Long running fantasy sagas

In your Paper, scissors...rock post, you mentioned that larger novels are a bit easier to sell if they are fantasy novels. Can you explain why that is? I know you don't represent fantasy writers, but I'm hoping that you can enlighten me on this subject.

I think SFF lends itself to sagas. Authors are more free to invent things in SFF than any other genre so there are more possibilities. I mean, Nancy Drew is limited by the law of gravity but Robert Heinlein is free to tinker with it.

I can think of no other genre that has such long running stories as SFF. Diana Gabaldon is up to what now? 6? And the Dune franchise..10? And George RR Martin? Yikes. And those are just the ones I know..and I know NOTHING.

Those who read the form and have ideas, please, comment!


Simon Haynes said...

It takes time for a reader to pick up the culture, laws, economics and magic system of an entirely new world. Once they've got their heads around it, reading additional books in the series is a bit like returning to a favourite holiday destination. That explains why readers are happy to stick with a series... authors keep going back to the well because they've put a hell of a lot of work into inventing their world, and they're about to toss it away after a single book.
Even if they should ;-)

Mad Scientist Matt said...

Fantasy often has big, epic plot lines involving gods, heros, the fate of the entire world, etc. Last time I read a fantasy work that tried to cram all that into one relatively small book, I felt cheated, as it seemed the author had suddenly taken a quick and easy way out.

Or it may just be because Tolkien influenced the genre so heavily with Lord of the Rings that everyone - authors and readers - feel that a fantasy story has to be big.

Some other incredibly long fantasy serieses include David Eddings's story about Garion. It started with a five-book series, added another five-book series, and then two prequels where a pair of immortals tell the backstory that had unfolded in the previous ten books from their own perspective. And of course there's Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, with so many books to it that the long-running joke among fantasy fans is, "The trouble with the Wheel of Time is that there is neither beginning nor end," mockingly applying one of the sayings in the book to the series itself.

Harry Connolly said...

Part of the appeal of sf/f is that it offers the chance to visit a strange, distant world. The books sometimes get so long becauce they explore the fantastical settings.

It's a feature, not a bug.

G. Jules Reynolds said...

SF started out short, during the Golden Age, back when things were published in magazines as often as in novels, and science fiction was the only respectable part of the genre. I think it was Tolkein who really opened things up for fantasy and longer stories once he became popular. Terry Brooks was one of the first people to jump on the longer, fantasy-styled worlds, and then others came in... and then the longer lengths started heading back into SF. Pre-Tolkein, writers were more along the lines of Heinlein, whose early work was, say, 70,000 words; post, novels were often looking more like 130,000 or up. (This is very over-simplified, and Tolkein isn't the only reason for longer SF&F, just like Harry Potter isn't the only reason we've been seeing longer and more complex YA. But I'd argue it's a major reason.)

However, that being said, what I've been hearing at from panelists at F&SF cons, including from some very well-regarded editors in the field, is that while established authors can still do the more fantasy for your dollar double gutbuster special novels, newer authors are better off keeping it under 120,000. The idea is that newer authors don't have an established following. Longer books cost more to produce, and with a newer author it's hard to increase the price without impacting the sales. Also, chain stores are looking at shelf space more and more, and thicker books take up more of it for less potential return... So the prevailing spirit right now for new writers is to play it safe, and keep 'em smaller, and if you have to and it's possible, split the book.

It makes sense from the current sales in the marketplace, too. If you're looking for the trend of what publishers are looking for right now (or at least 12 months ago), it's impractical to look at an author who's been around since 1973 or 1995 and has an established sales record and a fanbase looking for more just like that last one; the person to look at is the one who broke into print in the markets you're selling to in the past 3 or so years and has been selling like hotcakes. A lot of the newer authors/newer imprints have been going shorter in length.

(Yes, Susanna Clarke. But I for one suspect anyone who could write like Susanna Clarke would be able to get into print with a 300,000 word novel about a housewife looking for a better way to do the dishes, because she's the sort of author who could make readers love it.)

