.

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasies and the early books of Stephen King, Doyce Testerman’s fantasy debut Hidden Things (Harper Voyager, Aug.) follows a young woman as she embarks on a surreal cross-country road trip after receiving a phone call from her dead business partner and former lover. This exploration into the supernatural places that lie hidden in the American heartland was a pick of “Books for Dudes” columnist Douglas Lord at the Fourth Annual Librarian Shout & Share program at June’s BookExpo America conference.

In November, Lee Collins makes his debut with The Dead of Winter (Angry Robot), a horror/Western mashup about a female bounty hunter of supernatural beings. “It’s probably fair to say (genre crossovers are) one of our hallmarks,” says Angry Robot’s marketing manager Darren Turpin. The publisher signed up Collins to a two-book deal after the unpublished and unagented author submitted his manuscript to Angry Robot’s Open Door Month pilot program that ran in March 2011. Collins’s second book, She Returns from War, will be released in spring 2013.

On the hard sf front, Angry Robot launches this month Madeline Ashby’s vN, a fresh twist on the “human vs. machine” trope. Its protagonist is Amy Peterson, a self-replicating humanoid robot (her dad is human; her mom is a von Neumann machine) who discovers “family secrets” from her grandmother (the one she ate alive) and ends up on the run from the law.

Other promising debuts include Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (Tor, Oct.), which LJ’s Prepub Alert editor Barbara Hoffert praised as urban fantasy that “smart sf fans should love”; Linda Grimes’s fresh take on the paranormal genre, In a Fix (Tor, Sept.; see starred review on p. 69); Roberta Trahan’s historical fantasy The Well of Tears (47North: Amazon, Sept.), set five centuries after Camelot; and Tina Connolly’s Ironskin (Tor, Oct.), a steampunk version of Jane Eyre

Reinvigorated epics

Thanks to the success of HBO’s Game of Thones, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, epic fantasy continues to be a hot commodity for publishers. Susan Alison, editorial director of Penguin’s Berkley imprint, is seeing a flood of excellent manuscripts coming out of the UK. She credits Martin’s success for reinvigorating the market for epic historical fantasies. “We are already [having] success with this kind of dark epic fantasy with Mark Lawrence.” Arriving this month is King of Thorns (Ace: Berkley; see review on p. 66), the second entry in Lawrence’s gritty coming-of-age saga about a warrior king that launched last year with Prince of Thorns.

As editors continue to seek the next traditional epic, there remains room for innovation and a distinct style. For Harper Voyager executive editor Diana Gill, publishing a fantasy series is “a tricky balance between love for a beloved series or character and the need to keep stories fresh.” The fantastical elements in the genre allow (and often demand) a wide canvas for world-building, she explains. And the scope can be larger, which lends itself to the series format.

“This is true even beyond epic fantasies,” says Gill. Readers fall in love with the characters and want to know more. The editor cites as an example “house favorite” Richard Kadrey, whose fourth entry in his “Sandman Slim” paranormal series, Devil Said Bang (Aug.), debuts this month. “His series [about a vengeful magician/hit man who escapes Hell] has justly gained fans and glowing praise from all over—authors, reviewers, musicians (Blondie name-checked Sandman Slim in a song), and readers of all types of genres.” Kadry’s antihero this time has hell to pay—literally—after becoming the new Lucifer.

How to train your dragon

Dragons have always been a popular trope of epic fantasy. If Peter Jackson’s forthcoming film of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit is a hit, more of these fire-breathing creatures are bound to populate fantasy’s pages.

“A dragon is to epic fantasy what the vampire is to urban fantasy and horror,” comments Tor editor Stacy Hill. “It’s a primal monster of the genre, a creature much older than ourselves that is emblematic of some of our basic fears and desires….” Besides, Hill finds that dragons are just cool.

Slithering onto Tor’s fall list is Bard’s Oath (Nov.), the third installment of Joanne Bertin’s “Dragonlords” series. In this outing, the dragonlords (humans who can transform into dragons) battle a vengeful bard. Also, dragons play a role in Crown of Vengeance (Tor, Nov.), the first entry in a new “Dragon Prophecy” series based in the world of Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s previous collaborations.

Pounding the pavement

Have those magical city streets where hard-boiled sleuths stalk fantastic creatures or romantic couples deal with the complications of interspecies relationships become too crowded? As a catchall for characters and settings, Pyr editorial director Lou Anders argues that urban fantasy needs to redefine itself. While books at the high end of the category still sell, the midlist is oversaturated. “We have reached a glut in the related subgenres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and we’re seeing a push back from readers…and perhaps some editorial fatigue.”

