Sunday, May 24, 2009

The History of the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter, Part I

Science fiction romance has a history that’s actually pretty extensive.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg expanded upon the nascency of SFR in this post last year. Since its beginnings, fans have supported the genre one way or another, even if only by word of mouth. Continuing this tradition, the Galaxy Express is another proud torchbearer in the science fiction romance marathon of love.

Mr. PeabodyTherefore, I’m devoting this week to one particularly noteworthy expression of fandom among science fiction romance fans, one that is a significant predecessor of today’s SFR bloggers, authors, and online communities.

In light of all that’s gone before, I thought you might be interested in learning about the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter. All this week, I’ll be presenting exclusive interviews and all sorts of fun links. Sherman (and Chef!) set the Way-Back Machine for the early 90s....

Founded by Keela Larsten in 1993, the SFR Newsletter delivered news and information about the genre with the aim of “uniting writers of futuristics into an informal network.” It was later helmed by authors Jennifer Dunne, Jody Wallace, and Joyce Ellen Armond. While I was unable to contact Ms. Larston, the other authors offered lots of intriguing behind-the-scenes lore.

I hope you enjoy this journey as much as I did.

An Interview with Jennifer Dunne (Part one of two)

Below is the first of a two-part interview with author Jennifer Dunne. Here’s her bio:

Jennifer DunneJennifer Dunne is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas spanning the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. (She’s either a unique individual who is difficult to categorize, or easily bored - you decide.) Beyond that, there’s no point describing her hobbies or activities, since they’ll have changed by the time you read this. (Score one for “easily bored”.) She lives in upstate New York, where she happily plays the lead role in her very own love story, thankfully with fewer explosions, occult happenings, and dire situations than in her fiction. Although, there was that one time...

The Galaxy Express: Please tell us how the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter started.

Jennifer Dunne: The Science Fiction Romance newsletter was created as a way for writers of speculative romance to network with each other. The brainchild of a woman named Keela Larsten, she invited authors to send her news clippings, which she cut and pasted onto a piece of paper (literally—some were even sideways to fit) and photocopied for distribution.

I got involved when Keela hosted an informal chat session for authors of futuristics at the 1994 Romance Writers of America conference in New York. She distributed copies of her one-page networking newsletter to everyone there, and I immediately grasped its potential. But no one would take such an amateur effort seriously. So I offered her my services as associate editor, desktop publishing the newsletter and handling the photocopying and distribution.

I also brought the newsletter into the electronic age, adding email distribution. We rapidly had far more email subscribers than printed subscribers, but continued to send out printed newsletters to key people, such as editors at various publishing houses who were interested in futuristics (Bantam, Dorchester and Tor) and independent book store owners, for the entire duration of my tenure.

I took over as editor in the spring of 1995, and continued through 2001, when I dropped back to associate editor, and then-associate editor Jody Wallace took over as the primary editor. Under her direction, the newsletter finished the shift into modern technology, and became primarily web-based.

TGE: What type of content did the newsletter include?

JD: I have a copy of the first newsletter I edited for Keela—October 1994, which was the seventh issue. The sections were Newsbytes, short blurbs announcing publications, awards, and promotions; Transmissions, or letters to the editor; Operating Procedures, containing subscription instructions and how to submit a letter to the editor; Navigational Aides, pointing out organizations, contests, conferences, and eventually websites of interest to SF Romance writers; Pilot's Test, or an open question designed to prompt letters to the editor; Flight Paths, listing SF romance markets; and Pilot Dossier, which was an interview with Sherrilyn Kenynon about her SF Romance novel Paradise City.

By the June 1999 issue (the last one I have a photocopy of in my binder), the sections has been changed to Congratulations, the writer-related information formerly in Newsbytes; Newsbytes, for industry-specific information; Flight Plan, the index of articles and former Operating Procedures; Received for Review, short book reviews; Market News, previously named Flight Paths, and renamed so as not to be confused with Flight Plan; Contest, for a contest sponsored by SFR; and a feature article, in this case an instructional article on how to do freewriting. While this particular issue doesn't include it, the Navigational Aides section also remained in use.

TGE: What were the challenges of releasing such a newsletter?

There were some technical challenges associated with producing the newsletter—how to reproduce graphics or artwork, how to format a newsletter for email, how to lay it all out, how to handle postage increases when subscribers supplied bundles of SASEs in advance—but the biggest challenge was simply finding enough material. I subscribed to three different market newsletters, to ensure that I had comprehensive market news, and spent hours trolling the internet looking for good websites to which I could direct readers.

Then there were the books I reviewed—between one and six per month—which required both reading the book and taking the time to write a thoughtful yet spoiler-free review. Also, since the books were supplied by free from the publishers, I felt obligated to write reviews for all of them, even if I didn't particularly like the book. And, if I did not have an article contributed by someone, I had to come up with a feature article. The strain of doing that month after month yet remaining excited and enthusiastic was the biggest challenge.

TGE: Please describe a little about the Sapphire Awards.

The Sapphire Awards were created in 1995, as the result of the second SFR author-and-editor meeting at the RWA nati onal conference. The news for the SF Romance subgenre was not good. Publishers had decided that the market for futuristics was the same size as the market for Regencies, and they were scaling back their publications accordingly. When asked how we could help keep the subgenre alive, the editor in attendence recommended an award to raise awareness of the subgenre.

Originally called by the accurate and descriptive, if boring, name "The Year's Best SFR", the name "Sapphire Award" was given to the award in its third year by Catherine Asaro, who had been telling people about the "SFR Award", and pronouncing it "Sapphire Award". Inspired by the new name, and using the power of eBay, from that time on winners received not only certificates, but heart-shaped sapphires.

As the award grew and became more well-known, getting presented at the World Science Fiction Convention and having the winners listed in Locus, Analog, and the online website of the SciFi channel, managing the award nomination and voting became tricky. Some authors (or their fans) attempted to stuff the ballot box.

We also ran into problems with the international nature of our subscriber base, with one novel winning because all of our European subscribers voted for it (one woman explained to me that she'd voted for it because it was the only title she'd actually read, since the US books didn't show up in her country until at least a year after their US release), while the US-based subscribers split their votes among the finalists. To try and manage the conflicting goals of raising awareness of unknown works as well as recognizing the best of the subgenre rather than the most popular, the award finally settled on an open nomination to select the finalists with a juried panel of final judges.

(Stay tuned for part two, coming soon!)

Joyfully yours,