Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Publicity Doesn’t Just Happen: A Case Study

by Rob - May 23rd, 2007.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

When Publishers Weekly did its cover story on science fiction (in their April 2, 2007, issue), the lead interview was with me, Robert J. Sawyer. The article, by Bethanne Kelly Patrick and Michael Coffey, began:

Robert J. Sawyer knows a thing or two about the future.

“It’s here,” says the Hugo Award-winning author of 18 science fiction books. And that’s not necessarily good for the science fiction/fantasy category, in his view. “The genre is having a hard time retaining readers who see that today’s world is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century.” Today’s world was supposed to be about “living in outer space,” says Sawyer, “not living in cyberspace.” And the cyberpunk world envisioned by William Gibson was wrong — “that world is not underground and malevolent, but above ground and universal.”

Sawyer’s own writing (he publishes with Tor) vies for timelessness by plumbing eternal philosophical and ethical questions, albeit in a futuristic setting. But Sawyer is also a publisher, with his own imprint at Red Deer Press in Calgary, where he is challenged to find other writers with strategies that can attract readers in a tough market. Sawyer points to several “metrics” that spell the dire situation for traditional SF/fantasy, such as the closing of specialty bookstores and the steep drop in circulation at magazines like Analog and Asimov’s

Tremendous publicity (and in the issue that came out the week my 17th novel Rollback was released, to boot!). But publicity like that doesn’t just happen. Stephanie Stewart, the wonderful US marketing director for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, for which I edit the Robert J. Sawyer Books science-fiction imprint, knew that PW had an SF feature coming up, and had me send in the following comments to them, precisely in hope of getting our line included in the roundup; not only did that result in the lead interview, but also a spotlight on Phyllis Gotlieb‘s new novel Birthstones, which I edited for the Robert J. Sawyer Books line.

Here’s the pitch — comments designed to whet the appetite for an interview — that we sent to Publishers Weekly on February 27, 2007:

Robert J. Sawyer edits Robert J. Sawyer Books, the science-fiction imprint of Toronto’s Fitzhenry & Whiteside. He’s won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, and his own works are published by Tor (most recently, Rollback, an April 2007 title which received a starred review from PW). Despite his own in-category success, he thinks the future of SF lies not with dedicated imprints but with breaking out of the genre box and reaching a mainstream audience. A few of his thoughts:

Without intending to, Arthur C. Clarke put a best-before date on science fiction: 2001. Now that the future is here, the genre is having a hard time retaining readers who see that today’s world — with fundamentalism in resurgence — is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century.

In many ways, the science-fiction label has become a liability, and the science fiction that sells best — be it Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake, Audrey Niffenegger‘s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Michael Crichton‘s Next — eschew not only the genre name but all the standard marketing symbols, as well. The old publishing adage that all you had to do to sell an SF book is put a spaceship on the cover doesn’t work anymore; oh, there’s still a core audience that will buy such books, but it’s a shrinking core.

There’s been much discussion in the SF field that the small press is the future of the genre, but the problem with most small-press SF imprints is that they exist in isolation: they are standalone imprints, unaffiliated with larger houses. When Calgary’s Red Deer Press — for more than 30 years, one of Canada’s leading literary publishers — approached me to develop a science-fiction imprint for them, I was immediately intrigued, because instead of developing my own catalog, the books would be appearing in an established catalog, alongside quality works of all types. (In 2005, Red Deer Press was bought by Toronto’s Fitzhenry & Whiteside, and in the U.S., my imprint now appears in the Fitzhenry catalog.)

This was the opposite of the ghettoization of SF, and it’s exactly what I see as the future of the genre: the moving of SF works into the mainstream. The irony, to date, has been that it’s authors coming out of other categories — Walter Mosley from the mystery field and Nora Roberts (writing futuristic mysteries now as J.D. Robb) from the romance field, for instance — who are having the greatest success with their breakout SF.

Despite the SF writer’s supposed stock-in-trade, which is seeing a perspective light-years wider than that of mundane writers, most writers in the SF field seem incapable of seeing outside the SF box, while others, who aren’t so anchored in the traditional SF marketplace, have no problem nimbly exploiting SF tropes in works that are sold to a broad, mainstream audience.

