The Changing of the Guard: Myth or Reality?

We have been seeing several blog posts and message board threads pertaining to this topic since last winter. Many people seem to be wondering about who will be the "next big thing" in fantasy. Doubtless sparked by the numerous related threads on various message boards, Aidan recently wrote an article on the subject for www.sffworld.com. I've been meaning to offer my two cents since last winter, but passing the Bar sort of got in the way. So here we go!;-)

A majority of people seem to assume that there is indeed an ongoing changing of the guard among fantasy authors. Well, that's untrue. . .

While we have witnessed the emergence of some extraordinary new talents in the last couple of years, there is no way one can assume that this is indeed leading us toward a changing of the guard per se. At least not in the manner Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind relegated David Eddings and Terry Brooks to the backseat more than a decade past, thus establishing Tor Books as the SFF powerhouse it became in the mid-90s.

In order for a veritable changing of the guard to occur, these new authors must "replace" the current heavyweights, namely Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R. R. Martin, not to mention Tolkien, whose The Children of Húrin will be the bestselling fantasy novel of the year apart from Rowling's last HP book.

Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, Hal Duncan, Joe Abercrombie, Naomi Novik, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham, Brian Ruckley -- they're all great new voices that have burst unto the scene and injected the genre with some much needed new blood. And yet, none of them have had an impact that warrants even considering the possibility of a soon-to-be changing of the guard. Still, they represent the future of the fantasy genre, and that future sure looks exciting!:-)

The lower echelons of the fantasy totem might change significantly in the coming years, but I expect the predators at the top of the food chain to remain the same. Barring health problems (I'm sincerely hoping that he still has many years of writing in front of him), Robert Jordan should maintain his position as "top dog." With 4 consecutive number 1 NYT bestsellers and with the forthcoming A Memory of Light all but assured to debut at number one on the bestseller list, Jordan is not going anywhere. Knife of Dreams sold more than 600,000 copies in hardcover in the US alone, which is more than twice than Martin's A Feast for Crows. And that was GRRM at his apogee in terms of sales. . . Yes, but the Wheel of Time is all but over, you say. Not necessarily. . . With another prequel yet to be published, in addition to the possible "outrigger" trilogy, I would bet some good money that the WoT is not over, not by a longshot! Understandably, nobody knows how well Infinity of Heaven will be received by the fans.

But consider this: Even if only 50% of RJ's fans buy that book, the author will remain the number one draw in the fantasy genre. If only 20% of his readers decide to give that new series a shot (and I can't believe in such a possibility), Jordan would still rank at number 3, standing behind only Goodkind and Martin. Even then, the novel would likely debut at number 1 on the NYT list. . .

Speaking of Terry Goodkind, Confessor will mark the end of the Sword of Truth series. Thank God and good riddance! We should count our blessings!;-) I'm secretly hoping that the Almighty Yeard, who's been pissing on fantasy for years, will try his hand at writing something "literary" -- something he claims to have been doing for more than a decade. Of course, that shit won't fly, and the idea of seeing Goodkind return to the fantasy genre with his tail between his legs is quite appealing! Nevertheless, there's no denying that he's the second biggest draw in North America when it comes to epic fantasy. And let's face it: If his fans stuck with him and allowed him to sell millions of copies of his books while Goodkind wrote such drivel, you can expect the man to remain extremely popular if he decides to produce another fantasy series (all the while bragging that he's writing about the triumph of the human spirit, of course!).

As for George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows debuted at number 1 on the NYT bestseller list and sold over 250,000 copies in hardcover in the USA. Expect the same kind of numbers for A Dance with Dragons. And with two additional ASOIAF volumes yet to be published, GRRM could well maintain his position among the fantasy genre's "big guns" for quite a few years. Provided ADwD is published in 2008, he could stay on top till 2013 or 2014, if the last two installments take as long to write. . .

Neil Gaiman is more of a wild card, yet any novel-length project from him should be immensely popular. Hence, he remains one of the top draws. As you can, the bestselling authors of the fantasy genre should remain the same for quite some time. . .

Who among the slew of newcomers has the best chance to join the ranks of the "elite?" Hard to say, for we may not have met him or her yet. In order to dethrone the likes of Jordan, Goodkind and Martin, we need an author who's writing something big, something ambitious, something that's more or less accessible. In my mind, there are only two likely contenders at the moment: Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch.

