Magicians-in-training, genies-in-exile, apprentice wizards, belligerent fairies, plucky orphans, kind dragons, kind orphaned dragons—a reader can't enter the children's department of a bookstore these days without tripping on a wand or falling into a portal. Has the saturation point been reached?
According to Sarah Todd at Children's Book World in Haverford, Pa., the answer is a resounding "no!" She hears her reps say that the market is getting bogged down, but at her store, sales in the genre are booming. "We haven't slowed down by any means around here. Fantasy has really expanded," she says. "We're now seeing it in all stripes: animals, warriors and some really fantastic supernatural teen fiction." She hopes the genre will continue to expand, and urges publishers to "push to a new world with new voices, building on a tradition we already have and not just recycling."
But while Todd wants even more, others have had enough. "I'll still listen to the pitch," says Dinah Paul, owner of A Likely Story in Alexandria, Va., "but I pass the advance copies on to my trusted readers to get their opinion before I commit. We feel we have enough fantasy books."
Of course it's the customers who have the final say; while retailers may be overwhelmed with the number of fantasy titles being published each year, the kids who are buying them still can't seem to get their fill.
HarperCollins children's publisher Susan Katz points out what she sees as a key difference. "It's not our experience that the kids are saturated," she says. "It's more that book buyers are. I mean, how many times can you say to them, 'Here's a great new fantasy series?' "
Standard publishing wisdom would have it that that the trend should have peaked by now, if not a few years ago. Trends, by their nature, ebb and flow. But demand doesn't seem to be slacking from the target audience—kids. They may be getting pickier about what they are buying, but publishers say sales in the category remain strong.
Helping fuel demand is the fact that fantasy readers tend toward the voracious. "Kids who like fantasy, who started reading the genre at eight, still want it at 14," Todd says. And with a few years between each Harry Potter installment, readers are avidly looking for new and different worlds to climb into. Luckily for them, new titles continue to appear season after season. This spring, two first-in-a-series books, by Frances Hardinge (Fly by Night, HarperCollins) and D.M. Cornish (Monster Blood Tattoo, Putnam), debuted with robust six-figure first printings. Next month, Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton (Delacorte) arrives with a 150,000-copy first printing. And the second Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson prequel about Peter Pan, Peter and the Shadow Thieves (Hyperion/Disney), pubs this month with 350,000 copies. All in the space of a few months.
To reach readers, publishers are creating ever more elaborate marketing campaigns, to the point where some children's bookstores look like theater lobbies, with talking standees and lenticular displays. HarperCollins packaged Angie Sage's Magyk, first in the Septimus Heap trilogy, with a CD-ROM built into the cover, so "kids could get on their computer and explore the world" that Sage had created on the page, Katz explains. (The book, which debuted in March 2005, has sold 150,000 copies. Flyte, the second title in the series, was released this past March with a 200,000-copy first printing, and the final installment, Physik, is due in winter 2008.) In spring 2005, Scholastic put new author Patrick Carman in a bus promoting his Land of Elyon series, sending him to 22 cities in four months. They also mailed 1.5 million "While You Are Waiting for Harry Potter" bookmarks to 15,000 retailers.
Obviously, not every title is selling at blockbuster proportions. "The not-so-great thing about Harry Potter," says agent Rosemary Stimola, who rode the Harry wave in selling Suzanne Collins's five-book Underland Chronicles series to Scholastic (more than half a million copies in print), "is that it skewed publisher expectations about what constitutes a success. Suddenly, [with] books that sell 50,000 copies, the writers are made to feel they haven't done well."
The selling pattern seems to be one of a slow build, where the first title in a series, almost always hardcover, sells well and subsequent releases pick up from there, often helped by the paperback reprints. The Warriors series by Erin Hunter (HarperCollins) debuted with little fanfare in January 2003 but word spread quickly online. There are now six Warriors titles and four of six planned volumes in a followup series, with more than 1.5 million copies in print. Other series that have grown with each volume include Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone (Orchard) and D.J. MacHale's Pendragon (Aladdin).
One high-profile project, Clive Barker's Abarat quartet (HarperCollins/Cotler), launched in 2002 with a 200,000-copy first printing; the second volume pubbed in 2004, and there's been nothing since. According to industry perception, the series must have tanked, evidenced by the lack of a third volume, but that couldn't be farther from the truth, says his editor, Joanna Cotler. The book has sold into 28 languages, Disney paid close to $8 million for the film rights, and all in all, Cotler says, it has done "fabulously well." Abarat, the first book in the series, has 260,000 copies in print, while the second title, Days of Magic, Nights of War, has sold 145,000 copies. Cotler says book three hasn't come out sooner because Barker has been working on a "long and ambitious" book for adults, and also because he creates dozens of full-color paintings for the Abarat books—a time-consuming process. The next volume, Absolute Midnight, will appear in fall 2008, and Cotler has recently signed a fifth book in the sequence.
