Who reads urban fantasy?

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?


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

22 thoughts on “Who reads urban fantasy?

  1. I know people who’s reading habits follow this pattern. They read one kind of book and one kind of book only. It is quite hard to describe what they are like without being pointlessly mean since I too tend to drift in what I’m reading, and find such specialization unfathomable.

    I suspect that the number of readers following this habit remains about constant; they are just become more spread into finer niches over time which means you get the wave effect in bookshops of lots of whatever is big surrounded by the debris of what was a heavy seller a couple of years ago.


  2. I know who they are. I run a social network for emo/goth kids who like roleplaying and are into vampires and other fantasy tropes. I get a lot of new sign up from ordinary teenage girls in the 14-18 bracket who are there purely because they have read Twilight and are looking for more vampires. It’s not even an emo thing (actually, a lot of the emo kids are outspoken in their dislike for Twilight, because it’s wet and the vampires are “unrealistic” – lol). They are just normal girls who want to experience romance and having a first boyfriend who is gallant and protective and moody like Edward. The vampire thing is secondary, but once they’ve read Twilight, they get into that, and are hungry for more. They would probably be reading regular formulaic teen romance if Twilight wasn’t around.


  3. Not only do I work in a bookstore where I think at least 1/4 of our customers read 2 to 5 books a week, I personally read about 2 to 5 books a week. It’s not that I don’t want a whole lot out of books–I do, and I love books that give me a huge lot to think about–but that I read that fast.

    As for urban fantasy series, there are a lot of crap paranormal-romance “same old same old” rehash series–but there are just as many excellent and nuanced urban fantasy series. It’s like any other subgenre from epic fantasy to magical realism, etc. There are a lot of each. Some of them are good. I think that this shoehorning of “urban fantasy” into the mold of boring-mass-market-trash is a little uninformed–trust me, I’m not a romance reader and I abhor boring repetitive books. For example: Mike Carey’s (who wrote the Lucifer comics) Felix Castor series is fantastic. And then you have things like Elizabeth Bear’s Blood & Iron/Whiskey & Water duet: it’s fantasy that takes place in a city and is arguably “urban” but it’s not like a paranormal romance.

    So, if you mean paranormal romance, then I see your point. But urban fantasy as a whole is a pretty nuanced subgenre with a variety of types of series. Conflating the two isn’t quite right, though some paranormal romance is urban fantasy… Not all urban fantasy, or even most, is paranormal romance.

    As for saturation from TV and the internet–those things aren’t books. They won’t ever be books. I’m a gamer and a TV watcher and a huge internet junkie, but those things will never cut back on my reading. I’ll cut back on them, first, and most of our customers from age 14 to 99 are the same way.


  4. What Brit Mandelo said. There is good urban fantasy and bad urban fantasy, just as with any other genre or subgenre. And it’s rather unfair that urban fantasy has become something of a synonym for formulaic trash in the SFF community of late.

    As for who reads it – well, I do for starters. I have an excuse, since I have to read it for my PhD thesis. And believe me, the poor examples of the genre are the bane of my existence, particularly those that are so popular you cannot just ignore them but have to at least sample the series. But there are also several books and authors I would read anyway, simply because I enjoy them. Though I tend to mix it up – different styles, worlds, creatures – and I need to read something completely different every couple of books.

    I think part of the issue here is that urban fantasy is a hybrid genre, incorporating elements of other genres. Thus, it is read by a lot of people who are not traditional SFF readers. Many habitual romance readers also read urban fantasy. And romance has a particularly high number of readers who mainline books as if they were heroin and consume 3 to 5 or more books per week, that’s why romance is continuously the bestselling genre in North America. And since romance mixes well with other genres and many romance readers read so much, they’re also open to trying new genres. Habitual crime fiction readers (many urban fantasy novels are mysteries of some sort) also read urban fantasy. People who watch the True Blood and Vampire Diaries TV shows subsequently pick up the books they’re based on and then perhaps go on to others in the same vein (pun intended). Readers of YA urban fantasy migrate to the adult shelves. So you have the paradox of an SFF subgenre that is not very popular in the SFF community (and it’s an interesting question why it is so derided), but still sells very well, even though most SFF fans don’t read it. Which understandably puzzles a lot of them.

    I have to admit that there have been subgenres whose popularity had me baffled as well, since they never did anything for me. During the heyday of the multi-volume big fat fantasy series, I often wondered who read all those 5 or 12-part series, since I was usually bored to death by the middle of book 1. I also wondered who read all those obvious Da Vinci Code clones or the glut of “adultery and breast cancer” novels aimed at 40+ women. Whenever I venture into the romance section of the bookstore, I wonder why historical romances of highly questionable historical accuracy are so consistently popular, since I find them nigh unreadable with very few exceptions. And seeing shelves and tables groaning under the weight of biographies of C and D-list celebrities I don’t even know, I also often wonder who buys and reads that stuff. But someone does.

