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Genres: Square Pegs, Triangular Holes
By Scott Nicholson

A recent article in one of the publishing industry magazines pointed out how one major publisher (HarperCollins) had finally figured out that science fiction and fantasy were separate genres, with separate audiences, and planned to break their SF/F line into two imprints. This is an obvious move that perhaps should have been done long ago, but probably the rise of the chain stores had more to do with that shelf combination than any other factor.

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, and detective stories were often allied in the old pulp magazines, grouped as "adventure" or "weird tales." As audiences grew more sophisticated, and as publishing became a more refined and corporate-centered industry, the categories were established to help more easily match numbers, track sales, and increase efficiency. Or, in a more cynical interpretation, to schlep product to consumer.

This publisher’s decision to split SF/F is mostly due to the new popularity of books geared mainly toward young adults, the Harry Potter, Tolkien, and Phillip Pullman stuff. Some advocates of high literature fear that adults are dumbing down their reading material, going after slimmer books, since many of the top authors seem to have tackled a YA fantasy in the last year or two. But those books are generally better plotted and of more sophisticated literary values than most of what you will find on the adult bestseller’s list. This publisher also promised the use of cover art that goes beyond the iconic dragon and elf stuff.

Science fiction lovers have been complaining for years about a declining marketplace. While the rise of media tie-ins has cut into the mid-list a bit, top agent Donald Maass points out that consumer demand created and sustained those products, not a publisher’s short-sightedness. Many sci-fi fans would rather read the familiar within a confined and conservative set of rules (where no franchise heroes can die) than set out for worlds that are truly new and strange. Yet hard SF seems to endure, military SF has a loyal fan base, and even some more fantasy-edged material like China Mieville’s has made an impact. But robots and elves are often worlds apart in what readers want.

Judging by my friends’ reading habits, I see little crossover between those two fields. The SF readers I know are generally less likely to read outside the genre, and the fantasy readers are unlikely to buy SF. I may be wrong on a wider scale, but I believe if you tracked the book sales of individual readers, only 10 percent of them would show any significant crossover.

Perhaps the efficient stores of the future will embrace hypercategories, broken into minor subgenres. It would seem easy for an online bookseller to do this, yet the models used by the giants like Amazon and B&N Online seem even more clumsy and inappropriate than those used in stores where actual humans have to place the books on the shelves. Both B&N and Amazon have increased their numbers of categories within the genres, though it’s still an imperfect science with a lot of head-scratching overlap. For example, Laurell K. Hamilton is on the bestseller list for science fiction, fantasy and horror, though most people view her as a romance writer.

To further cloud the categorization, at last check, six of the top 10 SF sellers were media tie-ins. Bump that number to seven if you care to count the Tolkien boxed set, which obviously benefited greatly from the recent movies. But, wait, "Club Dead" is also a science fiction bestseller, and it features light vampire humor. As of this writing, the featured book on Amazon’s SF/F page is a Spec Ops literary detective who travels into the worlds of classic literature. Amazon’s fantasy page doesn’t mention Harry Potter anywhere, as if wizardry and magic is now considered mainstream.

And where does that leave an arguable non-genre like horror? It has often been treated as the red-headed stepchild of fantasy, which applies when the book uses supernatural elements. Yet rarely is there any crossover with SF unless the technology is the basis for the "horror," such as in the work of Michael Crichton, George Orwell, and Ira Levin. It doesn’t quite fit in with the mystery genre, either.

The famous label of horror as an "emotion" rather than a genre is catchy, yet horror is actually more of a set of emotions, or a range of reactions, than a single, clearly defined (and thus, easily marketed) emotion. It is the most difficult to market because of the lack of a mass audience and because horror, for better or worse, still embraces some types of writing and subject matter that simply don’t have much appeal to the average reader. Of course, elements common to what people think of as "horror" can be found in probably half of the books currently on the shelf, from paranormal romance to serial killer suspense novels. Plenty of people who read King and Koontz wouldn’t be caught dead holding an actual "horror" novel.

One need look no further than what Amazon, America’s most influential bookseller, lists on its horror page. My own novel The Red Church, marketed as horror with the label plainly printed on the spine, was once on the Amazon bestseller horror list behind Scoobie Doo, Battlestar Galactica, and an Andrew Greeley cozy Catholic murder mystery. V.C. Andrews books somehow still get categorized there, though the Buffy books are apparently going the way of all flesh in the wake of the death of the television series. The Left Behind series is arguably dark fantasy, yet probably half of its readers think it is non-fiction.

Science fiction and fantasy each have cleaner handles than horror does, though of course the fields are rich in diversity. They also have large, long-established communities and a plethora of regional fan conventions to back them up. "Big fat fantasy," preferably trilogies, are on the wish lists of most major publishers, and Robert Jordan often hovers in the overall Top Ten. J.K. Rowling blows its doors off. Writers of those genres are still doing pretty well, though newer writers seem to have a tougher time getting those third or fourth books out because everybody’s watching the bottom line and it makes more sense to gamble on a new novel than reinvest in a proven mediocre performer.

Where does all this leave the reader? Heck if I know. With over 100,000 new books coming out each year, and the POD/self-publishing routes allowing tens of thousands of people to finally pull that old manuscript out of the back of the desk and get it printed, I hope the audiences don’t get overstimulated and do what a shocked test monkey does: curl in a ball and refuse to interact with the exterior world.

Perhaps the main trouble is that the publishing industry seeks square pegs and triangular holes, and uses a big hammer for products that, if lovingly crafted and genuinely inspired, create their own shape and build their own individual niche in a reader’s soul. Books are hard enough to market the way it is, and the hammers keep getting bigger. Or maybe it’s all these labels that are causing the headaches. I think most writers, and most publishers, would agree on one thing: "I don’t care what you call it, as long as you buy it."

(Originally appeared in ScifiDimensions, June 2003. Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson)

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