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Tor/Sci Fi Essentials

By Paula Guran
October 2005

Although you may not have yet noticed, Tor has launched a new promotion that teams the publisher with television's SciFi Channel. They are calling it the Sci Fi Essential Books Program and, according to the press release, the idea is "to bring readers and fans the finest new voices in the field" in this manner:

Each month, one carefully selected Tor title will receive the SciFi Essential stamp of approval, which will appear on the spine and cover of the book. Tor readers, the SciFi audience, and new fans will benefit from an array of special features promoting the new books. These features may include live author chats on scifi.com, and sample chapters and sneak peeks of upcoming books in the program on the site www.scifimonthlypick.com. Possible promotional plans to support the SciFi Essential program may also include promotion on SciFi's handheld AvantGo channel, highlights in the SciFi Magazine books section and on-air coverage of select titles.

(The SciFi Essentials page at SciFi.com also adds that selection means the book "deserves to be counted among the finest works of the genre." Considering that on the same page SciFi.com lists Catwoman among its "Movie Essentials" we hope someone else is picking the books.)

The SciFi Essential Books program started in July with the publication of Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, followed by Karl Schroeder's Lady of Mazes. Both authors can certainly be called "fine new voices" as can November's pick, Kage Baker. Her Essential book, The Children of the Company, is something of a "fix-up" novel that incorporates previously published material. Not her best work, perhaps, but still good stuff.

But the remaining 2005 "Essentials" are definitely not "new voices". Whether they are "finest works" is open to debate.

September's pick comes from some popular, if not exactly "new" voices with The Road to Dune. The book consists of a short novel, Spice Planet, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson based on "a detailed outline and extensive notes and excerpts left by Frank Herbert"; some unpublished chapters and scenes from Herbert's classics Dune and Dune Messiah; excerpts from correspondence; and enough other Dune-related material to fatten it up to almost 500 pages.

This crowd-pleasing franchise book is followed by Night Train to Rigel by franchise-author Timothy Zahn. He's the author of several dozen novels starting back in 1979, so prolific and popular he's got three publishing houses (Baen and Del Rey, along with Tor). Probably best known as a Star Wars tie-in author, Zahn's sold well in his own right. Heck, Zahn is so popular he doesn't even need his own Web site.

December 2005 brings a definitive collection, Platinum Pohl, from Frederik Pohl who is, without doubt, a very fine writer and this looks like an excellent compilation. But Grand Master Pohl hasn't been "new' since he was a Futurian back in the 1930s.

Another masterly-but-not-new writer, Ben Bova, is highlighted in March 2006. Bova is the author of 66 books of fiction previous to this new novel, Titan, and at least another 33 works of nonfiction. He's been writing for 50 years.

We do get back to "new voices" in 2006, though, with John Scalzi...not that the book is new. Old Man's War came out in January 2005 in hardcover. It had an inappropriate cover and this new trade paperback's cover is an improvement. The 2006 cover compliments that of Scalzi's sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which is the March SciFi Essential. Wait. The Bova book was the March Essential, wasn't it?

Moving along (or back) to February 2006 we have The Well of Tears with another "new voice", Cecelia Dart-Thornton. [You can tell she is new because, except for Lawrence Watt-Evans (whose name is not Lawrence Watt-Evans) genre writers never used to hyphenate their names.] It's just that she is essentially not a "sci-fi" writer. She writes fantasy.

The final announced Sci Fi Essential title is another fantasy, Jane Lindskold's Wolf Hunting (April 2006). Lindskold's first novel, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, was published in 1994. She's published 15 novels since then. Not a new voice and, again, not science fiction.

I have no quibbles with any form of promotional campaign that might sell books -- especially from Tor, which does not have an exceedingly generous promotional budget and especially if good books good books are promoted. A majority of these are probably good books. Bravo. All for it. Pip, pip, and huzzah.

I'm merely pointing out that somewhere between June and September it seems the Essentials program went from being what is described above to the following (according to the latest information from Tor:

Each month Sci Fi selects a Tor science fiction or fantasy title [ah-ha!] and designates it a Sci Fi Essential. Through their Essential program Sci Fi seeks to foster writing excellence. to bring powerful voices to the attention to their audience, and to bring readers closer to authors they are passionate about. [Italics mine and ah-ha! again.]

Or did it?

Since the first four books, including the Dune book and the Zahn, were announced when the program was first made public, it appears "authors they are passionate about" was part of the plan all along. It just wasn't pointedly mentioned. And, to be precise, the press release did not exclude fantasy, it just said "the field." Finally, they didn't exactly say that Sci Fi Essentials would be all "science fiction" (the finest new voices were in "the field"), nor did they promise new books would be selected.

So. Really. No worries. Go forth. Buy books.