Unfortunately, the way Erikson is being marketed in the States precludes his rise to stardom. By promoting Jordan and Goodkind so heavily, Tor Books are forgetting about a bunch of gifted writers that are under contract with them. And that's a shame. . . Although not for everyone, I feel that Steven Erikson was never really been given a chance in the USA. With the appropriate marketing, I think that Erikson could sell as many books as authors such as Tad Williams and Robin Hobb. Alas, it's not to be. Those Godawful covers are a disgrace, no question. For Toll the Hounds next year, they should simply forgo the cover art. Instead, just put "WE REFUSE TO PUT ANY THOUGHT WHATSOEVER IN THIS NOVEL'S COVER."It can't be worst than the US cover art for The Bonehunters. . . Little by little, Steven Erikson is becoming more and more popular with each new Malazan installment. Yet by the time it will matter in the USA, the entire series will be out in paperback, thus missing the more lucrative hardcover market.

Scott Lynch appears to be in a very good position to "make it big." Imagination, action, good characterization -- The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies have all that. All we need is a more ambitious overall story arc, and Lynch could be on the cusp of stardom. Anne Groell assured me that The Republic of Thieves should demonstrate that The Gentleman Bastard sequence is not just another caper in every volume. And yet, for Scott Lynch to take that step, Bantam Dell will have to market him much more aggressively. Gollancz bent over backward to make TLOLL a hit in the UK, but we haven't seen that kind of push in North America. Scott Lynch is a very popular figure online, but the average fantasy reader is unaware of the author's existence. So I believe that Bantam must put his name out there. . .

I'm convinced that all the aforementioned authors who have released quality debuts in the last two years or so will have successful careers. And I'm certainly looking forward to this! Having said that, I believe that Scott Lynch is -- as we speak -- the only one with the mass appeal to reach the higher echelons now occupied by Jordan and company. And who knows!?! If he can knock Goodkind off his perch, I will support him for the rest of his career by buying everything he puts out!;-)

Of course, chances are that I'm totally full of shit! We will have to wait and see. . .

My two cents!:-)

29 commentaires:

Jebus said...

Jordan lost it a while ago but has devoted fans, so as long as he doesn't jump off this mortal coil anytime soon, he'll be sticking around.

GRRM is brilliant but writes as fast as a stoned donkey, he'll just pop up every few years or so.

Erikson deserves all the kudos and greater sales but yes I agree, needs to be pushed more into our collective conciousness - although I think the interwebs and word of mouth has been very good to him, its how I found his books.

But basically I think the Fantasy genre has been far too saturated with crap during the last ten years or so that many people just aren't willing to buy a new author for the first time unless it comes heavily recommended by online and other fans. We just don't trust the publishing houses any more - well I know I certainly don't! And with the price of books always going up (well at least here in Australia they are) we just become more selective and increasingly willing to wait for mass market paperback ro cheaper hardcovers at the likes of K-mart who only stock the big names, if even them.

Sites like this and other online resources and boards are the way of the future for any kind of success for the modern day fantasy author trying to make a buck from his or her dreams.

Aidan said...

Pat,

I'm glad to see you taking a stance on this subject. You're knowledge of where the "Old Guard" as I put it is great and you bring up a lot of good points about why they're here to stay!

I won't get into too deeply here in the comments, but I think it's about time I write an article explaining my "A Changing of the Guard" articles a little better.

I think that the Fantasy and SF fields are ever evolving, at no time are we going to see a vast overtaking of the big names in the genre (Goodkind, Jordan, Martin, etc...), but instead I think we will slowly see these other fellows reach those heights and before we know it we'll have another rank of SFF authors. As you mentioned, it happened with Eddings and Brooks and it'll happen again with Jordan and crew.

I do find your comment about Erikson being accessible enough to gain the popularity of Jordan and Goodkind, if given the right marketing. I'm not sure I'd call Erikson anything close to accessible and so, despite the quality of his novels, I don't think he'd ever be able to reach such a broad market as those of Goodkind and Jordan.

Any way you look at it, though, it's a great time to be a fan of SF/F with all the great "Old Guard" still plugging away and the upstart "New Guard" just waiting to fight their way to the top!

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Remy said...

-Aidan

I don't think you need to explain your changing of the guard articles. If you are worried about people forming misconceptions a simple name change should be sufficient.

-Pat

I have always been curious as to why Erikson has not gained popularity in the US. This might because it takes so long for his novels to be published in the US and true Erikson fans would have already picked up his novels shortly after the UK release. Another thing that might scare people away from Erikson is the size of his novels. They can be quite daunting when you see five of his novels and they all look phone books!

I am looking forward to seeing if anyone can take the leap from talented author to "legend".

Kevin A. Smith said...

