October 12, 2016
From recent reading, Peter S. Beagle’s introduction to his short story collection The Line Between:
“…it is the shadow that terrifies, not the monster it hides. The monster is an actor in a monster suit. The shadow is always real.”
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.
May 20, 2016
I’m in that state where I have a bunch of things I ought to be reading, so of course instead I sat down and re-read Austen’s Persuasion. It’s my favorite of hers. I just finished that and am now trying out Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which appears to be an unabashed pastiche of late Victorian adventure novels, which is totally in my wheelhouse. Although he dedicates the book to Michael Moorcock, which also tells you where it’s coming from. There’s also a dash of Fritz Leiber in there. I’m intrigued at how Chabon built up a reputation as a wholly literary writer, but then has used that platform to unabashedly mess around with various genres and genre conventions. In the process he’s won a Pulitzer and a Hugo. Nice work if you can get it.
I’m absolutely fascinated by the current popular phenomenon of mystery boxes like Loot Crate. Everyone is talking about them. Everyone posts pictures of their goodies on FB or whatever. At Wondercon, there were at least three or four companies, including Loot Crate, selling boxes out of their booths. I totally get the attraction. It’s like Christmas and the lottery wrapped up in one. Getting things in the mail is already awesome, but getting a big surprise in the mail is even more awesome.
But I’ll tell you my problem: Right now I’m trying to get rid of things, not get more things, and most of these boxes seem to be all about things. Tchotchkies. Cool nerd stuff, but still stuff, that then ends up in boxes or as clutter. I’ve spent two years sorting out things and carting them off to the thrift store, I don’t need more. Prediction: in about 10-15 years every thrift store in the country is going to have walls full of Funko Pop figures that no one has room for anymore and that no one wants to keep.
Well, at the Creative Ink Festival I was introduced to the Novel Tea Club. This is a mystery box club where you get a book (you can pick the genre), and then some things like tea, tea infusers, candles, bath stuff, etc. All designed for a nice relaxing read-in. And — all entirely consumable. No clutter, nothing to find space for. It’s all stuff you use. And then get more of. Fantastic idea.
And today, the sun is shining, I’m out in short sleeves, and it’s magnificent. That gray weather we had all last week really got me down. But I’m better now.
May 18, 2016
I want to talk about both because this is such an interesting example of how an adaptation can go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik is a great read, an example of what makes the general nonfiction category so interesting: he tells a story that reveals and illuminates a subculture that many people may not know about, and makes the topic and its players fascinating. This is the story of the 1998 Big Year, when three birders competed to ID the most bird species in North America in a year when El Nino and odd weather patterns brought an unusual number of odd migrants to the continent, pushing the possible number of sightings to record highs. The competition is entirely unofficial, and deeply obsessive, requiring tens of thousands of miles of travel. The three players here are interesting and quirky in their own rights, and the story is all about the intersection of their lives and shared obsession.
If you’re at all interested in birds and birding it’s a must-read. If you just like good stories about weird things that actually happened to interesting people, I recommend this one.
And then in 2011 they turned the book into a movie, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. The movie is. . .frustrating.
The first sign we know that something has gone sideways is that even though the three characters in the movie correspond specifically to the real people from the book, the movie has changed their names and some important details about them, enough so that it’s no longer anything resembling biography.
This is because it turns out the movie is not really interested in birding at all. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have birds — it actually has a handful of sequences that illuminate exactly why birding is so cool, and how endlessly fascinating birds are. Like when they find a pair of bald eagles in the middle of their mating dance. They’ve all seen plenty of bald eagles, but they’ll watch this because it’s just cool.
But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.” The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her. Note: this isn’t in the book at all. Not even a little. The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding. Also a plotline not in the book at all. The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds. ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK. Are we sensing a pattern here? The end of the movie: Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond. Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life. i.e. Not birding.
Basically, the message of the book is: Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.
The message of the movie: Everything else is more important than birding.
What really frustrated me is the original story of The Big Year already has plenty of plot and obstacles that make for great drama without inventing all this “true meaning of life” bullshit. The person the Jack Black character is based on? Gets sick halfway through the year and is eventually diagnosed with cancer. (He lives. I guess Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about someone with cancer who lives.)