With the line I edit for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, , I’ve been looking for writers who will have wider-than-genre appeal — and I’ve been cherry-picking them from within the established SF marketplace. Many of the authors we’ve worked with had previous books published by established SF publishers, including Baen (known for its oh-so-genre covers) and Tor (the largest house in the SF field), but weren’t finding large audiences within the core SF demographic such houses go after.

Our next two books are both by authors previously published by Tor. Phyllis Gotlieb isn’t just an SF writer — she’s also a feminist writer, in the mold of Ursula K. LeGuin. And she’s a poet of wide renown in Canada. Tor packaged her previous books as space opera; we’ve given her new book Birthstones a beautiful mainstream cover, and hope to find her that wide audience that doesn’t know that it likes science fiction.

Matthew Hughes, author of The Commons, which we’re doing later this year, was previously packaged by Tor as an SF adventure writer — and he does tell a rollicking good yarn. But his principal strength is in the psychological astuteness of his work, in which he writes about Jungian archetypes and the power of myth: we’re shifting his market position from being the stepson of golden-age SF editor John. W. Campbell to being the stepson of Joseph Campbell, the author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, and, again, we think we can find a wider market for him amongst people who never thought they would read an SF book. There is a future for SF, but it’s a future that depends on getting more than just science-fiction readers to buy the books.

Publishers Weekly was indeed intrigued by what I had to say, and on Thursday, March 22, 2007, they submitted follow-up questions, which I immediately answered; they also followed the questions below up with a phone interview:

1. Why is breaking out of the SF box to reach a mainstream audience so important? Has traditional SF “jumped the shark?”

If it had just jumped the shark, that would be fine — at least people would understand what’s going on. But SF has instead executed a parabolic maneuver with an exemplar of the cartilaginous order Selachii at its focus — which amounts to the same damn thing, but in modern SF fashion is said in a way that is so jargon-laden, so exclusionary, and so unwelcoming of newcomers that they simply aren’t let in. It’s almost as though much modern SF has a hazing ritual: if you can survive the first few chapters, maybe we’ll give you a story worth reading.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Chapter 2 of Glasshouse by Charles Stross (Ace/Penguin USA), widely being touted as one of the best SF books of this past year (a 2006 title most critics think will be on the 2007 Hugo ballot, to be announced this weekend); I doubt any non-habitual SF reader would continue on after encountering this (and, yes, “Is” is capitalized as shown — even common words are made difficult in modern SF):

The Invisible Republic is one of the legacy polities that emerged from the splinters of the Republic of Is, in the wake of the series of censorship wars that raged five to ten gigaseconds ago. During the wars, the internetwork of longjump T-gates that wove the subnets of the hyperpower together was shattered, leaving behind sparsely connected nets, their borders filtered through firewalled assembler gates guarded by ferocious mercenaries. Incomers were subjected to forced disassembly and scanned for subversive attributes before being rebuilt and allowed across the frontiers. Battles raged across the airless cryogenic wastes that housed the longjump nodes carrying traffic between warring polities, while the redactive worms released by the Censor factions lurked in the firmware of every A-gate they could contaminate, their viral payload mercilessly deleting all knowledge of the underlying cause of the conflict from fleeing refugees as they passed through the gates.

The readership of the average SF paperback has plunged from 100,000 in the 1970s to 20,000 in the current decade; the circulation of the major SF magazines has dropped from 160,000 to 40,000 in the same period. General readers are devouring books with SF sensibilities — Michael Crichton’s Next, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, not to mention The Da Vinci Code — but they’re staying away from the SF section, and so those authors who want a wide readership have to find ways to be shelved in general fiction.

2. You say that SF is having a hard time retaining readers in a world that “is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century.” Could you discuss further?

Although SF is not in fact about prediction, the general public thinks that it is. And whether it was Arthur C. Clarke predicting giant orbiting space stations and glib talking computers by the year 2001, or William Gibson suggesting that a punk-style hacker underground would be running the world by, well, right now, the visions turned out to be wrong. Instead of Clarke’s manned voyages to Jupiter and beyond, we haven’t had a human leave Earth orbit for 35 years now; and instead of cyberpunks, we got Wikipedia and Time naming “You” — us, the average joe who freely and altruistically creates online content — its person of the year.

