A good many come from Britain. Others come from American authors, including one who is barely older than his target audience. And most come in twos, threes, fours or more. Such is the current plentiful crop of fantasy titles for middle graders and young adults, many having been released in the past several years not as stand-alone volumes but as installments of trilogies or series.
Aware of this burgeoning phenomenon, PW talked with a national cross-section of retailers, asking them to share their thoughts as well as their tactics for buying and selling these titles.
Viewing the recent swell in the fantasy genre with a global perspective, Chauni Haslet, owner of All for Kids Books and Music in Seattle, said, "I see this as a spinoff of our society. We live in a world of vivid realism, and our children need escape. They need to have more imagination, more opportunities for pretend."
Haslet sees the growth in fantasy series in a positive light, noting, "I feel that children who have enjoyed a good novel deserve to have a follow-up. What I like to see is quality writing and whether it takes one or three books to tell the story does not matter. I look at the success of Christopher Paolini's Eragon, which is great since it has created a built-in audience for his second and possibly third volumes."
A bookseller for many years, Patty Cryan, now co-owner and general partner of Mike's Comics in Worcester, Mass., voiced concern that the current focus on multibook publishing might thwart the chances of authors—especially newcomers—to land single-book contracts. "I wonder whether authors can break into this field so crowded with trilogies and series without a publisher saying, 'Give me a franchise I can sell—I want three books in 10 years,' " she said. "I'm not sure if authors today are more apt to have larger stories to tell that need to be broken into three or more books, or if this phenomenon is spurred on by publishers wanting to capitalize on commercial success or perhaps by reader demand."
Questions of Timing
Given the substantial number of new and ongoing fantasy series, the subject of publishers' release schedules for volumes in trilogies and series evoked a variety of comments from retailers. At Wellesley Booksmith in Massachusetts, children's book buyer Alison Morris said, "When publishers release series books very rapidly, it makes it difficult to decide what to buy, since I sometimes have to decide whether or not to buy the second book before the first one is shipped. It also doesn't give us booksellers time to read as many of the books that we'd like to, which obviously [would] make us more effective hand-sellers. And it can be frustrating in that we have a limited amount of shelf space, and it's hard to carry three books in a series when the first title hasn't had a chance yet to sell much at all. We don't need the next installment immediately. If the books are good, kids will be willing to wait." Morris cited Harry Potter and A Series of Unfortunate Events as two series whose more leisurely paced volumes her young customers have, indeed, been willing to wait for.
Jill Bailey, children's buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Tex., voiced another side of this issue, noting, "In many cases, publishers need to bring out subsequent books in a series faster. I've seen kids experience the frustration of having to wait a year and a half for the next installment and, if they love a book when they're 12 years old, they may not have as much interest in the next book if they are a lot older when it is published. If the next book in a series comes out fairly quickly, they're more apt to snap it up."
As examples of series whose publication schedule has helped fuel their success, Bailey mentioned the Spiderwick Chronicles ("since they are for a younger market, the short spacing between the books' publication has really worked") and Random House's Daughter of the Lioness sequence by Tamora Pierce ("after Trickster's Choice, the publisher got Trickster's Queen out in a timely way").
Joe Monti, a children's buyer at Barnes & Noble, said that the increase in the number of multibook series has not changed the buying process for him; in his words, "I am still looking for quality fiction and well-crafted entertainment in an attractive package." Yet, he asserted, "What has changed is the publishing model for these multibook series. Monti advocated "building your audience toward book two with a paperback release [of book one] before the second installment, with some additional marketing to attract them to the rest of the saga." Among the follow-up fantasy books that are selling strongly for B&N this fall are The Wrath of Mulgarath, the latest of the Spiderwick Chronicles (S&S), and The Golem's Eye, the second installment of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (Hyperion/Miramax).
At Koen Book Distributors in Morristown, N.J., children's book buyer Lisa Dugan said that, while in some cases there may be prolonged periods between books in a series, "most publishers are pretty wise to the demand for follow-up books if the first book is popular and will capitalize on this demand by getting the next book out quickly." Dugan is generally pleased with the selection of fantasy titles currently being published, noting, "Fantasy and science fiction sell very well, especially since there is so much crossover, with teens reading adult fantasy and adults reading fantasy published for children. Though there is a lot being published, I find that it shakes out, with strong books like Cornelia Funke's Dragon Rider [Scholastic/Chicken House] and The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud rising to the top."
But given the trend toward publishing sequels, trilogies and series, are retailers likely to pass on buying subsequent installments if a debut title has disappointing sales? "Absolutely," responded Bailey, adding, "I've seen that happen over and over. I've bought books that looked neat in the catalogue, but when it came in got lost in the mire of the gigantic selection. In that case, I'm definitely less inclined to bring in the next book." Haslet reacts a bit differently to such a situation: "We will usually give the second book a shot, though we're not likely to buy it in the same quantity. We don't want to disappoint any customers who have read and liked the first."