The other major trends in F&SF right now, at least from what I've heard and observed, are paranormals marketed as SF or chicklit (as opposed to paranormals marketed as romance, which have been around for ages) and the increasing crossover of SF readers into books marketed as YA. Luna Books is going strong, and last I heard Tor was starting a similar imprint. The YA crossover is a bit mushier, and goes along with the expansion of YA as a category into older readers.

Deanna Hoak said...

Many fantasies run longer because they contain a lot of worldbuilding. You have invented races, political systems, magic systems, religions, flora, fauna, and worlds that all have to be introduced to the reader. It's also extremely popular in fantasy to follow separate groups of characters throughout the story, each with their own subplot, and the POV switches add length.

Of course not all fantasies are like that; in some the presence of magic in some form is the only thing that really distinguishes them from other genres. Most of those, in my experience, tend to be shorter.

C.E. Petit said...

Conversely, there are a lot of extremely long non-SFF series, too… but they tend to be written by "house names" (that is, the author's name on the jacket refers to a publisher's construct, not an actual person) over many years. Examples:
The Hardy Boys
Nancy Drew
The Executioner
The Destroyer
James Bond (not a house name, but continued by other authors)
and more others than I can shake a stick at. What these books have in common is that publishers don't appear to be acquiring them now.

Then, too, the interminable "family saga" seems to remain fairly current; WEB Griffin, the Shaaras (may their dreck rot in warehouses forever!),

The key seems to be that these series all revolve around larger-than-life central characters; even the supposedly gritty Clancy novels about Jack Ryan fit that characteristic. Perhaps it's just easier to accept larger-than-life figures in a context in which virtually everything is unfamiliar.

Susan W. said...

I suppose a long-running historical series like O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books or Cornwell's Sharpe series would be a subset of family saga and/or larger-than-life central characters as c.e. petit described. I know for me as a reader the appeal is very similar to that of a long-running fantasy series--I'm invested in the characters and don't want to give them up after 1-2 books, and it's also a chance to revisit the historical world of the stories.

Mystery also lends itself to ongoing series, of course, though the individual books are rarely all that long. I don't know if I'm a typical mystery reader, but I'm always at least as interested in the ongoing saga of the lead character's life across the entire series as I am any individual book's mystery plot--usually more so.

Rick said...

g. jules -

The upward age drift of YA seems like a return to the situation of a few decades ago. The protagonists of Heinlein's YA's (his best work, IMHO) were usually around 18, so probably aimed at high-school age readers. Though as the old saying goes, the golden age of SF is 14.

deanna -

Fantasy can be quite a catchall! Sometimes even the magic element is lacking, a good example being several of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, which amount to "parallel" historicals.

Christine said...

Well that's just it, now isn't it. With fantasy or SF, you're making up your own place, time, culture, etc.. Those things need a bit of explanation and "settling in" time. So things can get a bit lengthy.

kmfrontain said...

I don't think it's just that an author invested so much into a fantasy setting that makes their work appeal enough to warrant a series. It's that when the settings are well done, and the characters are good enough, we like to visit them as often as possible. Or at least I do. Fantasy is the ultimate escape. Disasters that would decimate the common mortal, are averted, or weathered by the heroes and heroines despite all odds. And wouldn't we like to be able to do that.

Most fiction is about ordinary lives and orindary people experiencing traumas any of us might go through. Even a murder mystery is that way. It's not typical to be in a murder mystery, but it isn't extraordinary, not like a fantasy setting. Fantasy is pure entertainment, an escape. And when you like it, you really like a complete escape.

That said, here's a link to what not to do when writing a fantasy. This is a hilarious site. I almost laughed my computer screen off the desk.


The Gambino Crime Family said...

It also probably has to do with the fact that a lot of fantasy readers are (or were, in my lost youth) teenage boys. They're the ones with the time to simply wolf down those long, long series. Add in the whole symbiotic relationship between D&D and swords and socery books, you've got an audience which'll buy sequel after sequel.