Since I began blogging about sci-fi romance in 2008, I’ve speculated about why more readers haven’t flocked to this genre. Why has it never reached the heights of paranormal romance? Why do some readers seem so hesitant to give it a try? Why have traditional print publishers released so few books in the genre?
The reasons behind the low interest in SFR have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere in the SFR community. The main ones include the following:
The worldbuilding/science content is perceived as too dense/strange/incomprehensive.
An underlying factor is that female readers have been marginalized and/or pushed out of the science fiction genre for decades, so many missed opportunities to learn more about it. Additionally, the science fiction genre lacks and has lacked representation on multiple levels, so there hasn’t been much incentive for female readers to consume it. Those who did were willing to identify with a sea of largely male protagonists. It was either that, or read/watch pretty much nothing.
SFR is relatively new
Compared to other romance genres, SFR arrived in the mid-80s and didn’t really pick up steam until the past ten years. While paranormal romance is also relatively new, it has roots in gothic romance, and hence more familiarity among readers.
SFR is a mystifying blend of genres
Some folks believe the mashup factor limits SFR’s mainstream appeal. This argument rarely addresses factors such as niche markets, publishing technology at any given time, and the historical limitations of mainstream print distribution and how it impacts marketing, metadata, and other factors for blended genre books. In other words, the blended genres themselves aren’t the problem; rather, the delivery system has failed to serve them.
Still, the myth persists that readers will only like SF, or romance—not both together.
SFR lacks a unifying trope
The “extraordinary Alpha male and innocent/ordinary heroine” pairing, for better or for worse, defines the parameters of paranormal romance. PNR’s main appeal lies in how vampire/werewolf hero characters replicate the predominant trope in historical romances, i.e., the dukes, rakes and scoundrels who seduce virginal heroines.
Sci-fi romance, with its vast number of settings and characters from which to choose, can’t be distilled down to one or two popular tropes. It doesn’t consistently recycle old heroes/heroines into new packages and hence readers may not want to take the SFR plunge if they only want PNR’s “same, but different” trope.
Which makes sense since supernatural stories have existed for far longer than science fiction ones. This aspect also goes back to the segregation of genres along gender lines (e.g., only men like SF and action-adventure stories; romance is only for women). How can women readers become familiar with SF characters when they’ve been constantly told SF isn’t for them?
Lack of marketing
Apart from a handful of traditionally published SFR authors, most are unknown and until ebooks came along, they had a devil of a time getting published. As a result, their books generally lack mainstream print distribution and other marketing resources. Readers can’t read SFR if they can’t find the books.
SFR lacks a validating counterpart in film/television
It can be argued that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (TV show) and later, Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT, helped boost the popularity of PNR. Now, of course, SF shows and films are all over the place, so this factor may be less of an issue going forward.
The above reasons contribute to SFR’s niche status within the romance genre to some extent, but they may not be the whole story. More insidious reasons are likely in operation as well, namely, racism and bigotry.
Readers can find plenty of all-white, all-able-bodied, and heteronormative sci-fi romances by white authors. Even in future-set stories, where one would think racial diversity is the norm, some authors channel their stories through the “white gaze” by using problematic tropes, i.e., “blended races” or creating new races with nary a brown-skinned person among them. At any rate, if these types of stories are your jam, they’re available.
That said, readers are just as likely to encounter SFR books that have at least one diverse element. Readers can visit worlds with different cultures and species. Diversity, in one form or another, is baked into the very nature of sci-fi romance. The SF side of this genre poses the basic question of, “What if…?” Envisioning diverse worlds/settings (e.g., a society built around the needs of disabled people) falls under the “What if…?” umbrella.
Whether authors and publishers remember that fact is another thing altogether.
SFR isn’t exactly a flagship for diversity and inclusion (blue-skinned humanoid aliens don’t count as true diversity), but in my reading experience, it certainly has diverse characters and authors in significant numbers. It also has the potential for diverse characters and authors in larger numbers.
I’d wager that romance readers have a perception of sci-fi romance as being a diverse-friendly genre because it allows for myriad types of characters in many possible settings. Unlike paranormal romance, wherein the default is a pale-white vampire hero, sci-fi romance heroes aren’t defined by a single type. SFR includes, but is not limited to, heroes of color, gay heroes, transgender heroes, and sometimes disabled men of color. SFR also offers black heroines, Japanese heroines, Latina heroines, lesbian heroines, bisexual heroines, and disabled heroines. In other words, SFR doesn’t have a default character that defines it or allows for easy categorization.
Given the level of diversity present in sci-fi romance, have some (many?) readers been resisting this genre all these years because of biases related to gender, race, and sexual orientation? Has SFR’s diverse content been viewed as a negative instead of a positive?