The fine line that separates traditional urban fantasy from paranormal romance has thinned out even more thanks to best-selling titles by authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Patricia Briggs in which the romantic relationship of the main characters becomes so interwoven with the fantasy that it would be difficult to pull these elements apart. The trick for editors and publishers, says Anders, will be “to find a way to identify and single out deserving works of contemporary fantasy from the sea of paranormal romance[s].”

Vampires and werewolves are not yet an endangered species, but Orbit’s Holman agrees with Anders that the urban fantasy market is definitely getting tougher for new writers who don’t have a genuinely original voice or fresh supernatural twist. But established authors have more leeway to experiment in this area. This November, Sharon Shinn crosses over into werewolf territory with Still Life with Shapeshifter (Ace: Berkley), the second entry in her “Shifting Circle” series, and Tanya Huff leaves her popular “Blood” series featuring ancient vampire Henry Fitzroy to explore a kingdom ruled by weres in The Silvered (DAW).

Anders doesn’t see an issue with the genre-blending between urban fantasy and mysteries The market for supernatural mysteries remains strong, and best-selling authors and newcomers are meeting the demand. Both Jacqueline Carey, author of the “Kushiel’s Legacy” historical fantasies, and Jocelyn Drake, who writes the “Dark Days” vampire books, switch gears this fall with new series launches. As an enforcer for the Norse goddess Hel, Daisy Johanssen investigates the death of a local college student in Carey’s Dark Currents (ROC:NAL, Oct.), Meet Drake’s new protagonist, a tattoo artist named Gage, who can put a little magic in his work but whose secrets catch up with him in Angel’s Ink (Harper Voyager, Oct.), the first volume in the “Asylum Tales.”

Debut author Phillipa Bornikova’s This Case Is Gonna Kill Me (Tor, Sept.; see starred review on p. 65) introduces urban fantasy readers to a corporate world under the control of vampires, werewolves, and elves. Freshly minted lawyer Linnet may be from an affluent Connecticut family, but playing office politics with nonhumans could kill her career—and her.

Seanan McGuire’s changeling knight October Daye searches for another missing child in Ashes of Honor (DAW, Sept.). Bobby Dollar hides his true identity as an angel while fighting Heaven’s war on Earth in best-selling author Tad Williams’s urban fantasy debut, The Dirty Streets of Heaven (DAW, Sept.).

Be very afraid of the dark

Horror—things that go bump in the night, demons that swallow your soul—is the scary side of speculative fiction, yet some publishers are wary of labeling their books as such. “Horror, per se, is seldom found by that name,”explains Prime Books’ Guran. “You have, instead, dark motifs showing up strongly in just about any type of fiction.”

“We’ve also seen that wince of distaste from people who think we’re a ‘horror publisher,’?” says Sandra Kasturi, a copublisher of the World Fantasy Award–nominated ChiZine Publishing, which specializes in what its website describes as “weird, surreal, subtle, and disturbing dark literary fiction.” But she points out that this genre’s themes and conventions have seeped into our popular culture, noting that recent top-grossing films like The Avengers tend to be dark, if not outright horror.

The classic style of the stories in Ian Rogers’s debut, Every House Is Haunted (Oct.), “is like being led gently through a creepy Halloween mansion,” states Kasturi, “and having your guide put your hand into a bowl and say, ‘These are eyeballs!’ But you know it’s fake; it’s actually a bowl of grapes. Except…in this case, maybe it’s not.” Remember Why You Fear Me: The Best Dark Fiction of Robert Shearman (Oct.) collects the celebrated stories of an award-winning writer for the Doctor Who television series.

New on the horror and dark fantasy scene is JournalStone Publishing, which had two authors receive 2011 Bram Stoker Award nominations in its first year of operation. Managing editor Norman Rubenstein attributes the growth in genre crossovers to readers’ willingness to look beyond any labels. “As horror is one of the oldest and most basic of genres, it should not come as a surprise that writers are incorporating aspects of the genre, and/or the related genres of dark fantasy and even science fiction into stories that have a greater scope.”

JournalStone is poised to keep readers up all night with Brett J. Talley’s The Void (Jul.), an unnerving read that mixes Lovecraftian horror with hard sf. And fans of NBC’s Grimm will find Jeffrey Wilson’s The Donors (Jun.), aboutorgan-harvesting demons hiding in plain sight, a comparable read.

Goosebumps for grown-ups

This fall, YA horror master R.L. Stine publishes his first adult horror novel, Red Rain (Touchstone: S. & S., Oct.). “This is the 20th anniversary of [the] ‘Goosebumps’[series], which means that many of my original readers are in their twenties and thirties,” says the author. “So many of them asked, ‘When are you going to write a book for us?’ that I decided I’d try to write adult horror that would remind them why they enjoyed my books when they were younger.”

