Thursday, October 15, 2009

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Does Science Fiction Romance Need a Gene Roddenberry?

In the post Romance Ground Zeroes at Romancing the Blog, Wendy Crutcher discusses the phenomenon of revolutionary books and authors in the romance genre.

Commenter BevBB noted: “nothing compares to the impact that [Christine] Feehan had in terms of opening the minds of readers to vampire romances in general.” That is, Feehan “managed to break through a barrier…”.

BevBB continues: “But she managed to do them in a package that intrigued enough romance readers to create the necessary buzz and that’s what counts because you can definitely see where the formula was no longer so strict after those books.

"That’s a ground zero.” [Emphasis mine]

In Genre: The Root of All Evil?, Jacqueline Lichtenberg of Alien Romances states that “…because of the Web and social networking, publishers no longer have the sole power to identify and name a new genre…By letting genre definitions become so rigid, publishers have fooled themselves into thinking they're making more money than they could without genre requirements.” In the comment section, she clarifies that “genre walls are melting down.”

Lichtenberg then went on to declare that “Romance needs a Gene Roddenberry.”


original Star Trek cast


All of the above got me to thinking:

Does science fiction romance have a ground zero?

I would argue that it does not. At least, not yet.

The success of SFR/futuristic romances is so entwined with the explosive horror-based paranormal trend that it’s easy to misconstrue the success of paranormal romances as significant growth for science fiction romance. Rather, it seems that in the late 80s and nineties, there was a healthy mix of “otherworldly” romances, any one of which could mean a horror based paranormal, a futuristic romance, fantasy romance, or a time-travel. Paranormal romances grew wildly in popularity since that time, while science fiction romance hasn’t paralleled that trajectory.

Yes, there were landmark books such as SWEET STARFIRE by Jayne Ann Krentz and KNIGHT OF A TRILLION STARS by Dara Joy, but were they revolutionary in the way that books by Christine Feehan, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Anne Rice were? Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case.

But what about the efforts of authors like Linnea Sinclair, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Rowena Cherry, Catherine Asaro, and Susan Grant, not to mention the staff of the former Science Fiction Romance Newsletter? They worked diligently to sustain the genre’s growth and made significant inroads, but the results (i.e., sales) seem almost invisible to those outside of SFR’s core community.

What is the “barrier” which science fiction romance must breach in order to have wider appeal? My feeling is that once we break through that barrier, we’ll reach ground zero.

Given the number of subgenres from which to create stories (space western, superhuman, steampunk, post-apocalyptic, etc.), it seems like it’d be difficult to draw readers based on a common similarity, such as paranormal romance’s pivotal vampire. And no amount of makeovers will be enough to deliver SFR’s version of an alien Lestat. The idea of ugly aliens is too entrenched in various cultures. Even the word “alien” isn’t as sexy as “vampire.” Fer gosh’s sake, they’re not even all humanoid.

Besides, isn’t diversity one of the cornerstones of science fiction romance?

Is the speculative part of the equation the barrier? Do we need to achieve a happy medium across the board between hard and dumbed down speculative elements? Or is it SFR’s gender role boundary pushing that’s holding it back?

Or is it really a matter of a certain breakout author with a specific type of story? Does science fiction romance need a Roddenberry, or a Feehan? Or a “Roddenberry Feehan”?

Lichtenberg poses an excellent question. Got me to thinking (here I go again!). To break that barrier, is it a revolutionary type of book SFR needs, or a revolutionary type of community? Even a great book can disappear into oblivion without sufficient reader buzz.

But how long can we wait for a “Roddenberry Feehan”? It may happen, it may not. I don’t know how long I can hold out. Frankly, I think SFR is plenty buzz-worthy right now (although I still want more books to choose from). Regardless, science fiction romance has a few more foundations to build in order to truly harness the power of The Buzz. They are, in random order, branding, author platforms, and social networking.

Branding

In Mike Shatzkin’s article Why publishers need to understand brand, he states that “The owners of the brands that matter will control access to the audiences that matter in the future. Content creators’ fates will be in the brands’ hands…

“…We all well know that not all brand promises are about content. “Community” (interaction among the interested) and “service” (solving problems or providing help, which is what the content in Dummies books do) are important components of brand as well. My paradigm is to use content as bait to attract eyeballs, but then to use community and service to strengthen the hold of the brand on its adherents.”

In which case (from the comments), “Increasingly, the publishers' skill sets will have to do with leveraging platforms that authors have already created.”

(I would include the platforms of reader-driven sites and aspiring authors as key players as well.)

Shatzkin also noted “But consumers require brands that are consistent as to subject matter…”

That last statement is why it's so important for the SFR community (authors, readers, bloggers) to define itself. We are in the best position to establish consistency for the SFR brand. Only then will publishers know what to do with it.

Author Platform

For authors, it’s all about building an online presence. In The platform vs. the eyeballs, Seth Godin writes “Suddenly the new media comes along and the rules are different. You're not renting an audience, you're building one. You're not exhibiting at a trade show, you're starting your own trade show.

“Two steps: buy a platform and then fill it with people…The smart way to build a brand today is to invest in the elements of the platform...the product, the technology, the websites (plural) and the systems you need to make it easy for people to show up at your very own trade show.”

Note the “plural” when it comes to Web sites. That’s us, folks. Readers and authors alike. I’d take it a step further and say that readers and aspiring authors comprise part of an author’s platform, especially in the case of a niche genre such as science fiction romance.

Social Networking

In Marketing Via Social Networking, Jacqueline Lichtenberg observes that “…stories contain elements of marketing. Only since the invention of the printing press has marketing of stories been subcontracted by writers to publishers. Today, writers are taking back that function.”

She notes that writers are successful in using social networks to sell books because they focus on building relationships with like-minded readers.

Successful marketing entails "targeting readership through community building," between publishers and readers, authors and readers, and among readers themselves.

Branding, author platforms, social networking—it all boils down to the idea that successful marketing is about building relationships. Real relationships.

What does all this mean for science fiction romance?

* We need to explore ways to monetize the relationships we develop. This could take days or it could take years. Not every single one will lead to actual revenue streams for SFR, but alliances should be forged with that concept in mind.

* Authors, be proactive about marketing your books. No amount of marketing can guarantee bestsellerdom, but it certainly helps expand your customer base. Become a social media super hero! Feed news/information about your SFR books to a centralized source, e.g., the SFR online community. Pick a blogger, any blogger! You might be surprised at the kind of exposure you score.

* Own the brand. Small press/digital publishers, here’s an idea: build a science fiction romance brand. Then form a partnership with the SFR online community to connect with the target audience. Right now, I see an opportunity to consolidate your SFR books, say, into an imprint or a specific section on your Web site, and market them to the existing community. Not only that, but you could create a newsletter or blog to make the section more interactive.

I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Who among you is up for that challenge?



* Bloggers, our goal is not only to facilitate the gathering of current SFR readers, but also to perform outreach to new ones. Write an SF or romance blogger and pitch the idea of a blog post exchange today! Take advantage of sites like Romancing The Blog which offers Open Blog Night every Sunday.

* Readers: buy new, and spread word of mouth both in person and online.

* The more formal associations advocating for science fiction romance, the better. One example would be an RWA online chapter exclusively for the genre.

My main point is this: If we had a certain type of author/book to create a ground zero for science fiction romance, terrific, but I don’t think we have to wait around for it, either. Another way of looking at it is to create an organized community that essentially helps launch existing and debut authors into a higher-visibility stratum. So when that special Roddenberry Feehan does come our way, we’ll be ready.

Why can’t we be the ground zero—right here, right now?

Joyfully yours,

Heather