Monday, July 8, 2013

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Does Sci-Fi Romance Need To Step Up Its Game?

Within the past 24 hours I encountered two observations about science fiction romance that left me discouraged.
The first was made last year by Felicia Day during her *Vaginal Fantasy Book Club discussion of Nalini Singh's SLAVE TO SENSATION. Over the weekend I was catching up with the SFR-related discussions, which is why I'm only discovering this now. Jump to 36:50. Felicia Day stated:

"I've been reading a lot of sci-fi romance to try to pick a really good book to present that to the club…A lot of it…it's very, very bad."

The second observation was made on 6/21/13. It was a comment left at a Smart Bitches review post of Sharon Lynn Fisher's GHOST PLANET. Ann F. says:

I love sci-fi romance but this was one of the best books I’ve read in that genre in recent years.

In response, I'm simultaneously tearing my hair out in frustration and nodding in agreement.

Here's why: when I learn about readers expressing disappointment in what science fiction romance has to offer, a number of issues come to mind.

1) Subjectivity plays a significant role. One reader's gold medal SFR book might be another's Did Not Finish. How in the world can one define quality against the vast variation in reader taste? Of course, there are basic measures of quality such as standard punctuation and grammar skills. But beyond that, readers judge stories using a wide array of criteria. If a reader has yet to find SFR books that excite her, does it mean the genre as a whole suffers from low quality or that she hasn't discovered the best books for *her*?

2) The bias against digital-first books is another factor. Mainstream print books are still on this huge pedestal and I suspect they often get a pass simply because of the medium. Readers still judge books by whether or not they have wide distribution and land on bestseller lists. It doesn't help matters when Big Six publishers pay out staggering amounts of money to get their books on the lists, on Amazon's front page, or in bookstore end cap displays. 

Most if not all SFR digital-first books have no "officially financed" stamp of approval to inform readers that "these books are valid." 

3) This bias also negatively impacts the number of reviews for digital-first books as well as their ability to catch the attention of high profile bloggers/podcasters. A digital-first book without loads of reviews behind it may not be viewed by readers with a lens of "this is special" or "I should pay attention to this book." These books are, in effect, "nobodies." Of course, that's what it means to be niche.

4) Niche can be an advantage in terms of creative freedom. Authors can experiment with SFR in so many ways right now it boggles my mind (Ha! Get it?! That's a reference to P.J. Schnyder's extraordinarily daring short story A GIFT FOR BOGGLE.) But experimentation can translate to a learning curve for some readers. I wonder to what extent SFR's reputation for mediocre stories is code for their niche content. Readers will sometimes reject a book because it doesn't deliver the fantasy they expect or because they're not familiar with the genre.

5) Another challenge is the relative youth of science fiction romance. This genre doesn't have the breadth of offerings compared to other romance subgenres. Not only that, but it's still evolving. So in a way there's more pressure for SFR to hit each title out of the park in order to command reader interest. 

If a book is perceived as "failing" (whether by sales, number of reviews, or content) then it's just that much more difficult for the next one to be successful. In other words, newer releases can't ride the coattails of older, more successful ones.

6) While it's debatable that most science fiction romance is "very, very bad," there's definitely an argument for producing more engaging stories. Or to put it another way, producing a higher number of stories in general so readers have more choices. SFR, like any genre, has room for improvement.

7) Stories sometimes suffer when they are rushed to market. I've read any number of science fiction romances that felt underdeveloped to me. Just because ebooks can be released more quickly than print ones doesn't mean they should be.

8) SFR may not be delivering enough epic-style series (or if they are, readers don't know about them). While novellas and short stories can be compelling, readers also want the more substantive stories that novels and series can offer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a popular, bestselling digital-first SFR series that's on a par with, say, Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series doesn't exist (yet!).

Along those same lines, readers want immersive worldbuilding in science fiction romance. There are books that provide this element, but the genre needs more of them. And also SFRs that deliver a community/family type group of characters, which Donna S. Frelick blogged about so eloquently here

Reflect, for a moment, on just how high concept the Psy-Changeling series is. Even the series tag tells you everything you need to know: psychics and shapeshifters falling in love. Why aren't more digital-first books going this kind of epic series route (not necessarily stories in the vein of Psy-Changeling, but rather the scope)? (I hesitate to ask this of print sci-fi romances because it's nigh impossible to land a contract these days, let alone get a publisher to commit long-term.)

I think the answer, in part, has to do with practical issues. The challenge (and frustration) for authors of digital-first SFR is even though they have a lot of creative freedom, they'd bear the burden entirely for developing, writing, and marketing a long-term series of novels like Singh's Psy-Changeling. I don't blame them for not making that type of investment. For one thing, they wouldn't be getting, at the very least, an advance or mainstream distribution for all their work. Even if they wrote a spectacular series, where can they shop it? How many of them can afford a publicist? Magazine ads? And certain marketing options wouldn't even be available to them no matter how much money they had.

9) On the other hand, how do they expect to compete if they don't take the risk *at all*?

Unless we're all okay with SFR having a reputation for being mediocre and "bad," authors and SFR advocates may need to step up their game.

If readers as diverse as Felicia Day and Ann F. are expressing similar sentiments, with the implication that little has changed over the course of a year, I can't help but wonder if something's not quite working. And these ladies are *fans* of SFR! 

10) I'm highly invested in the idea of sci-fi romance gaining popularity with stories/fantasies that go beyond the rich Alpha hero and young, innocent heroine pairing. It would be totally epic to witness this genre gain a positive reputation for its diverse and unique offerings. I'm also committed to doing what I can to help raise visibility for SFR. Any advocates of the genre can help by buzzing about the books they feel deserve more attention.

Because I can't resist quoting GALAXY QUEST yet again, to this challenge I say, "Never give up, never surrender!"

Joyfully yours,


*P.S. In the Vaginal Fantasy discussion linked to above, Felicia Day also said "I would like to read a…romance novel with an android."

I have no idea if Ms. Day ever seriously pursued such a story or still intends to, but you know me--I'm going to present some titles anyway to make it easier for readers to find them!

THE PHOENIX CODE - Catherine Asaro
SUNRISE ALLEY and its sequel, ALPHA - Catherine Asaro
PARAGON - Aubrey Watt
MECHMAN - L.J. Garland
THE DARE - Susan Kearney
MACHINE - Jennifer Pelland
MANBOT - Scarlet Blackwell
THE WATCHMAKER'S LADY - Heather Massey (in the interest of full disclosure, that's me!)

The Goodreads list Robots, Androids, Gynoids, Cyborgs, My Loves may yield more titles. Happy reading!