Touchstone publisher Stacy Creamer, who is also Stine’s editor, concurs. “Those who grew up reading Stine will not only be able to share [the series] with their kids, they’ll have a novel of their own to read—and they’ll find themselves scared all over again.”

Zombies get smart

The undead are still major genre players, but the new zombies are not just eating brains, they are also acquiring them. K. Bennett’s Mallory Crane is a working defense lawyer in California just trying to make a buck—and not get caught up in her brain-eating tendencies. Her third adventure, I Ate the Sheriff , comes from Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint this month. The pseudonymous author (Christy Award winner James Scott Bell) was struck that zombies were always depicted as mindless monsters. “What if I made a zombie a hero? Then it was just a short jump to the legal thriller genre, since that’s my background.”

Kevin J. Anderson also brings humor to the unfunny walking dead with his new “Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I.” series: Death Warmed Over (Kensington, Aug.; see review on p. 65) and Unnatural Acts (Kensington, Jan. 2013).

Steampunk’s inner cogs

Despite criticism that it’s just a fad, steam­punk is thriving as it draws more readers into a world where machinery meets magic. Assassins, mages, and sorcerers roam Victorian England in Lilith Saintcrow’s steampunk series debut, The Iron Wyrm Affair (Orbit, Aug.). Kate Locke also launches a new series in which an undead Queen Victoria rules modern Britain: God Save the Queen (Orbit, Jul.) and The Queen Is Dead (Orbit, Feb. 2013). And Cherie Priest continues her “Clockwork Century” series with The Inexplicables (Tor, Nov.), in which a drug-dealing orphan is haunted by a ghost, a deadline, and worse.

Other writers are pushing this subgenre’s envelope with a little genre blending. Pyr editorial director Anders describes Mark Hodder’s A Red Sun Also Rises (Pyr: Prometheus, Dec.) as a Victorian steampunk spin on the classic planetary romances of the early 20th century. Mike Resnick continues his successful steampunk Westerns with The Doctor and the Rough Rider (Pyr: Prometheus, Dec.), in which Doc Holliday, Geronimo, and Teddy Roosevelt deal with medicine men and magic.

Music can tell a story, and sometimes it inspires one. A collaboration that started years ago with brainstorming sessions between author Kevin J. Anderson and drummer Neil Peart of the legendary Canadian rock bank Rush finally will appear in print this September with Clockwork Angels: The Novel (ECW). Based on Rush’s studio album of the same title, it tells the epic story of one young man pursuing his dreams through a steampunk landscape.

Collected stories

From the pulp magazine stories of the 1920s to the e-zine tales of today, a strong short story culture has long thrived in sf and fantasy. “Insiders sometimes joke that publishing professionals are a lot more interested in anthologies than readers,” reflects Tor editor Liz Gorinsky,” but clearly enough readers are buying them that they remain a perennial force in our field.” In addition to the growing number of web magazines as well as the print magazines that still publish short genre fiction, Gorinsky also cites the multiple short fiction categories in every major sf award. “That means that about as many people get noticed by writing acclaimed short stories as by publishing novels. This leads to a self-perpetuating culture where readers, writers, and publishers alike think anthologies and fiction magazines are important, which in turn keeps their status far higher than what you see in other sectors of publishing.”

Apex Publications draws many of its print anthologies from stories published in its monthly online magazine, a 2012 Hugo Award nominee for Best Semiprozine. In The Book of Apex: Volume 3 of Apex Magazine (Jun.), the award-winning author Catherynne M. Valente collects 31 stories from the 15 issues she edited, including tales by new stars like Saladin Ahmed. Highlighting sf and fantasy authors in Latin America and Africa is The Apex Book of World SF 2 (Aug.), edited by Lavie Tidhar.

Seventeen tales of death and despair await horror fans in editor Ellen Datlow’s latest collection, Blood and Other Cravings (Tor, Oct.). Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelne collect 13 short urban fantasies about your worst school nightmares in An Apple for the Creature (Ace: Berkley, Sept.). In October, Kim Harrison will take her many fans Into the Woods: Tales from the Hollows and Beyond (Harper ­Voyager). i

In the wake of Ray Bradbury’s death this past June, Morrow moved up the release to July of its tribute anthology Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury. [See Q&A with the volume’s coeditor, Mort Castle, on p. 20—Ed.] Prime Books’ anthologies offer a wide range of fantasy and fun with Circus: Fantasy Under the Big Top (Sept.), Rock On: The Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Hits (Oct.), and Bloody Fabulous: Stories of Fantasy and Fashion (Nov.).

Hung jury?

