Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Agents, I Dare You!

I've touched on this idea before, but not once has anyone taken me up on it. Basically it's this -- I challenge you to find a single well-written Tolkienesque fantasy novel that did not sell well. Honestly, I would love to know if there is one. I am fairly well read within the fantasy genre, and I cannot find even one. In other words, my idea is that if writing a good Tolkienesque fantasy always sells very well, then it is as close to a sure thing as one can get in publishing. So then why would agents pass up a well-written Tolkienesque fantasy novel?

I don't count the official Dungeons & Dragons books, because in my opinion they don't fall into the category of 'well written' (with apologies to the many people who really love Drizzt). I count books such as The Sword of Shannara, which was a blatant rip-off of Tolkien that was a mega-best seller, and McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy and Silver Call duology, which were also extremely blatant in their following of Tolkien, yet again they sold very well.

My books do not copy any of Tolkien's plot lines; they merely dwell within the Dungeons & Dragons/Tolkien-style world that I grew to love so much as a young D&D player. I purposely set out to avoid what bugs most people about the official D&D books, i.e. that they seem to much like a game, are not realistic enough, and have plasticky characters. I wanted mine to read like a true, well-written novel, but set within a D&D type world. There are a ton of readers out there who never want to see another elf or dwarf in a book again, and more power to them, but they would be wrong to think that there aren't also a ton of readers out there who crave more.

So, I challenge any agent to show me a well-written Tolkienesque fantasy book that didn't sell well. I would love for that agent to tell me why my books shouldn't be given a chance, since they fall directly into the category of 'a sure thing' (not to mention that Game of Thrones and the Hobbit movies will draw a lot of attention back to epic fantasy).


  1. :)
    i'm not well-versed in the fantasy genre...
    i remember reading a book by elizabeth moon when i was in high school... i don't remember much of it, but i remember thinking it was really good. i tried to look up what kind of sales she's had- but i don't know where one would find that kind of information.
    i've heard that there aren't a lot of agents who rep high fantasy... which seems odd, because of the huge fandom for high fantasy...

  2. Ted, have you tried going directly to publishers? Maybe this is one of the rare genres (in fact I suspect this may be) that has more often cut out that middle man so there are just fewer agents who GET IT. Publishing houses seem to either NOT to fantasy or ONLY do fantasy, which means there is just less communication. I ALSO think it is a genre with different rules from some other writing styles, so even agents who theoretically like it, don't always have a framework to evaluate it in BUT in other genres that cross polinization is a no-no, so they may be applying rules they shouldn't...

  3. I like Hart's idea. Sub widely! I'm not a huge fantasy buff, but if you say so, I believe you.

  4. Yeah, have you tried submitting to many publishers? I know Shadow Mountain takes fantasy and their guidelines on are their website.

  5. At the risk of being annoyingly logical, wouldn't the ones who haven't sold that well be the ones we hadn't heard of?

    Still, I like that you are thinking in terms of the first book. Having the potential for sequels is a bonus, but who will really lock in to a three book sequence from an unknown these days?

  6. stu, that's why I am asking. I do think, though, that the number of fans who love Tolkien is so huge that no decent or even half-decent book along these lines could go by unnoticed. If one got published and didn't sell well, some of the Tolkien fans would still know about it.

  7. I don't know if others do this, but I sometimes go to Amazon, do a sort by Epic Fantasy, and just start going through all of the books looking for any hidden gems. I think it would be hard for any Tolkienesque fantasy to escape my notice.

  8. Yeah I think I've said this before here, I don't understand this either. True fans of epic fantasy will always want more of the same, only written in new ways.

    Do I want more magic school books after Harry Potter ended? Hell yes. If writers were allowed to use JKR's world to create new books set in Harry Potter style world, I'd read every one of them (which is why reading fan fiction can be so much fun).

    It's like they're trying to snuff out interest in Tolkeinesque fantasy, but we all know that that'll never happen. They'll always want more - and why not give it to them by accepting new authors who write in that kind of world? At least not turn them down before giving them a chance. That's just a stupid business plan.

  9. Tessa, my favorite book ever is the Silmarillion. It laid out so many fantastic story opportunities, but Tolkien died and his family won't allow them to be expanded. The LOTR is just the barest taste of what could be done with that world, and I for one would love to do it. I can't, though, so I write what I can that takes what I would love to have been able to do with Middle Earth and combines it with the realism that I love from George Martin. I just can't believe publishers don't recognize the market out there for such high fantasy.