The movie uses birding as a crutch to tell this really boring story. But it never explains why birding in the first place. What turned these people onto birding? How did they all get started and why have they all become so passionate about it? The movie never tells us. It could just as easily have been about golf or stamp collecting or curling. But I really wanted to know why birding, because then it would mean so much more when the characters start questioning their obsessions with birding.
I wish I had liked this movie better because the actors were actually pretty good — especially Black, who gets across the drive and exhaustion of someone financially struggling to make his Year happen (that is in the book) — and I enjoyed watching them interact and play out the story. But the story was just so weak. I wish the movie had trusted its subject and source material more.
February 22, 2016
Kitty Rocks the House was the first book that I had a chance to dedicate to my niece Emmy after she was born. (Kitty Steals the Show came out the year she was born, but had gone all the way through production before Emmy actually arrived and I knew what her name was going to be.) A new family member deserves her own book.
Emmy is now four and is starting to read on her own, which is so cool. She found this copy of Rocks the House and recognized her name in there. “It’s my very own book!” she said. She also asked if she could read it. Which I’m thinking maybe she ought to hold off on, but who knows.
But for now, behold! The world has a new reader in it. Huzzah!
February 1, 2016
A couple of weeks ago I posted my award-eligible work from 2015. I like putting my annual publications in one place because it reminds me that, hey, I really have been busy and productive! Cool!
But this is the time of year I also like to think about the cool new stuff I’ve encountered.
I don’t think I’ve done enough reading — I never do enough reading. Especially short fiction. I used to try to read every anthology my work appeared in, but that got out of hand a few years ago and I’ve never been able to keep up. So, my reading is awfully scattered.
I did read some good novels, though: Uprooted by Naomi Novik is getting a lot of buzz, and rightfully so. Really excellent stand-alone traditional fantasy, in the same vein as the books I love so much by Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip, about a young heroine who discovers that she’s much stronger than she knows and sets about saving the world because someone has to do it.
Then there are some of my go-to favorites: James S.A. Corey and Paolo Bacigalupi both had new books out last year. Nemesis Games is the fifth Expanse novel and the one that left most of us fans going “Holy crap did they really just do that? OMG, they really just did that.” I cannot wait to see where they go from here.
Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is near-future speculation about drought and water rights in the west — issues literally in my own backyard. Paolo really knows his stuff and this book combines thought-provoking SF with a cool thriller plot. Good stuff there.
I also encountered The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith, a rather strange and wonderful YA novel about some difficult subjects, but still with some funny bits and a weird Philip K. Dick worthy subplot holding it all together. The main character is a teen refugee from an unnamed war-torn country, who is sent to summer camp with his new foster brother. So, it’s like terrible refugee stuff combined with teen-boy summer camp comedy. And it kind of actually works. I don’t think this book is for everyone, but it’s one of the things I read last year that stood out for me.
The dramatic categories for the Hugo are going to be super-interesting this year. These short-run TV shows with only 8-10 episodes are almost mini-series covering one storyline — so do we nominate them as short-form by episode or long form for the whole thing? No idea. But some TV episodes that caught my attention are the season finale of The Flash, and Ep. 8 of Daredevil — the Fisk backstory. Agent Carter also gets my attention.
Long form — this is going to be an immensely interesting year, because we have an embarrassment of riches. Marvel movies, Hunger Games, Star Wars — but I have to say, I’d rather avoid the long-running franchise in favor of nominating Fury Road and The Martian — both really solid stand-alone stories that showcase what SF storytelling is capable of. (Marvel and Star Wars in particular have gone past basic storytelling and have become something else — communities, wherein the movies are rituals of celebration. I have an essay about that brewing.)
And now I have really got to catch up on some short fiction before I fill out my ballots…
October 26, 2015
I’m still going through the big batch of books from my teenage years that my parents dropped off. Check this one out:
Just look at that cover! Can you not tell that my GI Joe-loving teenage self thought this was Pure! Unbridled! Awesome!?!? The premise: a special forces team made up of teenagers (WTF?) goes out and saves the world! Because reasons!
The author on this is Zachary Blue. But given what I’ve learned about some others of these teen adventure series, I suspected that maybe wasn’t a real author name. So I checked the copyright page:
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!! R.L. Stine! OMG that’s so great!