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The end of Realms of Fantasy begs the question: Too much fantasy on the market?

Thursday, October 28th, 2010 | Posted by Brian Murphy

realms_of_fantasy_199410_v1_n1This post over on the Cyclopeatron blog closely mirrors my own thoughts on why I think Realms of Fantasy and other magazines in the short fiction market are largely a dying or endangered breed.

It’s not necessarily the bad economy (though I don’t doubt this is a contributing factor). And it’s not necessarily the changing face of publishing, which is moving from print periodicals to PDF and/or web delivery (though this likely is a contributing factor, since publishers of all stripes have struggled with monetizing content delivered on the web).

Rather, like Cyclopeatron, I’ve long believed that there’s simply too much fantasy fiction on the market, and that magazines have gotten the squeeze as a result.

At first this may seem like a ridiculous notion. Realms of Fantasy, one of the few remaining print fantasy magazines in the market, goes under, and it’s because there’s too much fantasy for it to complete against? Yes, at least in my opinion. Here’s why.

When a new book or magazine arrives in the market, it’s got to vie for its audience’s limited reading time with a metric ton of competition. And this competition is not just in the form of other new releases currently on the shelves. It’s from the tremendous backlog of already published stories now available to your average fantasy reader.

Realms of Fantasy was never my cup of tea (too much high fantasy and not enough shield walls and treasure plundering heroes), but out of curiosity, its high production values, and a sense of obligation to the fantasy market, I have purchased a few issues over the years. But inevitably I never made it through an entire issue. I meant to, but after I brought them home they had to compete with the towering unread stack of books on my groaning bookshelf, all of whose subject matter relates to and competes with the stories you might find in Realms of Fantasy. For example:

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (Ursula LeGuin)

Swords from the Sea and Swords from the East (Harold Lamb)

Heroic Visions (Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed.)

Flashing Swords (Lin Carter, ed.)

• The Swords series (Fritz Lieber’s tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser)

Dark Forces (Kirby McCauley, ed.)

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (Stephen Jones, ed.)

The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories (Arthur W. Saha, ed.)

Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allen Poe)

Excalibur (Richard Gilliam, Martin Greenberg, Edward Kramer, eds.)

Winners (Poul Anderson)

The Coming of Conan, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, and Kull: Exile of Atlantis (Robert E. Howard)

The above is just a small sampling of the short stories I have at my disposal. Realms of Fantasy has to compete with anthologies. Collected short stories of grand masters and talented mid-listers alike. More books than I can read in the next couple years if I quit my day job and dedicated myself to the task.

And the above are just the short stories. If you throw in novels—books by authors like George R.R. Martin, Bernard Cornwell, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman (the list goes on and on)—what hope does a fantasy magazine truly have? There are some great new and mostly unknown authors working the fantasy field today (I know, I’ve read a few) but there’s also a world of old material still waiting to be explored. And fantasy fiction does not get dated—I still love reading H. Rider Haggard and William Morris as much as Martin, for example.

This post is not written to discourage new authors from writing and publishing in the field (the good ones, the driven ones, won’t let anything I or anyone else write stop them anyway, and they shouldn’t), but this is just one avid reader’s honest appraisal of the situation. Between new books hitting the market, and older books readily available in used bookstores or on sites like Abebooks.com, the market is fairly saturated. To be successful in this environment you need a niche. Black Gate for example focuses mainly on heroic/swords and sorcery style fiction, a sorely underrepresented sub-genre of fantasy in my opinion, and continues to roll the presses. If you don’t, chances are you’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

In short, it’s a great time to be a fantasy reader. I’m just not sure it’s a great time to be a publisher.

20 Comments »

  1. The glut on the market really does seem to be a big factor. I don’t remember how many times I’ve passed up a book of some new fantasy series thinking, “Another one? I haven’t had time to finnish the last two series that I’m reading.”

    However, when it comes to short stories, I find that they are good to pick up anytime I need to take a break from the 15th novel in the latest series. Sure it may take me months (sometimes years) to read everything in a entire issue, but they are always there whenever I need a rest, or just something quick to get me through a doctor’s visit.

    Maybe not everybody thinks this way and has caused the market to suffer. It’s sad. I’ve been periodically reading through Realms for about as long as I have Black Gate and new issues will be missed on my shelves.

    Comment by Kevin Sargent - October 28, 2010 10:25 pm

  2. The bookshelves of B&N are filled with mediocre and unoriginal high and urban fantasy fiction. Not only is there a dearth of quality, exciting adventure stories in the fantasy genre but across the entire spectrum of fiction.

    Comment by Tyr - October 29, 2010 1:28 am

  3. I think fantasy was deliberately “Lamed out” by the “PC Agenda”. I do say a “Conspiracy” of control, trying to hurt and dominate mankind, and silly as it seems controlling our fictions, our public fantasies is a big part of this.

