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.

 

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You know that thing where people say, “Well, how do you write strong/tough/kickass/whatever women characters who aren’t just men with breasts?”  i.e. so-called women characters who are basically men, in female trappings, doing male-type things in the  story.  I guess.

I realized awhile back that I have no idea what this means.  Seriously.  What kind of men?  What kind of breasts?  What does this even mean?  The answer is, it doesn’t mean a damned thing.  In fact, I think it’s nothing more than apologia, another thing feeding into the idea that strong/physically tough women characters are somehow weird and need to be explained, and if you do them wrong you’ll be accused of some kind of. . .I don’t know.  I’ve written before about the discomfort with powerful women we often see in fiction, how they’re often mitigated by being some kind of “chosen one,” or given some kind of traumatic past that explains their current power, or saddled with perceived feminized weaknesses like low self esteems.  What this “not just men with breasts” statement says, I think, is that you’re supposed to somehow temper tough women characters.  Give them something that makes them “not men.”  When you ask, “Like, what?” you usually get some kind of answer like, “Oh, you know, women are more nurturing, they have to be feminine, they have to have something that shows that feminine traits can be strong too. . .”

That is exactly the essentializing bullshit we’ve been trying to get away from.  The minute you start saying things like “Women characters have to be like x, y, z, and shouldn’t be like a, b, c — ” you aren’t writing characters anymore, you’re writing stereotypes.  Don’t do that.

I mean — give me an example of a woman character who’s “just a man with breasts.”  Show me an example where this terrible mistake has been made.  Book, movie, whatever.  Vasquez in Aliens maybe?

Vasquez may be the butchest woman character ever to appear in a genre film — and there’s no mistaking her for a man.  She says so.  She’s a badass who’s amassed an arsenal of skills to deal with the male-dominated world she lives in.  She has a problem with authority, and a take-no-prisoners attitude.  She’s a great character.

Here’s my pick to play Wonder Woman, Gina Carano, in Haywire, where she plays a superspy on the run from a serious double cross.

No one is more physically tough than this woman.  Anyone gonna mistake her for a guy?  Is Mallory “just a man with breasts?”  Oh hell no.

Okay, here’s a character who’s definitely been accused of being too “mannish” or not feminine enough:

OH WAIT THAT’S NOT A CHARACTER THAT’S ACTUALLY MARGARET THATCHER, AN ACTUAL HUMAN WOMAN.  (My apologies for posting a Margaret Thatcher speech, everybody.)

And there we have it.  “Too manly” and “not feminine enough” or “too bitchy” or whatever are intended to be insults levied against actual real world powerful women to detract from their power.

That’s when I realized this whole “just a man with breasts” thing was total bullshit.  Because I don’t think it’s ever been done — it’s just another way to be scared of writing strong women.  Stop saying this, stop talking about it.

Really, seriously — to write strong women, write strong people.  I’m going to list a bunch of character traits:  funny, sly, smart, wise, kind, caring, ambitious, physical, psychotic, manipulative, narcissistic, thrill-seeking, generous, restless, brave, cowardly, cautious, cheerful, optimistic, practical, articulate, calm, elegant, dramatic, loyal, sympathetic, proud, humble, gregarious, stoic, emotional, hyper, gentle, graceful, artistic, restrained, stubborn, aggressive, passive, aloof, clumsy, cruel, curious, anxious, quiet, loud —

Which of those traits are female and which are male?  Bueller?  Bueller?  You should be able to list ten traits for your main characters before ever referring to their gender.  Because those are the sorts of traits that are going to impact the story, and determine how that character responds to the story.

Write people.

Reminder for those attending RT Convention:  Secret Mission is go!  Find me (either at the Book Fair on Saturday, or after a panel, or some other time when I’m not otherwise occupied), recite for me some bit of poetry or lines from a play that the Master of London would have known and appreciated when he was alive, and be rewarded.  (While supplies last, I’m afraid!)

In other reading news, I’ve just finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and I loved loved loved it.  It’s a turn of the century (last century) immigrant story, with fantasy — in fact, this is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I talk about wanting to expand the definition of urban fantasy as far as possible, because this is great urban fantasy:  modern setting, a familiar (though historical) New York City, with amazingly well-drawn fantastical elements.  This is the kind of book that makes me as a writer insanely jealous, because it’s so well done and I’m just staring at it, thinking, “How?!”  Catnip, people.  Word catnip.

And that immigrant story:  there’s a movie called The Legend of 1900 which is fair to middling (the ending stank), that I saw mostly because Tim Roth is in it, and it’s also an immigrant story.  There’s this absolutely gorgeous, heart-wrenching opening scene taking place on the deck of a passenger steamer:  there’s fog, and all the passengers are looking over the railing, waiting for their first glimpse — and the fog parts and there she is, the Statue of Liberty, and the sense of joy and hope at that view is fierce.  The Golem and the Jinni has a similar scene, just as powerful, and for anyone who had ancestors come over from Europe on one of those ships, with everything they own in the world in a suitcase, (my great-grandfather Linder arrived from Sweden on the Mauretania), it’s like peeking over their shoulder for a little while.  It’s like time travel.

