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Mission Possible: The Branding of a Subgenre

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The following is a guest op ed from Heather Massey of the fabulous Galaxy Express.   Heather’s blog is an example of a lover of books filling a need within the book community.   There are science fiction blogs and fantasy sites but Heather’s blog is devoted to talking about science ficiton and fantasy with an emphasis on romance.   She’s gained a great reputation within the science fiction/fantasy community and she is often found defending and supporting the romance genre.   It’s people like Heather that will help to elevate this genre that we love in the hearts and minds of others.  If the other worlds are your kind of thing, then Heather’s blog should be on your daily blogroll.   

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Romance has birthed various subgenres that have already begun to separate and individuate. However, this evolution is never a straightforward path or one that lends itself to easy prediction.

After all, it’s art and that’s part of the mystery and excitement, right? It germinates and launches on a life of its own.

Yet no matter how circuitous this path, there remains the practical issue of brand identification-‘whether meticulously nurtured by the publishing industry or not. And effective branding is essential, as it helps consumers better understand the subgenre as a whole.

Achieving this isn’t easy, however.

We hear much about author branding, but what about branding a niche market subgenre? Is that even possible? I think so. And saaay, I’ve got an idea! For the purpose of this discussion, why don’t we take a microscope to science fiction romance? Peachy!

But before we dive in and fully diagnose our patient, you should know that for simplicity’s sake, I use the term science fiction romance (SFR) to describe the type of stories you’d find in books by Catherine Asaro, Linnea Sinclair, or Ann Aguirre. This also includes futuristic romances, such as those penned by Eve Kenin, Susan Grant, and Jess Granger. (Indeed, more so these days, the definition is nothing more than splitting semantic hairs anyway.)

SFR Branding-‘The Challenges

Since there’s enough subject matter here to fill a book, my goal is simply to highlight several challenges of branding science fiction romance.

For SFR to scale and conquer its branding summit, many questions arise. Namely, how do readers perceive SFR? What does the subgenre promise, and what are readers’ expectations? At what point will brand recognition be achieved? It’s especially tricky given that SFR blends two genres with decidedly different goals.

Brand-wise, SFR is currently in a state of flux. Behold a few of the obstacles:

  • Lack of clear identity-‘is it science fiction romance, speculative romance, futuristic romance, or intimate adventures?
  • Demand outweighs available books
  • Organizational issues/scattered network of fans, authors
  • Marketing & categorization challenges
  • Ghettoization of the subgenre, and to an extent, SFR ebooks
  • Creative restrictions on traditional print books
  • Sex vs. science conundrum-‘does this subgenre require numerous sex scenes to sell?

Now I’d like to touch upon some of the above in a little more detail.

Frustration arises when the various elements are working against one another-‘although not intentionally, to my knowledge. But it’s still enough to make one’s head spin.

Publishers categorize the books one way while a few authors-‘in a noble attempt at branding-‘direct their categorization down a different path. Paranormal romance, strangely, has grown into the default genre at times (i.e., when in doubt, stamp it "paranormal" and be done with it). Not only that, but SFR has beengrouped with the paranormal and fantasy categories, obscuring its identity as if it’s a "buy-two-get-one-free" special.

And speaking of identity issues, SFR covers are another black hole of confusion.

Often these covers target first one and then another market. Or worse, they aren’t matching the content at all, instead relying on stock footage that graces about fifty other books. How can a subgenre establish a strong brand when it appears the same as everything else on the market?

Then there’s the matter of what exactly to put on the cover.

As I’ve noted before, as far as science fiction romance is concerned, man titty does not compute. Or the covers scream too much "SF" for some readers. How does one reconcile the disparate needs of readers, some of whom hail from SF/F and some of whom hail from romance? Then there’s the issue of attracting new readers and keeping the old ones happy with covers that clearly market the content.

Shelving confusion has been known to cause a riot of teeth clenching for both authors and readers. In a phrase, "Where’s the book?" If the booksellers are confused, it’s a sure bet the customers are scratching their heads as well while leaving empty handed.

And then there’s the somewhat shaky "sex sells" mantra. Sure, it works to a certain degree, but only when applied strategically.

Pressures abound within the romance industry to entice readers with sex, sex, and more sex. I’ve noticed SFR isn’t immune, either. Color me puzzled as to why readers would suddenly divert course and seek out this subgenre when thousands of other erotica tales stream from clearly established channels-‘books that exist solely to scratch that randy itch. Science fiction romance is about character development, romance, speculative aspects, and eliciting a sense of wonder (unless publishers insist on watering it down with gratuitous sex scenes, that is).

A pinch of spice-‘great! A pound of spice in EVERYTHING-‘eh, not so much.

The (Possible) Solutions

As I said, the thorny subject of SFR branding could be a book itself. But since I see a rainbow at the end of the tunnel, here’s my wish list for the subgenre. My hope is that this list will stimulate discussion and create a breeding ground for possible solutions that can be applied to any struggling subgenre.

Ready? Great! Here we go:

1) Clearly establish SFR as a subgenre by releasing it from the paranormal umbrella. (While I’m at it, fantasy romance should get its own pad, too.) While there’s crossover at times, wolves, vampires, and demons have little to do with aliens and nanotechnology. The "look" and organization of SFR would ideally reflect this independence. Changes would range from territorial ones, such as Web site and blog designs, to book covers and publisher submission policies.

2) Give the subgenre one name-‘and stick with it. More names only breed more confusion. Think in terms of marketing. What term will both effectively describe the subgenre and sell it to potential readers from both the SF and romance arenas? (Hardly an easy task since there’s no catch-all term such as "paranormal." But I’m sure we can eventually agree on something.)

3) Harness the force of the Web. The Internet is a niche market genre’s best friend-‘take advantage of it. Agents like Colleen Lindsay and publicists such as Matt Staggs have discussed the importance of creative online marketing and promotion strategies. Use it or lose it because times they are a changin’.

