Who’s Afraid of Urban Fantasy?

I’m about to step in it big time with this one. I’m primarily a writer of secondary-world epic fantasies, and here I am opening my mouth about urban fantasy. That’s just asking for a smackdown. But here goes.

Read this article at io9, in which Orbit Books’ Tim Holman (disclosure: my trilogy is coming out from Orbit, not that this has anything to do with anything in this case) notes the phenomenal growth of urban fantasy. To the point that it’s rapidly consuming the whole SF field.

Now, I read some urban fantasy. In fact I read both kinds of urban fantasy: the pre-Anita Blake kind (e.g., China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, the Paper Cities anthology) as well as the post-Blake (e.g., Jim Butcher, Marjorie Liu, and yes Laurell K. Hamilton). I even write a little in short story form, though my stuff veers closer to the pre type than the post. I’m aware of the differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, or at least to the degree that the issue has been decided (which is to say, not). So I’m not completely ignorant on the subject. Being here at the Magic District helps, actually, because my UF-inclined fellow Districtians’ books are all on the excellent end of the Urban Fantasy continuum, and I’m being exposed to more through their posts.

Despite all this, I had the same reaction as a number of io9 commenters to the news that UF was growing like the Blob: dismay. Because like them, I’ve seen a lot of stuff from the crap end of the UF continuum, and this phenomenal rate of growth probably means that more crap is forthcoming. It’s not nearly as bad as some people are making it out to be; a lot of the rage I see directed at urban fantasy has to do with the preponderance of girl cooties in it. The spec fic field has never been very welcoming towards that. But we still hit the Sturgeon’s Law problem: with so much urban fantasy out there, how am I ever going to be able to sift out the gold nuggets from the flood?

And what does this mean for me as a writer?

Don’t worry; I’m not dumb enough to change my writing in order to try and fit this trend. Think about it: by the time I finish Book 3, write another book, hopefully sell that, and then do the 2-year wait for publication, the trend might be over. But as a writer of primarily epic fantasies, does this trend mean I might have trouble selling my books in the future? After all, the last time there was a trend like this — I’ll cite the surge in psychosexual killer-based horror that happened in the Eighties — the rest of “traditional” speculative fiction suffered mightily. Many publishers, as I understand it from folks who were active at the time, were trying to capitalize on the slasher/splatter/supernatural killer film boom (think, “Nightmare on Elm Street”), so a whole slew of novels in the same vein came out around this time. They sold well, too… for awhile. Then the public got really, really tired of their similarity, and the books stopped selling. There was too much of the stuff out there, and too much of it was crap; the market got glutted, and subsequently contracted. Aside from Stephen King and a few notable others, there was a solid spate of years in which horror was functionally dead. (These days it’s rising from the dead, pun intended, largely on the strength of… wait for it… zombie fiction and vampires. And, of course, urban fantasy and paranormal romance.)

During that market contraction, writers in horror and related genres had trouble getting published. (Don’t take my word for it; here’s an interesting 1991 convo between some spec fic writers discussing the matter.) Even some science fiction and fantasy writers suffered — because publisher dollars were being heaped onto the horror pile. And later, when the pile caught fire (to mutilate a metaphor), publisher dollars became scarce as they fought to survive massive financial losses. It’s taken years — decades, literally — for genre and industry to recover.

Now, I’m no expert about the business end of publishing. Frankly I’m a babe in the woods as these things go. But it seems to me that if a trend caused this kind of implosion in one genre market, it could happen here in fantasyland too.

So what am I gonna do about it?

Well, like I said, I’m not going to suddenly start trying to write urban fantasy novels; that way lies danger, Will Robinson, danger! (Though I note with irony that there are substantial urban fantasy elements in Book 2 of the Inheritance Trilogy. Didn’t plan ’em, they just happened. Can’t talk about that without spoiling Book 1, though, so…) I’m also planning to diversify. My next project on the table is a YA novel, possibly a duology or trilogy. If I can establish myself in another genre — and YA SF really is different from adult SF in many ways — that might insulate me somewhat, should another market contraction hit. Also, since many of my fantasy novels contain core romantic elements, I’m hoping to get the attention of the romance industry. Now there’s a financial juggernaut; to paraphrase Carl Sagan, there’s billions and billions of dollars churning out of that engine. Only smart to try and build an audience there.

