James over at the Accidental Bard has written a thought-provoking article that looks at the current state of play in the genre:
"Publishing houses are emphasizing urban fantasy to the extent that epic and high fantasy have been sidelined and newly classified as "traditional" and "old-fashioned." Authors producing epic fantasy of the type that dominated the marketplace even a few years ago are scrambling just to get published in the current climate."
It was Aidan that kicked the debate off, however, when he revealed that epic fantasy isn't really floating his boat at the moment, and that he's finding himself drawn to other sub-genres - something that other readers seem to be doing:
"As mentioned earlier, Urban/Contemporary Fantasy is taking the market by storm, forcing aside the stalwart Epic Fantasy not only in terms of sales, but also in terms of publisher interest."
So what does the rise of urban fantasy mean for epic/secondary-world fantasy?
Well, not much in my opinion. Let's nip this one in the bud straight away: the rise of urban fantasy does not mean that epic fantasy is declining as a sub-genre or becoming unpopular. Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind sold over 40,000 copies in hardback alone, while Gail Z. Martin and Karen Miller both achieved similar sales in paperback. Miller's novel - The Innocent Mage - was apparently the best-selling fantasy novel in the UK last year...and it's a secondary world fantasy. The truth is that epic fantasy is just too popular to fade away.
Let's just re-wind a few months and see what Solaris editor Mark Newton had to say when I interviewed him and asked whether epic fantasy was being ignored by publishers in favour of urban fantasy:
"No. Epic fantasy is still one of the biggest selling genres. Why would you not want more if there's a thirst for it? The trouble we find is that there isn't enough well-written epic fantasy to publish. I've spoken to agents in the states, and even they seemed to think that there was a shortage of good new Epic Fantasy writers. I think the market is absolutely saturated with urban fantasy at the moment though, that it's become a separate and totally washed out genre of it's own."
In his article, Aidan highlights the difficulties that two aspiring fantasy writers - Patrick St. Denis and Shawn Speakman - have had in getting their epic fantasies published. Speakman runs an interesting blog, and has suggested that his novel - and those of other writers he knows - was rejected primarily because it was epic fantasy, rather than urban fantasy.
I just can't agree with this, or the notion that publishers are turning down epic/secondary-world fantasies in favour of urban fantasies. I mean, where's the evidence? Look at Solaris - a relatively new genre imprint here in the UK. If secondary-world fantasy is losing out to urban fantasy, would Solaris really have risked their fledgling operation (and reputation) by publishing
Paul Kearney and Gail Z. Martin? No chance: they would have published plenty of urban fantasy material instead. But they didn't, they published some secondary-world fantasy because it's still popular and there's a demand for it.
What about other genre publishers in the UK? Are they ignoring epic fantasy? Hardly. The UK wing of Tor seem committed to publishing a new epic fantasy author every year - David Bilsborough in 2007, Adrian Tchaikovsky in 2008 and Mark Charan Newton in 2009. Hardly the sign of a publisher sidelining epic fantasy in favour of urban fantasy.
James raises a specific point in his article about the rise of urban fantasy forcing would-be writers into adapting to the market:
"Genre fiction presents its own unique problem: what do you do when what you want to write most in the world just isn't selling? Fantasy authors, especially first-timers, face a difficult choice: adapt to the market, or remain unpublished."
Aside from the fact that epic fantasy is selling, I agree with his suggestion that aspiring writers need to adapt to the market. But I don't agree with the apparent assertion that if you want to get published you need to write urban fantasy. If you write an epic fantasy that is brilliant - good, as agent John Jarrold says, isn't enough - and you are reasonably well-connected, then you stand a good chance of getting published.
As for urban fantasy as a genre, it'll probably reach the same saturation point that secondary-world fantasy experienced recently (some would say is still experiencing) and then a new fad will come along...and we'll probably have this debate about epic fantasy dying off all over again - and come to much the same conclusion.
So let's lay this one to rest. Urban fantasy is making the genre more diverse and it's giving readers more choice...but not at the expense of epic fantasy, for which there is still a large and hungry readership.