The verdict is still out on traditional sf. Orbit’s Holman believes the genre is showing no growth as a category, but Pyr’s Anders is convinced that there will be an uptick in the sales of space-focused titles. Pointing to Syfy’s 2013 Defiance series (which will also be set up as a massive multiplayer online game) and the recent release of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, Anders insists readers are “ripe for science fiction to step forward and address our concerns.”

Military sf continues to be a strong subcategory with titles like Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick’s The Cassandra Project (Ace: Berkley, Nov.), which uncovers the secret history of the U.S. space program. Best-selling author Ian Douglas turns his naval experiences into an intergalactic adventure, Bloodstar (Harper Voyager, Aug.), the first volume in the new “Star Corpsman” series. John Varley takes a speculative look at American ties to the Middle East and its oil reserves in Slow Apocalypse (Ace: Berkley, Sept.).

Other promising fall titles include Christian Cantrell’s Containment (47North: Amazon, Aug.; see starred review on p. 66), which combines hard sf with psychological drama. Moving forward to 2107, Christopher Bennett’s Only Superhuman (Tor, Oct.) showcases genetically engineered superheroes who defend the Asteroid Belt. After May’s The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin, Walter Mosley brings his second book of speculative “flip-book” fiction, Merge/Disciple (Tor), to readers in October.

Electric slide into ebooks

For sf/fantasy readers, the ebook future is already here. “[They] were online before anyone else, ” says Harper Voyager’s Gill, who is heading the sf imprint’s venture into the brave new world of digital-original publishing. The bane of her existence as an editor is finding a story she loves but “that just might not work on the regular hardcover scale.” Digital publishing allows Gill and her team to find “the right path for every book” that they want to put into readers’ hands. Harper Voyager will be releasing 25 titles—reprints from anthologies, original digital short stories, and full-length novels—through the next year. Highlights include Jocelyn Drake’s already released e-novella The Asylum Interviews: Bronx (a prequel to Angel’s Ink) and a revised and expanded version of Nick Cole’s The Old Man and the Wasteland, which was originally self-published.

In April, Tor, the world’s biggest sf publisher, announced that beginning in July, all of its ebooks would be sold free of digial rights management (DRM). Tor senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden believes that rights management has been a turnoff for readers.

“I’m pretty sure there are a number of hard-core sf and fantasy readers who have been avoiding ebooks, not because they’re uncomfortable with technology but because they’re very tech-savvy and therefore dislike the ways that ebooks have hitherto been sold.” Such readers have been very dubious about the DRM restrictions and the “walled garden” approach in which buying an ebook from a particular retailer ties them into that retailer’s device or their app.

Nielsen Hayden noted that sales for the first frontlist Tor title to appear without DRM on its electronic edition, John Scalzi’s Redshirts (Jun.), have been off the charts, even relative to the strong e-sales of Scalzi’s previous titles. He added this had little impact to the hardcover sales, which are slightly up from Scalzi’s previous book. “This suggests to me that lots of sf fans have been waiting for a DRM-free, non-walled-garden way to purchase ebooks, and that given the opportunity, they’ll start buying a lot of them.”

Hot on the heels of Redshirts, Tor has announced that Scalzi’s next book in “The Old Man’s War” series, The Human Division, will be released initially in weekly digital “episodes” from December 2012 through February 2013. The novel will then be published as a full print and ebook either in late spring or early summer of 2013.

Why release it first as a digital serial? It was a simple decision for Tor. “John Scalzi wanted to write the story as an episodic series. He suggested we try publishing it as an online serial,” explains Neilsen Hayden. “We said ‘That’s an interesting idea, let’s do it.’”

Online serials are also feeding the fall list of Amazon’s new 47North sf imprint [see Q&A with editor Alex Carr on p. 21], which will publish in September the second volume of the epic digital serial “The Foreworld Saga.” Originally conceived as an online publication by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and several other authors, The Mongoliad was initially published on their own platform. Interaction between the writers and their fans shaped the complex multiple narrative and character arcs.

Simultaneously released in print and digital editions, the novels (The Mongoliad: Book One was published in July) have been restructured with a significant amount of changed and new content. “The idea is that readers will not have had to have read the original serial to jump right in, while still creating something new for the original fans of the project,” explains 47North publicist Justin Golenbock.

Going forward

As retail bookstores shrink shelf space for print titles and the availability of ereaders increases, the boundaries between genres have become even more permeable. With the expansion of digital originals and self-published titles, publishers must respond by providing the best quality reads they can and ensuring that each book speaks directly to its readers.

“Science and fantasy are as popular as ever,” says Pyr editorial director Lou Anders. “The mainstream acceptance of the genre at an all-time high, the audience more savvy and responsive than any we’ve had in years. We can only go forward.”

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