Fantasy: a fragmenting market?

bookshelf2Recently I was involved in a conversation where there was some discussion about the fantasy market and whether publishers were buying fantasy novels. There seems to be some consensus that the market for YA fantasy is stronger than the market for adult fantasy, which in recent years has become difficult for debut authors to sell.

Let me clarify exactly what kind of books I’m talking about. When I say “adult fantasy” I don’t mean adult as in X-rated, just books targeted at adults, and I don’t mean urban fantasy either. I mean secondary-world fantasy. Books like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or Paladin of Souls. Books set in a made-up world with magic in it and/or some other fantasy element (perhaps fantastical animals like dragons, or non-human races like elves), targeted at adult readers rather than children.

I am NOT including books like Harry Potter, Interview with the Vampire, Dresden Files, or any of the multitude of urban fantasy series out there. While these are often confusingly referred to as “fantasy,” they are quite different and sell to different readers.

So among fantasy writers, there’s this idea that the fantasy market has declined since its heydey in the 80’s and 90’s. Certainly it seems hard for a new author to break in.

I would like to posit the theory that the market has not declined so much as it has fragmented. Consider this. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I would, like so many of my fellow SFF geeks, browse the SFF sections at my local bookstore, and I would find books like David Edding’s Belgariad alongside books like Barbara Hambly’s Silent Tower.

Does anyone doubt that if the Belgariad were published today, it would be YA fantasy? It’s pretty much G-rated, and it features a teenage protagonist coming of age as he saves the world. I read it in my teens and loved it. Re-reading as an adult, I find it a little simplistic, but it’s no longer meant for me. It’s for young people (and perhaps some readers who are “young at heart”). My teenage son thinks the world of it.

So pull the Belgariad off that bookshelf. If it were published today, it would be shelved in YA, along with Ender’s Game, some of the Anne McCaffrey books, and, let’s face it, at least a quarter and maybe as much as half of what used to be on those SFF shelves in the 80’s and 90’s.

Moving on to Hambly, most of her books featured a fabulous romance woven into the adventure story. It’s one of the reasons she was my favorite fantasy author in the 80’s. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is also a fantasy/romance combination. These authors are still shelved in SFF because their books aren’t truly romances (there are some romance genre requirements they don’t quite meet), but lately I think we’re seeing more of a split as romance imprints start to pick up stories like these and shelve them in romance.

Meanwhile, the SFF shelf is getting confusing because all that urban fantasy is getting mixed into it (and there is so much more urban fantasy than secondary-world fantasy). It used to be you could find all your fantasy novels in one place, the SFF section of your bookstore. But now fantasy novels can be shelved in SFF, YA, or romance, and in all of those places they’re going to be mixed in with other things. I think this makes it pretty tough for the fantasy reader to find books.

I don’t really know any more because my local bookstore was a Borders, and when it shut down I lost my ability to conveniently browse bookshelves. The whole nature of the game is changing, with online browsing and searching playing a bigger role, and word of mouth becoming a critical means of selling books.

What do you think? Are fewer fantasy books being sold now, or have they just been fragmented into separate markets (YA fantasy, fantasy romance, adult fantasy)?

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3 Responses to Fantasy: a fragmenting market?

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    I never got much into high fantasy or secondary-world fantasy, though, except for LOTR. I’m much more an urban fantasy and romance fantasy chick, so for me, the fracturing of the genre is a boon. New genre classifications do the work of weeding out the boring non-romancey books for me:)

    That said, I have friends who write fantasy ala the 80s and 90s type, and they’re having a hard time selling. At least one friend is succumbing to the pressure to transform her style from fantasy to fantasy-romance.

    I wonder if this will happen more and more, authors writing to the market. Some might say that’s compromising and undesirable or unwise, but I don’t think so. As long as you like what you’re writing, it doesn’t hurt to gear your writing to a specific market. The risk, though, is if you do that and still can’t sell, it might be even more crushing…

  2. Interesting insights, Amy. I very much see your point. At the same time, like any genre, fantasy goes through phases. Before the ’80s and ’90s, SF was much bigger than fantasy. I think a lot of what’s happened in recent years has been due to the natural change in trends, toward more urban fantasy, for example, and the fact that fantasy easily blends with other genres, hence the fragmentation you mentioned.

    I wonder, however, if next year we’ll see a bigger shift, perhaps one more toward secondary world fantasy. Considering the upcoming release of The Hobbit in the theaters, the fact that Brandon Sanderson has now finished The Wheel of Time series, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire will soon draw to a close. The combination of losing two of the biggest secondary world fantasy series and the notable nudge The Hobbit is likely to give the market might leave room for a few new authors to break in. Or, if no new big series in the sub-genre emerge, perhaps it will indicate that things have changed more than some of us would like to admit.

  3. These are good points, Amy. I think fantasy is as popular as ever, although it is more fractured. I’ve never been a fan of separating YA – I would have been a very frustrated teenager if I’d had to do all my reading in one section. I read everything I could and if it most of it was for “adults”, who cares? I sort of feel the same way about all these subgenres. I don’t think they are necessary and I think it makes people miss something they might like to read, but they never thought to look in a different section.

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