    But I think that the popularity of urban fantasy with both young readers and people who are not normally SFF readers is a good thing for the genre overall, even if the genre may not be to many SFF fan’s taste. Because it brings new people into the SFF section of the bookstore and new readers to the SFF genre. And one day, those new readers may pick up something other than urban fantasy and become SFF readers. And considering the constant “Woe – our genre is dying” cries, more SFF readers can only be a good thing.


  5. So you don’t read many books – then you skim along until you find — an utterly obvious hyped mass market bestseller then? :)

    I do read some urban fantasy books, yes.


  6. Tons of people read it. I’m a librarian, and I buy bunches of it. People who read Urban Fiction read Urban Fantasy. Mystery readers. SF/Fantasy Readers. People who read chick lit. People who read Erotic Fiction. People who like Vampire books. People who like Werewolf books.

    Most people like to read something alot like the last thing they read. By which I mean almost exactly. When people’s fairly narrow tastes run out of the two or three authors they like, they jump to something sleightly less like their last read, which leads alot of readers to jump to Urban Fantasy via recommendation from a friend, someone who’s liked a similar book, or through similar themes embodied in advertising, which they usually encounter by browsing bookstore or library shelves. Then it’s pretty likely that they will ricochet around amongst sub-sub genres for awhile.

    There are a lot of different branches of Urban Fantasy, so there are a lot of different entry points. I think alot of the interest after that is narrative voice. Romance/Chick Lit can lead to Mary Janice Davidson and then to Sukie Stackhouse. It’s a big tent.

    Also, there are just more mega readers out there than anybody can give credit to. The number of patrons we have who suck up everything on the times bestseller list, every mystery published, every whatever, is immense. They might not be reading what you like, but there’s lots of readers nonetheless.

    I keep hearing about “competing ways for people to invest their leisure time,” and have even been a victim of them, but people really don’t understand that, even if any other form of leisure time could compete with books for quality of entertainment… and I’ve often suggested even the most formulaic books thrashes any other average media for value, current demographics favor books as entertainment for a good twenty years to come.


  7. Damien, I think it is very easy to let the internet discussions of the core/active fandom slant your understanding of what the actual larger body of active readers read. There are many celebrated authors, touted on blogs and in magazines, with readerships in the low thousands, and many best sellers who never get reviewed in Locus or nominated for awards, etc… These books wouldn’t be being published if they weren’t being read. Likewise, I know many epic fantasy readers who make weekly trips to the chain store, start in the As, walk to the Zs, and walk out with an armload of epic fantasy books that appealed to them based largely on the cover – every week. God bless these readers! Don’t diss ’em! In fact, being able to catch the attention of this wider readership is what makes a book a hit.


  8. Romance readers, the mass-market omnivores of reading, love urban fantasy. I see this on the many reader lists I’m on as well as from what I read in the trade press and the reader magazines like RTBOOKCLUB.

    Many of them read five or more books a week, and they buy new, God bless them!

    Romance readers also love sf, fantasy, mystery, and horror, and they are the least snobby readers I have ever met. Very few of them will trash others’ reading tastes although I can’t say the same thing for people who read only one kind of genre novel.


  9. As an avid reader of Urban Fantasy, I’d like to say that there are many sub genre’s. It isn’t all paranormal romance.

    Just about anything fantastical, in an urban setting, quite often a contemporary one, can be Urban Fantasy. The genre appeals to a lot of crime fans in the guise of crime noir and some science fiction could be classed as urban fantasy too. I’m thinking about Terry Pratchett’s ‘Johnny Maxwell Trilogy’ here.

    TV has helped readership, think parallel universe, with shows like ‘Fringe’ and vampires and werewolves are far more interesting when we are led to believe they walk amongst us.

    Take a walk around a book shop almost anywhere and you’ll be surprised to see the genre is ever growing in popularity. Look at who is browsing the shelves, and who is buying.
    For myself, I read the genre because it offers me pure escapism.


  10. I know you’ll probably protest, but your post, is, in fact, an attack on the genre and a pretty condescending one to boot. You only read *special* books. You don’t understand why people by people ready *any* mass market titles? Really? Well, isn’t that…special of you.

    Your mode of selecting those QUALITY titles is not atypical. Everyone buys books for the exact same reasons you listed.

    Oh, wait. My mistake—everyone else reads crap.


