Looking Toward the Futuristic
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
With those words, George Lucas gave us Star Wars and launched a renewed interest in science fiction thatís evident even today in summer releases like Armageddon and Deep Impact. As an SF fan myself but also a devout romance reader, I was thrilled when Leisure first began publishing futuristic novels on a regular basis.
What is a futuristic? Itís a story usually set away from Earth in a time many years in the future when science and technology have progressed to the days of Star Wars and Star Trek. These books come in a variety of flavors--some feel like historicals, others like contemporaries, some take place on Earth, others in galaxies far removed from our own, some have a very technical feel, others a softer tone. To put it simply, a futuristic takes the reader to "a different time and a different place."
Though Jayne Anne Krentz writing as Jayne Castle and Janelle Taylor had futuristic novels in print, it was Kathleen Morgan with her crystal series The Knowing Crystal and Crystal Fire and her cat man books Heartís Lair and Heartís Surrender that sparked the readersí interest and sent them clamoring for more. Leisure searched for more authors and found them, publishing another first rate writer--Anne Avery, author of Allís Fair and A Distant Star.
Both these authors created unique worlds--some technical, some primitive--that provided the perfect background for the story. These worlds, though different from our own, still must follow rules. If the inhabitants have magical abilities, explain why and stay true to that explanation. A character canít produce fire from the air one moment, then be unable to in the next...unless the author can explain it.
Rules also dictate the gravity, air, lifestyle and traditions of these new races. Be consistent. Thatís my number one rule for writing a futuristic. Create the world (or worlds) first, then place your story over top of that. Some excellent how-to books that better explain how to do this are How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, World Building by Stephen Gillet, and Creating an SF Universe by Ochoa and Osier.
Then use these backgrounds to develop your characters. Raven, my heroine in Sword of MacLeod, canít swim--a trait most of us take for granted--and nearly drowns. But as explained earlier in the book, she was raised on a desert planet where water was scarce and there was no opportunity to learn to swim. Her sudden inability to get herself out of this dangerous situation after sheís mastered many others is not author convenience, but normal for her character.
Another rule to remember is donít throw in some aliens or spaceships and expect your story to be a futuristic. The story must have a reason to be set in that time period at that place or itís not a true futuristic. The setting must be as much an integral part of the book as the hero and heroine.
But now that you have your futuristic written, where do you market it? The list of publishers who are willing to even look at futuristics has declined until Leisure Books Dorchester Publishing) is about the only one still accepting these manuscripts. And while Leisure remains committed to futuristics, sales have forced them to cut back their publication schedule for this type of book.
Are sales really that bad? It depends on who you talk to. Most futuristic readers are very loyal. Tamara Parkins lives in Grand Island, NE and has a very hard time finding futuristics on any bookshelves in that city. To locate the stories she loves she resorts to driving for miles or ordering her books through the mail. The reader is there, but she canít get what she wants.
Her mother Laralyn Tiberghien agrees. "Tami and I have been very disappointed in the limited number of futuristics available to the reader of that genre. I believe that there are a large number of readers who like the futuristic genre and are very upset at the few books in that genre that are published."
Beth Anne Steckiel of Beth Anneís Book Corner in Colorado Springs, CO handsells futuristics to her customers. They have learned to trust her during her 11 years in business and often ask for more after reading one. In fact, Beth Anne introduced one die-hard historical reader to Kathleen Morganís futuristics and the readerís been converted ever since. With the declining number of futuristics published, she recently moaned to Beth Anne, "Now what do I read? Thereís nothing out there for me."
Beth Anne understands that sentiment and blames publishers for not giving the futuristic genre enough time to build their audience. "Now-a-days if something doesnít grow in one to two years, itís considered a waste of time. Instead of building a line up slowly, publishers want instant success like they received with historicals."
She also doesnít like the way publishers tried to disguise the covers of later futuristics to fool the reader into believing it was a historical. Readers who donít like futuristics will be unhappy at being deceived and those readers searching for futuristics canít find them. In the past, Beth Anne would order 20-25 copies of every futuristic released and sell them all. Now, unless she reads the reviews and Ingramís catalog closely, she misses the few that are issued until itís too late to order enough.
She adds that the unreliability of futuristics publication has hurt the genre just as it has hurt her business. Readers who came in regularly to pick up their futuristics are now only coming in every three months or so. Others are switching to another genre to fulfill their need for something different.
This doesnít help when futuristic readers are small in number to start with. According to Damita Lewis of The Book Shelf in Paris, IL (http://www.thebookshelf.com), her customers are more into time travels and the "true" futuristic doesnít interest them. Theyíd rather read about going back in time or someone coming forward to today.
Elaine Galit of Blue Willow Books in Houston, TX sadly agrees. Futuristics donít sell in her store unless she pushes them, which she does as she reads and likes SF, fantasy and paranormal. However, Elaine feels part of the problem is the predictable stories regardless of the genre.
"I realize this is not the authorís fault," she says. "But the problem lies with the publishing houses who seem afraid to take a chance on anything that isnít Ďtried and trueí. Itís a chicken and egg kind of thing. The publishers claim the public doesnít want to read SF/Rom, so they donít publish it."
Beth Anne also blames the distributors who stock the non-bookstores, such as Walgreens and groceries. These sales points make up a significant part of the market. When distributors wonít put up the books, the readers canít buy them.
With a core audience of limited size, futuristics have no future. A publisher is in business to make money. If the books donít sell, neither the publisher nor the author make money. Itís simple economics.
So, how can we improve this situation? Caren Johannes in an article on the Romance Reader "Back to the Futur(istics)" (http://www.theromancereader.com/forum4.html) has encouraged readers to take a stand and write to the publishers. As a reader, she adds, "Even though I live in a fairly good-sized metropolitan area--Denver--and have a lot of options to find books, I canít find futuristics either. Luckily, I have developed a good futuristics library of my own so I can re-read titles and quell my craving a little. (Beth Anne confirms this syndrome by stating that futuristics rarely show up used in her bookstore.) But Iím greedy, darn it! Iíd much rather find out more about characters introduced in previous books who need their own stories than to keep re-reading the older ones all the time. Or Iíd love to meet an entirely new set of characters in a new world."
Caren goes on to say she haunts bookstores--old and new. "Itís really depressing when all you can find are copies of books you already have or stories that just donít hit that magical mix of romance and "otherworldliness" that make a futuristic a futuristic. Iíve almost gotten to the point where I donít even bother to look unless I hear that a book is specifically marketed as a futuristic--a "blue moon" occurrence these days. I fear a lot of futuristic fans are like me, which is even worse."
Gail Shelton has a similar write-in campaign started at her web site. (http://www.hillsboro.net/shelton/writers.htm). She asks anyone who enjoys this type of book to write to the publishers--separate individual letters--and tell them that you love these books and want to see more, and that you are frustrated when trying to find them because you canít find enough. Mention how many books you buy and how much you spend. This type of action saved a Regency line a few years ago--at least for a short while. However, if the audience doesnít grow, the line wonít survive.
What do you suggest? How can we revive futuristics and create a larger readership? Iíd be glad to compile your ideas in a follow-on article to see if we can generate a renewed interest in this unique genre. Email me at email@example.com or drop me a line at P.O. Box 31541, Colorado Springs, CO 80931-1541.
©Karen Fox, July 1998
List of Publishers Who Have or Are Publishing Futuristics
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