4) Until brick and mortars become obsolete, shelve SFR in the Romance section. This would apply regardless of the publisher, especially since by the definition of a romance these stories would have an HEA. It would also provide one way for SF imprints to parade their wares for romance readers, since a few SF books areundercover romances. Uniformity in establishing a strong brand is key.

5) As I’ve suggested before, keep the hero clothed. I understand that the current line of thinking holds that man titty sells a book better than any other type of cover, but we’re not talking about the vast majority of romance books here (or readers). There’s nothing sexier than a man in uniform, whether he’s a starship captain, space pirate, or brainiac scientist. It also demonstrates that some thought went into the design. A little goes a long way and again, this could help differentiate SFR from paranormal romance.

6) Publishers, start talking to one another. You know how toddlers engage in parallel play? Yeah, it’s like that right now. Coordinate a few key strategies to create a more cohesive branding plan and run with it. Pooling your resources will only help everyone.

7) Resist the urge to discuss how ghettoized the subgenre is, at least in online forums. True or not, doing so only reinforces that reputation and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Authors, I know it can be heartbreaking and frustrating when some readers don’t appreciate the romance side of the equation, or conversely, the scientific accuracy for which you strive. But the goal is not to reach all readers; rather, it’s to reach all of the adventurous ones. The ripples will spread from there.

8) Science fiction romance could and should thrive in the ebook format. The traditional print market is tighter than a bowstring yet epublishers are ripe to exploit niche markets such as SFR. Wouldn’t authors rather be at the top of a robust niche market (and read) than at the bottom of the slush pile (and unread)?

9) And finally, let’s talk about where science fiction romance is going, instead of where it’s been. Optimism is infectious.

Thanks for reading-‘it’s been a pleasure gracing the hallowed halls of Dear Author. You’ve read my thoughts on the subject-‘now what are yours?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

58 Comments

  1. Ana
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 04:43:23

    Heather, great insightful post, as always.

    A pinch of spice-‘great! A pound of spice in EVERYTHING-‘eh, not so much.

    Hear, Hear! I couldn’t agree more and also on the subject of covers:

    How can a subgenre establish a strong brand when it appears the same as everything else on the market?

    It can’t.

    A lot of food for thought there.

  2. Tez Miller
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 04:50:25

    Totally agree – I wish us scattered networks of readers and writers could get together. I’d like to join a group or community that doesn’t have membership fees, so that RWA’s Futuristic chapter out.

    Probably would be the best if an author or reader could set up something, but who has the time and the energy? ;-)

    Have a lovely day! :-)

  3. Rae Lori
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 05:16:43

    Tez, there’s Romance Writers United which is a small community of writers and book lovers. It’s growing little by little and we’re always welcome to new members joining in support of the genre and each other.

    As for SFR I’ve always been a huge fan of SF and have gotten into romance in the recent years via paranormals and romantic suspense. Even in fandom, SFR is HUGE if you look at how much shipper centric fan fiction and fan art is out there. Naturally fans like seeing certain couples get together and this is in straight sci-fi shows, too.

    I’d love to see the genre continue to grow and I even have a WIP for a book I plan on writing in this genre. I think as the fan base continues to thrive and readers continue to show how much they like this genre, authors like me will take note and start putting together some cool stories to release.

    Great post, Heather. :-)

  4. Nathalie
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 06:02:45

    Heather, man, I love you! When I’m empress of the galaxy, I’m giving you a whole damn planet. That’s how much I love you.

    I wish more people would understand (or accept or stop to consider) that love and rivets are *not* mutually excluding. You can have one, not to the detriment of the other.

  5. Erastes
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 06:36:56

    Couldn’t agree more. I do think that all the romance titles should be in the romance aisle. It’s pretty obvious from the covers (I’d hope, at least) whether it was a Regency or gay space captains. I agree too, about clothing – uniforms rule.

  6. Ann Somerville
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 06:50:57

    Until brick and mortars become obsolete, shelve SFR in the Romance section.

    Well, I’m going to disagree with you, mainly because I write m/m SF. Until m/m is routinely shelved in romance, i think the best chance of the kind of thing I write being shelved at all in a mainstream bookstore, is in the sf/f section. Gay themed books are already there, and I would venture m/m is going to cause less of a stir among sf/f readers than it is among readers looking for traditional romance.

    Also, to me, the SF part is the unique selling point, not the romance. Lots of SF has relationship-heavy plots – not so many romances have SF-heavy story lines. So by sticking to the SF/F part of the store, people will find what they are already used to finding.

    I do agree paranormals need to be kept separate. They’re not sf stories, and they’re not really what most people would call fantasy either. If it’s about magic, then it’s not science-fiction (because magic and science are essentially contradictory ideas). It upsets the rational atheist in me to see that line blurred, even though a good paranormal is something I can enjoy – just not as science fiction.

    I guess I’m a little reluctant to push the romance angle of SFR. Romance is one of those huge umbrella genres, and it’s so difficult to stand out as something different. When I’m writing something that is different, I don’t want to be swallowed up, victim of the MEGO* syndrome as the customer browses the overburdened shelves.

    *My Eyes Glazed Over – © P J O’Rourke

  7. Kristen
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 07:44:50

    Tez – you might want to check out Romance Divas – we’re a good sized community of romance writers/readers/authors and we have a free workshop every month (sometimes more than one). We welcome all genres!

  8. (Jān)
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 08:33:59

    I think the subgenre belongs in the science fiction section if only to reach the maximum readers. Romance fans interested in sf have always gone to the sf shelves with lists spread by word of mouth online (via sites like Preeti’s romanticsf.com) of which books also contain romances. SF fans do not go to the romance shelves in hopes of finding books with real sf in them. SF fans do however embrace romance within their own genre if done well, and if the SF part of the story does not lack (witness Bujold).

    There’s already a built-in dynamic among fans. Why mess with something that’s working?