In some cases, claims of SFR having “too much science/worldbuilding/science fiction tropes” may in fact be code for “I don’t want to read stories about brown-skinned/LGBQT+/disabled characters.” Given the marginalization that has been happening for decades in the romance genre overall, bigotry and racism may be a significant piece of the puzzle that helps explain why SFR hasn’t broken out as a more popular genre among romance readers.
Romance readers are voracious, but somehow, many seem to lose their appetite when it comes to diverse romances and authors. Racism and bigotry among both publishers and readers help explain why diverse authors have smaller readerships than their white counterparts and why some romance genres are lower in the hierarchy than others. And if you’re a WOC author—or hey, let’s take it a step further, a queer WOC author—writing an SFR with diverse heroes and heroines, it’s like trying to compete in a marathon with an anchor on one’s back.
Quick—name one contemporary SFR author of color whose name drops from romance readers’ lips as often as “Linnea Sinclair” and “Lois McMaster Bujold.” Can’t name one? Me neither. The reason: that author doesn’t exist. Why? Because publishers have been marginalizing authors of color for decades. The market doesn’t let them compete fairly.
Authors trying to publish LGBQT+ characters and romances have endured a similar fate. A recent Twitter thread by author A.A. Freeman underscores this issue. I’m posting her thread here with permission. Her experience is heartbreaking.
Today I received suggestions to make my novel ‘more marketable’ to agents & publishers. The big one: Remove the main LGBT romance. Thread!
— A. A. Freeman (@aughtpunk) September 14, 2017
Her tweet reads: “Today I received suggestions to make my novel ‘more marketable’ to agents & publishers. The big one: Remove the main LGBT romance. Thread!”
The author expands further on her thread here: Publishing and LGBT Erasure Or My Issues With Robo-Boobs.
The feedback A.A. Freeman received is appalling. Sure looks to me like bigotry is driving it, albeit perhaps unintentionally.
The feedback reminded me of similar arguments that have been made against SFR over the years. It also reveals a lack of understanding about niche markets and how ebooks have been beneficial for diverse books and blended genres like SFR. Technology has opened new doors and helped level the playing field.
The feedback also assumes there’s only one path to publishing and that all authors aspire to become a mainstream print author, preferably one on the New York Times bestseller list. Furthermore, it completely ignores the fact that some publishers and authors game the system. A book, no matter the content or quality, can’t compete in that kind of circumstance.
It also assumes there is only room for certain kinds of stories and certain kinds of characters. That kind of feedback is designed to keep stories like LGBQT+ romances out of the market. It’s designed to keep those stories away from the readers who want them and who are represented by them. It assumes a story like A.A. Freeman’s could never become a bestseller. If someone is going to make that kind of claim, they need to show receipts.
To me, as one of those readers, I consider that kind of feedback an act of oppression. My heart goes out to authors like A.A. Freeman and others who have been subjected to that kind of rejection and toxic advice.
This problem isn’t unique to sci-fi romance. Romance in general has a long way to go as far as embracing diversity and, more importantly, being inclusive. Of course, the challenges facing diverse, marginalized romance authors are infinitely more important to address than the challenges faced by a romance genre. I simply used SFR to illustrate the issue because I know the genre well and it’s one of many gateways we can use to reveal the persistent, systemic oppression problem in the publishing industry.
I’ve heard the unsettling stories about how diverse authors are treated in publishing and at writing conferences. As a blogger, I’ve seen the low-to-nonexistent response rate when I exclusively focus on diverse romances and authors. I’ve seen SFR romance authors and readers elevate white authors far more often than AOC ones despite comparable quality across books. Therefore, with all that experience and anecdotal information under my hat, I figured it was time to re-evaluate why some romance readers and publishers resist SFR so often. It’s probably not so much because they fear science being mixed in with romance; rather, they probably fear characters who differ from them in some way.
It’s one thing to seek out stories with characters who represent us. That’s fine and no one questions that need. It’s quite another thing to refuse, repeatedly, to experience characters different from ourselves and/or to contribute to a situation where other readers have a more difficult time finding characters to whom they can relate. All readers deserve representation.
To those who have been supporting diverse SFR stories and authors, I know you’re out there, and I thank you.
There are plenty of seats at the publishing table for diverse stories, characters, and authors. They don’t take seats or profits away from other authors. Perpetuating such myths is ludicrous and harmful. Let’s put them to rest.
To wrap this up, I’ll leave you with a quote from A.A. Freeman:
There’s still a long road ahead of me and not a single step will be easy. I will fight for a future where LGBT elements aren’t considered a risk in the publishing world. Even if I have to scream from the rooftops I will be heard. It’s going to suck but I’m not worried. Because now I know how many people support stories like mine. I’m not alone in this. None of us are.