Friday, August 17, 2007

You Miss the Point Completely; I Get the Point Exactly

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist had a post this week about "the changing of the guard" in fantasy that I found interesting, in that "heading down the completely wrong road at high speed" kind of way.

(I'm not blaming Patrick for this; this looks like an ongoing conversation that I think is just wrong-headed to begin with, on the order of trying to determine the precise chemical composition of phlogiston.)

First of all, Patrick talks about the idea that there will be a new "changing of the guard," in the sense that
Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind relegated David Eddings and Terry Brooks to the backseat more than a decade past, thus establishing Tor Books as the SFF powerhouse it became in the mid-90s.
Eddings is an interesting case, since it seems that his largest audience really only wanted the Belgariad/Malloreon storyline, and wasn't as interested in following him into other areas. (This effect happens with a lot of series writers, and is particularly noticeable in fantasy and mystery: a writer's major series novels can outsell other books by several hundred percent.) But Brooks, as far as I can tell, is selling about as many copies of a new Shannara book now as he did in the '80s and '90s -- and that's a lot of copies. Jordan and Goodkind move more units per book now, but it took them each a number of books to reach that level.

And the idea that Jordan and Goodkind "replaced" Brooks and Eddings is a fallacy -- Brooks and Eddings are still here, still selling very strongly (Eddings's last four-book series, for Warner, was rumored to have a jaw-dropping advance), and hadn't lost their audience.

What Jordan and Goodkind did was show that the top end potential of epic fantasy was higher than the publishing world previously thought -- that this genre could have legitimate #1 New York Times bestsellers, with all of the attendant money and importance. (The field had already had serious bestsellers, but not consistent #1 Times bestsellers.) And that only happened at about the turn of the century -- when the two writers were solidly in the middle of long, complicated, very popular series.

(Parenthetically, it's my understanding that Jordan is still the very top end of the fantasy field, and that Goodkind's sales are somewhat below him. With an exception that Patrick -- and, I think, everyone else involved in this discussion -- has forgotten, everyone else, including Martin, Brooks, Eddings, Feist, Salvatore, and so on, sells at a level below that.)

I'll also note that no writer who can consistently hit the bestseller lists is in the "backseat." If such a writer's current publisher treats him that way, he'll quickly find a new home.

Then we move on to a discussion of what comes next. Patrick, I think, is assuming that the biggest bestsellers are innovative and new, which is very much not my experience. I may be a cynic, but, to my eye, what hits big in epic fantasy is a solidly-constructed series by a great storyteller (not necessarily a great writer, and definitely not someone who's trying something all-new) that is similar to older, well-loved works in the field but has a new spin. That series needs to have significant marketing support to reach that level, but good marketing won't sell what the audience isn't already looking for.

Patrick thinks the next Jordan and Goodkind are Steve Erikson and Scott Lynch, but...
Unfortunately, the way Erikson is being marketed in the States precludes his rise to stardom. By promoting Jordan and Goodkind so heavily, Tor Books are forgetting about a bunch of gifted writers that are under contract with them. And that's a shame. . . Although not for everyone, I feel that Steven Erikson was never really been given a chance in the USA. With the appropriate marketing, I think that Erikson could sell as many books as authors such as Tad Williams and Robin Hobb. Alas, it's not to be. Those Godawful covers are a disgrace, no question. For Toll the Hounds next year, they should simply forgo the cover art. Instead, just put "WE REFUSE TO PUT ANY THOUGHT WHATSOEVER IN THIS NOVEL'S COVER."It can't be worst than the US cover art for The Bonehunters. . . Little by little, Steven Erikson is becoming more and more popular with each new Malazan installment. Yet by the time it will matter in the USA, the entire series will be out in paperback, thus missing the more lucrative hardcover market.
I am not Tor Books; I can't speak for Tor in any sense. But I expect their reaction to his paragraph would be a large groan of frustration. Tor has spent quite a lot of time and money promoting Erikson's books, and the cover question...well, bloggers are never satisfied with fantasy covers. I'll leave it at that.

Erikson is writing decadent epic fantasy -- books for people who have been reading big fat series for a couple of decades, are familiar with all of the tropes and ideas, and are ready to see everything they're familiar with twisted into new shapes. You can't start with Erikson; you need to work up to him. Sure, his books could sell better than they do -- nearly anyone's could -- but he'll never be at the level of a Goodkind, and it's foolish to expect that. Goodkind readers may become Erikson readers, over time, but Erikson demands a level of knowledge of and involvement with epic fantasy tropes from the first page that no other epic fantasy writer comes close to.

(Also, the idea that Tor is ignoring everyone else to promote Jordan and Goodkind is simply untrue. No one else gets promoted at that level, because no one else is capable of selling at that level right now.)