Pinups

October 11, 2013

Over the last year or so, folks all over the internet have produced a lot of commentary about women heroes, costumes, depictions of women heroes, the unrealistic contorted poses we see women strike on various urban fantasy novel covers, and so on.  Author Jim C. Hines famously demonstrated how ridiculous those poses are, when it isn’t sexy women making them.  Kevin Bolk made this wonderful picture of what it would look like if all the male Avengers held that ass-out pose that is de rigueur for women supers.  This week, folks have been pointing me to this set of artwork redesigning various women heroes in more sane outfits and body types.  Here’s another set of redesigns, in a slideshow.  Let’s just go ahead and look at Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor while we’re at it.

I’d like to try to sum up in a nutshell why all these discussions, while visually instructive and astonishing, miss the underlying issue.

Mass media — comics, movies, etc. — don’t design women heroes to look like heroes.  They design them to look like pinups.  These creators/artists/designers aren’t looking at real-world kick-women like Mia Hamm or the Williams  sisters or Cecily Fay (link goes to YouTube clip).  They’re looking at Bettie Page.  They’re looking at issues of Playboy and a whole catalog of pinup art for some kind of model on how to depict women.  It’s not that these designers think these unrealistic depictions and costumes are somehow realistic and reasonable.  It’s that they don’t care.  Reasonable heroism is not in their specs.

The whole issue came to a head for me a couple of years ago when that awful, awful new Wonder Woman TV costume design went public.  I talked about it.  This is why we can’t have nice things, ya’ll.

Until that changes, until designers take women heroes, women on book covers, and women in heroic art in general, and design them to look strong and capable and heroic rather than making them look strictly sexy, in the narrowest possible definition of sexy, we’re going to keep having this problem, and we’re going to have to keep talking about it.  Until we convince both the creator and consumer sides to reject the aesthetic we’ve all been trained to think of as normal for the last generation or so, we’re going to have to keep talking about this.

then this happened…

December 7, 2012

Once in an interview I was asked how I handled writing explicit sex scenes.

And I thought, Ask me how I know that you haven’t actually read my books.

So, how is your Friday going?

As part of my gig at the Williamson Lectureship last month, I gave a short talk on a topic of urban fantasy.  And here it is (it’s not verbatim — I went a little extemporaneous in spots — but this is the write-up I worked from):

But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?”

          “Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.”

          “Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?”

   “Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”

          “Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

          “Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?”

          “I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

          “Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

          “Yes, quite sure…”

–Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter  6

This passage features two characters from Austen’s Northanger Abbey discussing their favorite gothic novels.  Modernize the language and this could be an online chat or forum about urban fantasy.  What this tells us: readers and fans haven’t changed all that much.  And what we think of as a new genre maybe isn’t all that new after all.

I’ve spent the last five years or so appearing on panels called “What is urban fantasy?” or “What’s up with all these kick-ass heroines?” and I’ve been trying to figure it out as I go like everyone else.  That I’m most often identified as an urban fantasy author, rather than a science fiction and fantasy author, came as a surprise to me, because I write it all.  And urban fantasy, in its current form, as it’s currently most commonly defined, didn’t actually exist when I started writing novels and trying to get them published, and my first few short stories began appearing in Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy and the like.

That I have a career at all is because of urban fantasy.  I have a series of novels that fits into this niche that came along about the same time they started being published, and so it became a bestselling series of novels.  It’s a great example of that elusive luck people talk about.

As an urban fantasy author, it behooves me to think about what urban fantasy actually is.  Here’s what I’ve got:  when I started paying attention to things like sub-genres and book marketing, it was the early nineties, and urban fantasy as a term existed.  It was mostly used to describe the works of Charles de Lint, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, the Terri Windling edited Bordertown series.  It was elves in rock bands, it was traditional fairy tales set in the modern world, usually urban settings.  Before that, urban fantasy might have meant any kind of fantasy set in a city — Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, for example.  Vampire novels that followed in the footsteps of Ann Rice were something different — these works included Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint Germain series, PN Elrod’s vampire detective series, Tanya Huff’s Blood series.  The “vampire” category even included Laurell K. Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Then something weird happened, and a bunch of people noticed that the best parts of Hamilton’s Anita Blake books and Joss Whedon’s Buffy series weren’t actually the vampires.  The appeal was actually women who kick ass, effectively and unapologetically.  We also have a generation who grew up after first and second wave feminism, who watched the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner in The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels at young, impressionable ages.  Who also grew up with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conner.  Who took it entirely for granted that women could be heroes and kick a lot of ass while doing so.  It’s this generation of writers who’ve made urban fantasy what it is today.

