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August, 2009 : Feature:

The Marketing Category is Dead! Long Live the Genre!

Signals 23

On Monday, I found myself uttering a phrase I never thought I'd utter: "I think science fiction as a genre will be dead in just a few years." My husband Dean Wesley Smith looked at me in great shock (which was dangerous, since he was driving us to Portland, Oregon, at the time). So I had to clarify what I meant.

Which is exactly what I'm going to do here.

First, let me define terms. Genre is and has always been (in English anyway, not the original French) a subjective marketing category. In other words, we slap a label on a book in order to sell it. That label is often chosen by guess and by golly.

For example, in what genre would you place The Da Vinci Code? It now exists in a particular genre called "bestsellers" because it is one, and that's not a subjective guess, but an actual fact. But let's get rid of that bookstore category, "bestseller," and pretend that we've just discovered The Da Vinci Code in our slush pile and we as the editors at a publishing house want to take that book to the sales force, and talk to them about possibly buying that book for our line. The sales force will want to know how to market that book, and the first stage toward marketing it is to assign it a category.

Well, The Da Vinci Code has a nominal romance. It begins with a murder. Our hero solves the murder and learns tons of other things along the way. The entire book is about Christianity. The book has worldwide scope, meaning the events in the book could change the world, if allowed. The action moves at a fast clip. The Da Vinci Code a romance? No, because of the word "nominal." The romance is there, but it's not central to the book. Is it a mystery? Yes. It follows the classic mystery structure perfectly. Is it a Christian novel that could be marketed to Christian bookstores? A big, resounding no, since The Da Vinci Code's message is anti-religion, if not anti-Christianity.

The question then is why wasn't the Da Vinci Code, in its very first printing, way back when, published as a mystery?

Because there is a genre all its own that has mystery elements, worldwide scope, and fast-pacing. That genre is called "thriller."

Once upon a time, thriller used to be a subcategory of mystery. Until—and this until is important—thrillers, that lovely subcategory, sold more copies than a standard mystery novel.

Voila! A whole new marketing category—a whole new genrewas born.

All genres develop with similar roots. Sometime around the late 19th century, it became clear that women bought a lot of a certain type of book, so the genre women's fiction was born. It's different from modern women's fiction, which is now a subcategory of a subcategory. Back then, women's fiction meant any and all books that would appeal to women, but not to men (all that much). You read many of that old genre in school, including Wuthering Heights, Little Women, and Jane Eyre, not to mention everything by Jane Austen (which was then being repackaged [not kidding!] as women's fiction).

Eventually, that old label would get subdivided again, into gothic (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) and romance (Jane Austen), kicking Little Women into the children's book category—a category that really didn't have its own genre/marketing label until the 1920s. And oh, that romance that included Jane Austen—that was a new usage of an old term. Before that, romance actually referred to adventure fiction, like the kind written by Sir Walter Scott.

Confused yet? Now you understand how Dean felt on that drive to Portland. I was talking about science fiction, the marketing category, and he thought I meant the science fiction that he loves to read.

I didn't mean that what he loved to read would go away. But someday—maybe soon—it would no longer have its own section in the bookstore.

Why do I think this?

Because so many readers claim they hate science fiction. They never, ever, ever go into the science fiction section of the bookstore. Books with "science fiction" written on the spine sell fewer copies than books with almost any other genre written on the spine—except "western." Even horror is bouncing back from its nadir in the 1990s.

Point out to those same readers that they're reading science fiction all the time, and they'll deny it. Yet they're reading more science fiction than ever. Most of Nora Roberts' giant fan base has moved to her J.D. Robb novels, set in a futuristic New York. Rising romance star, Linnea Sinclair, writes space opera. At least a third of the paranormal romance genre contains stories we in the center of the SF genre would call science fiction.

