the great urban fantasy crash

September 14, 2016

So the word around writing and publishing circles over the last couple of years is: urban fantasy isn’t selling anymore. Publishers aren’t buying it. What was hugely popular five years ago is now done. That ship has sailed.

I’ve seen some commentary about this being some big publisher conspiracy to kill the genre — just as I also saw commentary that the popularity of the genre was a publishing conspiracy in the first place.  But I’m here to tell you, as an urban fantasy author and someone who worked in a bookstore twenty years ago, publishers are highly reactive and not very good at manufacturing any kind of popularity. They react to sales numbers, and they’re usually chasing trends rather than creating them. (One of my favorite statements ever about publishing trends: everyone was looking for the next Harry Potter, which turned out to be Twilight, then everyone was looking for the next Twilight, which turned out to be The Hunger Games.  They’re still looking for the next Hunger Games…)

However it happened, the results have been increasingly clear: authors are having a harder time selling urban fantasy, and readers have had a harder time finding a good series to follow.

Here’s what I think contributed to the crash.  Note: this is my perception of the situation, based on my experience as a bookseller and author.  A lot of this is subjective experience, so make of it what you will.

–The bar for success in the genre became really high.  Sales numbers that would be decent in any other genre didn’t meet expectations for urban fantasy, where publishers were looking for the next #1 New York Times bestseller.  If an author didn’t hit the list pretty quick out of the gate, they were dropped.

–Publishers weren’t willing to stick with new authors to let them develop.  This led to “series” with only one or two books in them, and if they didn’t hit big right away, they got dropped.  Readers often wait until a series has several books in them before they start reading, but if the first books don’t sell, there will never be a series.  This happened to dozens of authors.

–At the same time, for a stretch there publishers were buying anything with a hint of vampire/ shapeshifter/romance in them.  They were throwing things against the wall to see what might stick — as above, hoping for the next bestseller.  (Six years ago I was telling people:  it was pretty easy to get a first contract for an urban fantasy novel — and really difficult to get a second contract.)

–As a result, quality became uneven.  Readers started to notice the same kinds of characters, the same kinds of storylines, the same tropes.  The genre got kind of predictable and boring and they moved on.

–Readers started getting frustrated, both because quality was uneven, and because they’d discover a favorite new author who would vanish within a year or two when their series never had a chance to get off the ground. (Hint:  they might still be writing under another name, or they might be e-publishing.)  So once again, many readers moved on.

–Sales of mass market paperbacks in general have tanked over the last couple of years.  Since most urban fantasy has been in mass market, it’s fallen victim to this trend. (Lots of discussion about why the trend is happening.  Are people buying e-books instead?  Are nice trade paperbacks simply more economical, since mass markets are almost up to $10 now?  I don’t know.)

So, basically, the market became oversaturated with urban fantasy, and various market forces caused a noticeable drop in the sales of urban fantasy, and publishers stopped publishing so much urban fantasy, and so on.

I also think a bunch of authors just got worn out with writing the same series for 10+ years, some of us on 2 book a year schedules.  I’m fascinated that a bunch of UF authors wrapped up their series in the space of a couple of years — Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, and so on.  This is all part of what let me know that I was making the right decision to wrap up Kitty.  Plus, I was at the end of the contract, the storyline was close to the end, and so on.  It really was time.

The thing is, and the thing that I’m constantly telling people, especially new authors who are trying to sell urban fantasy novels:  urban fantasy isn’t dead.  It’s still out there.  New UF and UF-adjacent novels are being published all the time, just maybe not in the numbers they were before.  Vampire and supernatural fiction has always been around, from the gothics of two hundred years ago on up. It changes, but it never entirely goes away.

Are you an author shopping an urban fantasy novel?  Try calling it supernatural mystery or thriller.  Or dark fantasy. Or contemporary fantasy.  Or find your own term.  The thing is, “urban fantasy” of the last 10 years was only ever a marketing term.  It was co-opted to describe a kind of fiction that was already happening, and it was only later that people and publishers started looking for fiction to fill that niche, after the niche was already well established.  Marketing terms and categories change all the time, in the endless quest to sell books.  Don’t let that change how you write or read.



12 Responses to “the great urban fantasy crash”

  1. winterelf2 Says:

    I miss the Urban Fantasy explosion where I’d get several books a week 😦 I really love reading it. I can see your points. Hard to get a series going when its only going to get one book. And no, I don’t wait ‘for the whole series to be out’, that’s just silly! People actually do that?

  2. carriev Says:

    Yeah. When I wrapped up Kitty I saw several “Yay, now I can finally start this series!” and people will buy the whole thing at once. But yeah, if everybody waits, there’s no series! It’s vicious!

