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.