Science Fiction & Fantasy Editor and Author Steve Saffel
Steve Saffel is a Senior Acquisitions Editor at Titan Books, the world’s premiere popular culture publisher, acquiring original science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime fiction, art books, and media tie-ins such as Alien, Planet of the Apes, Batman, Mass Effect, and more. Some of his recent projects include Robin Hood: Mark of the Black Arrow, a Cthulhu vs. Sherlock Holmes trilogy, Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and fiction for Dishonored. Before joining Titan, Saffel was the Editorial Director of Media Projects for Del Rey. In addition to his work there on Star Wars, Saffel also contributed to the Harry Turtledove alternate histories, David Gemmell fantasies, H.P. Lovecraft horror tales, Robotech, Tarzan, and Mars Attacks! He entered publishing via Marvel Comics and then moved to Del Rey Books where he edited science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and nonfiction. Saffel is also an author, having written the definitive book Spider-Man The Icon: The Life and Times of a Pop Culture Phenomenon.
How did you get your start in book publishing and how did you come to focus on science fiction and fantasy books, as well as comics and art-of-the film/TV show books?
From very early in life I've long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy in all media, beginning with such books as The Hobbit, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and the Foundation trilogy. In college I pursued and received a journalism degree, and after a short stint at the American Red Cross I moved to Marvel Comics, first in promotion and later in behind-the-scenes magazine editorial. I did some freelance editorial work for Del Rey Books, after which they brought me onboard as a Senior Editor. There, I worked on original science fiction and fantasy, and actively sought to expand their footprint in licensed fiction, working on Star Wars, Spider-Man, Babylon 5, and many others.
Tie-in novels and art books face a great deal more competition these days, though. Readers won't necessarily feel as strongly driven to buy novels and art books when they know a film or television series will be available, complete with behind-the-scenes extras, in the electronic media. Yet projects like Interstellar, Alien, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man still enjoy enthusiastic book audiences.
Is there a particular book or author that initially drew you to science fiction and fantasy?
In fantasy and horror it would have been Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien. In science fiction, Robert Silverberg did the trick with The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, one of the greatest collections of all time. I still consider "The Nine Billion Names of God" five of the greatest pages of literature.
What was it like working with former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his Mycroft Holmes novel?
It was delightful. The enthusiasm he and his co-writer brought to the character was amazing, and his in-depth fascination with Sherlock Holmes was entirely contagious. They came in with a solid first draft, and the creative discussions we had were terrific as we found ourselves very much on the same page.
“A publisher at Titan's level can garner more attention for a work, and even if the response is slow growth, we can stick with it...”
What do you feel the independent book publishing experience can offer authors that publishing with a big five publisher cannot?
The industry is so revenue-driven that it's become more difficult for the major publishers to focus much time and effort on folks at the entry level. Much smaller publishers can focus time and effort on the work, but they won't necessarily be able to garner the attention and distribution needed to break out an author. A publisher at Titan's level can garner more attention for a work, and even if the response is slow growth, we can stick with it, whereas larger companies might abandon the project. As an editor I give each manuscript a great deal of attention, whereas editors at the larger houses often seem challenged to work on the books as they had in the past.
Has book publishing changed a lot since your time at Random House/Del Rey Books?
Tremendously. When I joined Del Rey, science fiction and fantasy were still viewed as part of a niche market. While profitable, they weren't viewed as essential to the overarching Ballantine Books or Random House. Since the genres have become so massively successful in film, television, gaming, and all other media, all of the publishers have greater interest and higher expectations for genre projects. This has led to greater resources, but it's led to too much greater attention to the bottom line. Here, again, independents like Titan Books can focus a lot more time and effort on specific genres, whereas the larger publishers are spread much thinner.
“Science fiction and fantasy have always been about broader horizons...”
Do you think there’s a particular subsection of the science fiction and fantasy market that could be on the rise? At the same time, do you think there’s an area of SFF that’s on the decline?
It's almost impossible to note the rise and fall of subgenres. All it takes is a major multi-media hit like Game of Thrones or The Expanse, and suddenly epic fantasy and space opera are ascendant. One thing I'm very glad to see is attention to social issues and subcultures in science fiction and fantasy, including various ethnicities, genders, belief systems, LGTBQ representation, and other such elements that give us a much richer tapestry. At the moment, they seem to be driving fiction almost like the flavors of the month, but in the long run it would be best to see these as facets of all of our fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have always been about broader horizons, and these aspects have made them even more so.
Since Titan Books has offices in the UK and U.S., do you see differences in the science fiction and fantasy markets between the two countries? Are there any similarities? Where do you see these two markets headed?
Both markets are facing similar challenges. In the UK the Waterstones stores are fighting for survival, just as Barnes & Noble is seeking new ways to innovate in the American market. Electronic retailers drive a tremendous number of sales in both places, and independent retailers are fighting to fill in the gaps. As with day-and-date releases for films and video games, Titan often shoots to launch books simultaneously throughout the English language territories. This allows us to take a global approach, and pull together a combined sales, marketing, and publicity campaign for each project.
Set in a desert world of sand and honey, Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacyseries balances and contrasts the grim with the wondrous, the heartbreaking with the humorous, and takes an unflinching look at real-world issues such as the plight of indigenous peoples in a world mad for power. What has it been like working with Debi on this epic fantasy series?
It was (and is) wonderful. Deborah is brimming with ideas—so many that it's challenging to get them all onto the page. Her characters are the best, with powerful personalities and detailed narratives that lend themselves to deep emotions and explosive action. The world she's crafted is mesmerizing, and the only problem is that once the book is done, we have to leave. Thank goodness there are three of them, thus far, so we get to go back repeatedly. I can't recommend highly enough that readers try the first one, The Dragon's Legacy. It's a complete story, so no one needs to feel locked into buying more. My bet, however, is that you'll want to.
Do you have any aspiring writers looking to become published authors of science fiction or fantasy?
Always, and we review all of the submissions we can. There's a tremendous number of folks who have the urge to scratch the creative itch. One of the best parts of this job is getting to attend writers conferences and genre events to talk with folks who want to learn more about publishing from the business and creative sides.
For the licensed books it's a bit more difficult, since we need to seek authors with a recognized track record in an applicable genre—science fiction, fantasy, horror—and a name that brings cachet to a license. Often it's someone with whom we've worked, since we need to have confidence in their ability to deliver. An author who falls down damages both the book and the relationship with the licensor. An author who does exceptionally well enhances those things.
“...publishing is an incredibly rewarding place to be, and working with creative folks provides a joy that's difficult to match.”
Do you have any advice for those looking to become science fiction and fantasy book editors, or advice for new SFF book editors looking to hone their craft?
The most valuable training I got in the beginning was a news-editorial university degree. That helped me hone the technical skills, and taught me a great deal about deadlines, problem solving, and communication. I also recommend that aspiring editors train in other aspects of the industry: for example... contracts, marketing, copyright, and management. Publishers are asking editors to take on a lot more responsibilities than in the past. The person with the greatest skill set will have the best opportunity to advance.
That said, publishing is an incredibly rewarding place to be, and working with creative folks provides a joy that's difficult to match.