And those SF haters aren't just getting their science fiction from romance. They get it in that illusive bestseller category, catapulting Neal Stephenson to the lists along with William Gibson and Audrey Niffenegger whose book title, The Time Traveler's Wife, advertises its SF roots. (When that book came out, I enjoyed the hell out of the mainstream reviewers twisting themselves into a knot trying to explain why The Time Traveler's Wife wasn't science fiction. The general agreement among those reviewers turned out to be that the Niffenegger book wasn't SF because the reviewers liked it, and they didn't like science fiction.)

Bestsellers aren't the only category littered with science fiction. Mystery nominated Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union for an Edgar the same year that we in SF gave him a Hugo. We claimed the book because it's alternate history. In fact, I have an alternate history story in this year's Best American Mysteries volume. Mystery is also embracing science fiction in a big way. Not just Chabon, but Jasper Fforde and Charlaine Harris and oh so many others.

And let's not forget young adult fiction. Everyone from Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) to Scott Westerfeld (The Uglies) seems to write science fiction. In fact, young adult may be the SF marketing category's savior—but I'll get to that in a minute.

Yet people who read Jasper Fforde or Michael Chabon or Linnea Sinclair or Cormac McCarthy (The Road is pure SF, Oprah, my dear), wouldn't be caught dead in the SF section of their bookstore. Somewhere along the way, those of us who live at the core of science fiction actively drove people away from our genre. (I have theories about that. See my essay "Barbarian Confessions" in Star Wars on Trial (edited by David Brin and published by BenBella Books).) The marketing category—the sales pitch, if you will—was tough, challenging, hard to read, and boring.

Would that make you buy a book?

That's not at all what SF is. But that's what people think it is, so they don't pick up books with the words "science fiction" on the spine, even though they're reading science fiction all the time.

What's a publisher to do? Why, what they've done since time immemorial: call the book something else. It has a romance—must be a paranormal (or futuristic) romance. It has a mystery—must be a mystery novel. It moves quickly and has galactic scope—must be a thriller.

See how that works? I've seen Cory Doctorow's wonderful SF novel called "dystopian" in the mainstream press, without the SF label at all. And yep, it is dystopian, if that makes you feel better about your brains and education level. But it's also a science fiction novel.

I'm not the only one who's noticing these trends, by the way. Paul Goat Allen, a blogger at, has some cogent short essays on this. See "Science Fiction is Dead! Long Live Science Fiction!" and "It's the End of Genre as We Know It and I Feel Fine." Both Orson Scott Card and Tobias Bucknell have blogged about this, although their reasoning differs from mine. They think the cutting edge has moved away from SF. I'm still reading SF short fiction (and loving it), so I know the cutting edge is still in SF. But SF book publishers have become conservative, not wanting to take risks (there's a reason that Linnea Sinclair isn't publishing in SF—the publishers have a been-there-done-that attitude about space opera, even though no one's doing it quite like she is).

I don't blame the publishers for avoiding risk. The SF category is small enough already. We don't need to make it smaller by publishing a lot of books that might sell even worse than usual.

And if the SF category numbers continue to look dismal, eventually publishers will find a new label for every single book that has an SF angle. It's...futuristic. It' alternate now. It's...

You see where I'm going with that.

But I'm hoping that the SF category hangs on for a few more years. Some of that is nostalgia. I remember grabbing Andre Norton books at the local library, not because of her name (I hadn't learned about authors yet) but because of the rocket ship on the book's spine. Whenever I see that old rocket ship on the spine now, I feel a wave of happiness—even though those ships were stickers and probably don't even exist in many libraries outside of the one in my own small town.

If SF hangs on, it will be rescued. How do I know this? Scott Westerfeld's readers have told me this, and so have Cory Doctorow's. So have all the readers now picking up copies of Ender's Game and all the other books you can find in the young adult section.

The tastes we form as young readers stay with us our entire lives. We read and reread those books, search for that experience in other books, and hope for the same experience in books to come.

What's the difference between what the young adult writers are doing and what the folks in the adult SF category are doing? Not much. In fact, hardly anything at all.

Except for one important difference.

