Trad Pub: If you’re going to debut in epic fantasy, you better be the exception

All writers have heard it: “You’re not the exception. Follow the rules.” But when it comes to the rules of word counts, there is one major exception that everyone seems to overlook. Epic Fantasy.

What is Epic Fantasy?

This is a surprisingly unclear term. I was sure I knew what it meant until someone asked me to define it, and then someone else argued that my definition was wrong. So here’s a few of the hang-ups.

  1. Epic Fantasy is often used interchangeably with High Fantasy
  2. High Fantasy definitions range from “anything set in a secondary world” to “Fantasy with a heavy presence of magic and/or complex magic systems that substantially affect the world” to “Fantasy with a broad, overarching scope.” And I’m sure there are plenty I haven’t mentioned.
  3. Longer fantasy books are struggling to survive the choking word count restraints of traditional publishing

I don’t want to spend a lot of time making a case for one or another definition—There are lots of good arguments on all sides of that. So, for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to define the terms and move on.

Epic fantasy, as used below, refers to fantasy with a broad scope of plot encompassing world-level changes, consequences, or involvement, often (but not always) set in a secondary world. This means that an epic fantasy romance is one in which the central romantic plotline both occurs in a world with fantastical elements and has consequences which will change the world as a whole, not just the couple families or even kingdoms the lovers live in. Note that the secondary world expectation is not required and there is no level of magic/fantastical creature presence in this definition, so a low-magic historical epic fantasy fits perfectly.

High fantasy, for the purposes of this discussion, refers to secondary world fantasy which typically includes a strong element of magic or fantastical creatures integrated into the world. Games of Thrones, for example, is arguably not high fantasy by this definition, but is epic fantasy.

These two definitions are mostly arbitrary, but the primary distinction of scope is important. Most of the things I discuss apply equally to epic and high fantasy, but high fantasy suffers from these problems a lot less in one-shot, standalone novels. Epic fantasy might struggle to include a standalone novel at all.

Word Count Requirements

Now that we’ve defined some terms, let’s talk word counts. Here’s a few lists of recommended word counts by genre that I use regularly: Writer’s Digest, Bookends Literary Agency, and Writers & Artists. There’s an exception listed in almost all lists for adult targeted science fiction and fantasy, sometimes they even label it as space opera and high fantasy, that let’s you write up to 120,000 words. Half again as much as the standard 80,000 word count for contemporary novels. Sounds great! They understand that epic fantasy novels are longer. But now do a quick search. Pick some of your favorite adult high fantasy books and look up their word count. Here’s a few off my list:

  • Magic’s Pawn, Mercedes Lackey, Debut Novel, estimated around 106,000 words (1989)
  • Daughter of the Blood, Anne Bishop, Debut Novel, estimated around 146,000 words (1998)
  • Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey, Debut Novel, approximately 276,000 words (2001)
  • Elantris, Brandon Sanderson, Debut Novel, approximately 201,000 words (2005)
  • The Warded Man, Peter V. Brett, Debut Novel, approximately 158,000 words (2008)
  • Way of Shadows, Brent Weeks, Debut Novel, approximately 156,000 words (2008)
  • The Tethered Mage, Melissa Caruso, Debut Novel, approximately 124,000 words (2017)

Do I enjoy books that aren’t debut novels? Of course, but I’ve self-selected off my favorites list to make a point. Publishing has an excuse for why so few high fantasy novels fall within the word count guidelines. Those books were written by established authors who had readers already waiting for the next release. Or, the first book in the series is always the shortest. That first book in the series is probably close to guidelines, right? Those “long” fantasy books are all the exceptions to the rules of word counts: books written by already famous authors or the books so well written that they broke the mold. Or my personal favorite: Maybe in past times longer books were more accepted, but these days readers just don’t have the attention span for longer, more complex novels like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books.

But every book in my list above was a debut novel, and only one falls into the current publishing guidelines. That book was released in 1989. That’s eight years before George R.R. Martin’s 292,000 word series opener, A Game of Thrones.

A close second to fitting the word count guidelines is Melissa Caruso’s 2017 The Tethered Mage, and to be frank, I wished it was longer. As good as that book was, the plot and the world felt under-developed, and as a result I haven’t bought any of the follow-up novels. It felt like a one-shot, and until doing research for this blog, I actually didn’t know there were sequels. The story didn’t leave any room for them, so it never occurred to me to look.

So now that my rant is properly set up, let’s discuss what’s going on here. There’s a few factors at work.

Literary Agents Read Too Much

This sounds absurd. The entire job of being a literary agent is to read, right? Well, not really. What literary agents actually get paid for is knowing the market, negotiating contracts, and helping authors make the connections to sell their books. Literary agents are salespeople, contract negotiators, and advocates for their clients. In the process, some of those agents also offer writing and editing feedback to their clients, but their primary job is to sell books to editors.