IMO, this is how writers have to think, nowadays. Yeah, we’re artists, and craft comes first. Still, I dunno about other artists, and I’m indulging in some wishful thinking here, but I want to reap the financial rewards of my art before I kick off, not after, thanks. At the very least, I’d like to continue paying rent and buying food. That means I need to understand how this business works.

So here we are. What do you guys think of the surge in urban fantasy? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? A good thing for now, bad for later? Bueller?

9 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Urban Fantasy?”

  1. September 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Well, much of the popularity that we see right now is spillover from other popular genres, romance into paranormal romance and mystery into urban fantasy. There’s also a portion of those millions of Harry Potter readers that might be peaking into the big humanoid SFF section. My hope is all this new blood in the SFF section will allow for more SFF (even if 80% of it is crap and more than we’d like is in sub-genres we’re not as interested in). More SFF readers is good in my book.

    That article didn’t mention the overall sales numbers for SFF. I’d suspect that the total number has increased over the past few years. With such a fertile testing ground in small presses (most of which don’t jump on such bandwagons) and internet distribution, I think the future of SFF publishing is bright.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. September 4, 2009 at 7:17 am

    This very topic has been on my mind, recently. I allowed myself a trip to the bookstore (I’m rarely allowed in there unsupervised, as bad things happen to my bank account…), and during my first quick review of the shelves, I noted that there were hardly any epic Sword and Sorcery type books (other than the classics that have been around forever) and TONS of new Urban Fantasy (and Paranormal Romance).

    I wouldn’t think that this is a good OR a bad thing, though I am not an author trying to get books published and into the bookstores. I would HOPE that it isn’t getting harder for epic fantasies to get published, just because there are a lot of Urban Fantasy books out there. I would think that the two are complementary, not mutually exclusive. However, I am a ferocious book reader (and buyer). I am probably not normal.

    I do think that there is a tendancy to “rush” bad books into print, once a theme is deemed to be “new” and “popular”. For example, I love to read books about knitting stores and knitters (don’t ask). Ever since the popular “Blossom Street” books and the “Friday Night Knitting Club”, there are more and more knitting books out there. I when through this phase of excitement where I simply could NOT resist buying one of those, whether it be mystery, romance, or (in one extremely lucky case) Paranormal Romance Knitting Novel (Don’t laugh -the book was superb). If it had a yarn ball or needles (or even worse – a yarn ball with a CAT and needles), I jumped all over it.

    With that one particular exception, however, most of the books were poorly produced, barely edited, and were obviously written by authors who wandered into a knitting store one time and jotted down a few yarn brand names. They clearly don’t have a clue, and I was insulted that this book was marketed towards people with my interests. [for non-knitters, the best example I could give you would be an author who writes a fantasy book where all of the swords are named “Excalibur” and “Narsil” and “Sting” or a science fiction book where everyone uses transporters, phasers and light sabers]. I guess the joke is on me, though, because I did slap down the money to pay for them and take them home.

    Bah, I’m rambling. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: I would like to think that there would be an unlimited market for every solid, well written and entertaining book. Of ANY type. My job as a reader is to be more selective about quality (checking reviews or skimming a chapter or two before purchase) to avoid “encouraging” slush proliferation.

    I’m not sure if I answered your question, though. 🙂

  3. September 8, 2009 at 12:15 am

    As a man proud of the 4th Doctor inspired scarf he’s been knitting for over a decade now:

    1) I want the name of that Paranormal Knitting Novel
    2) I’m very curious now if I’ve been missing out on craft-punk subgenres
    3) I’ve just officially named my pair of knitting needles Excalibur and Sting

  4. September 8, 2009 at 7:10 am

    The Paranormal Knitting novel: “Casting Spells” by Barbara Bretton. The sequel just came out at the start of August, and it is called “Laced with Magic”. Both are truly enjoyable, from my point of view. Without giving too much away, she did a marvelous job of putting a new twist on various fantasy type creatures (for example, there is a retirement home for vampires, who drive around town on their little chair scooters…)

    I have never thought to name my knitting needles. What a missed opportunity.

    I shall have to consider options…

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