After the cancellation of Buffy and its spin-off Angel, a large audience of people wanted more.  Vampires, demons, werewolves, witches, and so on.  And characters who beat them up.  Or make out with them.  Or fall in love with them.  Fortunately, the books were there, and the sub-genre took off.

Why call it urban fantasy?  I’ve pegged 2007 as the year urban fantasy started being used to identify not just novels with fantasy elements set in the modern world, but particularly novels that feature these kick-ass heroines and vampire romance and so on.  The best argument I’ve heard is that book reviewers needed a term that would distinguish more action-adventure oriented stories from paranormal romance, where the story centers on the relationship of two main characters.  Urban fantasy served.

What bugs me about this, what bugs a lot of people about this, is that urban fantasy, even kick-ass urban fantasy, has been around for a very long time, and talking about it as something new obscures the influences that go into the genre.  Most of the writers known for writing what’s currently being called urban fantasy have deep roots in the genre, they love mystery and grew up reading science fiction, just as much as anyone else you’d find in the SF section.  Urban fantasy can trace roots to Ann Rice and the TV show Dark Shadows, but also Victorian horror like Dracula and the early gothics that Catherine and Isabelle in Northanger Abbey were reading, such those written Ann Radcliffe.  These stories feature fascination with the other, characters at the fringes of society, the intersection of fear and desire, and the attraction of the forbidden.  Calling urban fantasy “new” leads people to mistake it as a fad, when in truth it has wide, varied, and deep influences.  It’s about making old stories modern.

Depending on how far you’re willing to spread the umbrella, the early gothic novels are all urban fantasy.  Arthur Machen’s late Victorian horror stories, The Great God Pan and The Three Imposters for example, are are urban fantasy.  I recently found a copy of Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, because it’s a werewolf story and everyone told me I needed to read it, and what struck me is how at home this novel, originally published in 1940, would be in the current marketplace.  Mysterious powers, a terrible destiny, and, of course, a dangerous romance.  Even by a narrow definition, it’s urban fantasy, and it’s a bridge between the Victorian and pre-Victorian gothic tale, and modern adventure and mystery-driven supernatural stories.

I’ve had a couple of worrying conversations recently with writers looking to break in with urban fantasy novels (business of publishing aside:  for about five years now everyone’s been trying to break in with urban fantasy novels, and for good reason — everyone seems to want to publish more).  Their novels had zombies, zombie hunting, ghosts and magic, haunted paintings, women main characters solving mysteries, and so on, all set in some alternate modern world with magic.  And these writers were sure that their novels weren’t really urban fantasy.  My first reaction was surprise — urban fantasy is the hottest thing since toast, why wouldn’t you try to market your book as urban fantasy?  My second was frustration — because the definition of urban fantasy has become so narrow, their books didn’t fit.  Because they didn’t have a romance, or a love triangle, sex with vampires, or a protagonist who used violence to solve her problems.  This is when I started to figure out the true impact of all those covers with sexy leather-clad women wielding nunchucks.

I don’t want to be part of a genre that’s so narrowly defined, so I’m doing everything I can to make the urban fantasy umbrella as big as possible.  Urban fantasy is a rich genre with the potential for vast variety, and it has a long history and deep roots.

The trappings of the current wave of urban fantasy — all these weaponized women, all these monsters who are now heroes — may look new, but the stories themselves are classic.  What those new trappings mean — the blurring of the lines between normal and monstrous, ambivalence about issues of women and power — that’s another talk.

I choose a wide umbrella and a long history for urban fantasy.  Greater inclusiveness is always better.  The genre is what we make it.

Kick Ass v. Kick Ass

January 23, 2012

When I say something is “kick ass,” I may be talking about a couple of different things, especially in terms of the proverbial “kick-ass heroine.”  There’s literally kick ass — this person has combat skills, can get into a fight and clean up, is aggressive and confrontational, does not take flak.

But a lot of times when I talk about “kick-ass heroines,” I mean the phrase figuratively — it means, simply, that she is awesome.  She stands up for herself.  She’s smart, capable, motivated.  She stands out in a crowd, for whatever reason.  She makes me pump my fist and say, “Yeeha!”  (Hillary Clinton and Queen Elizabeth (I and II) kick serious ass, figuratively.  People tremble when they walk into rooms, you know?  Kate Winslet’s character in Contagion kicked so much figurative ass I still weep thinking of it.)

Essentially, when judging whether or not a woman character is strong, her combat skills should be irrelevant.  This is going to sound counterintuitive to some people.  But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  strength and the ability to inflict physical violence are not equivalent.  Nor should they be.  In many cases, inflicting physical violence doesn’t make one strong — it makes one a bully.  There are so many ways to show strength:  standing up for yourself and your beliefs, pursuing goals and dreams, finding alternatives to violence, overcoming adversity.  Being independent can be a sign of strength, and so can building a family and circle of friends.  Survival can be an act of profound strength.  There are so many different kinds of strength, defining a “strong character” by only one of them seems terribly limiting.

I think I would like to see more figurative kick-assery, especially in urban fantasy.