This is part of a series of posts about developments in English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK that caught my eye during 2017, along with predictions for 2018. I’ll explain why I’m restricting myself to these markets at the end*.
2017: The Year of Mashup.
Space opera is one of the key growth area of science fiction publishing. It’s an elastic term that can be stretched to encompass many writing modes and story styles. Always has been. I believe that what lies at the heart of both writing and reading space opera is a sense of wonder sparked by stories set on such an epic scale that our mundane lives feel drab in comparison. Space opera is often served up with lashings of adventure, fast pace, romance, and external threat (which is a writerly term to mean the characters are about to get blasted by a laser or gobbled up by a space monster).
When Kindle self-publishing kicked off the current science fiction boom in 2010, many of the books that were selling well fit into one of several tightly defined core areas within the wider category of space opera.
You had your science fiction romance bestsellers (not a surprise to me — I knew self-published authors making a good living writing science fiction romance as far back as 2001). Then there was military science-fiction, which often starts off with a boot camp before the space marine/ junior navy officer starts blasting bad people and aliens or the equivalent shipboard combat. Then you had your hard science-fiction in a space opera setting.
I can think of many reasons why this was so at the time, but in 2016, and more strongly in 2017, SelfPub and NewPub science fiction publishing decidedly pushed beyond. There is still a strong demand for classic military science fiction tales, and it is being satisfied by marvelous new stories. However, many authors who once restricted themselves to core areas, reached out from their jumping off points to go exploring within the wider universe of space opera, freely borrowing, being inspired by, and mashing up whatever took their fancy. Your space marine writers might now include sexy werewolves and spellcasters, taken straight from the pages of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. LitRPG is very influential. Westerns and superhero themes join in too. At the same time, romance writers are pushing deep into the territory of fleet combat, galactic empire, and political intrigue, stiffened by greater observance of science and engineering principles (something that has been on the up for many years now).
Yes, I know, those sorts of books were always being written (for example, the Napoleonic Wars with Dragons of the Tremeraire books by Naomi Novik that started in 2005), as were many other modes of science fiction, but in the earliest days of the self-publishing boom, there was a grain of truth to the criticism that successful SelfPub science fiction novels were cookie-cutter replicas of each other. Not much more than a grain, yet it was there. Take Ark Royal (2014) by Christopher Nuttall, Warship (2015) by Joshua Dalzelle, and Constitution (2015) by Nick Webb. All great books, all infused with the unique style of the author, and all highly successful. Nonetheless, if you read them back to back, you can see a resemblance in their surface features.
But that is much less true now.
Speaking for myself, one of the reasons why it was so tempting a few years ago to write a book about space marines featuring a prominent space soldier on the cover (as I did in 2014 with Marine Cadet) is because even in thumbnail, your cover and title effectively communicate what your book is about. Matching products with consumers who might enjoy them is, after all, what marketing ultimately tries to achieve.
Back in 2014, I deliberately chose to write Marine Cadet over the book I would have preferred to launch, because Marine Cadet was in a sub-genre that I could more easily communicate through the cover (and the title). It was the right decision. But in 2017, with the explosive growth in the science fiction literary audience now settling down, readers are less inclined to say ‘I’ll try this book because it’s cheap and got a picture on the front of a space marine/ dragon/ sexy man with big pecs’ and more inclined to say, ‘I’ll try this book because I recognize the author or publisher as a brand I trust.’
With readers increasingly trusting the top authors to take them someplace new, in 2017 I had an increased sense of successful SelfPub and NewPub authors feeling the confidence to break free of the prop offered by a cliché on the cover and freeing up their imaginations.
Of course, that’s always been the case for well-established writers. The recent release by Andy Weir, Artemis, has been a huge success because vast legions of readers trust Andy Weir to tell a compelling story. It almost didn’t matter what he wrote about (although Weir’s success in wowing readers with Artemis will profoundly affect his ability to sell books in the future). Same with Margaret Atwood, and John Scalzi. What changed in 2017 was the degree to which that reader trust extended far into the areas of NewPub and SelfPub.
Mashup Predictions for 2018
We will see mashups galore. Space opera with spells sold very well in 2017 and we will see that go in new directions. Also, paranormal hard sf, military fantasy blended with superhero romance… LitRPG and mecha everywhere. The works. We will see much more exuberance and more experimentation from the SelfPub and NewPub sectors. One key trend for 2018 will be already successful authors of paranormal romance and urban fantasy (and I predict the most successful will be women) pushing deep into traditional space opera territory.
Books that caught my eye in 2017
Chris Fox: Tech Mage.
Chris is a hugely prolific writer who caused a stir in 2016 when wrote a novel to break into a new genre in 21 days and he filmed himself every day of the challenge. The result was Destroyer, which sold like gangbusters.
Tech Mage (2017) is an exciting romp I read earlier this week and it was fantastic in every sense. It had Confederate Marines teaming up with tech mages and battleships to fight evil sorcerers and dark creatures who could have come from Mordor. Powerups, potions and spell cast levels give a subtle flavor of LitRPG. The series is titled Magitech Chronicles, which really says it all. I’ve decided to show the cover for the sequel, Void Wrym (2017), because… well, it is space opera, it is military science fiction, and it does have a mean dragon on the front. Very 2017, but it’s also going to be very 2018.
As I was hunting around Chris’s site looking for his 21-day novel videos, I came across this video from September 2017 in which Chris talks about many of the same things I do in this post, but from a more practical point of view.
Other posts in this series
SF Publishing in 2017 pt.1 – The year NewPub came to stay.
SF Publishing in 2017 pt.2 – Science fiction is still booming.
SF Publishing in 2017 pt.3 – Collaboration: Let’s work together… and make a killing.
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*So, why restrict myself to English language science fiction publishing in the US and UK? It’s not that nothing else is going on of importance. For me personally, I am greatly indebted to my loyal fans in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. More generally, I suspect that in 25 years’ time, we’ll look back at this time and consider that not only were the biggest changes in SF publishing taking place outside of the English language, but that they will profoundly impact Anglo-American science fiction over the coming decade.
The reason is simply that it’s with the US and UK that I have the most meaningful data and consequently the deepest understanding of how those markets work. Also, I succeed or fail in earning my living as a writer by my success in selling to American readers, so I watch trends there like a hawk.
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Well done, as usual!
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