  9. Keishon
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 08:36:11

    Hi Heather,

    I’m all for putting books in the right place but for me, I’d be hard pressed to list books that are SFR novels, IOW, where the romance is the emphasis and the SF/F aspects are insignificant, low key, not the focus. That description sounds like paranormal romance to me. The hybrid of SF/F is rather complex and somewhat confusing. I’m not behind sticking SFR in romance especially when a story may have romantic suplot but the romance is not the focus. Catherine Asaro doesn’ t write SFR in my way of thinking of SFR. She writes SF/F with romantic elements.

    To wrap up my meandering point, I prefer SF/F with romance to say in SF/F aisle. I think those stories that use SF/F elements with the focus entirely on romance should be shelved in romance and again, that sounds like paranormal romances like the SHOMI books that I see shelved in SF/F and I go right past them. I like a good SF/F story with or without romance and like any other genre, romance in it’s many forms can be found just about everywhere but it is neither the focus or requires HEA unlike the genre of romance.

    Good analysis but I’m not sure I agree with all of your points but it is def. something to think about as readers and our reader expectations when it comes to labels and marketing to the right audience. Some books are simply hard to categorize and they usually just stick it where it would probably sell best: romance.

  10. Kimber An
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 08:56:20

    Awesome article, Heather!

  11. Heather Massey
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 09:26:41

    Jane, thanks for your kind words about my blog. It’s a real pleasure to be here.

    Thanks for reading, everyone! There are so many good points being brought up, not the least of which is books finding their audience vs. selling enough copies for a genre to be viable. Ideally, both should happen.

    Ann, I agree certain types of stories would still be best served by being shelved in SF/F. For example, a romance between an otherworldly being and a human, or two non-human beings, veers more into speculative territory despite the romance.

    Mainly I’d like to see a little more consistency–even if it means SFR is shelved in both sections simultaneously (as Kimber An has suggested previously). Not a realistic option, I understand, but it would enable books to reach both audiences.

    Keishon, my goal was definitely to stimulate discussion, and I’m all for ideas that blow my wish list out of the water. Better yet, practical, doable ideas that would make publishers comfortable taking risks, even if they are small ones. Gotta start somewhere.

  12. Janicu
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 10:15:24

    Oh the mention of sfromance.com brings back memories. I loved that site, I wish they would update! Meanwhile I have been reading posts at The Galaxy Express and I love that blog. I would say that SFR is one of my favorite genres, but it is one genre where word of mouth is needed to help find books. I would have never known about The Outback Stars without the word of mouth.

    Anyway, about shelving. If I think about it I think these books should be in the SF/F aisle rather than the Romance aisle because there’s usually more SF/F in it with a dash of romance and perhaps a HEA (or one down the line) thrown in. I have seen some books that say Futuristic Romance or Action Romance on the spines (Eve Kenin’s books), that is helpful! I wish more publishers did that. And Luna books is supposed to be fantasy romance so I know what to expect there. Other than that, I look at my Linnea Sinclairs and half say Science Fiction, half say Romance.. at least the new covers show a couple and space which is a good indication of space opera plus a romance. Putting SFR on the spine and sticking to it would help a lot.

  13. Keira from LoveRomancePassion
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 10:25:19

    I’ve been a fan of your blog Heather for a while! Thanks for the detailed report of SFR! I feel fantasy and SFR should be firmly separated (from paranormal), and just like thriller/crime romance has a different feel to its covers than regency romance covers, SFR and Fantasy should develop their own breed of covers. I assume they’ll be relatively similar in feel to the overall categories of fantasy and science fiction with a strong splash of influence from romance as a whole. Maybe the sexy man titty will still have to be there, maybe the embracing couple, who knows, but I know sci-fi works started out with strange covers that really didn’t fit the content of the book they graced… it’s just some growing pains after all. Hopefully the morph will be consistent for all romance publishers whatever it is they decide to do.

  14. Kimber An
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 10:49:04

    I worry that Science Fiction Romance will become a victum of the economy. It’s already underserved by the publishing industry. Will publishers be afraid to stray from what it already is even more? If so, the subgenre could diminish and die.

    Not all potential readers are white, between the ages of 25 and 35, childless, and prefer only graphic sex scenes, yet that’s all there is right now.

    Except for the novels of Susan Grant. Please, tell me if there are more!

    SFR readers are smart and they thrive on the glorious possibilities of existance.

    Are authors not writing more variety or are publishers not accepting it? Are they listening to what readers want or do they think they already know?

    If readers can’t find what they’re looking for in New Releases, there’s always the public library and used bookstores. SFR has been around for a long time under one label or another. You only have to look at the left sidebar of Heather’s blog to know that.

    Readers don’t have to buy new.

  15. Keishon
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 11:15:23

    Can someone list some SFR authors for me? I’d like to know what authors fit under this term. Thanks.

  16. Sherry Thomas
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 11:45:06

    I grew up reading hard SF a la Asimov. So I was totally jazzed, when I started reading romance in my teens, to grab those ones that had a planet on the cover, or declared themselves futuristic. Imagine my dismay when a lot of those story turned out not to be SF at all, but subpar historicals in space, for the lack of a better term, with shoddy world building, and fantasy elements thrown in willynilly.

    Totally killed my appetite.

    SF romance has come a long way since then. But I’m still looking for Laura Kinsale in space. :-)

  17. Sherry Thomas
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 11:50:08

    Keishon,

    Linnea Sinclair is probably the first name that come to mind, w/r/t authors who fit under the SFR term. In fact, her books were originally shelved in SF until this latest round of reissues.

    Ann Aguirre.

    The Shomi books.

    I think Justine Davis wrote a couple a while ago as Justine Dare.

    And I personally would include Sharon Shinn under this category. ARCHANGEL is the best SFR I’ve read so far, though Shinn herself might disagree with my classifying it that way.

