My good buddy George Mann, consultant editor of newish imprint Solaris Books, recently wrote an article for UK book trade magazine Publishing News on the packaging and branding of SF&F novels. Now, George has put the entire article, "Marrying Authors to their Market: A Genre Perspective," up on the Solaris website. The article is well-worth reading.
Therein, George makes the distinction between two schools of thought in cover design, namely "to package your SF/F novel to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, in the hope of enticing readers from other areas of the bookstore to pick it up on a whim; or to package your SF/F novel to appeal to the perceived core readership of the genre, or indeed, fans of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, people who want a book with a spaceship or a wizard on the front of it."
George goes on to discuss the risks associated with both camps. In trying for the broader market, one risks missing the mark, ending up with a book still shelved in the SF&F section, failing to hit the elusive "mainstream" reader AND failing to appeal to the core as well. In marketing for the core, the novel "is appealing to a much more limited readership and has little or no chance of transcending the genre and breaking out into the bestseller lists."
He states that from its inception Solaris decided "for better or for worse – to place ourselves directly in that second camp." This was done both because their parent company - Games Workshop - had eight years experience marketing directly to a niche audience with their Black Library imprint of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 titles. But also because of a perceived market niche not being serviced: "Essentially, at the heart of the genre, the midlist was disappearing. The result of this was that the core SF/F readership was not being as well served as it had been in the past; people who went into a high street bookshop to browse the SF/F section were not necessarily seeing those aforementioned books with wizards and spaceships on the front."
George's sentiments are very close to my own thoughts and ongoing decisions for the Pyr imprint. In setting up the imprint to begin with, we made the decision to go for books which Norman Spinrad, writing in the pages of Asimov's, once described as "science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in." Although there are exceptions to the rule, we have largely forgone literary experimentation or watered-down "mainstreamed" SF&F for (to quote Norman again) "actual science fiction...and fantasy...of an overall higher literary quality."
And this is reflected in how we've chosen to package it.
Personally, I do not not not like the move away from illustration to design that I see coming out from a lot of houses (though it has its place for individual books - I'm talking about a general trend). I think to forgo illustration is to sacrifice one of the core strengths of SF&F and one of its unique selling points. I do, however, think you can have cake and eat too. There is a world of difference between what Tor art director Irene Gallo has done with John Scalzi's Old Man's Warcovers - which do indeed feature spaceships and planets, albeit beautifully rendered in John Harris' very "painterly" style - and the sort of archetypal cheesy metal bikini and Bug Eyed Monster cover that is sometimes associated with the worst of genre illustration. Both styles of cover prominently feature the central SF&F imagery, but one does so with taste and the other, not so much. What's more - I'm not married to the core imagery so much as I am to the idea of provocative illustration. I also really like the way Bantam here has packaged Lightand Nova Swing- cats and dice, cats and cards - doesn't necessarily say SF to me at, but they do say cool. I'm intrigued by the image. Those are nice looking books and I enjoy looking at them. And, hey, if I'm going to shell out $25 for a hardcover, I want more than the author's name in enormous type with a stylized sword or an embossed fleur-de-lis or some other squiggle of design.
I am not talking about creating a book that appeals to both genre and mainstream people in the crossover way George suggest. I am talking about creating a book cover that appeals to genre fans, fully celebrates genre elements, but does so with some artistic merit to it. I think both John Picacio and Stephan Martiniere (to name two of my favorite artists) fully embrace those aspects of genre fiction that embody sense of wonder, yet present them in a way that also qualified as art. (As does the latest illustrator to work with Pyr, Sparth, pictured right.) Which is how I think you reach, not the never-read it, never-will uninitiated, but what Gollancz editor Simon Spanton once defined as the "lapsed catholics" of science fiction - those who read more as children and now read maybe one book a year, generally by an author they know. These readers have grown up - show them their fiction has grown up with them. I think what makes a success like John Scalzi or Richard Morgan is not going after mainstream readers, but going after the whole field, from the core to the fringes, and that you do so, neither by hiding/omitting your genre elements nor presenting them in an off-putting, garish manor, but by presenting them in a mature, intriguing, attractive, inclusive, compelling 21st century light.
George and I were talking all this over with the aforementioned John Picacio, and this is what he had to say (and kindly consented to allow me to republish here): "The field must visually celebrate itself, rather than run away from itself. Couldn’t agree with you [George] more. And I realize the context in which you’re saying this, regarding the midlist specifically. When sf/fantasy publishing shows an insecurity about its visual strengths, that insecurity rubs off negatively not only on our audiences, but in the broader media, and we push ourselves backwards every time we do that. How often do we hear sf/fantasy film actors make apologies for the 'sf-ness' of a film or TV show, or say that 'if it didn’t label itself as sf, more people would check it out'? Complete bullshit. But when I hear comments like that, I think that attitude reflects two important things. It’s bad because those comments get doled out via the larger media and that attitude gets disseminated to the larger populace as a popular opinion, which is damaging, but more importantly I think it reflects how poorly the field sees itself at times, and by 'the field' I mean us over here in publishing as the root of that problem. My point is, the field can’t expect larger audiences and bigger sales numbers, unless it stops being insecure about itself and stops projecting visual insecurity via cliched design decisions that hide the gusto, spirit, invention and provocativeness of a book. I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s real simple — the book is God. It’ll tell you what it wants to be every single time."
Well said. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to see that over at The Genre Files, "Ariel" has managed to tie George's philosophy in with Wired-magazine main man Chris Anderson's brilliant The Long Tail, when he writes (emphasis mine): "In this Internet-enabled information age, data on the variety and wide availability of a range of products in a given product area is - for practical purposes - both limitless and free. From the point of view of the Long Tail audience for a particular product, the most pressing task is therefore to filter that vast flood of data in order to select the products that offer the best fit for the customer's needs. In short: they need to boost the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where they can reach an informed purchasing decision. Similarly, from the point of view of the producer, the trick is to somehow rise above the vast sea of info-noise; to make their product stand out and be noticed, yet to do so in a manner that emphasises its authentic appeal to the potential customer."
To make your product stand out and be noticed. Get above the signal-to-noise ration. That means let your SF&F light shine - not hide it under a bushel! Hey, what's a bushel anyway?