UK book publishing industry to take SF seriously in 2002...(?)

Who is writing what? Which books are selling? Who are the publishers?
Concat editor, Jonathan Cowie, examines some of the statistics in a review of the state of British SF publishing in 2002.

There are signs that the UK book publishing industry is beginning to take science fiction seriously. Having said that, their understanding of the genre reveals that they have an awfully long way to go.

Last year saw the Bookseller, the UK book trade magazine, give part of one issue devoted to science fiction. This was the first time the magazine had done this: at least as far as I can remember having been a reader for over two decades. Last year's special was loosely linked to the UK national SF convention, the Eastercon, in that it made a conscious effort to ensure that the issue was the one to come out over the Easter weekend and indeed it referred to the convention itself. However such is the state of the UK national convention - more often than not for the past decade the cons have been badly run and numbers have consequently fallen - that neither meaningful practical help was given the Bookseller by the SF community nor was this year SF focus linked to the convention.

This year, though, the Bookseller pulled out all the stops and we had our very own separate SF supplement. One might think it is because the twin genres of SF and fantasy account for 9.5% of all UK fiction sales through BookTrack (BookTrack being the UK's dominating computerised book-ordering mechanism and it excludes second hand book sales.) Now it has to be said that for all the problems besetting UK written SF, Britain does have a handful of dedicated commissioning editors working for a number of publishing houses. The British SF community owes much to these souls. (Perhaps we should mark their contribution at the next UK Worldcon possibly in 2005: now there's a thought!) This select band includes John Jarrold, Tim Holman and Jane Johnson. There are others but I mention these as they contributed interviews that formed the basis of the supplement's principal article entitled 'Genre bending' - which itself just about sums up the attitude of mainstream book business to SF. By and large the article was upbeat, though the editors managed to identify a few areas of concern such as the lack of genre understanding given by both many booksellers and book reviewers. These complaints are totally justified. Even the supplement demonstrated a lack of even the basic understanding of the difference between science fiction and fantasy by including Angel Unseen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Book two in its top ten paperback SF list, while Book of Four: Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cited as the second best hardback SF seller of the year to March 2002. Pity then the poor non-specialist bookdealer seeking to stock his SF section when the trade advice given exhibits such a lack of understanding.

Fortunately for potential genre readers in the UK there SFX magazine (circulation 36,000) and Starburst (the special editions of which have a publisher's stated circulation of 40,000). Both titles are dominated by coverage of cinematic and TV science fiction, but both carry reasonably good book review columns. However SFX has a more holistic approach to genre coverage and also regularly carries features on, and interviews of, authors as well as a couple of regular viewpoint columns by established writers.

So what are the UK's top SF selling book titles? The top 8 BookTrack titles for the year ending March 16th 2002 are listed below.




Units sold

Look to Windward

Iain Banks

Aug 01


Hitch Hikers' Guide Trilogy

Douglas Adams

Oct 92



Rob Grant

Jul 01


Revelation Space

Alastair Reynolds

May 01


House Harkonnen: Prelude to Dune

Herbert & Anderson

Mar 01


Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

Oct 79


Consider Phlebas

Iain Banks

Dec 92



Frank Herbert

Jul 68



With regards to authors, especially with regard to hard SF, the UK is going through somewhat of a renaissance. Not only have there have been significant contributions in recent years from the likes of Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds as per above but also: Ken Macleod, Eric Brown, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley and Peter Hamilton. But, in terms of sales across all their respective titles, there is little surprising in the top five.

Author (s)

Units sold

Number of titles

Iain Banks



Douglas Adams



Herbert and Anderson



Arthur Clarke



Stephen Baxter




However if SF is holding its own, fantasy authors selling in the UK fare better.

Author (s)

Units sold

Number of titles




Terry Pratchett



David Gemmell



Raymond Feist



Robert Jordan



The J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter effect is not revealed above. This is because Rowling's books are classified as juvenile fiction by BookTrack and she did not get a look in in the Bookseller's SF and Fantasy supplement. But the sales of her titles are phenomenal with Goblet of Fire, The Prisoner...and Chamber...selling over 1,300,000, 1,200,000, and 2,200,000 copies respectively in total since the first was published in January 1999. Currently she is selling copies of all her works at a rate of about 20,000 a week!

This brings us on to UK publishers. How do they divide up the 9.5% of UK fiction sales? The following table lists the major science fiction and fantasy publishers' proportion of the sales' pie by units sold.











Pocket Books












All others


So what does all this say about the state of written SF in the UK?

Ironically there are two apparently contradictory answers. The first is that written SF is alive and well largely in the hands of a dozen or so publishing houses. The second is that on one hand the genre - in terms of sales at least - is dominated by a handful of authors and that the written form of the genre is having in-roads made into it by media SF as well as having attention drawn from it by fantasy. (This last is not a dig at fantasy, rather a factual comment on how specifically science fiction as a genre is faring.)

What does the future hold?

Again the portents are mixed. We have seen some publishing houses reprint the classics. Yet while these lines have seen some success there are tales of surprising remainderings and discount sales, though of course this could equally be a marketing ploy. Nonetheless this does indicate in a willingness to maintain a healthy back list so to nurture a new generation of readers. There is also other good news in that the UK is seeing a bit of a renaissance in hard SF. Aside from Ian Banks, the likes of Ken MacLeod, Stephen Baxter and Eric Brown are all fairly young writers, with decades left in them, that have perfectly respectable sales. On the other hand the inexorable continuation of the rise in TV channels and business means that there are more TV SF shows on the air today than there have been in the past and this, combined with developing affordable special effects technology means that some will be mass market (lowest-common-denominator) hits and this will spill over into related books titles. It really is the best of times and the worst of times, but whatever - as is always the case in SF - the future is bound to be exciting.


Much of this article first appeared in the July 2002 edition of Locus and is reprinted with permission.



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