    And me, hopefully, some day. :-)

  18. Heather Massey
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:00:30

    To Sherry’s excellent list, I’d add Catherine Asaro (particularly SUNRISE ALLEY), and I thought Kristin Landon’s THE HIDDEN WORLDS (first in a trilogy) could be classified as SFR. Finally, Sandra McDonald’s THE OUTBACK STARS felt like SFR to me, although it’s strictly military SF. But interestingly, the back cover blurb plays up the romance.

  19. Zoe Archer
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:06:15

    I’m still hoping, one day, to write my space opera romance. I grew up watching Star Wars, Star Trek and watching such classic films as Ice Pirates *wink* and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (yes, the ridiculous film starring Molly Ringwald and Peter Strauss), plus there was the cartoon Battle of the Planets. What always appealed to me about this genre were the strong, physically and emotionally capable heroines. I wanted to pilot my own battlecruiser, too!

    I hope that, in time, publishers will be more responsive and attuned to this genre as a means of keeping romance viable and attractive to new generations of readers.

  20. Ciar Cullen
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:06:57

    Love Heather’s posts, and love this one. I would like to hear more on fantasy, because I think that’s even more of a conundrum, given the volume and number of pseudo-sub-genres there.

  21. Keishon
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:09:05

    Hey Ms. Thomas – thanks!

    Anne Aguirre I can agree and her worldbuilding is pretty solid. I would LOVE to see Laura Kinsale in space, too. She is awesome. All I’ve read of Sharon Shinn is ARCHANGEL but my goal was to read her books this year but I didn’t make it.

    I love Catherine Asaro’s stuff. You should check her out, starting with Primary Inversion (link here) and that one does have a really STRONG romantic subplot. Even Jane may like it if she decides to try her one day. She’s not SFR but don’t let that stop you. I need to reread her books and pimp them on my blog.

  22. (Jān)
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:11:07

    Keishon, I get the feeling that with SFR she was talking those rare books which skirt the line between sf and romance and have a fairly even mix of them. Linnea Sinclair and Asaro’s and Bujold’s first books and such.

    There’s yet another reason to keep them in SF, because you don’t really want to put Shards of Honor and Komarr/A Civil Contract in romance and then The Vor Game in SF and split of the series across multiple sections of the bookstore. A romance series usually stays romance all the way through, but a series that contains SFR typically does not.

  23. Jess Granger
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:38:28

    I don’t know. I think you guys are assuming that romance readers are a more adventuresome bunch than they are. I don’t know many who stray out of the romance section.

    I agree with Heather, I think SFR should be in the Romance section, only because romance has a bigger slice of the genre fiction pie as far as sales goes.

    I wrote a romance. A gut-wrenching, dark, dangerous, beautiful, and heart-filling romance. I’m optimistic that the romance community will embrace it, but I’m still hopeful about the SF community. I’ll wait and see what their reaction is.

    I don’t think there is any solution to this conundrum, until we have our own branding in either the romance section or the SF/F section. It would be nice if there was a stamp that said, SFR on the spine, then allows the reader to determine if it is the type they like to read. At least it would be the first step in whittling down the choices.

    In the mean time, our best bet is to all group together and hang out at Heather’s fantastic Galaxy Express. The more collective fan sites there are that begin to create a community and spread around that word of mouth the better.

    Jess

  24. Alex Beecroft
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:42:28

    I’m another big SF/F fan, but I’m also a big m/m romance fan, so a good SF novel with a good m/m romance plot too would be absolutely my cup of tea. Point me at it! :)

    And yes, I third that request for clothes on the cover. I love a man in uniform :)

  25. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 12:52:33

    Heather, girl, you are just fantastic. You’ve been posting all over the ‘Net recently with your well-thought out examination of the SFR market. You’ve suggested some great strategies and I can only hope that at least a few of them get some attention from The Powers That Be.

    I especially love the distinction you made between Paranormal (vampires, werewolves, demons) and SFR (aliens, nanotechnology). I’ve often been frustrated, both as a reader and a writer, at comparing these two very different subgenres.

  26. Keishon
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 13:02:58

    Keishon, I get the feeling that with SFR she was talking those rare books which skirt the line between sf and romance and have a fairly even mix of them. Linnea Sinclair and Asaro's and Bujold's first books and such

    .

    Thanks for explaining because I am hard put trying to name you ten writers that would qualify under that term.

    I don't know. I think you guys are assuming that romance readers are a more adventuresome bunch than they are. I don't know many who stray out of the romance section.

    Disagree with that statement completely. I read romance and go to the mystery/suspense aisle, the SF/F aisle, manga/graphic novels aisle and last stop at the YA aisle. Many of us do read outside of romance and still love to read romance. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the romance section of late to keep me visiting there on a regular basis if its not in ebook.

  27. Anthea Lawson
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 13:03:40

    I totally agree that Fantasy romance is yet ANOTHER sub-genre. The Kushiel books by Jaqueline Carey? Not SF by a long shot, but with two incredible romantic leads and a HEA that takes several books to play out. Patricia Briggs. Juliet Marillier– fantastic stories that weave in Celtic mythology and deep fairy tales.

    I look for cover art by Kinuko Craft and John Jude Palencar to guide me to the Fantasy Romance – it’s a fairly reliable indicator. He’s done all the Sharon Shinn covers, too.

    I look for my SFR and FR (hmm, SF/FR seems too unwieldy a term) in the SF aisles. After all, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction buffs have always know that’s where you need to go to find your read, regardless of nomenclature. Moving things into the Romance aisles, while intriguing, just doesn’t seem viable. Especially as there’s still not a lot of explicitness in SFR/FR (there I think I found the aconym, lol).

    Great discussion – thanks for the post!

    Oh and check out Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage for m/m fantasy romance. Though not explicit, a very sweet love trilogy.

  28. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 13:10:06

    Keishon said:

    I would LOVE to see Laura Kinsale in space, too. She is awesome.

    Oh yes! That would be great.

    All I've read of Sharon Shinn is ARCHANGEL but my goal was to read her books this year but I didn't make it.

