In spite of a booming YA market and the high-budget heaven of the television and film adaptation—all of which share a pronounced interest in dragons, Death Stars, and dystopias—the book industry’s science fiction and fantasy market has remained, overall, mostly flat.
But that’s proven far from true for at least one outlier: Orbit Books. The publisher was founded in the U.K. in 1974 but only expanded into the U.S. market 10 years ago. And its publisher, Tim Holman, who oversees both its U.K. and U.S. branches, told Barnes Noble earlier this year that he is “reasonably confident that we’ll become the biggest science fiction and fantasy imprint in the U.S. within the next 10 years.”
Orbit seems to be putting its money where its publisher’s mouth is. Since the press’s American branch—an imprint of Hachette Book Group USA—launched, the publisher has had 12 books nominated for the Hugo Award and three winners, with at least one title on the shortlist each year since 2011. Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice became the first to win all three of science fiction’s biggest awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke), and, last year, N.K. Jemisin became the first black writer to win the Hugo award, for The Fifth Season (which has sold 22,882 print copies this year, for a total of 51,201 since its release, according to NPD BookScan). She then won again this year for The Obelisk Gate (which has sold 10,129 this year for a total of 19,380).
“We’ve been very fortunate to be involved with those two authors, and the awards have definitely been significant,” Holman said. “And I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t in our business plan, when we launched, to win Hugo awards.”
James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series was adapted as a Hugo-winning Syfy show (distributed internationally by Netflix) starting in 2015. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, of which both of her Hugo-winners are part, was optioned by TNT last month, and Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series—already a major video game franchise—will be adapted by Netflix.
“There’s a lot of activity in other story-driven media, whether it’s gaming, TV, or movies,” Holman said. “And SF and fantasy, as it has been for a while, has been quite a central part of that—it’s almost as mainstream as the mainstream itself.”
As a result, this year the publisher has upped the number of titles it releases per year from 60 to 90. To support the increase, it’s added three people to its editorial and combined marketing and publicity departments, bringing the U.S. team to a total of 15.
Orbit uses what Holman calls the international consistency of the SF/F market to its benefit. “More than half the books we publish in the U.S. are also published by Orbit U.K,” he said. “It makes sense to have an international outlook, but, at the same time, our publishing in the U.S. and the U.K. is always driven by the passion and vision of the individual publishing teams.”
The publisher is also a digital-native enterprise; it was founded right around the launch of both the iPhone and the Kindle, which means, Holman said, that “from the outset, it was completely natural for us to take advantage of publishing strategies that take advantage of the e-book format—and they are quite considerable.” It was also, as a new publisher, not beholden to spending time and resources making sure that its backlist titles were made available as e-books or running print advertising campaigns; rather, every book it’s ever published was released in e-book from the first, and it took a different approach to marketing and publicity right off the bat.
Orbit focuses heavily on working individually with authors on their social media and email newsletter marketing, senior publicist Ellen Wright said. In terms of publicity, she added, Orbit makes an effort to reach out to not only devoted sci-fi and fantasy fans but also to mainstream consumers: “We don’t just want the blogs that always talk about science fiction and fantasy to cover our books. We want the New York Times to be talking about them.” In the latter, it’s been indisputably successful; Jemisin writes a sci-fi and fantasy column for the Times, and The Fifth Season was the inaugural title for Wired magazine’s book club.
Orbit has gotten some help from the aforementioned break into a more mainstream cultural space that speculative fiction has enjoyed of late—particularly in the wake of successes such as the mania surrounding George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise.
“Not recently, but in the not-too-distant past, science fiction publishers put a spaceship on a science fiction book and a dragon on a fantasy book,” Holman said. “That was what they felt was the right way to position the book.”
Now that’s not so much the case. And though some books—Ancillary Justice, for instance—still get the spaceship-and-dragon-on-the-jacket treatment, Orbit has found the absence of an imperative to telegraph the genres of its books somewhat freeing—especially considering that not all sci-fi and fantasy works are comprised simply of swords and starfleets.
“A lot of people think that SF and fantasy is quite a simple category that sits in a distant corner, as it were, of the literary marketplace,” Holman said. “But it really has an incredibly diverse range of writing styles and story types. And, inevitably, there’s quite a range of readers as well, who you hope will connect with those books. It’s those broader readerships that, from the outset, we’ve really been trying to attract. Because that’s really the true readership for SF and fantasy.”