|Actual dime novel cover/ Syracuse U. library.|
In Friday's post I argued that those of us who read, write and love Science Fiction Romance need to move beyond the old issue of whether SF and romance belong together and start asking ourselves some tougher questions. This next one might be the toughest one of all.
Can we move beyond our “dime novel” niche? In the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th Century, the new genres of science fiction, mystery and romance were launched as cheap short stories sold for as little as a penny (“penny dreadfuls”) and later as novels sold for the extravagant price of a dime. This “pulp fiction” was not known for the quality of its production or its prose, and it earned its authors almost nothing, but it did keep its working class audience supplied with an endless stream of (mostly forgettable) stories. Yes, some great authors did emerge from this sea of words—Edgar Allen Poe, among the earliest, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. “Doc” Smith and others later on—but many others remain unknown today.
The digital revolution of recent years has opened up the world of publishing to new authors and new genres in much the same way. Got a manuscript and agents and the legacy publishers won’t give you the time of day? No worries. There are dozens of digital-first and digital-only publishers to try. If you don’t have the patience to submit to these publishers, you can always self-publish, with any number of helpers standing ready to provide editing, cover artwork, formatting and other services (for a price).
Digital publishing has been very welcoming to SFR, putting out dozens of titles over the past few years as digital-first or digital-only. And yet, the digital revolution has come with its own problems. The best-selling digital titles across the board are erotica, and SFR seems to be no exception. Visit the website of the oldest and most established digital publisher online and it is visually impossible to sort out the strictly romantic SFR from the erotic SFR. I like a good alien sandwich as much as the next gal, but that’s not what I’m looking for every time. And it gives the impression, like the pulp fiction of old, that this is all we are.
The quality of self-pubbed titles (and even those from some digital houses) varies wildly and a few bad apples can really spoil the barrel. Get burned a few times and a reader may begin to blame 1) digital publishing or 2) SFR.
Pricing is an ongoing conundrum and finding the sweet spot for a digital offering is anyone’s guess. The idea that giving away books in hopes of gaining readers has become so entrenched in the digital world that it is almost a lost cause to argue against it. Self-pubbers, especially, believe giving their hard work away for free or for $.99 will eventually get them a loyal audience. Personally, I believe this practice drags us all down. Because of the profusion of free stuff, readers have begun to expect to read for free. That only encourages piracy. In art as in life, you get what you pay for. You should expect to pay for quality work.
Digital titles also tend to be short—novella length or shorter. Since we can assume that the cost of producing a longer novel is not a major factor influencing the publishers here, what is driving this trend? Is it truly that our readers don’t want to read longer stories? Or that the current readers aren’t interested? Or are we settling for stories that feature the same old kickass heroines and emotionally distant heroes, few secondary characters, a single, easily resolved plot and no subplots, a quickly sketched world and the clichéd aliens to go with it? This is pulp fiction at its worst—or our version of category romance. It has its place, I suppose, but we need to move beyond it or we will never “break out” in the market or in readers’ minds.
Finally, how do we find the gold beneath the dross—and make sure it shines? When was the last time you were so excited by a science fiction romance novel you’d read that you just had to tell someone about it? What SFR author’s books will you rush to buy without even stopping to ask what they’re about? Where do you go consistently to get recommendations you trust about the best in new SFR? (This last question, at least, I have an answer for—Heather Massey at The Galaxy Express is my go-to for reading recommendations.)
We, as a budding “industry”, need to do a better job of sorting through all the masses of titles out there to make it easy for readers to find the kind of SFR they’re looking for—military, space opera, “hearth and home” (Heather’s term for mundane or Earth-based SFR and I love it!), erotica, science thriller—and find the authors they’ll like.
There is a multi-blog effort afoot (of which Spacefreighters Lounge hopes to be a part) to do an SFR/mainstream author comparison, as in “if you like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s League Series you’ll like Marcella Burnard’s Enemy Within”. A new online magazine, the Sci Fi Romance Quarterly, launching in November and edited by K.S. Augustin, Diane Dooley and Heather Massey, will also be devoted to all things SFR, including book reviews. And, of course, there are the blogs and websites listed here on SL that stay on the cutting edge of SFR.
These things will help, but they are only a beginning as we move into the next phase of advocating for science fiction romance. What other questions should we be asking, and where will we find the answers?