Back in 1991, OMNI Magazine did a huge survey of the state of science fiction and fantasy publishing, and where people thought things were heading. Not surprisingly, nobody predicted the rise of Borders, much less Amazon or e-books. But some stuff was surprisingly prescient.
The blog Castalia House has some excerpts from the article, written by Robert J. Kilheffer, and a few trends jump out as interesting. A bunch of editors at major publishers saw the beginning of genre books being broken out into more distinct categories than just "science fiction" and "fantasy," presaging the rise of Urban Fantasy and Military SF as distinct categories recognized by a lot of readers and booksellers. Also, people were already talking about fantasy being more popular than science fiction:
"There seems to be a longer way for a particular kind of very accessible fantasy novel to go," remarks Susan Allison, vice-president and editor-in-chief at Ace/Berkley. Fantasy writers such as David Eddings and Terry Brooks have been almost constant presences on hardcover and paperback lists in the past few years, with others, such as the team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Tad Williams and Robert Jordan not far behind. TSR's Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms shared-universe fantasy series consistently dominate the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks trade bestseller lists....
David Hartwell, a consulting editor for Tor Books, says, "On the average, in the midlist it is easier to market and package a competent but not exceptional fantasy than a competent but not exceptional science fiction novel." On the other hand, Jim Baen, publisher and editor-in-chief of Baen Books, believes that "there may have been more breakout bestsellers in fantasy of late, but science fiction is still stronger in the under-100,000-copy bracket."
Explanations for the popularity include that reading science fiction "is much more of a learned skill," as Tor's Patrick Nielsen Hayden puts it. [Full disclosure: Nielsen Hayden is my editor at Tor.] But also, that readers want more escapism and fewer stories rooted in their reality, and that everyone grew up with fantasies and fairy-tales.
Somewhat depressingly, a few of the editors predict that "crossover" novels — which are published as genre books, but have literary aspirations, will be where the genre evolves and tries new things. But also, that those books will mostly underperform commercially:
"We did a lot of crossover publishing in the mid-1980s," Lou Aronica recalls, "and it was not terribly successful. We tended to miss both markets."
There's a mixing of high art and low art," notes Tor's David Hartwell, "of pop culture and high culture materials. This leads to a very fruitful interplay between genre fiction and high literature, and it's one of the places where the action is." But the artistic interest of such experiments does not often translate into market success. "It's not where the sales are, not at all, but it is where the evolution of the field is taking place."
The whole thing is worth checking out. [Castalia House]