  3. Similar to binge watching TV series after the original production has wrapped. This seems to be what consumers want, and apparently, where the current money is. I can’t imagine what a dilemma this is for creators, producers, actors, crew. Maybe the creation of yet another Futures Market on Wall St, this one for limited-run TV series?

    *(I’m still waiting for Firefly, Season Two)

  4. Carbonman Says:

    William, it’s called ‘Serenity’. It’s an entire season in an easy-to-binge-watch single story. ;^) (I’d have loved a season 2 as well.)
    Carrie, I got into the Jesse James Dawson series by Kari Stewart and discovered the publisher declined to continue publishing the books after the third book. I bought the fourth book when Kari self-published it on Amazon and will get the remaining books once we’ve moved our home shortly.
    I’m ready to get back to some good sci-fi books and am looking forward to ‘Martians Abroad’ and ‘Amaryllis’.

  5. J.T. Evans Says:

    While things have stagnated in the UF genre, it’s certainly not dead…. at least I’m REALLY hoping it’s not. This comes from someone who is a fan of the genre as a reader and as someone who sold an urban fantasy novel (first in a series… I hope) to a publisher at WorldCon this year.

    So many Big Name Authors have wrapped (or are soon to be wrapping) up their UF series, it’s going to leave a vacuum for someone (me?) to step in and fill the void.

    You’re right that the expectation of quality is REALY high (even for the first novel), so it’s a hard thing to live up to. I guess I have HUGE shoes (like yours, Carrie) to fill with my writing efforts in the UF genre.

  6. Shannon Says:

    I’m guilty of waiting on a series to develop some before I start it (unless I already read that author). Sometimes it is to see if it lasts, sometimes it is just due to what other stuff I have to read. I started the Kitty books after the third one came out, but I just discovered it around that time.
    I had to get a Kindle because K.A Stewart’s Jesse James Dawson books were going to be self published. I was shocked when that one was dropped by the publisher.

  7. jon spencer Says:

    UF seems to be doing pretty well on Amazons Kindle Unlimited.

  8. carriev Says:

    William, you’re not far off: Amazon Prime has been airing pilots for original series and choosing what to produce based on viewer votes.

    jon: A lot of authors moved to Kindle after getting dropped by publishers. A lot of UF readers figured out there’s a lot more stuff on Kindle. There’s some speculation that e-pub is replacing that niche once filled by mass market paperbacks. It seems to me there are several vicious circles fueling each other in this whole scenario.

  9. […] found this post by Carrie Vaughn quite thought-provoking. In The Great Urban Fantasy Crash, she […]

  10. First up, thanks for this post. It was especially interesting to me as I’m in the midst of writing a series of urban fantasy novellas which will be published exclusively as e-books.

    My decision to write in this genre (my natural milieu is steampunk) was based on research into what’s selling in the Amazon store, and what isn’t. I discovered that while you do have to dig deep to find the successful series, they’re there and they have a hugely dedicated and loyal following.

    I also found out that most of the bestsellers in the genre are by indie authors, which was a big eye-opener. Some UF authors are selling upwards of a hundred books a day. Now, the literary merit of these books varies considerably and there’s a lot of ‘carbon copy’ writing going on. However, the best of them are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere regardless of provenance.

    The upshot is, I am convinced there is a real and hungry market for ever more urban fantasy, but the big houses aren’t interested. So it has, rather appropriately, ‘gone underground’ and found a new lease of life in the indie e-book ecology.

    Well, as my two published paperback novels to date have sold an average of a couple of copies a month, I’m willing to give this a go.

    I should point out, the choice of UF isn’t an entirely mercenary one based on this research alone, but it’s a genre range I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading (I’ve loved everything from Buffy to Borderlands to Neverwhere and beyond) and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying writing in.

    Has the stake been put through the heart of urban fantasy? Well, they may not be inviting it in anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. It has simply gone off to haunt a different graveyard.

  11. D Says:

    This is an interesting read because I still see so many UF type books. The problem I see too, and have wondered about, is the covers all look the same, feel the same, and we have so many people who think copy paste will hit the mark every time. In a way a defined genre has handy capped development of the genre, but it’ll come around again. Genere’s always do.

  12. Chris Stans Says:

    UF as a whole never seemed built to last (to me at least). Whenever I search for a new fantasy genre book to read, they are the majority of what comes up and the main problem with that is that they all sound exactly the same and are filled with the same stale tropes.

    Right now I think fantasy and dystopia novels are in the same boat. Popular franchises like hunger games and twilight made people think that they are a short cut to success, and now the market is over saturated with lazy “follow the leader” type works.

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