Mainstream publishers can "no longer afford to ignore" science-fiction and fantasy projects, with genre tropes now perceived as an "advantage" in general fiction, as a flurry of six-figure deals and chart successes point to a rising demand for the genre.
Last month, SFF stalwart Terry Pratchett's latest novel, Snuff (Transworld), became the fastest selling adult hardback novel by a British novelist since records began, selling 31,094 copies in its first full week. SFF specialists Gollancz signed three six-figure deals, as well as a début fantasy novel on a pre-empt, while Headline appointed John Wordsworth as a dedicated SFF commissioning editor.
The hotly contested acquisition of Lauren Beukes' latest novel, The Shining Girls—which has a time-travelling element—was won by HarperCollins, which paid a six-figure sum, shortly after Frankfurt. Simon & Schuster acquired The Age of Miracles, based on the conceit that the world begins to turn more slowly, for close to £500,000 earlier this year. Both deals indicate demand among publishers for "speculative" fiction with an SFF element.
Gollancz editorial director Gillian Redfearn said: "With Justin Cronin, Deborah Harkness and now Lauren Beukes, we've definitely seen mainstream publishers get very excited about what would usually be SFF projects . . . I think perhaps it's a gamble which has paid off enough that publishers are starting to pay more attention to genre projects." Orbit editorial director Anne Clarke said: "It's no longer an area that publishers can afford to ignore."
Orion group deputy publishing director Jon Wood said recent auctions have seen Gollancz competing for titles against some unexpected publishers, such as Faber. He said: "I think people realise the borders are more porous . . . There have been some very big deals in the past year. People are piling in as popularity grows." He added that publishers see a high-concept angle as an "advantage", claiming: "It is really hard to get any traction for books at the moment, and it's about having that really big idea."
Clarke said the genre has become "more sophisticated", with publishers increasingly aware of the cross-genre potential of SFF titles, incorporating other story elements— including historical and thriller in cover designs.
Industry figures agreed that the recession meant readers are looking for an added element of escapism. S&S publishing director Suzanne Baboneau said: "People want to be taken out of their daily life."
TV and film adaptations are also fuelling the SFF market growth, with some highlighting the HBO adaptation of George R R Martin's Game of Thrones series as having a particular impact. Waterstone's spokesman Jon Howells added: "These things help bring new readers into a genre, and certainly with fantasy authors they tend to build long backlists, which is incredibly important."
Publishers and retailers argued fiction with an SFF twist could be seen as reliable, reaching a more identifiable and sheltered market. Wood said SFF fans tend to buy hardbacks, and cited strong, targetable SFF online communities.
W H Smith head of fiction and children's trading Jackie Wing added: "The established fans of this area see their reading as a less discretionary purchase than some categories."
HarperCollins crime and thriller publisher Julia Wisdom said there had been "a lot of snobbery" around SFF, similar to the attitude previously directed towards crime: "That has become more admired, and I'm hoping fantasy is now coming into that space."