Characterization and voice. These characters all "speak" colloquially. The narration is voice-heavy, not the invisible prose many SF writers use. The tech-heavy narratives, and the narratives that rely on lovely language without a character point of view have no place in young adult fiction (and as a longtime SF reader, let me simply say, good riddance).

The ideas are still present. The worldbuilding is strong. Adventure plays a large role—and young adult writers have rediscovered that sense of wonder, even when the novel is dystopian.

So when these readers grow up, they'll wander into the SF section of the bookstore (or download the SF book)—if we clean up SF's reputation now. Or maybe, better yet, we should shelve the J.D. Robb books and Jasper Fforde and Linnea Sinclair in the SF section. Lots of books get shelved in two or more sections (which is why you occasionally find The Da Vinci Code in the mystery section). It's time we in SF allow "outsiders" into our little club.

Otherwise our club will get smaller and smaller until someone finally decides they need that space for something else, and the club's doors close. Will that mean the death of SF? For some readers, yes. Because SF is guiltier than all the other genres in not allowing others inside our little club. We're like a group of disapproving school marms, who haven't noticed that the kids are reading at an adult level. We've just noticed they're reading non-approved material—and we tell them to stop.

So, to get back to my very first paragraph, I think there's a good chance that the genre label, the marketing label, and the section in the bookstore marked "science fiction" might disappear in the next few years. If it does, SF reader, don't worry. Just wander over to the other marketing categories and find your favorite writers. Because the publishers won't get rid of SF writers or their books. The publishers will simply label them as something else.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Aug 8, 01:00 by IROSF
Comment below!
Aug 8, 06:31 by Philip Kaldon
Hear-hear! SF is SF because we say its SF. What shelf it sits on at the bookstore is most definitely a marketing decision and the industry's dirty little secret. Lots of people run from the SF label. The producer of Battlestar Galactica claimed it wasn't SF -- and tried to explain that it was about people. As if there is no SF about people. Sigh.

Dr. Phil
Aug 8, 16:18 by Blue Tyson
There are plenty of other libraries with rocket ship type stickers, don't worry. :)
Aug 8, 18:18 by Amy Jansen
I live in South Africa and my local library uses rocket stickers for science fiction books. (Fantasy-novels get castles...)
Aug 8, 19:44 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Oh, it's nice to know the rocket ship stickers still live. And I thought our small town library was the only one. :-)

Yeah, this not sf thing. I think we sf folks did a poor job marketing our category. We scared readers away--never a good thing. I really love this genre and want others to as well.

Aug 9, 02:48 by Blue Tyson
Nope, in small towns and big cities, in more than one country. :)
Aug 9, 14:28 by JM Cornwell
I loved Andre Norton's stories, be they science fiction or fantasy, especially the fantasy because there were still elements science in the fiction. She was one of my first favorite SF writers and still is. I go back to her stories time and time again.

I have no fear of science fiction and head straight to that part of the bookstore and I look for old favorites and wait to be enticed by new writers. I am never disappointed.
Aug 9, 23:11 by J Andrews
Our library uses 'S.F.' and 'Fantasy' stickers. Mysteries get 'M' and Westerns get 'W' (Yea, we have a Westerns section!!) Off the top of my head, I think only the Christian fiction gets any sort of picture on its sticker.

Very boring stickers, we have.

It's really hard to find a particular science fiction book at the library, because it might be in the sf/f section, or the sf/f paperback section, or the ya section, or the kid's room, or maybe it's hanging out in regular fiction.. but if it's Charlaine Harris's vampires, they could be mystery or romance or.. well, they're just all over the place.

What would it be like if libraries took a hard-nosed stance and any science fiction or fantasy element got a book over in that section? Well, it wouldn't be an alcove or two at the back of the library, that's for sure.
Aug 10, 20:36 by Bluejack
As a kid in the early 70's, my library had a nucleus & electrons sticker for SF. I don't remember fantasy.
Aug 11, 04:43 by Matt Bruensteiner
If your "good riddance" to "narratives that rely on lovely language without a character point" means no more Gene Wolfes, Samuel Delaneys or, say, Matt Hugheses, then I hope you've got it all wrong (though I guess in your world those guys could get shelved with Chabon or something).

