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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Fantasy Marketplace

A fantasy writer was asking me if he should write a big epic 250,000 word fantasy as the first in a series as the next step in his career arc. Because there's no midlist for fantasy, and so you need to be big and meaty and epic to stand out.

I thought my response was worth sharing.

What I think we're seeing is pretty much this.

The mid-1990s, we saw Terry Goodkind take the fantasy community by storm. Every publisher suddenly wanted to have Terry Goodkind, so the fantasy market from mid-to-late 1990s for many many years was full of people trying to forcefeed the next Terry Goodkind onto the marketplace. None of this worked. I'm hard-pressed to think of a truly major guy fantasy debut between Wizard's First Rule in 1994 and Brandon Sanderson's Elantris in 2005. By which I mean, there may have been some first books that sold well in part just because there were so many copies pushed into the market for people to buy, but you didn't find people whose second books actually sold well, let alone ever getting to a fifth book and really becoming part of the conversation in the fantasy world.

And Elantris was published by Tor at maybe the absolute worst possible time, because eventually the major retail accounts started pushing back against all of the failed attempts to force a new big guy fantasy writer into the market, didn't want long doorstops, I'm 95% certain that if Elantris had arrived five years earlier it would have initially shipped two or three times as many copies easily and been a much bigger book.

So Brandon makes his debut in 2005, isn't Terry Goodkind immediately but unlike many of the other attempts over the last five years he's an author who's second book sold better than first, third better than second, and while Brandon is having his slow build, the game changes in 2007 when Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind appears. For the first time in 13 years, the fantasy market sees a major big debut fantasy by a guy writer kind of do that Wizard's First Rule thing. Heavily promoted by DAW Books to the front of the store in large quantity so people can find it, and then people like it, and then the book just keeps selling and selling and selling week after week and month after month.

Then a year or so later Orbit launches Brent Weeks. Maybe you've heard of him? Three books back-to-back that haven't slowed down much in some two years.

And at that same time, Harper Voyager is publishing Peter V. Brett in the UK, who instantly becomes a major author there and in Germany, and debuts solidly in the US and now quite spectacularly with the US paperback using the same cover art that helped the UK edition soar quickly and spectacularly.

And finally, Jim Butcher debuted in 2001, but at the same time you've had these four other new new writers debuting, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files are growing and growing and in the past two or three years have become incredibly big.

So let's look at this... ten years with no major debuts, and now four major debuts and the Butcher blossoming in a five-year stretch of time.

If you're writing an OK fantasy, do you want to have it published in 2000, or in 2010? Hands down you want to be published in 2000. Six years after Terry Goodkind you can't keep talking about him again and again and again, so almost by default to be talking about something -- well, you'll talk about something. Today, if you're looking for a new writer you can start in on Name of the Wind or Warded Man. You can get caught up on Elantris, the Mistborn books, or Brent Weeks. The Dresden Files can keep you going for months. Are you going to talk about all of these exciting new things, or talk about some OK think just because there isn't anything genuinely exciting to talk about?

And yes, this can make it look like there's no midlist fantasy any more. Because with all of the good, big, new stuff to look at, the market for the stuff that's just kind of OK ain't gonna be what it used to be.

How do you deal with this problem? Well, not by matching word count with Name of the Wind, Desert Spear, Well of Ascension or the entirety of the Night Angel or Dresden series. It's by recognizing that the chances of succeeding with the so-so just aren't what they were like six or eight years ago. There's a lot of good stuff out there, and you've got to beef up your game, not your word length, to deal with it.


Peat said...

A couple of other examples come to mind, like Scott Lynch with The Lies of Locke Lamora, which predates Rothfuss and I think sold very well.

But this only reinforces your point, as Lynch brought incredible game to the table. The man can dunk.

Andrew Wheeler said...

David Farland's "Runelords" series launched in 1998 with The Sum of All Men.

Steven Erikson launched "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" in 1999 with Gardens of the Moon. (Admittedly, it wasn't even published in the US until 2004, and still hasn't been as successful in the US as in the UK, but it's definitely been part of the conversation in epic fantasy.)

And, um, George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire," which has been somewhat successful, began in 1996 with A Game of Thrones. (Though, again, the series didn't take off for a couple of years.)

There may be other examples as well; those are just the ones I could think of quickly. So I'm not entirely convinced by your thesis; it's always a good time for a meaty epic fantasy -- presuming that it is that good, and that you can find the right editor to fall in love with it.

Victoria said...

This is the most informative and useful post I've read in ages on the state of the fantasy market.

I remember when Name of the Wind came out, there were sighs of relief all round from those of us writing fantasy. There was a chink in the doorway, a slice of hope that the urban fantasy deluge might have lessened. It's a small opening though, and you've got to have something special to get through the door.

But one point you make has me curious... what do you define as a 'major guy fantasy'? Do you mean written by a male or a fantasy series that appeals to males?

Robin Hobb and Melanie Rawn each have produced a fantasy series that has sold well, not to mention Jacquline Carey's Kushiel series.

Anyway, that aside, I couldn't agree more that the point is to write for quality and not for length.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feelings about this post, mainly in part because I've basically been told by a couple of agents that my epic/high fantasy novels would most likely be midlist, and that there's no such market for such novels anymore...