…And A Side Order of Romance

Two readers walk into a bar. “Read any good books lately?” one reader asks the other.

Two authors walk into a bar. “Sold any good books lately?” one author asks the other.

Honest, that’s the truth. The problem is that the second question is a lot harder to answer than the first. Which is why when I’m asked to wax poetic about the state of the science fiction romance genre, I’ll look at my wristwatch and ask, “Do you mean the state of SFR now or a half-hour from now?”

Adult science fiction novels, according to my agent, Kristin Nelson, are on the down-trend. http://pubrants.blogspot.com/2010/09/when-its-not-hot-passion-can-carry-it.html “This week I went on submission with an adult SF novel. Ask any editor and they will tell you, adult SF is not hot. Fantasy is hot—particularly urban fantasy,” Nelson says.

This obviously is not happy news to anyone reading this blog. Nor is it startling news. Statistically, science fiction has always been a low point-scorer in the game of fiction, accounting for about 8 to 10 percent of all paperback sales. Mystery clocks in around 15 percent.

Which brings me to my title… a side order of romance.

Romance fiction accounts for about 45 to 50 percent of all fiction paperbacks sold. This is a whopping huge number to those of us who follow the business of writing fiction (ie: the second set to walk into the bar above.) So one would think that combining a romance plot with a science fiction plot would bring that additional 10 percent of readers to the game.

It hasn’t—yet. Or it hasn’t to any great extent. A lot of the reason is marketing. Publishers are sincerely confuzzled on how to market science fiction romance or romantic science fiction (and the two are not the same, no.) When publishers hype the romance with kissy-covers, the science fiction fans flee. When the publishers slap a starship on the cover, romance readers recoil. No, not all. I’m exaggerating to make a point (and to have fun with alliteration, obviously). But in the six years I’ve been on the shelves with SFR books, I’ve not seen the barriers come tumbling down from either side when it comes to a side order of romance with SF.

There have been high points. SF readers who like the character-driven visual media tend to be more accepting of SFR. Romance readers who watched FIREFLY and aimed to misbehave along with Captain Mal found the same kind of hi-jinx on the pages of an SFR. But there are still barriers—there are still readers (and bloggers and reviewers) who thrust their heels into the mud and refuse to budge on the issue of mixing SF with R.

The reality is that a goodly amount of SF is plot-driven and/or theme-driven, with the characters simply as vehicles for the plot or analogies for the theme. If that’s the kind of journey a reader wants then, yes, any character-driven novel is going to feel strange to her. It doesn’t mean that plot is better than character, or character than plot. It’s what the reader likes or expects to find between the covers of the book.

And various publishing marketing departments haven’t had much success in telegraphing just what it is between the covers, so that readers can judge whether or not they like it. Which, of course, affects sales and, of course, affects an author’s “numbers,” which of course affects whether or not the author’s next manuscript will be picked up. Which affects the state of SFR as a genre overall.

Dorchester’s SHOMI line and Silhouette’s BOMBSHELL are almost poster-children for this dilemma. Both had SFR/Urban Fantasy/ Paranormal Romance plots. Both lines folded. Both were—in the opinions of just about every editor and agent and author I’ve spoken to in the past two years—horribly mis-marketed. And when a line goes down, detractors love to point to that and say, “See, I told you SFR doesn’t sell.”

No. SFR poorly marketed doesn’t sell well. But with romance readers making up danged near half of all paperback sales, and with SF books traditionally having the longest shelf-life of any paperbacks in a store, there’s every indication the combo CAN and SHOULD work.

If only someone can figure out how to market it.

Maybe we need some guy in a trench coat standing in the bookstore aisles going, “Psst, hey, reader! You want a little side of romance with that?”

Bio:

A former news reporter and retired private detective, Linnea Sinclair writes award-winning, fast-paced science fiction romance for Bantam Dell, including Gabriel’s Ghost, Games of Command, Hope’s Folly, and her current best seller, Rebels and Lovers. Her short story, “Courting Trouble,” is featured in Songs of Love & Death: Tales of Star-Crossed Love, a cross-genre anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 16. 2010). Sinclair splits her time between Florida (winters) and Ohio (summers)—and the Intergalactic Bar & Grille at www.linneasinclair.com.

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  • J-A Brocke

    There’s SF Romance? I didn’t know that. Excellent!

  • Marianne

    Absolutely, and Linnea’s one of the best!

  • http://www.marcellaburnard.com Marcella Burnard

    It’s interesting to know that SFR books seem to have problems generating big sales numbers and yet publishers seem to be throwing more and more authors at the issue. I’m grateful, heaven knows, because Linnea hooked me on SFR stories. :) I’ll be interested to see what finally tips SFR into the mainstream (of romance readers). I don’t know how it will happen or with which author – I’m only determined that is shall, darn it, so those of us who love it can go one consuming it in mass quantity.

  • Marianne

    Hi Marcella,
    I think its a perspective thing. If you tag something SF then people are often scared they won’t understand or like it, that it will be too ‘way out’. In actual fact most of the most successful blockbuster movies of all times are SF and people love them. We just need to overcome the bias.
    MDP

  • Kathy

    I’ve read Futuristic Romances for years, but hadn’t crossed over much to Science Fiction Romance until I was offered a Linnea Sinclair (Games of Command) for review. I was hesitant. Would it meet my “romance reader” expectations? Actually…it shattered my expectations and has raised the bar for all future romances. In fact, the hero, Kel-Paten, is my all-time fave hero.

  • Marianne

    Hi Kathy,
    was you hesitancy solely about the romance component, or did the idea of SF put you off as well?

  • Kathy

    I love Science Fiction. Grew up with Star Wars (even attempted the Princess Leia hair style). Will watch many genre – love Hitchcock, Science Fiction, mysteries, etc – but I am simply a Die Hard Romance Reader. I need my HEA – and any genre other than romance cannot guarantee my HEA. That is why I was hesitant. I did my research first – and seeing a picture of a kitty on the cover helped. (I think the original cover to Games of Command was a perfect match for the storyline!)

  • http://www.linneasinclair.com Linnea

    Kathy, I want to see a photo of you with the Princess hair!

    J-A, yep, there be SF Romance as well as Romantic SF and Futuristics. For a great run, check out The Galaxy Express blog http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/

    Marcella, Congrats on the AWESOME RT review! (psst! I just downloaded your book to my Nook.)

    Marianne, you rock, girlie! But it’s not just the SF tag that scares people. It’s the romance tag as well. Both genres have IMHO inaccurate stereotypes, as in SF is too weird and brainy, and romance is too mushy and silly. Neither are true but stereotypes are tough to overcome because they’re, well, stereotypes. People believe them without question.

    I agree that many blockbuster movies are SF-based. But then keep in mind much of the SF community disses media-SF and would consider that analogy just more proof that SFR is junk.

    Me, I love George Lucas and Stephen Speilberg ‘junk.’ I’d be very happy to be in their ‘junky’ category. ;-) ~Linnea

  • J-A Brocke

    Thanks for the link to the site, Linnea. I agree, both the SF and R tags might be putting people off, but when I looked at that site, I realised some of my favourite SF authors are actually SFR authors. That’s why I try not to limit myself to a particular genre (or two). A good story is a good story if it’s told well, no matter what genre.

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