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The Newfound Popularity of Sci-Fi Books Has a Dark Side

Most fantasy and science fiction books are published by houses—Tor, DAW, Orbit, etc.—that specialize in genre titles. Larger publishers have tended to shun the genre, especially when it comes to particular subgenres like space opera. But Bruce Nichols, a senior vice president and publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, says that’s changing fast.

“It’s no longer the case that the world is split between a sort of pulp ghetto and the literary world,” Nichols says in Episode 195 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The entire genre has gone so mainstream, and some absolutely terrific writers are contributing to it, more than ever before.”

Nichols recently partnered with Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy producer John Joseph Adams to launch John Joseph Adams Books, a new fantasy and science fiction imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. That follows the move by another large publisher, Simon and Schuster, to launch its own fantasy and science fiction imprint, SAGA, last year. Nichols says the backing of a big publisher can make all the difference to authors.

“There are writers that could cross over and break out and become mainstream,” he says, “but if they only ever get published by traditional science fiction houses, that’s unlikely to happen.”

But as a diehard science fiction fan, Adams fears that the mainstreaming of certain high-profile titles will only contribute to the marginalization of the Fantasy and Science Fiction section of the bookstore.

“I have this inner struggle,” he says. “Obviously I would love for the books that I edit to be able to get into the ‘big boy’ section—as opposed to the genre section where they’re going to get less attention—but on the other hand that’s contributing to the problem and keeping up the boundaries.”

Ideally he’d like to see all works of science fiction, including high-profile releases like The Road and Station Eleven, get shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section.

“If we put books like The Road in the science fiction section,” he says, “then the people who would go looking for that type of book would find these other things that maybe they would be interested in, but they’re afraid to go into that section because they have these misconceptions about what it is.”

Listen to our complete interview with Bruce Nichols and John Joseph Adams in Episode 195 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

John Joseph Adams on The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy:

“I was surprised to see how many people were looking at the Table of Contents, and they have this very restrictive definition of what science fiction or fantasy is, and they think that they know what one or the other is, looking at a story, and it’s like, ‘No, you’re just wrong, OK?’ I mean, come on, anonymous Internet commenter, who knows more about this, you or me? I’ve devoted my life to this, I’m a professional. It is science fiction, trust me. But they’re reading the stories, and because it doesn’t fit their particular definition of what they think ‘science fiction’ is, they’re labeling it fantasy and saying, ‘Oh, most of this book is fantasy.’ Well, actually it’s 50/50 science fiction and fantasy.”

John Joseph Adams on novel editors:

“The most important thing that an editor is going to do, at least from my point of view, is bring that curation to the endeavor. … If I read a book that I think is great, wouldn’t it just be better for me if I knew who the person was who made the decision to buy that book for the publisher, so that I could say, ‘Oh hey, that was a really smart decision, I really liked that, what else did that person also think was good?’ Because that’s what my whole life is about: reading great things and then telling everyone about them. … So I think if novel editors were just more visible, that would make it a lot easier for people to find books for them to love.”

John Joseph Adams on secret nerds:

“I keep finding all these secret nerds. They’ve built this literary career, and it turns out that they’re actually just a huge nerd, and probably what they always wanted to write was science fiction and fantasy. … One discovery recently was Jamie Ford, who’s a major literary author. … I followed him on Twitter, and he’s always tweeting about Harlan Ellison, and he has this amazing shrine to comic books at his house that he took a picture of. … I’m glad the boundaries are coming down, so that more of those people will be comfortable experimenting and writing that sort of thing, rather than sticking with the literary stuff that they built their name on.”

Bruce Nichols on the Amazon bookstore:

“If they open hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, it’s likely to do a lot of damage to competing chains, and in an ecosystem I’d be very worried about that for the industry. But I went from there to the airport, and there was a Hudson in the terminal that I was in, and it was not quite as big as the Amazon store, but sort of similar, and it’s a typical Hudson, so they have very obvious big bestsellers, and then they had a whole lot of books that were spine out, they have no shelf talkers. And if I hadn’t been in the Amazon store, I would have thought, ‘Oh great, here’s a perfectly nice airport bookstore.’ And instead I thought, ‘Boy, I’d rather have the Amazon store be here.’”

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