In our materialistic world, SF’s selling point for rational, busy people had become that it was a way of gaining insight into the future (and, as Alvin Toffler said, reading it would help avoid future shock). But with SF being so wrong in the short term, and so far out in the long term — technologies that are, in Arthur C. Clarke’s own words, indistinguishable from magic — readers are preferring fantasy: honest escapism, engagingly told.

3. A corollary: is part of the problem that our world(s) has expanded so far and so fast that people naturally look for narrower and more inward-facing perspectives?

I don’t dispute that statement, but, in fact, there is lots of inward-facing in SF. One editor I know quips that mainstream literature is about the inner lives of ordinary people, and SF is about the outer lives of extraordinary people — but I totally disagree. Judith Merril, the late, great SF anthologist of the 1950s and 1960s, quite rightly said that SF should be at least as much about inner space — the human condition, human psychology — as about outer space. Works that provide insight and reflection are there in the field: certainly in the books I’m publishing under my imprint, and, I like to think, in the books I myself am writing.

4. Tell us about Matthew Hughes — is he really renowned author Joseph Campbell’s stepson? Psychological SF seems like a very exciting direction…

For many years, SF really concentrated on the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, astronomy. The soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology got short shrift. But there have always been some good works of psychological SF, and we’re seeing more and more these days.

Like most SF writers today, Matthew Hughes has a day job — the field has become a hobby, not a profession, because of the declining market share. He writes speeches, mostly for politicians. That is, he’s always trying to find the right symbolism and metaphor to allow the person ultimately presenting the speech to achieve a very specific psychological effect. SF often makes manifest what we normally only think of as abstractions, and Matt is totally doing that in The Commons: different aspects of human psychology become tangible characters in his book; it’s a very insightful study, and, yes, I do think Joseph Campbell would be proud.

5. You’re an established, prize-winning author. Will you continue to publish with Tor? Or will your own works now come out from Fitzhenry & Whiteside?

I actually already have one book from them, my first short-story collection Iterations; that’s how I got involved with them in the first place. And I’m talking about doing another one with them, too: a second short-story collection, Identity Theft.

Doing my collections with them makes sense. Single-author short-story collections are the worst-selling type of book in the SF field (multi-author anthologies are the second worst; novels are the only things that sell well). I’ve seen authors with Tor and others take year to get the orders for their novels back up to the level they were at before the same big house did their short-story collection, and so I want to keep my collections separate, and clearly small-press, so as not to confuse my bookstore stats.

I won’t name the people who’ve had problems with having the same publisher do their short-story collection as their novels, but I will name a success besides myself from the approach I’m advocating: one of the hot new SF authors of this century is Karl Schroeder, and my imprint did a wonderful collection of his short stories, with an introduction by British SF superstar Stephen Baxter. We sandwiched it in between two of Karl’s novels for Tor: Permanence and Lady of Mazes — and Karl’s Tor numbers continued to build nicely, with the collection — which obviously sold many fewer copies, as collections do — having no negative impact on his novel numbers.

But I’m going to leave my novels with a major publisher, for several reasons. First, of course, Fitzhenry & Whiteside is branding its SF as “Robert J. Sawyer Books” — which was their idea, not mine; it certainly has got us a lot of bookseller attention, and major buys for all our titles from Chapters/Indigo — Canada’s major chain — so I guess their instinct was correct. But having a book of my own under that imprint would look like vanity press!

Second, of course, the small press just can’t touch the advances I’m getting from Tor: the advances, editorial fees, cover artist fees, and so on, for all the books I’ve done to date under my imprint combined don’t come anywhere near equaling the advance I get for a single book of my own from Tor. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few full-timers left in the SF field (there are certainly fewer than 100, and probably fewer than 50), and staying with a big house is a necessity for maintaining that.

You mentioned awards: these have been absolutely key to my success. In all aspects of business, branding is the hot topic these days, and being branded as both a Hugo Award winner and a Nebula Award winner has been key to why I’ve survived with a major publisher in a shrinking marketplace. But I’m one of the lucky ones — I know that. And the work I do with my imprint is a way of paying back that karmic debt: there are lots of great manuscripts out there in this wonderful field, and I’m delighted to be able to give a few of the very best a good home.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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