    Though it has roots in greats such as Dunsany and old tales of myths and King Arthur, “Fantasy” as we know it is another child of the “Pulps”, most notably things like “Conan”. Some writers, like Clark Ashton Smith were on their own “Trip” with no reference to others, but most fantasy is rooted in “Weird Tales” and the like.

    There was a real boom in the 70s, but then the media sunk it’s “PC” teeth into it and did everything possible to ruin it.

    1. Lin Carter went bankrupt and died. Don’t know the whole story, but IMO lots of creditors snapped on him/banks held out on him when mostly the publishing industry got a cake walk in comparison, but he was a ‘radical’ type.

    2. William Warren also had a setback, cancer (?Deliberate infection?) and his accountant ran with lots of his money, this wiped out “Creepy, Vampirella, etc.” and lots of cool “Modern Pulp” titles overnight.

    3. The head of DAW books had a heart attack and his Feminist daughter took over before he was even cold. Overnight she pulled the plug on Jon Norman’s awesome “Gor” series though they certainly pulled their weight (made a good profit) by the bucketload. We then got inflicted with MZB/”Sword and Sorceress” sh-t.

    4. Some bits of culture snuck through, like the incredible “Conan the Barbarian” movie and “Sword and the Sorcerer” but later movies were killed by meddling money managers into lameness and PC. The latest “Conan” movie I heard is “Kevin Soboro Hercules” but twice as lame and with a pointless plot that just undoes the first movie like the latest Star Trek one…not a story just a ‘plot’ to fill time to drain your money.

    5. Sword and Sorcery and any real fantasy was pulled from the shelves overnight, or off the air like “Wizards and Warriors”. What remained was deconstructionist mockery of the genre.

    Real fantasy is a “Pulp”…

    Pulp chiefly appeals to Males, notable real men males, primarily white ones. It’s got the “Can do!” energy to face the odds, to fight through a tough, harsh, unfair life and hopefully come out ahead with some comfort and success to reward your struggles. It’s the wish to do justice in an unjust world, or barring that use what means you can for your own ends. It’s adventure, innovation, a dream for an escape and a future at the same time.

    But look at all the garbage the “Controllers” published against this. They hate this, the will of men to be truly free, and want to crush it on every level from shipping good jobs to China or giving them to illegals to letting women walk all over us to even have our favorite fictions removed and replaced with garbage that tells us to hate ourselves.

    The women complained that they were just sex objects, wenches, dragon food, etc. So the “PC Overlords” took away the “Sword and Sorcery” and put out “Feminist” garbage where some whiny woman sorceress casts a castration spell on a barbarian raider with her menstrual blood and whines and whines how men are all pigs. Did the women buy it? Nope. But they published it anyways.

    The blacks complained about the “Savage filed teeth African cannibal” stories. So they banned these as if they’d never existed and put out “Black person is the hero” fantasy, like one book I read in grade school and could have easily written better. Did the blacks buy them? Nope.

    The Orientals complained that they were sick of the “R/L” thing, along with hideous FU-Manchu villains, crazed knot tops with axes, hideous lust after white women and their own women depicted as treacherous sex toys. So the “PC Overlords” made a bunch of “Oriental Culture” fictions, some of these halfway good… But did the Orientals start buying them…? Nope.

    So went every conceivable ethnic group, race, creed, religion and sickening perversion. So the “PC Overlords” blah blah blah…. And they got NOTHING in these markets. But they kept pushing out trash that hated the macho white male who was the primary consumer of such works. And they were big, giant companies that could do what they liked, which in this case was not ‘expand’ a market but KILL it. So they looked at sales and said “This ain’t selling” after a decade of choking out real competition and making sure any real writers who didn’t churn out crud for them ever saw any professional publication. And then they largely abandoned the market they ruined, only returning to make sure only crud got published or put on the big screen or TV.

    So, we go back to “Realms of Fantasy” that IMO from an earlier debate is more or less a “13 year old girl” reading and tolerance level. IMO, if it wasn’t, it’d be BANNED, not sold in any bookstore/magazine stand, “Special order only” but listed nowhere save hard to even google search engines on the internet.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 29, 2010 2:44 am

  4. I can’t say I agree with any of the theories posted so far :)

    To my mind, the reason Realms failed was because the content of the magazine — quiet, thoughtful, literary tales — rarely matched the covers — dragons! Exciting, adventurers! Exotic locales!

    I know my younger self often felt very let down the few times he bought an issue. Sure, the stories were well-written, but they weren’t what I was looking for on that particular day…

    Comment by peadarog - October 29, 2010 5:13 am

  5. If Brian Murphy’s assessment is true, I’m glad I’m packing science and horror fiction into my upcoming mag. :)

    Although I think the reason most fantasy fails is because it’s ‘epic’, which can be off-putting to people who want a good story rather than a narrative about what they may see as medieval warfare.

    Comment by Mister_Alex - October 29, 2010 10:43 am

  6. I had the same problem as Peadar. I picked up two copies of RoF in the last few years and the stories were not what I was expecting given the covers. It was a bait and switch that left me with a bad taste for the publication.