    Try JENNA STARBORN, although I loved WRAPT IN CRYSTAL too. The former is an SF redux of Jane Eyre.

    I love Catherine Asaro's stuff. You should check her out, starting with Primary Inversion (link here) and that one does have a really STRONG romantic subplot.

    Primary Sauscony “Soz” Valdoria is one of my most favorite characters.

    Even Jane may like it if she decides to try her one day. She's not SFR but don't let that stop you. I need to reread her books and pimp them on my blog.

    I guess it’s accurate to say Asaro isn’t SFR per se, but I’m not sure there would be an SFR subgenre without her.

  29. Lisa Paitz Spindler, Danger Gal»Blog Archive » The Branding of a Subgenre
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 13:15:40

    […] Express’ Heather Massey is guest blogging today over at Dear Author about Science Fiction Romance and, as usual, raises some pertinent issues about the subgenre and […]

  30. (Jān)
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 14:31:31

    Thanks for explaining because I am hard put trying to name you ten writers that would qualify under that term.

    Yeah that’s always been the age-old problem for us, hasn’t it? It’s what we’re looking for but not what’s out there. I think the issue is that people who really write it are sf writers at heart, and they won’t want their books set apart and retagged and moved away from that section. I think they’re fine at writing for certain lines like Luna. But what did the Luna fiasco teach us? It taught me that most romance writers can’t write fantasy and sf, and most sf writers can’t write romance. Not really surprising.

    It’s a rare breed of writer who can write a single book that does both well. I don’t think it’s a question of defining a brand. An SFR section would hold less than a shelfs worth of titles. We’re asking writers to write two genres well. At the same time. And make them blend seamlessly. There just aren’t that many people who can do it.

  31. Ann Somerville
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 15:36:02

    a good SF novel with a good m/m romance plot too would be absolutely my cup of tea.

    Dunno about ‘good’, but my On wings, rising is solid SF as well as m/m (and so is the sequel coming out in January.) Interstitial is also real SF.

    J L Langley writes space regency at Samhain, but it’s not a genre I like very much. I like more S with my F. However, it certainly qualifies as m/m SF, and her writing is well regarded.

  32. LindaR
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:06:56

    Interstitial is also real SF.

    I love the word “interstitial.”

  33. Ann Somerville
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:15:17

    I love the word “interstitial.”

    Me too. The first publisher I subbed it to said I should change it because it was ‘too hard’ for readers to pronounce.

    I did get a few asking what it meant, and I did find a lot had trouble spelling it, but the idea that one doesn’t use a real word in a title because readers are too dumb to say it, really ticked me off. Don’t regret using it for a second.

  34. Alex Beecroft
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:15:58

    Thanks Ann, I’ll certainly check that out.

  35. LindaR
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:20:37

    . . . because readers are too dumb to say it . . .

    ack! ack! ack!

    I’m not too dumb to say that, either.

    Oh, the delicious pleasure of a new, perfect word.

    I suspect the paradox of successful publishing is in never overestimating the intelligence of your audience while simultaneously never underestimating it.

  36. Kaz Augustin
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 17:12:29

    You might try looking for SFR in the epubs as well, not just in print. I, er, *koff*koff* write SFR as well.

  37. Jess Granger
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 17:18:51

    Disagree with that statement completely. I read romance and go to the mystery/suspense aisle, the SF/F aisle, manga/graphic novels aisle and last stop at the YA aisle. Many of us do read outside of romance and still love to read romance. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the romance section of late to keep me visiting there on a regular basis if its not in ebook.

    Allow me to clarify. I think that romance readers who are looking for a book that conforms to the standards of romance, in that they want the story to focus on two people, a romantic development, and a HEA ending, don’t know what to look for in the other aisles to find what they are looking for.

    Say what you want about the terrible man-titty covers out there for romance, at least when you held up a book and asked 100 people what type of book it was, every single one would say romance. (Some would probably use terms I wouldn’t condone or agree with, but everyone would be on the same page.)

    For a romance reader, it makes it very easy to find what you want.

    A romance reader, wanting to find a romance with a couple, a romantic development, and a HEA, wouldn’t know which books had those elements and which didn’t in the SF/F section. Because the books conforming to those elements, and the ones focusing on other elements of SF as the core of their stories, would be right next to one another.

    So how would someone seeking romance find it in the SF section?

    It would be potentially easy for someone seeking SF to find it in the romance section, if there were some sort of “cover branding.” Star-fields in the background, for example.

    But all that is a bit moot. As a niche genre, we have to decide what we all like to read and buy more of that. It will get popular and more publishers will want to try it, and then there will be more choice.

    I wrote the romance I wanted to read because I was tired of paranormals. I deliberately tear apart a couple of paranormal tropes. I wanted new terrible and extraordinary conflict. So I created it.

    That’s all we can do as writers, but the best thing that can happen to the subgenre is for the readers to band together and discuss what they like and don’t like in their stories. It helps writers know what to shoot for.

    Jess

  38. Kat
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 18:58:55

    I’m not all that fussed, to be honest, but this might be because I buy my paranormal/sf/fantasy romances from a specialist store (Galaxy Books). As far as I know, sf and f books are shelved together, and paranormal romance has its own wall. I’m pretty sure that wall covers science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romance. I’m also relatively sure that books like Grimspace (Ann Aguirre) are shelved both under paranormal romance and in the general sf/f fiction shelves. I mainly do book research online before purchasing, plus I talk to the bookstore staff to get recommendations, so the shelving issue doesn’t really bother me in this case.

    I do agree that sf romance and even fantasy romance covers could use a little less man titty.

  39. Heather Massey
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 19:07:24

    Oh my!

    Thanks everyone for all of your kind words (and thanks for the linkage, Lisa!)

    There are so many eloquent thoughts here that I’m not even going to try and respond to them all–they speak for themselves and echo many of my own opinions.

