Monday, March 11, 2013

Epic Fantasy isn't Dead: Reader Preference and the Changing Publishing World

I have always been a huge fan of epic fantasy: sweeping tales, set in well-built worlds, with characters who embody the more “traditional” values of honor, chivalry and grace. So it’s really no surprise that this is the genre I turned to when I started writing. What DOES surprise me are the bold assertions by editors, agents and publishing houses that the genre is dead. Unfortunately, these assertions say more about the power of the industry over what we read rather than indicate the actual health of a genre.

Back in 2006, I attended a writer’s conference where I had the privilege of, along with a handful of other writers, lunching with a very cool, very lovely Tor editor. She assured me, along with every other aspiring novelist at the table, that the days of the epic fantasy series were over. Publishing could not afford to take chances on multi-book contracts for newer writers, and readers were no longer interested in “door-stoppers.” The implication was: 1) readers don’t have the attention span/ time/ interest; 2) epic fantasy is too outdated; and 3) the production, both short-term and long-term, of epic series is too expensive in today’s market. And ultimately, epic fantasy is “too cliché.” A map at the beginning of the novel? So passe! Readers and publishers alike are bored by the Euro-centric quest fantasy, she told us; they want urban fantasy, not swords and sorcery. 

My experiences with several agents over the years also backed her claim. At writer’s conferences, they actively sought paranormal/ urban fantasy. Vampires were all the rage, then werewolves, then zombies. Some indicated that they might read and represent “more traditional” fantasy, but they didn’t prefer it and weren’t sure they could sell it. I received very kind, personalized rejection letters praising the quality of my writing, characters, and story, but they all ultimately passed on representation. Epic fantasy, they told me, wasn’t selling—unless it was wildly different. In other words, to sell, an epic fantasy novel would only sell if it were void of all the typical fantasy tropes—the very same tropes that define it as a genre.

Fast forward a few years. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular movie series of all time, and The Hobbit series begins, exposing another generation to Tolkien's work. A Game of Thrones is now a wildly popular HBO miniseries. Tor not only picked up Brandon Sanderson to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but also published his personal fantasy series. Morgan Rhodes’ Falling Kingdoms, quite possibly one of the worst fantasy novels I have ever read, is touted as a Young Adult George R. R. Martin, firmly stamping the novel as epic fantasy and attempting to bring up another generation of fantasy readers. Whatever my personal feelings about the novel, I am both stunned and excited that publishing is starting to once more acknowledge that people actually like epic fantasy.

Still, it is difficult to find a fantastic new epic fantasy series on the shelves. Rhodes’ novel cobbles together the worst in epic fantasy; while many readers are just thrilled to have ANY epic fantasy on the shelves, I fear publishers will see any bad reviews or low sales of the novel as a reflection of the popularity of the genre as a whole and ditch plans to publish any more epic fantasy. Hadley Rille Books has made a business out of publishing this genre, yet can’t get the books onto the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores (bookseller snobbery on the part of big and small booksellers alike is a discussion for another time). We know there are epic fantasy readers out there; the problem is getting quality books in front of them. The balance of power between big and small publishers makes this an intimidating, at times impossible task, and the victims are the readers.

Ultimately, this points to a disconnect between readers and publishers, a disconnect that will only grow as independent publishing and e-books gain popularity. Publishers and agents think they know what readers want. Meanwhile, readers aren’t hitting the bookstores like they used to, and with a wider variety of ebooks to choose from at 1970’s book prices, chances are good that agents and publishers will have less idea of what readers actually want. The advent of kickstarter adds another level, as readers can actually directly support and take an active role in the creation of any project they desire, removing the publisher and the agent from the process entirely.

HRB's latest fantastic fantasy
What does this mean for epic fantasy? My guess is that public awareness of the smaller publishers—such as Hadley Rille Books—and the independent authors writing and publishing good fantasy will increase as people vote with their dollar. Perhaps more awareness will force big publishers, agents and organizations like SFWA to acknowledge that quality novels do come from small press, and that a good portion of the reading public actually likes traditional epic fantasy. Eventually, the industry will shift altogether, making more room for the indie presses and offering more choice to the readers.

At least, I hope for change. I, for one, am tired of others declaring an entire genre flatlined based on publishing standards and measures that are just about dead. Choice is good. I want to see lots of books on the shelves—epic fantasy, dystopian, urban fantasy, comedic fantasy, steampunk, cyberpunk—along with writers whose work is so difficult to pigeonhole that agents and publishers don’t even bother trying. We, as readers and writers, should not have to wait for the industry to tell us which books to read, or dictate what we like.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, the epic fantasy genre isn’t dead. We may have to work a little harder to find the books and authors we like, but until then, they will be right there, waiting to be discovered.

Kim Vandervort


Eric T Reynolds said...

And yet, Hadley Rille Books sells more epic fantasy than its other genres. I can't imagine the press without it. People do like it and there is an ever-increasing number of readers who want us to produce more.

Terri-Lynne said...

I have heard the same things; the loudest-->Epic Fantasy is dead. I cry poppycock! There are lots of fantasy readers out there, ones who love those big, honking Chihuahua killers. They're not getting it from the big bookstores and publishers. Thank goodness there are the Hadley Rille Bookses filling in those niches being othewise neglected.

Like Heidi Klum says on Project Runway--one day you're in, the next, you're out. Epic fantasy's popularity and availability might wax and wane, but it never vanishes, and it never will.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Anyone who says epic fantasy is dead lacks imagination. There is so much that can still be done -- and should be done -- with epic fantasy and its associated genres.

One thing that niggles at me about this persistent myth is that it comes at a time when women authors are making exciting inroads into epic fantasy; with richly imagined worlds and casts of characters that revolve around heroic women rather than their male counterparts. To decide an entire genre is dead at the moment when this exciting change is underway smacks, in my mind, of institutional discrimination.

I am so grateful for small presses like Hadley Rille Books who have the courage and insight to recognize excellent writing and original stories, regardless of genre. And while self-publishing brings a host of other risks and challenges with it, at least it gives quality authors the chance to put their work out there and let the reader decide.

Thanks, Kim, for another great post!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--I am giving you a standing ovation right now.

Kristen Taber said...

As an Indie ya epic fantasy writer quality books, you actually made me cry a little. Well put; I hope you're right and the genre makes a full resurgence.