The life and health of undead subgenres

Once upon a time, up to and including five years ago, publishing followed a sad and somewhat predictable trend. A book would become an unexpected blockbuster. Publishers would rush to print “The next Stephen King / Anne Rice / Dan Brown / Stieg Larsson / JK Rowling / Stephenie Meyer”, and flood a formerly diverse genre with only imitations of the blockbuster. As sales dropped due to the consumers getting their fill of that particular variant (or just not liking the imitations enough to buy them), the publishers would then declare the genre “dead”, and cease publishing all but well-selling backlist, the blockbuster names, and a tiny trickle of frontlist.

I had to explain recently to an indie author that “Vampires have been killed multiple times. That’s why it’s an undead genre!” was not a joke about vampires per se, but about the number of times that genres with vampires have been declared “dead”, and the number of times editors have declared “the vampire craze is over.” (The first time I personally remember was when someone was exclaiming, “How did this Anne Rice person get a movie deal for a vampire interview? We all know vampires are over, and nobody’s buying it!” This was years and years before the same ‘plaint was cried about Twilight’s sales.)

Back when the Big Six (Now the Rather Diminshed Five) ruled publishing, declaration of the death of a genre, and consensus at the right NYC cocktail parties, was a guarantee that readers were going to have to head to the used book store to find more of what they wanted. And then came indie.

Now, with hybrid authors bringing their backlist back into reprint, and together with indie authors putting whatever they want on the market, we’re starting to see signs that formerly dead subgenres, like Bela Lugosi, are rising again.

The latest popped up this week on Bookbub, which has enough reader demand for differentiated market, and enough content to fill it. They’re splitting their mystery list for email notification, and adding new lists in: Crime Fiction, Cozy Mysteries, and Historical Mysteries.

So much for “the cozy mystery is dead.”

And what’s more, I saw the “urban fantasy is dead” come over the transom, as the taste-makers tried to change the market again. But most of the authors I know failed to get the message. Those who did looked at it, and shrugged, because they know paranormal romance and its near-twin, urban fantasy, are selling gangbusters in indie. When you can see the money being made in Author Earnings reports, the declaration of death works as poorly as an atheist in a horror movie trying to ward off vampires with the cross he doesn’t believe in.

So go forth, write good stories the readers will love, and worry not what has been declared dead. These days, rumours of death are greatly exaggerated. (Sadly, Mark Twain is really dead this time.)

And because I love this song (over eight minutes long with full intro, which is time enough for the DJ to slip out and smoke an entire clove cigarette, and if you know it’s coming, you join him out behind the bar for some relative peace and quiet, without the dancers being any wiser!), and it’s topical…

36 thoughts on “The life and health of undead subgenres

    1. I wear my bomb near to my chest…

      Yeah, the indie music revolution has been very good for niches and smaller scenes! I no longer need to hit the clubs to learn of new bands.

      1. While that is true (I had to learn to find them as a community radio DJ) there is something about many styles of music you can only learn on a dance floor.

  1. It’s not just the book industry. Toys too, and because of the long lead time, the trends can last a decade or more. A friend of mine who went to an industry toy show in the ’80’s came back talking about how the toymakers had decided that dinosaurs were going to be the next big thing, and lo and behold, a few years later it was Dino-everything.

  2. disco is dead …….. and if it ever comes back I will drive a steak through its heart. yes it will take more effort, but i’m willing to go that far.

    1. Driving a stake through something’s heart would seem to take a certain amount of fortitude, but isn’t really all that heroic a feat. Given a big enough hammer and a sufficiently sturdy stake, I think even I could manage it. But driving a steak through something’s heart, that’s impressive.

      1. Nah, it’s easy — the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. (The second part of that quote is, of course, “then up and under the ribs”).

  3. “Bela Lugosi’s dead.
    No, no no no, he’s outside, looking in….”
    (Sorry 🙂 )

    Listening to that made me flash back to college and the clubs that were still playing that when I was in radio.

    1. Couldn’t get into it. The intro was too long and too repetitive. Noticed the date and wondered how I missed. OTOH, I had never heard Free Bird until a few years ago.

  4. Raises hand:

    I don’t recall if I said Urban Fantasy was dead, but I distinctly remember thinking and asking if it had jumped the shark. It was mostly due to it seeming to reach a saturation point. It was in connection with a concept I had that turned out have been done to death, slapped on Doc Frankenstein’s table, and given another go at it. At that point I asked what was new and what wouldn’t look like a knock-off.

    On fads:
    Some fads go in cycles. Yo-yos have their ups and downs. Bell bottoms and early 70s styles made a comeback. Cop shows are on TV again. But when was the last time you saw a Pet Rock? How many Westerns are on TV? Miniseries? Seen any new Piano Novelties? Some never really die, just sort of on simmer. Polkas. Barbershop Quartets. But unless someone is holding out, we don’t know what will be the next big thing. For all I know we might be on the verge of a resurgence of the Troll fad.

    1. Worse that Trolls or Beanie Babies – iPhone tamagotchi. *shudder of horror* That’s what they’ll resurrect next.

    2. The problem I’ve developed with UF is that while originally it was actual fantasy set somewhere mundane, it’s become mostly mundane fiction with fantasy trappings glued on. I’m really not interested in reading a romance or gumshoe with $undead tacked on, which is what it seems to have uniformly become.

      1. The two best Urban Fantasy series I’ve read recently are:

        The “Black Tide Rising” series by John Ringo which had a perfectly logical reason for the zombies. It also was interesting in how it showed how the survivors fought back. Of course it being John Ringo there’s carnage and gun geeking aplenty.