Then Patrick moves on to Scott Lynch:
Scott Lynch appears to be in a very good position to "make it big." Imagination, action, good characterization -- The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies have all that. All we need is a more ambitious overall story arc, and Lynch could be on the cusp of stardom. Anne Groell assured me that The Republic of Thieves should demonstrate that The Gentleman Bastard sequence is not just another caper in every volume. And yet, for Scott Lynch to take that step, Bantam Dell will have to market him much more aggressively. Gollancz bent over backward to make TLOLL a hit in the UK, but we haven't seen that kind of push in North America. Scott Lynch is a very popular figure online, but the average fantasy reader is unaware of the author's existence. So I believe that Bantam must put his name out there. . .
Someone from the UK recently posted a comparison of Lynch's sales with those of someone getting much less respect and blogger love (I want to say Brian Ruckley, but I could be mistaken)...and I can't find that right now. But the numbers were not strongly for Lynch.

I like Lynch's books a lot, but, again, I think Patrick is assuming that, since he likes something a lot, it should be hugely successful. This is a trap editors occasionally fall into, but we generally get slapped about by reality soon afterward. Reviewers, luckily or unluckily, never get proven wrong so directly. There also has been quite a lot of promotion for Lynch in the US; commentators often seem to assume that if marketing was not as successful as they wanted it to be, then that marketing must have been non-existent, but that is not the case here.

So, in my possibly-biased opinion, Erikson and Lynch are exciting writers doing good books that could sell better than they do...but I don't think they'd ever sell at Terry Brooks levels, let alone dethrone Robert Jordan. And the idea that there is going to be some "changing of the guard" along those lines is unrealistic.

However, there has been a changing of guard over the past decade, and the folks obsessed with epic fantasy have missed it. Who's the new breed? Laurell K. Hamilton and the several dozen writers following in her footsteps.

She has two bestselling series running now, and has hit #1 on the Times list. Her backlist is already deeper than Jordan's, so I wouldn't be surprised if she's selling more units annually than he is. She also has created a new, very popular subgenre in her wake: the contemporary or urban fantasy. Many of the first-wave writers in that subgenre (Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher) are bestsellers as well, and even some second-wave writers (Patricia Briggs, Rachel Caine) are hitting the lists.

Epic fantasy isn't quite a backwater, but it's not the only game in town anymore, and it's not where the real excitement and splashy successes are happening, either. But urban/contemporary fantasy is mostly written by women, mostly about women main characters, and (presumably) mostly read by women, so it's obviously not important...

Update, two hours later: One of my Confidential Sources, who has access to Bookscan, slipped me the following -- Jordan's books outsold Hamilton's about 2-to-1 in 2003, but, by 2006, the ratio was 1.5-to-1 in Hamilton's favor. And Hamilton is publishing books much more quickly than Jordan is -- make of that what you will.


Chris, The Book Swede said...

A very interesting post :)

I don't think Aidan was trying to predict anything that makes up a bestseller--he was just listing some of the upcoming authors that he thought would were great and deserved stardom. The word perhaps was also used a lot.

It's just got a bit out of control, and I agree with quite a few points in your post in reference to Pat's.

I think you were right with the Brian Ruckley/Lynch thing, too. Mind you, with Ruckley getting nowhere near the coverage for a while, things are starting to pick up. When he gets to the US I hope he makes it big. Winterbirth is a fantastic book.

I've just interviewed Brian if you're interested:


Natalie said...

And interestingly enough, those authors who are following in Hamilton's footsteps are also, in my opinion, reacting to some of the authorial decisions that Hamilton's made, especially w/r/t the Anita Blake series--I think Kim Harrison, in particular, is doing this.

As someone who reviews for a women's magazine (Romantic Times--I'm the senior SF/F reviewer and section coordinator), I generally don't even bother with Jordan and Goodkind most of the time. The audience I'm reviewing for isn't particularly interested in them but is consuming urban/contemporary fantasy as fast--or faster--than the publishers can print it. I've found that I've been able to make the SF/F section a bit more diverse since the pub made the editorial decision to move urban/contemporary fantasy over to paranormal romance, which makes me happy. (I declined to review the latest Lynch title because I found it dull as ditchwater; my husband simply adores them, though.)

What I'm interested in, personally, is the intersection between urban/contemporary fantasy and paranormal romance. Two very different genres that look very similar on the surface.

Aidan Moher said...

It's nice to hear the opinion of someone on the other side in regards to this ongoing debate about "A Changing of the Guard".

I think one thing that is important to consider, and a point that was forefront in my mind when first crafting my A Changing of the Guard article, is that a changing of the guard can be about more than sales.

Of course Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind, etc... are going to sell mass amounts of books, that's not going to change over night, but are they still important to the fantasy and SF genre? Brooks sells a tonne of novels each year, but he isn't exactly setting the industry on fire with innovation anymore. Then you take someone like Lynch, Rothfuss, Duncan and take a look at perhaps not their sales but instead the impact they might have on future authors entering the fantasy field for the first time, the influence they might have on the direction fantasy as a whole might take.

As many people have pointed out, Epic Fantasy isn't the hot item anymore, so it's hard for Goodkind, Jordan, etc... to have as big an impact as they did several years ago. Instead we're seeing the little guys, who perhaps only sell 7k copies of their novel, but are impacting the way the core audience of the genre approach their books.