So why do agents read so much? Well they often get one hundred to two hundred queries a month, sometimes more, and beyond that they have to keep up to date with what the current market is publishing and what appears to be selling. This results in a frustrating catch-22. Agents have to read to know their job. But the more agents read, the more they get frustrated with seeing the same things over and over. “80’s Fantasy” came back into style about fifteen years ago, and it went back out of style before many readers ever got tired of the revival. Why? Because agents and editors saw so many books in that style (undoubtedly hundreds more than they published) that publishing got over-saturated and bored with the common tropes in those fields long before the reading public did.

And therein lies the problem.

Editors, agents, and other publishing house professionals steep themselves in the world of books, tracking every book release (or at least, an awful lot of them), tracking sales of each book type, and reading as much as they can manage. Your average agent or editor reads way more than your average author, and your average author reads a lot more than your average target audience member.

This is especially clear when you get feedback on a novel from writers and readers at the same time. The writers will critique your placement of various bits of information and your sentence structure, while the reader ignores all that and tells you the book was either great and they enjoyed it or not so great and they were confused, bored, etc. If the reader loved it, does the clunky sentence really matter that much? I’ve heard and participated in long debates between authors over novel formats, use of POVs, scene length and structure, consistency in character presence. I then asked a few readers about the things discussed and the consensus boiled down to “Well, I see your point, but my favorite novel has [example that refutes my point] and it’s a favorite for a lot of readers. I’m just not sure readers actually care about that…”

So what do readers care about? It’s hard to tell. They’ll tell you things, but often they don’t know how to articulate what they mean so what they ask for isn’t really what they want. The best barometer for reader enjoyment seems to be this: If you enjoy it, then readers like you will probably enjoy it, and no one is so unique as to have entirely unique interests. Someone shares your excitement for what you’re writing. You just have to find them.

Traditional Publishing Misreads Why Some Things Don’t Sell

Hunger Games was a sensation, but Divergent wasn’t as good. Not because it came later and people were tired of those tropes, but because the book actually wasn’t as good. Tris was a boring character who rebelled simply because she wanted to feel pretty and was forced into the revelation that she was “special.” In contrast, Katniss was someone who wanted to sneak by under the oppressive ruler’s radar and took calculated risks for the benefit of people she loved, who sacrificed herself early in book one to save her sister. In the long run, Tris was proven to be the one person born with special powers that confirmed a theory of humanity, while Katniss remained a normal girl who fought against being something she wasn’t and eventually confronted the fundamental corruption of rebellions that create figureheads for promotional purposes. From book one, Hunger Games kicks Divergent’s ass. Post-apocalyptic YA novels that sort children into factions aren’t out of fashion, YA novels with boring characters are out of fashion.

This same comparison is true for dragon rider novels (Dragon Riders of Pern was only matched in quality by Naomi Novik, who took the same exact tropes and put them in Napoleonic Europe), portal fantasy (Christopher Stasheff was my guy, but there were a few of these that were good), paranormal romance (hate on Twilight if you want, it was massive), and a dozen others. Ask a publishing house why you can’t write those things and they’ll say “That went out of style,” “Dragon Riders aren’t big right now.” But when was the last really good dragon rider novel published? I’ve looked for some on Amazon. They all suck. If that’s what’s “not big right now,” I can’t say I’m surprised, but it has nothing to do with dragon rider novels and everything to do with crappy writing.

I heard a story once (unconfirmed), that after George R.R. Martin got famous he had to start arguing with his editor to actually edit his books for quality. I believe it, not because of anything about Martin’s books or any personal knowledge of Martin himself, but because of what I often hear from agents and editors at conferences:

  • “Once you prove you can carry an audience, you can get away with longer books.”
  • “If you sell well enough, you can start doing things like flashbacks and info-dumps, but as a debut you need to make sure an agent has no reason to reject you.”
  • “Write what you want, but be aware of the market when you pitch. Once you’re established you can start trying to publish books in [insert genre/trope you asked about here].”

So what I’m hearing is, when we think you’ll make money no matter what, we care less what you do. Mercedes Lackey, one of my favorite authors, took her well established and developed world and started writing a Harry Potter knockoff in it which broke every rule of her world that she’d ever created (complete with a her-world equivalent of Quiddich). I’m aware I’m not the target audience for those books, but imagine if a debut YA author tried to write a Harry Potter knockoff. They’d get laughed out the door for all the wrong reasons.

Traditional Publishing is Scared of Failing

Publishing is a business. Longer books take more money to print, and books that are more expensive to produce make publishing houses less profit. As a result, word count expectations became a requirement across all genres so that publishing houses could predict how many of each type of book they could afford to publish. That’s understandable. A business that can’t predict costs is a business that’s about to go bankrupt. Here’s the kicker. Before the massive increase in self-publishing popularity, traditional publishers had a safety net in the form of mid-list authors: authors who wrote relatively formulaic stories pretty quickly and who had a dedicated audience that would buy anything that author wrote. This included a lot of romance series, a lot of westerns, most of the monster-of-the-week sword and sorcery fantasy, etc.