Pat,

Fantastic post. I couldn't agree more with the Erikson covers in the US; they really are a hindrance to his sales. They look like they're gearing his books more to the young adult market and not serious fantasy. There's no way I would have picked up "Gardens of the Moon" without reading your review first. Even then I was skeptical once I saw the cover. Doesn't Tor realize this?

You're also right on with the majority of fantasy fans still relying on word of mouth and store displays for their purchasing decisions. Even friends in the US that I consider big fans of the fantasy genre have not heard of Scott Lynch yet.

It is a great time to be a fantasy fan. I can't wait to dig in to some of the works of the new authors you mentioned.

Aidan said...

Remy, I went ahead and wrote something and then saw your comment! My response is less about my articles and more about where I stand on this whole "Old Guard" vs. "New Guard" debate, so I think it's worth reading on its own.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

kmgrey said...

What about Rothfuss and Name of the Wind? DAW seems to have pushed it much more than Bantam has Lynch and the content itself seems a bit more mainstream and accessible than even Lynch's work.

Good article but I would like to see it put in the background on how long it took some of the "old guard" to get lodged firmly on the bestseller list. IIRC, Martin didn't make NYT until Storm of Swords. I'm not sure about Jordan (wasn't WoT initially a trade paperback anyway) and I don't recall Goodkind's first or even second making it on the NYT list (but I could be mistaken).

In that context it seems like the original article was more about potential rather than something had already occurred. Most of the current "old guard" didn't appear on the bestseller list from day one and I would be surprised to see the same from the "new guard". From that standpoint Erikson is the biggest missed opportunity, as you point out, since his series is already so far along.

Anonymous said...

what about R. Scott Bakker? he should at least have a mention in there. maybe he's not as well know right now, but his work is just below Erikson and Martin in my opinon. nobody else is really close to those two.

Anonymous said...

Two points:

1. I wouldn't necessarily call 'epic fantasy' the apex of the genre.

2. Even if someone sells a lot of books it doesn't make them 'elite'.

-C

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person in the world who does NOT like GRRM? All his characters are sociopathic and possess the same dull, mean personality. On the other hand...

Steven Erikson's characters are so quirky and have such different, great personalities that I've decided to make it my goal to spread the word in my small American town. Already, I've convinced B&N to stock more of his books and gotten the sci fi clerk there to push them...And they finally started restocking Gardens of the Moon.

Ed S. said...

I'm not sure that you can look into the future and accurately predict the giants to be. Some authors will burn out, new authors have yet to be discovered, and the crosswind of personal bias tends to color judgement. Giants are best seen in the rear view mirror.

That being said I'd predict that if our primary criteria is commercial success then I'd agree that newer authors like Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Rothfuss, maybe Naomi Novik, and the like have enormous potential. Their books are well written, enjoyable and approachable and should appeal to a wide population of Fantasy readers if they get the promotional support from their publishers.

On the other hand I don't believe that Erikson, Hal Duncan, Scott Bakker, and the like will ever achieve that greatness. They may be critically successful, and have a good core fan following, but their books just don't have mass appeal, especially in America for whatever reasons. China Mieville is a good example of this, and in fact is the perfect example of an author who has made it in the UK critically and commercially, but just hasn't crossed over well to America. Erikson has too many negatives, extremely poor promotional support from TOR, and frankly starting out your writing career by producing an Encyclopedia Brittanica is not the best career decision especially when the first book in the series is so mediocre.

Jason said...

Am I the only person in the world who does NOT like GRRM? All his characters are sociopathic and possess the same dull, mean personality. On the other hand...
No you are not the only one. I picked up the first one in a used bookstore because of all the raving people had done about it online. I guess Goodkind isn't the only ones that has fanatical fans inspite of the quality of the books.

I don't really see this 'changing of the guard'. Terry Brooks is still putting out better books than Terry Goodkind. Steven Erikson doesn't seem to be having and problems in this country if the massive displays in the bookstore and how quickly they were emptied is any indication.

As for other new authors, I haven't seen anything 'great' in fantasy in a long time (except Erikson of course). I've had to branch out into Sci-Fi and Urban Fantasy for readin material. I guess expanding my range is a good thing, but I still miss the 'good old days'.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to Richard Morgan's next book, which will be a fantasy. If he keeps pushing the boundaries as he has done in the past, it should be quite interesting...

Patrick said...

Aidan: Don't sweat it! This piece was not specifically in response to your article. There were enough posts and threads around to warrant my "intervention!";-)

We all agree that there has been an incredible emergence of great new talent. I can't recall ever seeing so many quality debuts in so short a span of time.