    Just a few thoughts here:

    Anthea, I would love to see FR come into its own and grow. And whether or not there are any changes as far as shelving, I do hope that there’s room for all SFR stories, not just the ones with explicit sex (and I know you weren’t suggesting that there wasn’t room). Imho, I think SFR writers have enough challenges without having to worry about X number of sex scenes.

    But some stories would lend themselves to a few extra sexay romps, so power to them. Given enough books, I think there’d be a range in sexual explicitness the way it varies across different types of romance books. Variety is the spice of life, and all that jazz.

    Jan, good point about the importance of not splitting series. I should have clarified in the post that I was thinking about shelving as far as new/future books were concerned, ones that range from SFR to futuristic romance (not series or SF with romantic elements).

    Lots of good points about the issue of demand and supply here (a staple of a niche market). Demand and branding are two elements that always work in tandem; both help one another while it’s still a bit of the chicken and the egg scenario. Correct me if I’m wrong, but even the paranormal market once constituted only a handful of titles.

    As Sherry said, “SF romance has come a long way”. Time will tell if it’s a market ready to be tapped, and engaging, well written stories will have a lot to do with it, too, regardless of where we put them.

  40. Linnea Sinclair
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 20:46:49

    As always, the eloquent Heather has outlined a number of terrific points. SFR is–as I’ve often said–the bastard child of two bastard children…who hate each other. ;-) Yet I do believe it’s a thriving, fun, growing, exciting genre. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

    Neither does anyone else.

    I’m going to comment on various things at random because, well, that’s the way I am.

    Kimber An, Susan Grant writes terrific stuff, as you well know. Her MOONSTRUCK is on the top of my list. But she’s not the only one who writes over 30+ year old characters. A lot of us write over-30-somethings and non-white. Actually, as many of us write aliens, the whole Caucausian issue doesn’t even come into it. I will admit I don’t write characters bearing children or with children, and I know from past discussions that’s an issue with you. Fair ’nuff. As I’ve explained, most of my characters are in the midst of a war zone. It’s not a place I feel babies belong. I guess that’s something we’re going to have to agree to disagree on.

    A number of commenters voted for SFR in the SF section of the bookstore. I’ve been there and I asked to be moved to the Romance section, and I’ll tell you why: economics. Romance novels account for (roughly) 50% of all paperback sales. SF novels for about 7%. The chances of an author making some kind of living from his/her writing means shelving where the most traffic is. Bookstores also allocate in-store promotional $$ based on sales figures. I was shelved in SF for about 3 years and was never once offered any kind of in-store promotion from the big chains. I was switched to Romance about a year and a half ago and I’m already getting endcaps (those at the end-of-the-aisle placements and no, they’re not free and they don’t just ‘happen’.) Romance buyers simply have a larger budget to work with.

    I know I chanced losing some of my SF readers by doing that. Believe me, on my Yahoo fan group, we had very looooong discussions on that–me and the over 550+ in the group. Some were not happy. Most understood that Linnea has to buy cat food and pay her mortgage (in that order). Plus, I do write to an HEA and that, to me, signals one of the key elements of my books and most SFR. As Jess said ::waves to Jess::, romance readers going in the SF aisles don’t know where that HEA guarantee is. I’ve been predominantly an SFF reader all my life and there are a number of romantic SF/F novels I’ve helicoptered because at the end, the book ran out of happy…

    Oh, for a list of SFR and like authors, go here:
    http://www.linneasinclair.com/links.html
    There are links in that chart to more sites with more info. FYI.

    Branding. Oh, I would dearly dearly love branding for SFR. (Please, Santa? All I want for Christmas is my own brand…). But Heather, I don’t really see competing publishers cooperating to do that. Uh, they don’t play nice in NY.

    Tez, there is an SFR Yahoo Group. Sadly, it’s fairly inactive but it could be revived, I’m sure. There are a number of blogs, though, including Heather’s and the co-blog I have with Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Rowena Cherry, Colby Hodge, Margaret Carter and more. http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ Heather probably has even more blogs listed on her site. She’s great at that organizational kind of thing. (I’m more into organized chaos…)

    I keep waiting for NY publishers to grasp the impact of the romance angle as Hollywood has. I mean, Mal has Inara. Neo has Trinity. Deanna Troi has Worf. Han got Leia. And Captain James T Kirk had just about everything in a skirt…

    Man titty on covers–well, I got into a tussle with my publisher over that and, miracle of miracles, they capitulated and I think we have a fairly good compromise with my current covers. (They wanted lots of bare skin; I blew a gasket because that’s not what I write and I felt it was deceptive advertising.) I do write a romance plot and I do write to an HEA. So we need not only some kind of starship on the cover, but some kind of kissy action as well. That’s what I ended up with and I think it’s accurate.

    But a lot of publishers don’t care if an author blows a gasket. I was blessed–am blessed with a wonderful editor at Bantam and a terrific group of people who work with her. My cover artist is Stephen Youll, who also does a lot of CJ Cherryh’s covers. My original cover artist was Dave Seeley, who did a lot of the Star Wars posters for Lucas. Both artist have been delightful to work with.

    But many authors don’t even know who their cover artists are. And it’s not something–for the most part–we can demand contractually. So to all the readers out there, don’t damn the author for the art. An author often doesn’t even see the cover until it’s a done-deal.

    The best way to vote, boys and girls, is with your pocketbook. Publishers listen to sales figures. So do chains. Word of mouth sells books, and if your local bookstore manager is uninformed, educate him or her. Encourage them to post “shelf talkers” –those little postcards on the shelves that read…”If you like to read Susan Grant, you might also like Colby Hodge, Linnea Sinclair and Robin D Owens.” Or whatever. Many libraries have “read alike” lists where comparisons of that sort are maintained.

    Changing gears…I think online bookstores will do away with shelving confusion. Once you find an author you like, then you simply look for that author. Go to that author’s site, see who he or she recommends and read on from there.

