Last weekend’s Publishing News had not only a selection of forthcoming SF&F titles for the summer, picked by Iain Emsley of Foreboding Prices… Sorry, I mean Forbidden Planet but also a nice full-page feature on how under-rated the genre often is by both booksellers and the public. Claire Bott (a Telos author) put together a fine item, which included input from Tim Holman of Orbit and Jane Johnson of HarperCollins Voyager, arguably two of the best SF editors in the UK and publishers who have done a lot to push the genre (and sent me many fine titles over the years I‘ve known them).
Jacket covers have all too often been a barrier, with dreadfully run-of-the-mill (I wouldn’t let them grind pepper never mind run my mill) artists illustrating woefully generic artwork. Certainly I’ve groaned and moaned over the covers of some genre works, even the ones on those of famous authors on occasions. The redesign of Ken MacLeod’s titles or Arthur C Clarke winner Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (a very interesting book) show that you can be faithful to your core audience and still try to reach out to more general readers.
I won’t repeat the entire article verbatim, but there was much discussion about style, marketing and even class influences (from World Fantasy Award winner Graham Joyce) and the fact that you don‘t have so many genre titles in the national Top 40 if you are only selling to a small number of geeks. Strangely enough the only major influence on selling SF&F to both genre readers and introducing more general readers Bott missed out (and to be fair she did very well with the space she had) was the role of expert booksellers.
Okay, I am obviously biased in this respect, but the bookseller are ultimately the people in publishing who are at the front line. We see what people buy, we recommend, we put out the displays and often pick the selection and arrangement of titles for sections, so I don’t think I am being immodest by claiming that we booksellers too have not only a role to play here but also exert some influence. A small personal example recently would be a middle-aged gentleman who enjoyed reading the current vogue in Classical period novels set around real events, such as Gates of Fire or Spartan. I showed him some more titles but he had already read them. Hmmm – take him over to the SF section, He doesn’t read SF he says. Have a look at this I tell him and pass him Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, an alternative history in which Rome never fell. Customer is impressed – all the more so since he would never have picked this up otherwise. He’s since told me he’s enjoying the book and wondering what else we have that may be historical fiction and is considering Years of Rice and Salt or Ward Moore’s great-grand-daddy of them all, Bring the Jubilee (a fabulous novel in any genre).
Point being these are titles which sell to SF&F fans but can also appeal to a more general readership if you know how to introduce them to the books. Hidden away in the section – or even in our case displayed on a stand in SF with mini reviews on them – they’ll never see them because they don’t go near that section because of course, they don’t read SF&F…