The publishing world is a very strange place to be, sometimes.Â It’s mostly filled with people staring into their crystal balls trying to guess what “the reader will want” in the coming 12 months to three years, desperately trying to keep hold of their jobs every time the latest round of sales figures come in, and trying to hunt the mythical new, unpublished, best-selling author.
For a long while, these arcane forces decreed that when a reader said they wanted fantasy, they actually wanted a very particular and narrow brand of fantasy.Â Essentially Re-fried Tolkien.Â Different map, same world.Â The shelves would be full of them, and if anyone questioned why you had an ice cream store where they only sold vanilla, they would be told “it’s what the readers want”.
I’m not knocking the quality of the books – many were, and are, extremely engaging.Â It’s the lack of diversity that always got me.Â Fantasy is the uber-genre.Â In it, you can write about anything at all in this world, the next world (after death), and any other world you could possibly imagine.Â No other genre has that scope.Â So to get a tiny little slice of that great potential was just a little…depressing.
Times are changing.Â More and more books are reaching out from Tolkien’s well-trod patch into the great unknown.Â Whether it’s China Mieville with Perdido Street Station or Hal Duncan with Vellum, the sense of some kind of change in thinking is palpable.
It helps that the people at the top of the main fantasy publishing houses know the SF/F genres and love them.Â Orbit, Macmillan and my own publisher Victor Gollancz all have people with good taste and a depth of knowledge that allows them to seek new horizons.Â That doesn’t mean they’ve stopped desperately trying to hang on to their jobs, of course, but there’s hope.
I only bring this up now because SF Site hasÂ branded me the “Anti-Tolkien”, which makes me think I should have some kind of number burned into my scalp.Â It was meant as a compliment, and I certainly take it that way.
But one question remains: what do the readers want?