    Small press: I came out of small press and ebook presses. It still houses some amazing talent in SFR. Isabo Kelly. Janet Miller. Stacey Klemstein. Elaine Corvidae (she has freebie stories on her site.) Many more authors that I’m blanking on because I’m blonde and menopausal. Go check out Samhain and Cerridwen. For starters…

    And there are probably other things I wanted to note but that’s all for the moment. It’s that blonde thing…

    Read on, kids, read on. ~Linnea

  41. Jess Granger
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 21:45:35

    I bow to you, Linnea.

    Jess

  42. Natalie Hatch
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 00:57:33

    Heather only one thing to say woman… Captain Kirk! He’s scifi and there’s a bit of romance everywhere the guy goes. Oh and yes he does come under the ‘Rogue’ male banner! He doesn’t care if the woman is white, green, hairy, bald… he’s in like Flynn any chance. (oh and he doesn’t do man titty very often).
    As for the future of SciFiRom, I just want the book stores to actually stock the stuff on any shelf anywhere in the store. When I’ve asked local booksellers here in my neck of the woods they’ve just given me that universal puzzled stare.
    Great post.

  43. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 10:03:00

    Branding. Oh, I would dearly dearly love branding for SFR. (Please, Santa? All I want for Christmas is my own brand…). But Heather, I don't really see competing publishers cooperating to do that. Uh, they don't play nice in NY.

    I’m thinking any kind of cohesive subgrenre branding is going to have to emerge organically, much like the tattooed heroines did on so many Urban Fantasy and Paranormal covers. Those seem to have started as author branding and then were adopted by the subgenre.

    I’m not sure what that iconic visual element should be for SFR, but if more and more SFR stories are published, cover artists will eventually find something that works.

  44. veinglory
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 11:27:25

    Some SFR belongs in romance and some in SF, Indeed some in literary, gay fiction and other places. Which is, in fact, where it is–I find it all over the place. I think the basic fallacy is the idea that cross genre books must all be ‘sub’ to one of the genres. (ditto erotica/romance)

  45. Frances
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 19:06:02

    Dear Author Patronesses, thanks for having Heather, and for sponsoring this wonderful discussion. Thanks Heather for getting tht ball rolling with all your thoughts. Thanks everyone for your input. And thank you Linnea for your perspecive won in the school of hard knocks.

  46. Heather Massey
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 19:47:28

    Linnea, thanks so much for reading, and for your invaluable insight.

    Natalie, thanks for stopping by–you crack me up! Now I have the perfect ending for every sentence with in like Flynn. That is so catchy in like Flynn.

    Lisa, you’re so right about the organic nature of branding. Can’t wait to see what evolves–it wouldn’t be as much fun without a few surprises.

    Hi, Veinglory! Thanks for your input. When so many stories blend elements/genres, artistically the subgenre categorization doesn’t really matter–people describe books in terms of what they like, often going into extra detail. Word of mouth can be a book’s best friend. Marketing, however, seems like a different story. Plus, categorizing books does speed up the shopping a bit. :)

    Frances, glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for your support!

  47. Ann Somerville
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 21:17:40

    That is so catchy in like Flynn.

    Don’t want to ruin your fun but that expression originated in mockery of Errol Flynn over his statutory rape prosecution:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Errol_Flynn

  48. Heather Massey
    Dec 25, 2008 @ 07:23:36

    Ah, well, that does change things. Did not know that. Thanks for the info.

  49. Janet Miller/Cricket Starr
    Dec 25, 2008 @ 11:40:46

    A mention from the great Linnea??? WHOA, my Christmas is complete.

    And I would love to see some sort of standardization of what constitutes SFR. I write about people living in the distant future and falling in love, occasionally having sex in my Janet books and more frequently having sex with a lot more details in the Cricket books but sex is not the only thing in the book in either case. I work hard on my world building and have always asked for space ships on my covers. They always give me half-naked hunks.

    I don’t get to pick my covers. But the books seem to sell well with those hunks so it goes.

    But I’m just thrilled to be mentioned here. Thanks Linnea.

    Cheers,
    Janet/Cricket

  50. Bianca D'Arc
    Dec 25, 2008 @ 15:08:52

    I almost hesitate to comment here because well… yeah… I write graphic sex scenes. Um… but that doesn’t mean the SF elements aren’t important to my stories. See, I’m an SF fan from way back, and actually ran a laboratory fresh out of college with my shiny degree in chemistry. I changed careers after grad school, but the geek in me never left. I let the geek out to play when worldbuilding and I hope that comes through in my books.

    Ultimately, books are like people – each individual. I, too, was disappointed in the old “futuristics” that a previous commenter called “bad historicals set in space” (paraphrasing here). I always want authors like Elizabeth Moon to get a little more graphic on the romance side of her space operas, but since she’s writing for a more SF audience, I can see why she doesn’t. Sure, some erotic SFR is more like those old futuristics, but some is really, really cool! (Like Nathalie Gray, et al)

    I had my eyes opened recently when I was a guest at an SF con. Few, if any, of the people there would even TRY an ebook. I was so disappointed. These were my people! Fellow geeks! Yet they turned up their nose at technology that many romance readers have embraced with open arms. I started reading ebooks precisely because I could get the mix of SF and Romance from places like Ellora’s Cave – even though I admit, I was embarrassed to buy them at first. I’ve since learned that small press publishers are more open to the mix of genres and have the ability to take risks that their larger counterparts cannot.

    I know erotic romance isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Believe it or not, I enjoy all kinds of romance and SF, regardless of the intensity of the sex scenes, but I like to write the really hot stuff. Both because my readers tell me that’s what they want and because my characters like to push envelopes. ;-)

    Love your blog, Heather! Glad there’s a voice out there tryinig to make sense of this all.

    Bianca

  51. Heather Massey
    Dec 26, 2008 @ 08:18:56

    Janet, thanks so much for reading! So glad to hear you’ve been asking for space ships, but authors need to make a living so I understand the hunks are here to stay.