        The other one was the two stories Illona Andrews (Illona and Gordon writing together under her name) serialized on their website. Those being “Clean Sweep” and “Sweep in Peace”. In those stories they took the tropes of witches, werewolves, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night and turn them around, over on their heads, and any other way they could turn them. “Clean Sweep” has been turned into an ebook and “Sweep in Peace” is in the process of being turned into one.

      2. True, to some extent. I like that type where the point is somebody until that moment fairly normal person finding out what hides beneath, and then playing a sort of detective game with the subject, trying to delve deeper and finding out exactly what does hide around him in plain sight, not werewolf pack politics and romance issues. But more often than not now UF stories have the point of view of those who hide, not the ones discovering them, when they don’t go straight for a world where the once hidden is now fully in sight. And yes, then the story is about something like murder or romance or vampire politics.

        The finding the hidden and also stories where that hidden is more subtle, something that kind of maybe fades in and fades out, not a whole very substantial other world coexisting with the oblivious mundane one (often in a way which makes the mundania part look more than oblivious, downright deaf, blind and stupid…) have been a bit harder to find for a while.

        1. The whole schtick of urban fantasy is how the hidden world and real’ world collide. I can see it done well on either direction but it is easier to write the opening of the curtain vs trying to keep it up. Do you have mages that can hoodwink a city into believing the monstrous thing that ate the building was an airplane? Or a bomb? Do the feds just come in and cause havoc (such as the mhb). Is this a parallel world where the fantasy is competent govt agencies, etc.

  5. If Urban Fantasy is dead, why are my Alexi stories my best sellers EVER by rate of sales? Cozies, tech sci-fi (subset of Hard Sci Fi), gentlemen detectives, superhero TV shows . . . and do NOT look at what is “on trend” in fashion right now. The 1970s really need to take their peasant dresses, psychedelic prints, and tall boots with mini-skirts back. Please.

    1. I don’t think Urban Fantasy is dead by any means. I think it temporarily may have hit a peak, with the heavy exposure on TV and the movies. It may have temporarily saturated some folks sensibilities.

      But Harry Dresden and Owen Pitt are still kicking butt. In the literary world, it probably has a lot to do with the quality of the story.

      In my opinion, there now is a lot of garbage in the SF&F aisles in various bookstores. In the indie world, it’s the wild west. You have very good quality, but you have a lot of garbage too. It’s hard to find something interesting until you get your feet wet.

      There still is a lot of Urban Fantasy that has all of the check points good stories should have {characters one can care about, great plot, plenty of action}.

    2. Charlaine Harris had a huge success with her Sookie Stackhouse and Bon Temps Louisiana goings on. Having milked that franchise to death, and with the ending of the True Blood TV show, she has now moved her viewpoint to the small innocuous crossroads village of Midnight Texas. Two books in, and it has vampires, witches, shape changers, and mediums all living nicely together in a town of perhaps 50-60 folks. Can’t hardly call it urban fantasy I suppose, perhaps rural fantasy?

  6. Sword and Sorcery was supposed to be dead, but it seems to be making a comeback via indie.

  7. I place a lot of the blame on middle and upper management types with shiny new MBA degrees who are bound and determined to categorize arts and crafts with neat precise labels and treat them like mass produced commodities. Sure, books are in fact commodities, but they are simply the mechanism that conveys the art of the story to the consumer. Much the same can be said for movies and TV shows. Every tale is unique, original to the authors and to their readers/viewers. Sure, elements of the story are often familiar, but the art comes in the telling, incorporating those old familiar elements with a fresh new twist. And the craft comes with the ability to build a story that flows, sucks the reader/viewer into this new hand made reality for a bit, makes them care about the characters and what happens to them.
    I swear, the typical MBA management type cannot stand originality. They want everything in nice neat pigeon hole slots easily identified so that when something becomes popular for whatever odd and unfathomable reason they can reach into the slot with that label and pull out a nice safe copy of what is selling in the belief that it will sell just as well. The art, the craft, the individuality of each product is completely lost to their senses.
    And yet these types were the gatekeepers, still are for TV and film, but praise be have been relegated to the sidelines with the advent of indie publishing.

    1. So very true. A story is a living, breathing thing, every one different. And a good story can cover a multitude of sins. I am *not* a fan of horror, or zombies, but I adore Shaun of the Dead because it is so funny and well done.

    2. Yes, a lot of what makes people like a story is that it has a hero and wrings out the readers’ emotions. As a kid, I liked horse stories, and couldn’t figure out why, if I liked one horse story, I didn’t necessarily like all the other ones I could get my hands on. It wasn’t, of course, the horses, but the MC, the excitement, the surprises. The black stallion and the silver brumby–sigh.

      1. The Australian story? Was the horse’s name Tamerlane (or some other spelling of that name)? Loved those. There was one book of a cattle drive too, I think, and the time period was in the first half of last century. And the girl who had the horse had lots of other cool animals too.

        1. Yes! I just looked it up on Amazon, and there’s even one with the little green dragon on the cover. His name was Thowra. I remember reaching the end of that book, closing it, immediately re-opening it and going back to the beginning and reading it all over again. I almost did that with Hoyt’s A Few Good Men, but stopped myself after the first chapter so I’d have it for a good re-read later.

          His name is Thowra.

  8. A friend in a writers’ group has been working on a fantasy novel (with quite an interesting premise) for a coupla years. First, she was told by agents that it must be considered YA because one of the lead characters is a teenager. She acquiesced to that, but now she’s being told that the period of one of the plotlines must be reset because it is currently set in the 1970’s. “If it’s in the Seventies,” more than one agent has told her, “I can’t sell it. The Seventies are dead.”

  9. And because I love this song (over eight minutes long with full intro, which is time enough for the DJ to slip out and smoke an entire clove cigarette

    Back in my community radio days it and This Corrosion were my go tos if I needed an extended head break.

    Every now and then I miss those days.

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