Booksellers are often tasked with ensuring the shelf a new book is placed on aligns with the marketing the publisher is going for. Is The Handmaid’s Tale science fiction or dystopian fiction or “speculative fiction” as Margaret Atwood herself would have it? Ursula Le Guin famously countered Atwood’s definition, calling this categorizing “arbitrary” and “restrictive.”
Regardless of what you call them, fiction books as a whole sell more copies than nonfiction books—and thrillers, mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy are the most read. And while pop culture critics lament the downfall of our supposed literary culture, what are writers and publishers alike to do in creating, acquiring, and publishing books to cater to the growth in genre fiction readers? Since the Big Five have the most publishing power, the best way to investigate the popular fiction they make is to dive into their genre fiction-focused imprints.
Penguin Random House
Starting out with original adaptations of Star Trek, Bantam Books (and science fiction subdivision Bantam Spectra) has put out works by modern genre heavyweights like Danielle Steel and George R. R. Martin. Though they no longer publish manga, the Del Rey imprint specializes in science fiction and fantasy books, publishing novelizations of video games along with classics like Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series and the “weird fiction” of China Miéville. Not to mention numerous digital imprints such as Alibi (mystery), Loveswept & Flirt (romance), and Hydra (horror and scifi)—or the semi-independent DAW Books distributed by Penguin Random House.
Ballantine Books’s move away from early pulp fiction acquisitions conflicted with rival Ace Books, as they squabbled to get rights to The Lord of the Rings. They now both sit under the same Penguin Random House umbrella, and Ace Books boasts a backlist of Dune, The Once and Future King, and Neuromancer and shares that same editorial team with fantasy imprint Roc Books that published the Discworld series and The Dresden Files series.
Tor Books is the jewel of Tor Publishing Group, formerly Tom Doherty Associates, publishing almost three thousand works since just 1980 and known as the imprint that published Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and The Stormlight Archive series. The Tor/Forge blog and Tor.com website are renowned for their insight into the speculative fiction publishing world too.
Housed under Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books is one of the only imprints focused on mystery, thriller, and suspense novels. The Cassie Dewell novels of C. J. Box (which would become the TV show Big Sky), the gothic whodunnit The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller, and works by Louise Penny (who recently published State of Terror, co-written with Hillary Clinton) were all Minotaur books.
The entire Harlequin branch of HarperCollins nearly monopolized the romance market for decades, including everything from erotica to paranormal and historical love stories. After acquiring Avon Publications, many early “cheesecake” paperbacks were folded into HarperCollins, and newer releases include tie-ins to the TV show Bridgerton. Early works by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle now fall under Harlequin. However, ebooks and self-published works have started to outpace the popularity of formally published romances.
Harper Voyager was originally Eos Books, but now publishes science fiction, epic fantasy, and especially urban fantasy. Voyager boasts work of tabletop role-playing game legend Gerald Brom, military sci-fi writer William H. Keith (as Ian Douglas), and speculative fiction writer and poet Beth Cato.
Forever and Forever Yours are Hachette’s romance imprints, but the big dive into genre fiction is through science fiction and fantasy imprint Orbit. Popular reads from Orbit include The Witcher series and The Broken Earth Trilogy. Acquisition of Gollancz also means Hachette oversees the out-of-print ebook collection website, SF Gateway.
Simon & Schuster
Still a separate entity, at least for now with the merger court case pending, the only real genre fiction imprint left at Simon & Schuster is the speculative fiction Saga Press. Mostly featuring up-and-comers like Catherynne M. Valente, Rebecca Roanhorse, Ken Liu, and T. Kingfisher, it’s no surprise they still market the works of Le Guin.
Publishing works of popular genre fiction is no small task—Ooligan Press’s first fantasy title in its twenty-year history, Court of Venom, was released April 5, 2022. However, it’s easy to see that walking up to the dystopian fiction shelf in your local bookstore may not just be the work of an attentive bookseller, but the work of an entire imprint intent on bringing a love of genre fiction all the way from the top of the editorial team to the hands of those ready to be swept away to another world.