If you mean "good riddance" to all the many replicators of E.E. Smith, then, well, sure, but has that stuff really made it in to print so often in the last 40 years?
Aug 11, 20:29 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Orson Scott Card . . . ha{s} blogged about this, {he} think{s} the cutting edge has moved away from SF.

The cutting edge has moved away from Card.

Other than that, "Science Fiction is dead! Long live Science Fiction" should be our rallying cry. Personally, I foresee a Speculative Fiction section at bookstores rather than the usual Science Fiction/Fantasy. Such a section would easily cover S/F, F and those darned slipstream/bestsellers that "aren't really science fiction, trust us". Just so long as Oprah and her ilk don't go near it, I'll be happy.
Aug 13, 11:48 by Nader Elhefnawy
Agreed about the publicity for BSG. It was truly pathetic and stupid (as I've written in many of my articles), which was oddly apt given that the show was such medicore SF.

I grew up taking the stickers for granted, too, though I think the ones my library uses now omit the graphic-and yeah, that kind of thing's always porous.

I do think the "speculative" label has its uses, but also its pitfalls-which I think quickly become apparent when one watches the stuff gathered together under the heading on the Sci-Fi Channel for any length of time (far too much C-grade horror, and now reality shows and wrestling); and would share your relief at Oprah staying far, far away.

I haven't previously read (or located) Card's essay, yet, but will look into it, having written at length about that issue myself.
Aug 14, 21:06 by Daniel M. Kimmel
I'm going to take a slightly different angle. I don't dispute anything you said (and am, sadly, all too aware of how the bean counters have taken over publishing) but as a film critic and as someone who teaches film at the college level, I feel genre is alive and well and not just as a marketing tool.

I made a point in my review of the movie of "The Time Traveler's Wife" that, of course, it's SF. And that its focus on characters and relationships proves it's *good* SF. I agree with observers like you and David Langford that there's a lot of snobbery and misinformation out there among mainstream critics and journalists, but when I look at the top 25 or top 50 box office hits of all time, it's hard to argue that SF is dead. Indeed, this is shaping up to be an outstanding year for SF film.

So I don't believe SF is going away. It may be redefined. It may overlap with other genres (as if that hasn't happened before) but it's alive and well in books, on TV, and on the big screen. And genre remains a useful *tool* -- not an end in itself -- in categorizing our expectations and our experiences with a given work.
Aug 18, 07:39 by Kaylene McInnes
There is of course another 'Genre' for the works of Mr Brown and the likes. Those books that are poorly written and have no literary value whatsoever. its called Collective, Raping, All, Personalities or C.R.A.P.

But i say good luck to him and his millions, it inspires some that may in the future be able to write a classic.

Andrew McInnes
Sep 4, 18:47 by Marta Murvosh
Regarding "... we should shelve the J.D. Robb books and Jasper Fforde and Linnea Sinclair in the SF section," it's already happening at least in my corner of the Northwest.

My local Borders Express here is Skagit County, Wa., has been shelving urban fantasies in both SF and romance and paranormal/SF romance in SF as well as romance for several months.

The manager, Shane, who loves SF, told me that this cross pollination has increased his sales in both sections.

His store is unusual in that SF outsells romance. The sailors at the nearby Navy base love SF and they stock up before they leave for those nine- to 12-month deployments.

Also, Shane and Pam owner of The Tattered Page, our local independent used/new bookseller refer their customers to each other adding to the cross pollination.
Jan 3, 04:12 by
As a YA SF writer, I hope we aren't going extinct!
I know the genre has troubles but there is time and room for inclusion. Of course...I don't mind being recategorized as dypeptic or whatever. As long as the kids can enjoy my books.

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