Where should I publish an SFF novel? an essay by Nalini Haynes

Introduction

This essay will look at publishing houses and small presses who support science fiction and fantasy (SFF) with a view to publishing my novel. Every choice has a cost: the major costs are financial and opportunity costs. Costs and benefits to be considered when choosing a publishing company include geographical location for first print and whether to publish with a large publishing company or small press.

Choosing a genre

Although SFF suffers from being classified as ‘genre’, the black sheep of the literary publishing family, forty-eight out of fifty of the highest-grossing movies are science fiction or fantasy (Wikipedia 2015). SFF novels likewise sell well. Publishers Weekly (2013) includes a Nielsen Bookscan list showing that Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) sold 138,169 copies and Meyer’s The Host (2008) sold 100,911 copies in the week ending September 8, 2013.

Fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett accounted for 3.4% to 3.8% of fiction sales in Britain in 2003 alone (Wikipedia 2015). Contrast this with CEOs Rod Denton (Writers Victoria), Henry Rosenbloom (Scribe Publishing) and Michael Heyward’s (Text Publishing) disclosure at the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival: for a literary novel to sell 1000 copies in Australia was excellent but normal print runs were in the hundreds. It is difficult to move ‘literary’ stock. In contrast, the SFF genre is popular and growing.

Choosing a region

The Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) treats ‘genre fiction’ as a poor cousin to ‘literature’, diminishing local opportunities. Historically, the MWF has largely relegated SFF to events for school children with rare exceptions. In 2015 the MWF expanded its horizons, allowing ‘all genres’ — SFF, romance etc — a total of one day in a ten-day festival (Lisa Dempster, pers. comms., 19 August 2015). With local attitudes closing doors to local genre authors, it is imperative to access overseas markets.

The Australian market is also smaller than the US, UK and Canada. For example, attendance at Australia’s WorldCon in 2010 was 2,101 compared with 4,644 at the same convention held in the US in 2015 (Wikipedia 2015). Furthermore, Australia has nothing comparable to the San Diego Comic-Con, whose attendance has exceeded 130,000 in recent years (Comic-con 2015) although sales at Supanova and ACM in Australia make it worthwhile for independent and Big Five (major publishing houses) authors to attend, speak on panels and sit for autograph queues.

Anecdotal evidence from Australian authors indicates novels published locally have a slim chance of being published elsewhere later because publishers look at sales figures without taking into account relative market size. Thus publishing first in the US, UK and Canada is a better career choice than publishing in Australia if an author must choose between regions.

Australian novels published in the United States, Canada and the UK have a reasonable chance of success in those markets, in Australia and in foreign language markets as long as authors’ contracts, especially world rights and paper/ebook rights, are carefully managed and the novels aren’t set in Australia. Zeroes (Westerfeld, Lanagan & Biancotti 2015) was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and in the US by Simon & Schuster simultaneously.

Thus I would prefer to publish first in the US, UK or Canada over Australia if given a choice.

Diversity in SFF

Norton (2015) anticipates scheduled SFF publications for the US fall/winter schedule, commenting on the expansion of what used to be niche genres dominated by white men:

But many… penned by a crop of increasingly diverse writers, will also introduce fresh settings, concepts, and ways of looking at existing themes that will appeal to a rapidly growing and broadening readership.

Hughes (2015) says

There has been a definite shift towards female writers in the [fantasy] genre, which is likely to snowball in 2015, agreed Kate McHale, science fiction buyer for Waterstones. “People are beginning to realise you can publish a sci-fi or fantasy novel by a female author and these books will sell. Look at [US sci-fi writer] Ann Leckie, who won everything going last year”.

Likewise, there is a new wave of coloured authors achieving success with prominent personalities supporting diversity.

Local content

An anomaly of the SFF market is that audiences are happy to read stories set in fictional worlds but they are less interested in stories set in Australia (or other unfamiliar countries in the real world). Momentum Books (2015) submissions page says:

We like fiction with a global focus. Extremely local or parochial fiction based in Australia (or elsewhere) will struggle to find a home with an international readership.

Zeroes (Westerfeld, Lanagan, Biancotti, 2015) is set in the United States as is my novel.

Big Five or small press

Many authors say they’d rather publish with a small press than be a B-list author for a Big Five (large publishing) company because the support provided affects the success of their novel. Big Five publishing houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, PanMacmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) all manage SFF novels to some extent, with specialist imprints like Gollancz, Voyager, Tor, Corgi, and Saga. The number of small and independent presses publishing SFF in the US, UK and Canada is lengthy (Locus Magazine, 2015) so this essay will only discuss Night Shade to illustrate opportunity cost.