As a result of mid-listers, publishing houses had the leeway to take a chance on all sorts of books that might not sell as well as they’d hoped. If it flopped, they’d drop the author, if it did okay they’d give the author another shot. And then, in the mid to late 2000’s, self-publishing started to get big. Mid-listers discovered that they could make the same sales for more income through self-publishing, depriving publishing houses of their safety nets. Why do we care?

Because this is the reason behind strict word count limits.

Publishers might hedge the truth if you ask, but word counts aren’t really all about book quality. They’re about protecting the publishing house from a costly investment on a book that might not sell well. The list of debut novels above is in chronological order. In 2001 and 2005 a couple great books at or above 200,000 words came out. By 2008 we were down to about 160,000, and in 2017 it had dropped to 124,000. Correlation does not mean causation, but the timing fits. Self-publishing hit the traditional publishing houses hard, and they responded by tightening their word counts.

Your 300,000 word epic fantasy might need trimmed down (honestly, it probably does), but it also might need all that description to make sense. Publishers, however, see a book that costs over twice as much in production cost per copy as Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage, which was very popular. If yours doesn’t sell at least twice as well, you’ve lost them a lot of money.

To combat the damage that self-publishing did to their safety nets, publishing made a decision. Books over 120,000 words are high risk investments, even in a subgenre where books surpass 200,000 words regularly. What they’re missing is that those word counts are killing the epic fantasy subgenre. People are combining epic fantasy with high fantasy and scaling the definition back to just “anything set in a secondary world” because there’s almost nothing outside Brandon Sanderson that even fits the more traditional definition of epic fantasy anymore.

Your 300,000 word epic fantasy better be one damned amazing “exception” if you plan to debut it through traditional publishing.

In Summation

I’ve spent a lot of this post listing problems with traditional publishing, and I want to be clear: traditional publishing is a great option. There’s a lot of benefits, including an up front lump sum payment regardless of how well you sell and a host of editors and other support to help you make decisions and plan next steps. You also don’t have to manage all the various bits of your publication process like a self-published author does. They’ll handle distribution, getting you on the list of potential reviews by important reviewers, and give you the credibility some marketing options require to get your foot in the door. And even if you choose to go with self-publishing, all the work of refining and editing and cutting extraneous wording that traditional publishers push still needs to happen. You just have to do it all yourself. For authors whose genres fit into the models that traditional publishing bases its revenue on, it’s the best option for a lot of people.

Epic fantasy is not one of those genres.

This is significant because traditionally epic fantasy has been seen as the purview of traditional publishing. Steampunk and many genres of romance, among others, have thrived on self-publishing, but a lot of the bigger storyline books have been mis-categorized as good for traditional publishing because of greater visibility. The truth is, the new model of traditional publishing is stunting the growth of epic fantasy books. At its core, epic fantasy is a niche subgenre, just like steampunk. Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are household names, but how many people outside the epic fantasy readership remember Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archives, and Sword of Truth? I’ve met YA fantasy writers who’ve never heard of George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, or Brandon Sanderson. Epic fantasy is a lot more niche than we think it is and traditional publishing can’t take a chance on niche genres right now.

If you’re like me and want to adhere to the definitions of epic fantasy I listed above, you have two options: self-publish or write something that isn’t epic fantasy for your debut.


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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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15 thoughts on “Trad Pub: If you’re going to debut in epic fantasy, you better be the exception

  1. This is an odd post. When it comes to trad publishing, I suspect you have to be the exception to the rule in all genres, not just epic fantasy. The whole point is that it’s selective. And I’m sure epic fantasy is going to be fine, since as your post suggests, trad publishing makes a lot of exceptions about word count. I think what limits genre growth is actually the need for established writers to continuously create novels. This leads to lousy plots (i.e. no plot), infodumping, filler subplots, bad writing. Writers need time to be creative.
    Thanks for the post. It made me think a lot.

    Like

    1. In terms of being “better than average,” absolutely you have to be the exception in all genres. But in most genres, the way to be better than most is to follow the guidelines. Follow the word counts, follow the advice on how to structure the story, etc. Most epic fantasy that takes off, though, breaks those rules where other genres tend to do well when they follow them.

      There’s an argument to be made that the causality is the other way around (that epic fantasy that takes off is just really good and that’s WHY it’s allowed to break the rules,” but when so much of the good stuff doesn’t fit, I start to wonder if the rule is actually helping anyone.

      Thanks for commenting! It’s an interesting topic to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “But in most genres, the way to be better than most is to follow the guidelines.”

        I’m not so sure this is true. So many books I’ve read don’t have coherent stories or good pacing. They also have middling prose. I suspect what get one through is either a good gimmick, which satisfies a publisher’s need for marketing, or having interpersonal relationships with people in publishing (and unless you can afford to go to cons or if you somehow went to the same IVY, this route is unlikely).
        This is an interesting topic to me too. I’ll look out for more posts from you!

        Like

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