Hollywood, an important component in fantasy deals, can ride to the rescue of an underperforming series. Despite her wide fan base among both English and Spanish readers, Isabel Allende's adventure trilogy starring Alexander Cold only sold a total of 500,000 copies in hard and soft, Spanish and English editions combined. "We are pleased with the sales, but would we have wished for double that? Of course," Katz says. Now that Walden Media has acquired the film rights, Katz thinks there will be dividends. "We consider it near and dear to our hearts and absolutely a success, but this is one area where Hollywood can really make a difference." she says. "Even if the movie is less than great, it always has a dramatic impact on book sales."
A Notable Turnaround
Hollywood may turn many fantasy series into gold, but the promise of Hollywood doesn't always hold the same weight. Miramax paid close to $3 million for the book and film rights to Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, and launched the first volume, The Amulet of Samarkand, with a bang in the fall of 2003. Despite a 250,000-copy first printing, a simultaneous 15-country release and glowing reviews, the book had sold just 82,000 copies by the end of that year.
The book's reception was no doubt hampered by poor timing: Amulet came out right on the heels of Christopher Paolini's Eragon, which took off like a rocket, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. "We weren't seeing it on stores' bestseller lists and we didn't see an uptick on Book Sense," says Lynn Waggoner, U.S. associate publisher, Disney Book Group, and v-p, global books. "We had to ask ourselves, 'What's stopping this book from being bigger?' "
Extraordinary competition aside, Waggoner and company began tweaking the product. They introduced a new cover for the paperback of Amulet, depicting the djinni Bartimaeus posed against an iridescent sky rather than London rooftops—"kids don't know London," says Waggoner. They also sent Stroud on the road. "Our sales just skyrocketed after we took him to an elementary school," says René Kirkpatrick, children's book buyer at All for Kids in Seattle, which hosted Stroud on his first U.S. tour. "He is just a very entertaining, charming man, and he tells the best story about how he got the idea for the series."
Hyperion also sped up release of the paperback—the softcover edition of Amulet was released just eight months after the hardcover, and four months before the release of the second title in the series, The Golem's Eye, which went out with an announced 200,000-copy first printing. A dedicated Web site launched in April 2004, specifically promoting the paperback release of Amulet.
The strategy worked, Waggoner says; the paperback edition sold close to 150,000 copies in 2004, and Hyperion says it expects to sell more copies of the paperback in 2006 than it did in 2004. Sales for the hardcover edition picked up as well since the rejacketing effort (just under 200,000 have now been sold). "And the first printing for book three [Ptolemy's Gate] was three times as big as for the first book," Waggoner notes. Sales of all three titles, hard and soft combined, now top one million.
Even though Hyperion almost got burned by hoping for so much from a first-time author, they aren't afraid to continue publishing new authors, such as David Lee Stone, whose Illmoor Chronicles now has a third installment, following its debut in 2004. Other publishers are taking chances as well, because the majority of new fantasy series are in fact from debut authors, including D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo, Matthew Skelton's Endymion Spring and Linda Buckley-Archer's the Gideon Trilogy (S&S), all 2006 releases.
Booksellers say they are happy to sell a new author, as long as the story is good. Todd at Children's Book World says she was wary of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan when she first saw it, but was quickly won over. "I almost screamed when I read the galley because it was so amazing," she says. "It's such a great blend of fantasy and mythology that we've been selling it to kids who are nine and also those who are 16." Wellesley Booksmith's Alison Morris has also had great success with Riordan's book. She says this title is one the staff read, adored "and sold to everybody who walked in the door—despite it having the ugliest cover of the year!"
And it's not just that new authors are breaking into the genre, but the entire genre is expanding as well. Literary agent Barry Goldblatt recently sold a "gritty urban" fantasy trilogy from newcomer Cassandra Clare "on a synopsis and eight chapters—first time I ever did that," to Karen Wojtyla at McElderry Books, and a "punk rock fantasy set in the afterlife" by Andrew Auseon to Michael Stearns at HarperCollins.
Susan Van Metre at Abrams Books just bought a trilogy from adult crime fiction author Adrian McKinty—sci-fi about a lost prince, a talisman and his destiny. "The appeal for publishers is always that you're getting three or more books marketed for the price of one," Van Metre says. "If it's a hit, of course...."