No one is a big name author right out of the gate (well... maybe there are some exceptions) and it's almost impossible to predict how the sales of anyone's novels are going to go several years down the line.

I think the rise of Urban Fantasy is a good example of how perhaps the "Old Guard" aren't as relevant as they once were in the grand scheme of Fantasy.

A Dribble of Ink

Patrick said...


It's nice to read your take on this. I never thought that my innocuous post would generate such a response. That's the internet for you. . .

First of all, I believe that everyone is aware of the impact and success that both the urban/contemporary fantasy subgenres have engendered. I just think that there isn't that much overlapping between the fans of those subgenres. A bit like hard scifi and space opera, they're related distant cousins who don't necessarily like one another. Though similar elements comprise those subgenres, I feel that, overall, their fanbases are quite different. As amalgams of "chick lit," horror, supernatural, fantasy and erotica, urban/contemporary fantasy appeal to a much wider audience, hence the commercial success enjoyed by the authors you mentioned.

As you pointed out, epic fantasy is no longer the only game in town. And honestly, it never was in the first place. But comparing epic fantasy and urban/contemporary fantasy is a bit like comparing the NFL and Aussie Rules Football. They're both alike but simultaneously so different. . .

My blog post was about epic fantasy because that's the subgenre I prefer among everything that comprises what is known as speculative fiction. I was in no way leaving urban/contemporary fantasy out of the discussion because I deem those subgenres unworthy. They're just not my cup of tea, is all.

As for Brooks, I never meant to imply that his books are not selling well anymore. Truth to tell, Brooks is probably the most consistent seller the genre has ever seen on this side of the Atlantic. He still sells over 100,000 units of his latest release year in and year out, so those are numbers that most writers would dream of, in and out of genre fiction. Being "relegated to the backseat" had more to do with the fact that Jordan now moves over 500,000 to 600,000 units per new WoT volume, Goodkind around 250,000, and GRRM about the same. Feist, Salvatore and company are still selling a lot of books, no question. Again, I think you may have misinterpreted what I was trying to convey, or perhaps I simply wasn't clear on this.:-)

You appear to believe that I assume that those mega bestsellers are innovative and new, when nothing could be further from the truth. Epic fantasy fans seem to require a "comfort zone," and the bestsellers in the field will never be the most mind-blowing novels. In a perfect world, authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, R. Scott Bakker, Hal Duncan and Gene Wolfe would be on top of the charts. Sadly, that isn't the case. . .

As far as Steven Erikson is concerned, however, I will have to disagree with you, at least to an extent. I don't know how much money and energy Tor Books are putting in Erikson. But if I compare that to what Transworld has been doing to increase awareness toward the author, they're not doing much. As for the cover art, that's a question of taste. But if you can look me in the eye and tell me that you liked the US cover for THE BONEHUNTERS, then perhaps you can explain modern art to me as well!;-)

I don't believe that Erikson can ever reach the level of popularity enjoyed by the likes of Gaiman, Goodkind, Martin, Jordan, and Pratchett. But with the right marketing he could be as popular as Tad Williams and Robin Hobb. I don't agree with you when you say that one needs to have read fantasy for years to fully appreciate Erikson. Of course, you need to have been around the block, that goes without saying. I agree with you 100% when you say that one simply cannot begin with Erikson. But when you've been around, I'm persuaded that fantasy fans can and will enjoy The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

As far as Scott Lynch is concerned, I feel that he, along with Naomi Novik, are writing series that seem to possess the right "ingredients" to make it. Will it happen? Who knows? Again, I'm not saying that there hasn't been any promotion for Lynch in the US. And yet, if you have been following what Gollancz have been doing in the UK, what's been done thus far in the USA cannot be compared to all the efforts that were deployed by Simon Spanton and his cohorts to make both TLOLL and RSURS big successes overseas. When you think about the fact that Bantam paid a 6-figure advance to acquire Lynch's debut, one should expect to hear more noise about it when it's published. . .

So I guess that we both agree that there's no such thing as a changing of the guard occurring. And the immense commercial success of the urban/contemporary fantasy subgenres cannot even be considered a "changing" of the guard, for it's like a whole new guard in and of itself. One that probably doesn't get the respect it deserves, true. Which could be due to the fact that their fanbases are not as closely knit as the SFF communities that are everywhere. Still, authors like Hamilton, Arthur, Butcher, Harris, etc, are selling millions of books, so what the heck!?!

Okay, gotta get ready to head out. Hope this made sense!



clindsay said...

Interesting that you should write about the urban fantasy scene. i just posted something about this as a response to a criticism of urban fantasy on another blog. Rather than re-post the whole thing here, I'll just leave you the link.


Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew and all: just thought I'd clear one point up.

I think the UK book referred to in comparison to Scott's was Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage, which I understand on its release in the UK in April 2007 was outselling Scott's book in paperback enormously.

Best wishes

Mark / Hobbit @ SFFWorld

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