  10. Hmm. Book sales can be quantified, but writing quality is completely arbitrary and based on individual opinion (just like the comment I'm about to set forth below).

    I don't think Brooks or Donaldson or Jordan's takes on the Tolkien-esque quest fantasy are particularly good in any sense of the word, but they sold well. Though, I'd never describe Middle Earth as a D&D style world, either.

    I think an agent or a publisher would have a difficult time with your challenge from a purely logical standpoint.

    And not to put too fine a point on things, but Tolkien and the worlds he created were so universally loved not because they contain Elves and Dwarves. Those are just pixels in the bigger picture. Copy cats can throw as many orcs and fell beasts as they like at a story, but most of these kinds of stories contain no substance, depth, or artistic merit. They are pastiches and shadows of a greater story. All too often fans clamor for more more more, and when they get it they are deflated because more more more just turns into watered down shite that has been driven by the promise of the almighty dollar.

    Interesting post. Good luck.

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  11. Growing up, Terry Brooks was my favorite author. Loving LOTR, I craved something more, and Brooks delivered. I still enjoy him to this day, though with a sentimental eye. His stuff is fluff and comfy. Safe and dependable.

    From Brooks I dove into other fantasy realms, drowning in the deluge of Tolkien knockoffs. But along the way I found myself slowly getting more and more fed up with the books. I was bored and wanted something fresh and new, but I didn't know what. Then I discovered Pat Rothfuss (by mere accident, the month TNOTW was released) and bought the book on a whim (I liked the title and it was my honeymoon), and ever after, I knew where my allegiance was.

    I no longer want to read Tolkienesque fiction, but instead long for new and exciting ideas, plots, and what-not. Does that mean I'm opposed to elves or dwarves? Not at all, as these things go beyond Tolkien. No, I look for something original (or at least mostly original (or at least new to me)), and if I find it, I'm hooked.

    Still, your challenge is tough to prove. I'm more intrigued by your question, "Why would agents pass up a well-written Tolkienesque fantasy novel?" Because readers are fickle and always changing. That's not to say that Tolkien influenced books do not belong, because I think that they do and that it's pleasing to many readers, but it's also not where the money's currently at, either.

    Best of luck with getting your book out there. It's gotta be tough, but I wish you success.

  12. Thanks, Kris, and I agree with you for the most part. Where I differ is in what I consider Tolkienesque. When I began playing D&D as a kid, it seemed a no-brainer to me that it was largely based on Tolkien, since the major races that one could choose to play were based upon Middle Earth heroes, i.e. halflings, human-sized elves, dwarves. It never mattered to me that D&D incorporated so many other non-Tolkien monsters, because to me that was simply marketing strategy.

    Since I don't wish authors to be limited to the grand scale of what Tolkien did, I still call it Tolkienesque if the story simply uses realistic versions of such races within a believable world. I want to be able to use a Tolkienesque setting while doing low fantasy or sword and sorcery, too. I want to use it while mixing it with sci-fi, which is what I am arriving at once I complete my arc. I just believe that agents and publishers have come to the conclusion that Tolkienesque fantasy won't sell anymore, and I believe they are dead wrong.

  13. I get what you're saying. And I suppose I'm nitpicking, but I think that the examples you used to compare something to Tolkien or label it Tolkienesque are very superficial, surface elements. I understand the desire to play in that world, or perhaps put your own spin on it. I think we all (Tolkien fans) want to do that. Hell, it probably wouldn't be a stretch to say that a lot of us wish we'd thought it all up!

    In the end, though, I defer to my original claim that a good fantasy book (or any other book) is not good because the author added Elves, Dwarves, and a dark lord as characters that drive a quest plot that's just a dressed up retelling of LOTR. It may sell, but that doesn't make it good. But one is quantifiable and one is not, and that is why we have accountants to count and critics to criticize. One cannot supplant the other, but it sure makes for good debate!

    As far as your own writing goes, and the issues you have with agents not recognizing "raw talent" when they see it, I would only offer this sage (not!) advice: concern yourself with the things that you have control over. You can't control what an agent thinks or feels any more than you can control what they have for breakfast. If you can't change the industry, then you have to look inside. View the issues as your own instead of theirs, and work backwards to find a solution to the problem. Never accept defeat, but always try to improve. That doesn't mean changing the essence of who you are and what you are trying to say as an author.

    But what do I know? I'm just a run 'o the mill blogger!

    See you around the 'nets, Ted. And, again, best of luck to you.

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby