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SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Okay, I lied on Twitter. Actually, it's true, I don't do "top ten" lists or anything like that, because I think that's just the kind of ******* you get from pop culture rags like Entertainment Weekly. And I'd just be repeating myself. I figure if you want to see what I enjoyed reading the most in the last year or ten years, you can go to the appropriate "year" listing in the site menu.

But I have of late been giving a lot of thought to what I've seen going on in publishing since I've had this site up. And since this site was launched more or less at the start of the decade (July 1, 2001), I've been in a good position to see what's been going on as my own tenure in SF and fantasy circles as a critic has grown alongside it.

In picking my Publisher of the Decade, I've had to wrestle with a lot of nervousness, because the important thing to stress right off the top is that every one of the publishers with whom I have ongoing relationships has A) been lovely to deal with and B) excellent in its own approach to publishing and promoting literary SF & fantasy in a plummeting economy, and in the face of a public largely indifferent to reading as a leisure activity. (SF & fantasy fans do tend to be among the more literate out there, but I'm not so naive as to fail to notice that literary SF fandom is a distant runner-up to movie, comic, and video game SF fandom.)

Tor Books tirelessly maintains its leadership profile in SFF publishing, with an impressive variety of authors and material running the gamut of the field's myriad subgenres. Plus, their publicity team — among them Miss Awesome herself, Dot Lin — are a joy to work with.

As are the folks at Del Rey and Spectra. One of the most interesting developments in the last year has been the migration of Spectra from Bantam to Ballantine, putting two of SF's most venerable imprints under Ballantine's umbrella. To the public, it all went over so smoothly it caused nary a ripple. With both imprints it was business as usual, with the more lucrative media tie-ins that I happily ignore keeping the ink nice and black and giving them the freedom to publish more than enough original work, often by new talents. Despite the tales of woe you hear coming from the publishing business, the number of debut novels that have shown up on my stoop hasn't slowed down in the least. The market seems as receptive as ever to take a chance on new names, if the work is good enough. Remember, the 00's saw the debuts of such now-stars as John Scalzi, Brandon Sanderson, and Naomi Novik. You'd be doing yourself a disservice to skip over an intriguing-looking book just because the byline was unfamiliar to you.

Among the Penguin SFF imprints — Ace, Roc and DAW — each line stayed its usual course and met the wants of its core fan base. Ace has strongest reader support among fans of urban fantasy and space opera. The former was most well served by authors like Charlaine Harris and her many disciples/wannabes, while the latter fans had ample work by Stross and Reynolds as well as an inexhaustible supply of military SF to keep them happy. Roc and DAW, on the other hand, put most of their efforts into fantasy, with only the occasional trek into SF for both. Again, dealing with the publicity teams for each imprint has been a delight, and I've recently begun broadening my relationships with reps for Penguin's young adult titles.

Finally I'd be remiss not to express my thanks to the many smaller publishers (Night Shade, etc.) whom I've enjoyed dealing with and from whom I've been able to discover numerous new writers I'd never have picked up had I not chosen to be a reviewer! I know my coverage of small press has been pretty light of late, but I've recently seen a marked uptick in the quality of some small press work that's come my way, that I don't think it's safe any longer to dismiss small press like it was during the brief, mid-decade glut of POD vanity-pubbing.

But... if I had to boil it all down to one, there has been an imprint whose output and dedication has impressed me — not necessarily more than all the others, but in a way that has made them stand out boldly in a publishing field often marked by conservative (if not outright craven), bottom-line-driven choices. And that would be these folks.


Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

(...continued, and I cannot believe Bravenet censored the word w a n k e r y in the first half of this...)

Pyr has taken an unorthodox route into SF publishing. It was launched as an imprint of Prometheus Books, an upstate New York publisher affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry Transnational. Prometheus are known for scientific and philosophical books from an atheist, agnostic, skeptical and secular humanist perspective. And while that little niche of the public does tend to include SF readers among its ranks, it was still surprising to see a high-profile SFF line coming from a publisher whose main body of work is usually confined — if a bookstore stocks it at all — to one or two shelves in the religion/philosophy section.

But launch Pyr they did, under the guidance of acclaimed editor Lou Anders, whose reputation for finding the best out there had been established with such numerous remarkable anthologies as Roc's Live Without a Net. Not only did Prometheus not insist that Anders publish ideologically simpatico fiction under the Pyr banner (in the way that, say, Christian publisher Tyndale House publishes, naturally, Christian SFF), but they've done the best thing any publisher can do: they've respected the notion that the editor they've employed is a pro and knows what he's doing, and have left him alone accordingly. In consequence, Pyr has risen in about 5 years to becoming one of the genre's true successful stories.

And most commendably, Anders has done this by bucking conventional wisdom at every turn, choosing a merit-based strategy for the books he adds to Pyr's catalog that has skirted the easy paths to bestsellerdom that bigger publishers, with their higher overhead, find it hard to ignore. If Lou thinks the book is really really good, it's in, pretty much. Sometimes the sales weren't what they should have been as Pyr was finding its feet (seriously, what is wrong with you people that you didn't buy Chris Roberson's Paragaea?), but that hasn't made Anders cave for a second. If I could only list one reason I've become such a devotee of Pyr, it's because they've steadfastly refused to drink the paranormal/urban fantasy koolaid. Nor have they taken on movie, TV, or video game franchise tie-ins for the easy buck.

Now I suppose there'd be nothing stopping Anders from accepting such books if he read one that really wowed him. But I have no end of admiration for what he's doing with Pyr instead. It's all down to writers and their original works. He's making it Pyr's business to import talented names from outside the US, who have until now found it hard to get a toehold in the US market. He's kept the careers of hard SF writers like Paul McAuley and humanist SF writers like Kay Kenyon afloat, publishing some of their career-best work. He's revived the occasional lost nugget of obscure genius, like Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted. (Note to self: harass Lou this week about resurrecting Russell Griffin's The Blind Men and the Elephant.) And the quality bar has been uniformly high in a way that most publishers can only dream of.

So with all of my love for all my other publishers out there in the open, and without taking anything away from them, allow me to anoint with my mighty +4 sword of critical mightiness... Pyr SF, Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009! Now all of you out there start buying their stuff. And Pyr, once your victory lap is out of the way, do kindly get back to work! Think you can rest on your laurels now? Oh no you don't. The pressure's on. We all want more! We're geeky that way.

Thomas M. Wagner
January 4, 2010

Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Thank you very much for the cudos. I must add that Lou is not only brilliant, he's alot of fun to work with too!

Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Thomas, this is a wonderful accolade--thank you for recognizing Pyr and for capturing much of why it has become such a special brand. As Pyr is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary in March 2010, your timing for both praising and motivating us is spectacular! I do wish to amend your characterization of Prometheus Books, however. Fresh off our 40th anniversary, we are not nearly the obscure niche press you describe. Most of our books can in fact be found in major bookstores and not just on the philosophy and religion shelves. Some of our most popular titles are in categories such as popular science, true crime, current events, psychology, health and medicine. Each season, quite a few of our books can be found on front table or end cap display. Our New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis was largely sold as a science title, even as it was part of the 'new atheism' wave. Recent Prometheus Books top sellers include The Genius of the Beast by Howard Bloom, Distracted by Maggie Jackson, and The Anatomy of Evil by Michael Stone, MD. More information about us can be found here Provocative, progressive and independent, we publish about 110 new titles a year in a diverse array of categories. Thank you for allowing me to set the record straight, and again, for the Pyr nod.

Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Thanks for the clarification on Prometheus, Jill. I suppose I should have said that, at the time Prometheus launched Pyr five years ago, you probably served much more of a niche readership than you do today. No doubt Prometheus's profile was raised considerably in the wake of Dawkins' The God Delusion in 2006, and the greater attention drawn to atheist/secular writing in general following that book's phenomenal success. I've personally met both Vic Stenger and D.J. Grothe, so I know the caliber of people you all work with! I'm proud to see you guys leading the field as well as you do.

Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Let me also welcome the folks who've discovered this post as a result of all the tweeting it's getting and invite you to follow me if you wish.

Re: SF chooses its Publisher of the Decade 2000-2009

Actually, what I wrote today would have been true five years ago as well. I started here ten years ago and am not sure the 'niche' label was totally true even then. While we have always been the publishing leader in atheism, humanism and critical thinking, we've also been diverse in our catalog for a very long time. It was in fact our strength in the popular science category that led us to consider science fiction. Before 9/11, we were one of the only publishers to have an Islamic Criticism line and books on jihad. At the height of C.S.I. interest, we had a true crime/forensic science hit with Dr. Henry C. Lee's 'Cracking Cases'. As you can see, I'm very proud of how we've managed to expand beyond our core readership while still maintaining excellence in those niches. Thanks again for the chance to explain!