“Employees wait to be picked for promotion, or to lead a meeting or to speak up at a meeting. ‘Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me, pick me’ moves the blame from you to them. If you don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not yours. Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.”
Seth Godin, Poke the Box
Writers are never employees. Even when they are employed. A writers job is always to say what no one else has yet said. And you can’t wait for your boss to tell you what that is. This is one reason why those structures where writers are employed, are waiting to be told what to do, businesses like newspapers and publishers, are either collapsing or going through revolutionary change, and being beaten in to the ground by dynamic systems where writers do not wait to picked, by blogs and other social media.
Writing is now such a competitive career that saying ‘pick me!’ is hardly even an option anymore, if it ever was. Too many writers think of editors, agents and other publishing professionals as people who are waiting to pick them. The truth is that no good editor or agent interested in making a living is interested in picking a writer. The writers worth working with are the ones who have already picked themselves, who are instigating and building their own career and who understand the value of the relationship they have with other professionals, agents and editors.
What does this mean in practical terms for you as a writer? Above all else it means you need to be aware of what you need to do to instigate your career. If you have never written a word and dream of writerly stardom, you need to enrol on a good course and spend a few years learning your trade. If you have published a few dozen stories and have a strong novel in progress you need to get out and network at events where you will meet people who might publish the book. You’ll quickly find out if it has potential. If you’ve sold 400 million copies of your novels about an orphan boy at magic school it might be time to ditch the agent and the publisher all together and sell direct to your readers.
Don’t mistake a rash leap in the dark for instigating your career. Self-publishing a multi-volume urban fantasy on Lulu is just another way of shouting ‘pick me!’ at a readership swamped with other desperate hopefuls doing the same thing. But don’t fear if you happen to have done this or any of the other host of miss-steps writers take early in their travels, for a fortunate consequence of this kind of failure is that, by definition, no one will have noticed.
(But it is probably a good idea to take that 18 volume saga off Lulu well before you actually publish a real book.)
And now go and read the combined wisdom of Clarion as introduced by James Patrick Kelly.
So. Jeff Vandermeer has called on me as ‘someone who comes from the old-school urban fantasy and an appreciation for it’ to ‘investigate and report back’ on the current state of the urban fantasy genre.
Now. Jeff knows of my abiding love for the urban fantasy genre, not just because I mentioned it in asking the question Who Reads Urban Fantasy? not so long ago on this blog, but because we’ve talked some about the genre. So I’m going to take on Jeff’s challenge. And I want your help to do it.
Let me be frank. There is a lot of urban fantasy being published. A LOT. Like any genre cresting the wave of popularity, much of it will, inevitably, be bad. If we are to believe Sturgeons Law that 90% of everything is crap, then when it comes to peak popularity genres, that can be raised to 95% or even 99%. As evidence for this I direct your attention to the Horror wave of the mid to late 80’s.
I do not have time to wade through this crap looking for the undoubted gems it contains. So, knowing that many of you will have already done that wading for me, I call on you now to show me the very best that urban fantasy and its numerous sub-genres have to offer.
A few criteria.
- Interpret urban fantasy in the widest sense. If you think a book or author fit in the genre, tell me. I’ll make a judgement call about whether I agree once nominations are in.
- I want books published recently. 5 years at the outer limit, 2 years is better, yet to be published better still.
- What do I mean by ‘the very best’? I’m looking for the 1-5% of the urban fantasy genre that resist Sturgeons Law. Give me the big names by all means, but what I really want are the sparkly bits of genius that might be being lost in the torrent of urban fantasy currently hitting the shelves.
If I receive enough nominations of a high enough quality, I will review a selection of the best that urban fantasy has to offer, and try and give my answer to Jeff’s question ‘Urban Fantasy, From Whence Came You? And Where Are You Going with That Trope?!’ with particular focus on where it might be that the genre is going.
Make your nominations below, or to me on Twitter, Facebook or email.
Or indeed any other truly mass market fiction?
Now, let me contextualise my question. I like urban fantasy. This is not an attack on the genre. And I understand that lots of people enjoy reading it. What I don’t understand is who reads it in the kind of bulk quantities that justify the vast number of urban fantasy novels being published. It seems that almost every other living human being is making a living writing urban fantasy novels at the moment. How can this be?
My confusion must stem from the fact that I am a certain kind of reader. I might classify myself as a ‘skimmer’. I float through the world of books, looking for *special* books, brought to me by word of mouth, or recommendation from another writer I like, or particularly good reviews, or even simply hype. (Which brought me to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, where I am happily still ensconced.) I demand a high level of return from any book I invest time in, and will willingly abandon a book part-way through if it fails in its initial promise.
But for urban fantasy or any mass market fiction to work, my reading pattern must not be typical. I’m hypothesising the existence of ‘habitual’ readers, people who plough through two or three or more books a week, and read within genres that they like and will buy one urban fantasy series after another and keep coming back for more. Hypothesising because, while I can imagine these readers, I can’t prove their existence other than by deduction. Large sections of every bookshop are packed with urban fantasy novels, ergo the urban fantasy reader must exist.
Even if the habitual reader is real, surely their numbers must be shrinking? I can believe that before television and then the media saturated internet, many more people had a need for cheap books in copious supply that did no more than entertain. But there are now so many competing ways for people to invest their leisure time that the mass market paperback or even the e-book are surely struggling for market share? How long can mass market publishing persist with its business model, if there is no longer a mass market readership?
Or am I wrong, and is there a ‘dark matter’ readership that my sensor arrays are failing to detect? And if so, who are they?