Booksellers are generally bullish on publishers' frequent repackaging of fantasy trilogies or series in either omnibus editions or boxed sets. Most of those queried remarked that the latter are most frequently bought by customers as gifts. At B&N, Monti said, "While boxed sets tend to sell almost exclusively in the fourth quarter, omnibus editions can and have sold strongly for us throughout the year." He explained that his company has had "great success" selling omnibus editions of Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest and Garth Nix's Seventh Tower fantasies (both Scholastic releases). At BookPeople, boxed sets are also likely to sell most briskly during the holiday season, Bailey reported. "Every Christmas, there are new kids who have not yet read the books, and there is a big market for boxed sets as gift items."
Despite the high volume of fantasy releases, which would seem to dictate their own bookstore shelf, retailers tend to shelve these titles with age-appropriate fiction in other genres. Bailey said that at BookPeople, "We've thought about creating a separate fantasy section, but if we pulled out those books, what would be left on the shelves? Of course you'd have Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary—but then again Cleary wrote about a mouse that rides a motorcycle. There are so many books that cross the line. We are too daunted by the task to tackle it. The important thing is to be well read so as to know what to recommend."
Indeed, a number of retailers commented on the effectiveness of hand-selling fantasy novels. Morris of Wellesley Booksmith mentioned the rewards of introducing children who are not traditional fans of fantasy to some treasures of the genre. "There are so many books that straddle the line between fantasy and realistic fiction," she said. "By hand-selling, we've done very well with books that are not necessarily the traditional fantasy with magic, wizards and dragons." As examples, Morris cited Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember and The People of Sparks (Random House), The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler (Candlewick) and Michael Hoeye's Time Stops for No Mouse (Putnam).
Dugan at Koen offered a varying perspective on handselling fantasy, noting that kids seem to find these books quite easily on their own. "I haven't found it much of a necessity to hand-sell fantasy," she said, "though with so many titles, it can be useful to help kids pick out the best. But I find it more important to hand-sell other categories of children's books, since there are so many gems among contemporary and realistic fiction that are being missed. With their marketing campaigns, publishers often make it easy to spot their big fantasy books, but it's the good, quieter books that we have to hand-sell."
Most booksellers offer publishers kudos for one element that facilitates the selling of fantasy: dazzling cover art. "Many fantasies arrive with awesome covers," said Bailey at BookPeople. "Publishers have definitely got it down. So often general fiction comes with lame covers that pale when they're placed next to books with covers showing a cool dragon or a girl in a forest surrounded by fairies. We're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if you're a customer who hasn't read that book yet, the first thing you see is the cover. And a well-packaged book is going to catch your attention." Covers retailers cited as standouts include those for the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell (Random House/Fickling), Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy and the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion/Miramax).
A significant number of publishers have also placed fantasy books in the spotlight recently by sending their authors on the road. In fact, a high percentage of the authors that these booksellers are hosting this fall have penned fantasy books. As Haslet put it, "These days, if we have an in-store event, it seems if it isn't for the author or illustrator of a picture book, it's for a fantasy author. Publishers are definitely putting money behind these books." Morris, whose store hosted
Brian Jacques the evening before she spoke to PW, will soon welcome Jeanne DuPrau, Cornelia Funke, Michael Hoeye and David Almond, author of The Fire-Eaters (Delacorte). "Our lineup is strikingly strong on fantasy," she observed. "The only exceptions are picture book authors or illustrators and perhaps a local author."
An event Morris recently organized featuring an appearance by Christopher Paolini, held at the local library, drew more than 500 fans. Of course, this young author has an extra hook. "All the kids know he was only 16 when he wrote the book, which gives them hope that they just might do the same thing," Morris said.
For the moment, on the basis of these booksellers' reports, plenty of youngsters are more than happy to read rather than write the genre—which is good news for authors, publishers and retailers alike. Referring to this fall's children's fantasy offerings as "a bumper crop of excellent titles," Monti reported that fantasy "is absolutely the strongest genre in both middle grade and teen literature" for B&N. He foresees "fantasy sales continuing to grow for the next few years, as we're still on the upward slope of the curve, although the summit is in sight. What's starting to happen is the broadening of the genre into areas of urban and historical fantasies, and science fiction, which is a healthy diversification."
Though clearly unabashed fans of fantasy, several of these booksellers made pleas for a better balance in children's fiction, expressing the need for more quality reality-based novels for middle-graders and young adults. "There is phenomenal fiction being published that isn't fantasy—but not enough," Bailey said. Other booksellers echo Monti's welcoming of a greater diversity in fantasy fiction—and a broadening of promotional techniques. Three booksellers observed that they are thrilled they no longer hear sales reps inform them, on a regular basis, that the book being presented is "the next Harry Potter." Kids will eagerly revisit that young wizard, but it's gratifying to know there is ample fanciful life beyond Hogwarts.