As for Erikson, I said that he could be as popular as Williams or Hobb given the adequate marketing. But he's not accessible enough to reach the popularity of a Jordan or a Goodkind.

kmgrey: It's too early to tell with Rothfuss. Though he's a bright new voice full of talent and imagination, the first person narrative and the fact that he's writing a trilogy will prevent him from reaching the top of the totem, methinks. I see him more as the new Tad Williams, which is high enough praise!

Jordan made the NYT list for the first time with THE DRAGON REBORN, a little over a year following the publication of THE EYE OF THE WORLD.

GRRM made the NYT list for the first time with A CLASH OF KINGS. Goodkind, though he had some very strong sales, had to wait till TEMPLE OF THE WINDS before making it on the NYT list.

What sets them apart is that they generated high numbers from the beginning. . .

As much as I love Bakker and Duncan, they'll never be mainstream and thus will never sell as much as more "commercial" authors. They'll continue to have cult followings, however. And I'll remain a proud member of those cults!;-)

Ed s: I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Jebus said...

I do find some of these discussions quite confusing, I must admit.

Here in Australia, fantasy very rarely gets any shelf space except on the fantasy shelf. If a new Pratchett, Feist, Tolkien or Jordan hard cover comes in then it'll maybe be on the New Release wall for a while, but the majority don't even get released in HC here, just in TPB if they are deemed worthy enough.

I have found that most of the "big name" authors I have read is because the book was recommended to me by a friend. I don't see book stores or bestseller lists influencing my choice in the slightest - or anyone else's for that matter. Is this different in America? Fantasy is just not pushed into our conciousness in any way here, if you're into it you've gotta go searching.

I'd never have heard of most of the authors you are talking about if not for this and other review sites, and as a result of that, when their normal paperback appears on the shelf (they will not be released in HC here, _possibly_ in TPB but only if they've had good sales in the UK/US) I'll actually grab them. Normally though, I just can not trust back cover blurbs or sales lists to justify spending so much dosh on so sites like this become more and more important.

This is my experience at least.

P.S. Goodkind sucks dead dog's balls.

Konrad said...

Aidan seems to only be talking about epic fantasy, though Pat at least notices urban fantasy with Rowling and Gaiman. I think epic fantasy has had its 15 minutes at the top and will slowly decline (it'll take a while for Martin Williams, and Erikson to finish). For new authors, I'd say Carey is doing pretty well already, Lynch actually got a good cover on the US edition of Red Skies (though the burning ship is in the wrong harbor), and I think Tor is slowly learning what they did wrong with Erikson. I also think Sanderson has the accessibility and productivity (I count 10 books in 4 series forthcoming from him) to be a real heavywieght if only he got the hype to get things started.

Pat- claiming that the new authors you name have failed at having an impact is pretty unfair; after all, they're new. Ruckley hasn't even been published yet! (In the US, which is the only market that matters when looking at sales figures.)

But urban fantasy and books aimed at younger readers is where the money is now; last year each volume of Narnia outsold Goodkind and Brooks. Stroud, Colfer, and Paolini are also still selling well, though I don't know how long that'll last. And Hamilton, Harris, Butcher, and Briggs aren't having much trouble getting onto the bestseller lists.

Aidan said...

Konrad,

I just wanted to drop in and mention that you are very right when you say that my first volume of "A Changing of the Guard" focused mainly on "epic" fantasy. What can I say, it's the genre that I'm the most knowledgeable about! The second (and forthcoming third volume) drift away a bit from the "epic" fantasy somewhat and include a broader range of authors.

Urban fantasy geared towards a younger audience is definitely at a peak right now. Strouds novels are stellar and deserve to be picked up by young and old alike!

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Myth said...

I have just finished a Brandon Sanderson novel (Mistborn) and was pleasantly surprised with how enjoyable it was... after a long stretch of disapointing works.

As for Terry Goodkind, I bought the phantom (I tend to go with a series even when it lags), but I simply cannot finish this book. Yes, it is that bad, delegated to the 'will read when desperate' pile.

SQT said...

Changing of the guard implies the old guard steps down as the new one takes its place and I don't think we're quite there yet.

What I think we have is a talented group of writers who are establishing themselves as the new guard who will be there when the old ones finally decide they're ready to step down.

Until then I think the old-timers will maintain their superiority, as least as far as sales go. The marketing machine is still going to spend more $$$ on what they know is going to sell vs. what they hope will sell. The newbies will probably have to prove they can get an audience before the publishers step up and spend more money promoting them.