    Hi, Bianca! I appreciate your input. I agree about books being individuals. My concern is not with graphic sex scenes, but with sex scenes that don’t arise organically from the story, or that undermine the tension, whether the tension is romantic or plot driven. I’m reading one right now where imho the worldbuilding was sacrificed/manipulated for the first major sex scene. The worldbuilding rules were abruptly changed and the reasons for it glossed over. The sex scenes were well done, but the structure of the story suffered as a whole.

    I’m also concerned about a perception that SFR would need to be hot in order to sell. I like graphic sex scenes, but not in every book. And I don’t think every story requires them. Like you and others, I enjoy all kinds of blends. If I’m reading erotic SFR, I approach it with a different mindset, because the sexual journey of the characters is a significant focus.

    And I’m hopeful that attitudes toward ebooks will change for the better.

  52. Bianca D'Arc
    Dec 26, 2008 @ 14:53:00

    Great points, Heather! I think we’re in total agreement about when sex scenes interfere with the flow of the story. I HATE that! In that case, it’s more like erotica set in space than SFR, imho. ;-)

    As for a perception that SFR needs to be hot in order to sell… believe it or not, I agree with you. Like all good romance, I would hope there could be a wide variety of graphicness from sweet to erotic. I say there’s room for it all!

    Unfortunately there is some truth in the addage that “sex sells.” As an example, I had quite a few false starts with larger publishers very early in my writing career. They liked my books, but couldn’t figure out what market niche I fit into and so, no sale for me. :( About 3-4 years ago I stumbled upon some Ellora’s Cave titles and realized that SFR COULD be sold, but it looked like it was only really prospering in ebook formats and the hotter the better.

    I thought long and hard about my writing. In fact, I didn’t write at all for year or more, which is a big deal for me. During that time, I fed my reading addiction and found myself gravitating toward the hotter SFR that I could get easily in ebook format. When I finally decided to write again, I tried my hand at a very hot fantasy romance – my first dragon book. Even I was embarrassed by some of the scenes, but I finished the book in November and by December I had my very first contract.

    In my case, turning up the heat just a notch allowed me to find an outlet for my stories. I don’t recommend writers “add sex” to make a sale. It’s usually noticable when someone is writing something they don’t really like in order to fit a trend, IMO. But for me, getting past my inhibitions and writing what I loved to read really worked. I finally found my “voice” and hopefully have told a few good tales along the way. ;-)

    At the same time, I still search for books that have good, solid SF or fantasy with a real, developed romance in them. I don’t care about the graphicness of the sex, particularly. What matters to me is the relationship and whether it’s shown fully in the context of the story or more of an afterthought. I mentioned Elizabeth Moon before. I’m a big fan of her work but the one thing I wish could have been shown a little more were the romance subplots. They’re there and in the more recent books (the Vatta series especially) they’re more out in the open, but they’re still secondary – maybe tertiary – to the rest of the story. Still, I love her work so I really can’t complain too much. ;-)

  53. Heather Massey
    Dec 27, 2008 @ 14:46:28

    Bianca, well said. Thanks for your insights. There are so many issues here, from craft to marketing to timing. Lots to ponder.

    While I haven’t read any of Moon’s work (yet), I’ve also had the experience of wishing some romance plots in SF tales were more front and center (regardless of heat level). I’ll take what I can get, but I’ll also keep advocating for “more, please!”

  54. Charlotte Boyett~Compo
    Jan 01, 2009 @ 15:46:20

    ***Can someone list some SFR authors for me? I'd like to know what authors fit under this term.***

    I consider myself a speculative fiction writer and I write primarily in the dark fantasy subgenre but I have an entire series of SFR novels in my WindVerse Series of novels at Ellora’s Cave. They have a huge audience and a new one in the series will be out this month. I also have several with New Concepts Publishing. You can read synopses, excerpts and over 800 reviews of my published books on my website.

  55. Becca
    Mar 10, 2009 @ 18:16:15

    Great discussion. I’m actually subbing a SFR novella this week to an epub. While it has a hot scene or two, the story is not about sex in space, but about a woman learning that she is not weak, that she can save the day(and her lover). She’s not a kick ass heroine, so we’ll see how she does in the submission process.

    As much as I enjoy reading or watching such heroines in movies, I couldn’t write a believable kick ass heroine to save my life. My heroines need another type of strength.

    This discussion did give me a great(clothed couple) cover idea!

  56. Greg
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 15:35:27

    I hate starting a book that seems to be sci-fi or fantasy, and then realizing I’m reading a romance novel. Romance novels are largely formulaic. I think they belong in their own section so those who like that type of thing can find it, and those of us that don’t can steer clear. I am certain people who read other genres would also like this, as mentioned in this AbsoluteWrite thread: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=195567

  57. Jane
    Nov 02, 2010 @ 15:47:32

    @Greg I would argue that the basis of genre fiction is some type of formula. I.e., fantasy follows an epic journey with an everyman hero or heroine who defeats the evil guy. Mystery is about solving crimes and beating the bad guy. Romance is about relationships and falling in love. Have you ever read Lois McMaster’s Bujold’s theories on how each genre is a fantasy. Sci/fi are political fantasies, mysteries are justice fantasies and romance are love fantasies? It’s a pretty interesting read.

    One of our regular contributors, Janet, has this to say:

    I have always likened genre Romance to the sonnet. Sonnets are among the most restrictive poetic genres. But still, within the traditional 14-line structure, some of the most powerful poetic expressions have been recorded. Not that poems and novels are literally equivalent, but I'm also not certain it's fair to assume that if today's Romance novels were, as a matter of course, longer, that they'd be better.

  58. Lisa Paitz Spindler » The Branding of a Subgenre
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 10:50:21

    […] Express’ Heather Massey is guest blogging today over at Dear Author about Science Fiction Romance and, as usual, raises some pertinent issues about the subgenre and […]

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