21st-Century SFF Publishers

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been struggling to find good science-fiction stories in magazines.  Although I haven’t blogged about longer fiction lately, I also have trouble finding good sci-fi and fantasy novels.

I normally don’t pay any attention to a book’s publisher.  I usually decide what to read based on a single-paragraph marketing blurb, although if I’m not in a hurry, I’ll also browse through the user reviews at Amazon or Audible.  Maybe I’m not choosing books effectively.  By ignoring the publisher, am I leaving out a critical piece of information which could help me identify good (or bad) books?

To see if my enjoyment of books differed by publisher, I downloaded the book ratings from my Goodreads account, and manipulated the data to give each publisher a score.  I began with 525 rated books, but ended up using only 103 of them.

First, I eliminated all non-fiction (losing half my books), and then I got rid of short story collections.  I also removed books published before the year 2000.  I’m looking for a publishing machine that can deliver for me now, but the further back I look, the more I’m seeing the work of people who aren’t there any more.

Next, at each publisher, I averaged the ratings for each author into a score.  I didn’t give Baen credit for eleven highly-rated David Drake books, I gave them one credit for David Drake with an author average of 4.45 stars.  I want publishers to find me great authors I don’t know about.  I can find more books by those same authors on my own.

I also grouped all self-published books together as if they came from a publishing house.  Of course, there was no common editorial team or process for those books, but I wanted to see how they’d rank as a group against the traditional publishing houses.  Finally, I removed any publishing house which brought only one author to me.  Here’s what I had left:

Publisher Score Books Authors
Baen 4.4 30 5
Crown 3.7 3 3
self-published 3.5 29 17
Del Rey 3.5 4 4
HarperTorch 3.3 3 2
Ace/ROC 3.1 18 4
Tor 2.7 10 6
47 North 2.7 3 3
Orbit 2.3 3 3

The first thing that jumped out at me was that self-published authors beat 6 of the 8 traditional publishers.  Years of industry experience and multi-million-dollar budgets couldn’t beat the proverbial guy in his attic.

I’m working to finish a series or two at the moment, but once I’m done, maybe I should give a new author from Baen a shot.  Maybe I should be more cautious about picking up new titles from the lower-ranked publishers on my list.  Maybe I should search for more self-published work.

How do you find books to read?  Do you factor the publisher into your purchasing decisions?  Do you read self-published books?  Tell me in the comments below — I’m curious what other people are doing.


  1. I DON’T look at the publisher to be honest. Publishers, self or House, will sell anything that sells. So while some imprints try to stay in a specific genre, I find they just have too great a variety to help me at all.
    I’ve had really good luck with 47North, but that is because I’ve stuck to a couple of authors (Currie and Dalzelle). I tend to stick to authors I already know. Then I load up on their back catalogue or if they’re new, keep track of them on FictFact for new releases.

    And I have a 2 year tbr, so something has to be really attractive for me to add to it.

    1. You and I had different opinions on the one Currie book I’ve read. I haven’t tried Dalzelle yet.

      I will usually stick with a series if I like the first book or two, but I don’t always follow the author over to another series if the subject matter doesn’t interest me.

      I guess I don’t have much of a tbr, I have long wishlists at vendors, but they are just something to scan through when I’m ready to make a purchase – I won’t eventually buy everything on the lists.

      1. Currie was a rough start for me, but he’s settled down as an author and I enjoy his recent stuff.

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    I’ll wager there was a 5 star book somewhere in say Tor for example… Would you be ok having missed it?

    1. Yes, you’re right. I wouldn’t like to miss a rare gem. That’s why I won’t totally avoid the low-scoring publishers. But, I will avoid an impulse purchase from them based on a neato blurb. I’ll give myself 15 minutes or more to read customer reviews before making a decision.

  3. My reading time is at a premium, and I spend most of it reading author friends. I may not be the guy to give you data. It’s cool that the independent crowd scored well though.

    1. Yeah, I’m guessing your reading habits are atypical.

      I’m still surprised how high the indies scored. I’ve reviewed a number of them here, but when I get back to reviewing novels, I’ll see if there are others that deserve some attention.

  4. I do a lot of critiquing with other authors, so much of my reading is unpublished. I agree it is hard to find good Fantasy novels today. I read more historical fiction now than I used to because of this. I don’t look at publishers either, mostly authors that I recognize and the occasional new author if their book catches my eye.

    1. I’m in a parallel situation to yours. I prefer science fiction, but I feel that the better authors are moving towards urban fantasy, so I end up reading more of that than I’d normally pick up on my own.

      It seems that a lot of us like to stick with the authors we know, which will make it harder for a new author to get his/her foot in the door.

  5. I’ve been reading mostly self-published books lately. This is a hazard of being an author myself. After trading notes with other authors I want to give their books a try. I’ve been avoiding publishers other than Baen in large part because they price their ebooks above my autobuy level.

    1. I hadn’t thought much about pricing because I consumed so many of these as audiobooks from audible. Most novels are just priced at “1 credit” there.