  11. @EJD – I was a teenage vampire wannabe, so I really should remember what it was like. For me it was Anne Rice and Vampire the roleplaying game. The urban fantasy take on vampires is really just the latest manifestation I guess.

    @Brit Mandello – yes, its important to distinguish between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and until now paranormal romance has been the more ‘generic’ end of the market. But urban fantasy is starting to go in the same direction I think.

    @Cora – what you say about the genre being a hybrid makes a lot of sense. So it is capturing readers from many different audiences.

    @LouAnders – Your point is valid Lou. As a reader, a reviewer and a writer I’m most interested in the interface between the mass market and the literary readership. Your comment is really interesting to me, because you pin-point how that mass readership approaches fiction (as other posters have as well). I think I would question your point that its readers of that kind who make a hit though. It seems more that is what makes a book a solid seller. But a real break-out hit has to have something more, and its those books that then appeal to readers who are reading across genres, just picking the best that each genre has to offer. Would you agree?

    @Mkay – Sorry you feel that way. I’m not attacking urban fantasy though. I think its a genre with a massive amount to say. For me, the best urban fantasy are books like Neil Gaiman’s American Goods and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m not personally so keen on the Laurel K Hamilton or Charlene Harris type books, but then they aren’t really written for my demographic. What I’m really asking about isn’t genres, but reading patterns. As someone who skips around reading the bits I like of all kinds of genres, I’m curious about readers who read just in one genre or even sub-genre and read it in massive amounts. Its a very different way of experiencing fiction.


  12. Speaking from my bookstore girl experience, I have to say that the mass market paperback is still quite popular. Almost every day I see people walk out with fat stacks of Robert Jordan, or Barry Eisler, or Stephen King, or Charlie Stross (quite popular at our store!).

    (Though the books that really fly are anything Stieg Larsson, even the pricey silver hardcover of his newest.)


  13. I am your culprit. I read two to three books a week and do in fact read Urban Fantasy, along with other stuff you would probably thing is even worse – like cheesy romance novels. I also read sci fi, fantasy, literature, and other sorts of novels. My name is Marianne and I am a novel-a-holic.


  14. I read urban fantasy and I do buy lots of books. It’s just like any other book genres out there. Not all of them are good, but a lot of them are. I try to read books that are unique to the urban fantasy genre so I don’t get books that are typical. Paranormal romance and urban fantasy can be close, but are in fact different. I prefer urban fantasy with a touch of romance, but not too much. Yes, I am one of those people who take a trip to the book store every week and only to the urban fantasy section. I know of at least 20 people who do the same :)


  15. Hi Damien, I happen to love Urban Fantasy. Over the years, I’ve read every kind of book out there. I spent years reading mostly SciFi, my first love, and I’ve taken spells of reading Mysteries, Fantasy, Biographies, Politics, History, Classics, Romance, Horror, etc. One of the reasons that I like to stick to one genre for a while is so that I can compare the way that different authors treat the same subject. It’s so interesting to see the differences in world-building and the ways they treat the same myth. For instance, the use of vampires in current fiction adds such a wealth of possibilities for the writers. Just like true fantasy, imagination takes a much greater role than in regular fiction. The writer is not limited to what could conceivably happen in real life. Even SciFi is limited to what the writer can make at least a stab at explaining. For Urban Fiction, which I think of as a mixture of Horror, Romance, Fantasy and sometimes SciFi, a mixture of genres that I already enjoy can only be a good thing. Oh, and also, the covers are so cool.


  16. I stumbled upon your discussion when doing some genre research for my business models. I write Urban Fantasy. My first love was vampires and I’ve tried to take a different look at the genre. Yes, it tried to be a paranormal romance but then the story of the antagonist took a different direction, with the vampire council having problems with him, the demons trying to win him and more to their side, the angels are taking the vampires to hell after 3-violation of their rules for the vampires, and a human who can’t take “no, I’m not selling” for an answer to the point of blowing up a building in the Houston Galleria area that the antagonist lives in. The romantic storyline that started in the first 2 books has taken a serious turn by books 4 and 5. So it gets mixed up with paranormal, history (my degree is history and the first 3 chapters are set in 1900 Storyville) and then goes to 2005 of Katrina in New Orleans, and then horror, and thriller.

    My reading goes between history (my concentration was Antebellum South, Texas, and Slavery but I love anything I can get my hands on), paranormal romance (I have reviewed for Paranormal Romance Guild since 2017), mysteries, horror, and urban. My favorite authors are Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampire series and Midnight) and J.R. Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood). I could classify both as romantic urban fantasy because it has a huge element of romance but also a lot of thriler (especially Ward’s books).

    Liked your blog post. Thanks for writing it.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s