Jonathan said...

Surely this has happened before, but in a pre-blog world? I remember being burned out on fantasy after Donaldson, Eddings, and Feist in the early 90s. Then Williams and Jordan came along and were seen as exciting and different and new.

Of course now Williams' Dragonbone Chair trilogy feels desperately generic, and we're all suffering from Jordan overload.... I enjoyed Bakker recently but felt that the final book really seemed to worship Kelhaus as much as his followers. For me, Kelhaus was the bad guy, so it felt very odd...

samitestar said...

It's strange that Pat left off Pratchett and all of the urban fantasy that has been regularly making the bestsellers lists. I think one could argue that urban fantasy isn't so much a changing of the guard but a reinvention at the least. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher and Kelley Armstrong are selling at least as many books as GRRM.

I have to say that Terry Brooks so turned me off from fantasy that I gave up on the genre for several years before someone loaned me A Game of Thrones in 2003.

Stuart said...

I think Erikson will have a hard time gaining a foothold for one reason: It's a 10-book series. There is a smaller pool of potential readers that will jump on board such a long tale.

Besides Jordan and Martin, I'm not reading any series this long. Had I known how long the Wheel and Song would be going (time and length), I probably wouldn't have started either of them.

Anonymous said...

To speak for a moment about what's good as opposed to what sells:

As much as people dis Jordan, those first three or four books were amazing. It's all been downhill since then.

I enjoy GRRM lots, but why do people act like he is the "mature" author as opposed to, say, Jordan? There is moral ambiguity in Jordan, just as there is in GRRM. Swearing and over-the-top gore (eg Dothraki gang-rape on top of a pile of corpses) does not equal maturity. And people piss themselves waay too often in GRRM -- this is actually juvenile to me, not mature. Still, they're great books.

The "New Guard" hullabaloo I get the least is over Rothfuss's book. It's a good book and an enjoyable read, but people are acting like he's the second coming! Why? Am I the only person who thinks Name of the Wind was overhyped? All of the praise being heaped is for the novel's originality, but what does it boil down to? A sort of postmodern knowingness and winking at the tropes of fantasy? He's hardly the first (nor the best) writer to do this. I mean, lots of fantasy novels have the main character reflect on how "this isn't much like a story" and make commentary on how stories get twisted in the transmission. Jordan, in fact, did it better. And Rothfuss's worldbuilding is a bit sloppy. Again, it's a good book, but it's hard not to be disappointed when books come coated in "this is the best book I've read in 30 years"-type overstatements...

BTW No one except Pat himself has mentioned Durham's 1st Acacia book. It's a good book, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Aidan said...

Just have to jump in an point out that David Anthony Durham was in fact included in my first "Changing of the Guard" article that Pat referenced at the beginning of this post.

I'm glad you mentioned him again, though. He's doing a lot of great things and focusing on elements of human history that most other authors choose to ignore. Durham deserves to be put right up there with the Lynchs, Rothfuss' and Abercrombies in my mind.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

Maurice said...

@ Pat
Even though it might too early to tell, but what kind of impact do you think the upcoming TV series on Martin's and Goodkind's books will have on their sales?

Patrick said...

Forgot to mention it, but Andrew at www.antickmusings.blogspot.com responded to this post of mine. Check it out!

Maurice: If the tv series are good, they will definitely have an impact on the number of new fans these two authors will attract. One simply has to look at the LotR movies...

Adam Whitehead said...

Whilst, as usual, an interesting summary of the state of play, I note the lack of mention for Pratchett, who has outsold Jordan by a minimum of 2-1, probably far more, and is the second-biggest-selling living British writer (behind Rowling).

I think Erikson's situation is interesting. Bantam UK banked a colossal sum of money on him (notably more than Tor did on Goodkind) and it's taken the best part of a decade for that investment to really pay off, perhaps explaining their timidity over Kearney (not promoting his second Sea Beggars book very much and then dropping it when, oddly, it didn't do very well). Yet Erikson is now - finally - shifting substantial units in the UK.

Illotus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Illotus said...

From pure sales point of view Rowling IS fantasy. It's just question of whether she'll write more genre books or retire on the top of huge pile of money.

Adam Whitehead also has a good point in mentioning Pratchett. The old guard mentioned here seems to be mostly the fat fantasy artists of last 10 years.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see Lynch take down Goodkind. Damn. Hope Bantam works harder, doing all I can as a front liner at a bookstore, I sell a copy of LLL for every hour and a half I work :-)

(only to those who I honestly believe would enjoy it of course.)