      So, if I were to calculate amount of enjoyment per dollar for the ebook versions, the indies would be even stronger.

  6. I give the publisher a passing consideration, but that’s mainly to see what shows up on their publication catalog. I follow a few authors — not as many as I used to — but I really look more at the genre/sub-genre and writing style. I burned out on the post apocalyptic fad early (only a couple of stories have stood my test of time), never cared for the zombie craze (although I enjoyed Terry Pratchett’s zombies), and I haven’t seen much that’s truly fresh with vampire books. Science fiction (hard science, not soft science) seems to be a rarity nowadays, so I find myself turning to older works even though the science in them is somewhat outdated.

    When I do find a title that looks promising, I take advantage of the Look Inside feature on Amazon. It’s close to flipping through pages at a bookstore or library, but unlike at bookstores & libraries, I can browse the self-published and small press titles. Once in a great while, I find a gem, but too often the stories seem more like first or second drafts not ready for publication.

    One thing that helps is taking advantage of much narrower sub- and sub-sub-genre wording for searches rather than broader umbrella terms. Instead of “science fiction”, I may type “space opera” or “space steampunk” or “generation spaceship” or . . .
    It seems to help filter out what I’m not looking for.

    1. I know what you mean, there should be so much out there that you can find great stuff in any sub-genre, but some of them are slim pickings.

      I haven’t made much use of the look inside or other free samples. I dread long, boring middles and go-nowhere endings, and you can’t spot those things from the sample.

    2. Oh, and I forgot to mention: since I listen to audiobooks while commuting and eating every weekday, a lot of the self-published authors keep themselves off my list by not offering an audio version.

  7. Audiobooks are tough for an indie author. Most aren’t going to sell enough to cover the cost of an experienced narrator and sound editor. Audible offers the ACX service to connect authors and narrators but they can’t beat the cost problem. Either the author pays up front to use the audiobook as a marketing tool or a narrator has to sign up for royalty share at the risk of not earning enough to cover the time invested in the project.

    1. Yeah, a while back I heard that the number of narrators willing to do the royalty-share thing was shrinking.

  8. You say you look at blurbs, and sometimes reviews. What about covers? Do covers influence your choice? If so, how significant is their effect on you?

    1. The covers had more influence on me back in ancient times, when I would browse through 4 by 6 paperbacks in the bookstore. The cover image thumbnails are so small now, it would have to be one heck of a cover to pull me towards the book.

      I do find them useful as instant subgenre-identifiers. If I see a spaceship or two on the cover, I might go to it if I’m in the mood for a space opera or military SF. If I see a shirtless guy on the cover, I’m skipping to the next book without reading a word of the blurb.

      Although … the cover of Hard Luck Hank: Screw the Galaxy has a picture of a guy in a pink bathrobe, and I did find that funny. The tagline Screw the Galaxy might have sparked my interest as much or more than the cover, though.

  9. I am loving this detailed analysis and fascinated by the results! Most of my books come from Goodreads reviewers I follow for recommendations or via amazon ‘suggestions’ from previous books I bought. I always download the sample chapter and only buy if I like the sample. Less inclined to read amazon reviews, but on Goodreads I have found reviewers I like to follow.

    1. Hmm, I’m not sure what percentage of my reads come from those types of recommendations – I’d have to think about it.

      I’ve been reading so many short stories on my kindle, that most of my novels have been through audible lately. Their samples are very short, long enough to tell if the narrator has an irritating voice, but not much about the story.

      I’m not sure that samples would help me in most cases anyway, as I often like the beginning of a book, only to nod off in the middle, or feel let down by an inconclusive ending. Sometimes reviewers warn me about those problems.

  10. I don’t usually think about the publisher, though I admit I’m surprised by where Tor ranks on your list. I was under the impression they were publishing a lot of high quality Sci-Fi. Also, it makes me happy to see self published authors are doing so well.

    1. As far as I can tell, Tor is THE marketing machine in SFF, but their product quality has been mixed for me. I rated a couple of their authors 4 stars, but they brought me a few other authors who I don’t plan to read again.

      I’m surprised to see 47 North so far below the self-published crowd, since they basically come from the same gene pool.

      1. Well it’s all definitely good information to know. I’m going to try to pay a little attention to who publishes the books I read in the future, just to see if any patterns emerge.

  11. Not seeing any small publishers, or are they lumped with independent authors? Castalia House has a good bunch of sff, and Chris Kennedy Publishing has done well with the Four Horsemen books. Just for a couple of prominent examples.

    1. I can’t remember if I lumped them in – it’s likely, since a lot of the indies create single-author publishing companies.

      I think I have a four horsemen short story collection which I’ll get to in a while.

      I probably haven’t read much Castalia House yet, I’m guessing because they haven’t been putting out audiobook versions. I’ve been reserving my eyeball reading time for short stories the last couple years, while consuming novels in audio.

  12. […] another front, my attempt to rank publishers may not have been useful.  “Fire with Fire” was published by Baen, the top publisher […]

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