Saturday 30 August 2008

The state of epic/secondary-world fantasy

There's been some interesting discussion recently about the rise of urban fantasy and what it means for epic/secondary world fantasy.

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. 

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. 


Mark Newton said...

I agree, and I'm going to make a sweeping generalization based on what I've seen in bookselling, and that is that Urban Fantasy is replacing "Buffy The Vapmire Slayer". As a market, it is pretty independent from epic fantasy, as much as can be when it's lumped in the same genre. I've found that generally, people who read one, don't tend to read the other...

I'd go as far as making a comparison between romance and general fiction. There's a saturated romance market, but there isn't too much cross over between general fiction - apart from chick lit, which can sit in either, and it depends on how the publisher wants to sell it.

You can tell all this by just a quick look at the genre blogs and forums. The epic fantasy blogs tend to stick to just epic fantasy. Readers stick with what they like...

I will add that in the UK, the whole urban fantasy thing is nowhere near as big as in the US, and most sales tend to be concentrated in a handful of writers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mark about the difference in UK/US where urban fantasy is concerned.

I'm amazed by the sheer volume of reviews on places like Darque Reviews and Urban Fantasy Land of novels that I've never heard of and writers that are unlikely to crossover.

This isn't to say that what they're writing isn't interesting it's just that volume over here wouldn't support all of them.

I also agree with Mark that readers tend to go back to what they know and don't usually cross-read genres.

I like all sorts of stuff but lately given the choice between more literary and more genre reading. I'll go genre and if it is literary it's unlabelled genre.

I'm still confused about what epic fantasy is supposed to mean as there are lots of traditional-style fantasy being produced.

Though being a debut in any market is always a risk so maybe that's where Patrick and Shawn are falling down?

Anonymous said...

One small clarification - Karen Miller's 'The Innocent Mage' was the bestselling debut fantasy of 2007 (details here). I think either 'Children of Hurin' or Harry Potter #7 will probably have claimed the overall bestseller title...

As for a 'decline' in epic / traditional fantasy, I'm not sure that's really the case. Trudi Canavan is about as classic and traditional as you can get and she's certainly one of the bestselling fantasy authors in the UK at the moment - and her new novel, 'The Magician's Apprentice', will reaffirm that when we publish in February '09... :)

James said...

Mark, Gav - thanks for your comments, always interesting to hear other people's opinions.

Darren - thanks for setting me straight on the Miller. Still, if the best-selling debut of 2007 was a secondary-world fantasy, it still reinforces my point that the sub-genre is still alive and well.

Jebus said...

I'm still quite bemused about some of the discussions that occur in the SFF blogging community.

I'm predominantly an Epic fantasy fan and have been reading these types of books for over 20 years. Currently my "to-read" shelf - actual purchased books, not just my wish list on - has over 30 novels on it with easily 80% being of the epic / secondary world variety and mostly novels that were published within the last 2 years. Maybe I'm out of the ordinary but I do not read much Urban fantasy, if any at all, to be honest - the only exception would be the Harry Potter novels.

I suspect there are many, many fans of SFF out there that are very similar to me in tastes and if they haven't found recent authors like Rothfuss, Abercrombie and Lynch as well as many others then they're just not au fait with the industry at the moment. There are DOZENS of "new" authors out there with epic fantasy novels on the shelves and being published.

Also, I find the suggestion - implied or otherwise - that aspiring authors should mould their stories and their style to what is "popular" and sells well today as astonishingly offensive to not only the writer but the potential readers as well. I'm here to read engaging and imaginative narratives written by gifted, hard working and above all inspired novelists. Not crap that is targeted at a market or demographic because they think they can be published quicker or sell more books.

Aidan Moher said...

Nice article, James. It's also great to see some people from the other side of the fence pop by to set some things straight.

Despite having a hand in starting the discussion about the death of Epic Fantasy, I never really believed it to be true. Between Mark and Darren's comments, it seems that the stigma that Epic Fantasy is struggling is more or less a myth.

Perhaps it's not as popular at the moment as Urban Fantasy, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's struggling. Despite my recent lamenting about feeling oversaturated on it, Epic Fantasy has always been my bread and butter and it's good to know the state of it isn't as dire as some of the rumblings had said.

I also agree with Jebus that it's dangerous when aspiring authors try to break in by writing what's popular at the time. As we all know, the industry is a fickle place and those novels that are selling like hotcakes now were originally accepted several months or even years earlier. Certainly it seems more prudent to write the right type of story for you, rather than the right type of story for the industry.

Great bit of discussion here.

A Dribble of Ink