Large publishing companies treat different authors and novels according to their perceived worth. A-list authors receive the red carpet treatment including international tours. For example, I interviewed Kevin J Anderson at a 5-star hotel then his publicist said his driver had arrived. B-list authors’ novels are promoted by sending Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) or retail copies to reviewers. Increasingly, low B-list novels are only available in electronic format from sites such as Edelweiss. ARCs presented thus lose traction with inferior presentation and lack of easy access due to a poorly-designed website plus DRM and/or format issues make access difficult. Publishers may not bother with review copies for C-list novels or review copies are only available electronically. Large publishing companies put little effort into low-list promotions.

Small publishing companies don’t have the resources for red carpet treatment but good companies back their publications. For example, Sarah Braybrooke (pers. comm., 2013) of Scribe Publishing listed possible interested parties, from radio personalities to book bloggers. As a publicist, she contacts people by phone or email, inviting interest and generally beating up the novels for which she is responsible. When authors can afford to travel themselves, small publishing companies may use their contacts to develop a tour itinerary.

Opportunity cost

Unfortunately, some publishing companies do not understand the market. Meg Mundell (pers. comm., 2011) was not aware of the existence of the science fiction community when her novel Black Glass was released. I advised her and went on to promote her novel because I loved it so much, helping it to reach its best market and receive commendations in several award categories. Knowledge of genre and ability to engage with potential markets is crucial to success.

Night Shade books is a small press that used to have a reputation for talent-spotting, ensuring that their new authors would be read by the right people. However, poor management resulted in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) black-balling Night Shade. Prior to the scandal, publishing a debut novel with Night Shade may have been worthwhile even without being paid because it was an excellent means to launch a career. When Night Shade sold most of its list to non-fiction publishers Skyhorse and Start (Deahl 2013; Hurley 2013), affected authors were worried about the rights to their novels and the impact of their novels being owned by a publishing company ignorant of the genre.

For a time publishing with Night Shade did not count toward eligibility for membership of SFWA and may not have resulted in being read by the right people. SFWA appears to have deleted several posts and Writers Beware warnings about publishing with Night Shade so the present situation is ambiguous. Insider knowledge is essential to avoid a potentially disastrous career move. SFWA (2015) lists issues for consideration when investigating a small press publisher.

Conclusion

SFF is a commercially-successful genre with fans who treat their authors like rock stars. Diversity in novels and authors is currently trending, increasing potential for my novel. There is greater potential for success if my novel is published in the US, UK or Canada as long as it is not set in Australia. When choosing a publisher, opportunities must be weighed carefully against costs: a debut novel reaching the target market may be more important than being paid. However, the beginning of a series needs to be situated with long-term support or any career may suffer.

References

Card, OS 1985, Ender’s Game, Hachette, Sydney.

Deahl, R 2013, Struggling Indie SF Press, Night Shade, Pushes Asset Sale, Publishers Weekly, viewed 18 Sept 2015, <http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/56656-struggling-indie-sf-press-night-shade-pushes-asset-sale.html>.

Hughes, S 2015, Feeding the Hunger, The Guardian, viewed 16 Sept 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/12/feeding-the-hunger-female-writers-are-storming-the-male-citadels-of-sci-fi>.

Hurley, K 2013, Deal/No Deal: Why I Am Considering the Skyhorse/Night Shade “Buyout”, Kameron Hurley, viewed 18 Sept 2015, <http://www.kameronhurley.com/dealno-deal-writers-arent-totally-stupid/>.

Locus Magazine 2015, Publishers, viewed 25 September 2015, <http://www.locusmag.com/Links/Publishers.html>.

Meyer, S 2008, The Host, Hachette, Sydney.

Momentum 2015, Submissions, Momentum, viewed 18 September 2015, <http://momentumbooks.com.au/submissions/>.

Mundell, M 2011, Black Glass, Scribe Publishing, Melbourne.

Norton, E 2015, ‘A genre takes flight: Sf/fantasy is enjoying a pop culture moment’, Library Journal, 13, p. 22, Literature Resource Center, EBSCOhost, viewed 30 August 2015.

Obeso, D 2013, The Art of the Future, Publishers Weekly, vol. 260, no. 38, pp. 40-44.

SFWA 2015, Small Presses, SFWA, viewed 18 September 2015, <http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/small/>.

San Diego Comic-con 2015, About, San Diego Comic-Con, viewed 16 Sept 2015, <http://www.comic-con.org/about>.

Westerfeld, S; Lanagan, M; Biancotti, D 2015 Zeroes, Allen and Unwin, Melbourne.

Wikipedia 2015, List of Worldcons, Wikipedia, viewed 16 September 2015, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Worldcons>.

Wikipedia 2015, Terry Pratchett, Wikipedia, viewed 18 September 2015, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Pratchett>.