    I can’t remember what those covers were right now because they’ve been long ago recycled, and I’m blocking them out with post purchase dissonance.

    Without looking, I know I started Black Gate with issue #8.

    I also remember some RoF getting some bad press in the blogosphere, specifically about sexist cover art. Not to rehash a dead topic, but that didn’t encourage me to try the mag again.

    All these reasons aside, I’m sure it’s difficult to manage a magazine of any kind, and my hat is off to all of those past and present who have done so.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - October 29, 2010 11:12 am

  7. All I can say is ‘wow’… way too much to consider in the above…

    Comment by Scott Taylor - October 29, 2010 5:09 pm

  8. hey greengestalt what about your pulp adventure publication? print? pdf? I don’t remember…
    by the way the Creepy and others publisher is James Warren not William Warren…

    Comment by francisco72 - October 30, 2010 10:09 am

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Kevin: I agree that the death of any fantasy magazine catering to short fiction is a sad day. Even though I never warmed to Realms of Fantasy I was glad it existed and offered another market for aspiring writers.

    Tyr: I’m no fan of urban fantasy, either (in my limited exposure to novels like Perdido Street Station I’ve found it rather empty and unfulfilling).

    GreenGestalt: I can’t say I entirely agree, especially if you look at the novels of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. They feature plenty of immorality and non-PC behavior presented without comment. On the other hand, the swords and sorcery genre remains sorely underrepresented on the bookshelves. And Lin Carter was a giant in the genre. He gets a lot of bad press for his mediocre fiction, including his Conan pastiches, but his important work as editor of the Flashing Swords anthology and in particular the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series cannot be overestimated.

    Peadrog/New Guy Dave: I agree, the stories (at least the few that I read; I only own three issues of RoF) felt like airy, epic fantasy in the vein of The Belgariad or Piers Anthony or The Mists of Avalon. Not really my cuppa tea. But I don’t feel qualified to comment on the content of the magazine as a whole because I just haven’t read enough.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - October 30, 2010 11:09 am

  10. When I started reading this article, I was all set to write an angry reply. “Too MUCH fantasy?” I asked, echoing your own take on your audience’s initial reaction in a strangely uncanny way. But I feel I’m inclined to agree with you after reading the article. I’ve bought a few fantasy magazines, but I’m still working my way through a stack of older, established writers, and I don’t think I’ll be done any time soon. I’ve read Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and of course Robert E. Howard (among others), and right now I’m reading Gene Wolfe and have on deck George R. R. Martin. Because of my professional obligations, I don’t have much time to read for fun, and if I have to reach for something, I’d rather read a story I know will be excellent.

    I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the magazines. I really do. It’s just that it’s hard to set down a Robert E. Howard (and I still haven’t exhausted his seemingly endless ouvre) to read a starting writer. It’s trading a sure bet for taking a chance.

    Quite a sobering thought as I struggle to make my own way into the industry, but there it is.

    But I would also note that I know what I’m getting when I read a Howard or a Moorcock (sinewy dark heroes and brooding doomed heroes), but the thrill provided in reading these magazines is a range and newness of ideas. I think magazines provide a sampling of all sorts of new takes on fantasy, and the unexpectedness and variety in them is often just as rewarding as treating myself to something I feel more comfortable with. As a fantasy reader, I love the unknown, and magazines can give me just that.

    I completely disagree with the above comment that political correctness is stifling fantasy (as I’ve found a few other commentors have done before me). That makes the assumption that make fantasy better (rather than being lazy, repetitive, and flat), and that fantasy becomes less vibrant because it’s less ignorant. Does it matter that certain groups don’t buy fantasy? Should we only respect people who share our literary tastes? I don’t want to turn this into a “flame war,” but I wanted to express my own opinion that I believe the best fantasy, rather than reinforcing stupid notions of misogyny or racial stereotypes, addresses something universal in the human spirit: the love of adventure, mystery, courage, and excitement.

    Comment by Daniel Nyikos - October 30, 2010 11:23 am

  11. Daniel,

    I think you raise an important point. Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, e.g., emerged from a magazine that had a lot of stories. Magazines have provided the initial ‘cut’ if you will. From that cut, a few talented writers will emerge. I view magazines as providing the same role towards writers as venture capitalists do to start up companies in the business world.

    Also, Daniel, I think there is some middle ground between misogyny/racism and recognizing the realities of life outside the bubble of the PC West. You only have to look at Africa or the Middle East to realize that tribal hatred and differing roles for women is a fact of life and has been the norm of humanity (including in the West) for most of its history. The insistence that all fictional settings recreate and promote post-1960s Western ideals has, in fact, reduced the quality and creativity of the current generation of fantasy.

    Comment by Tyr - October 30, 2010 1:57 pm

  12. You’re completely missing the point, Daniel. And you’re also wrong. There is no question – absolutely no question – that political correctness is not only stifling fantasy, but strangling it. There is absolutely no way that the fathers of modern fantasy could even get published today; the Inklings would be rejected for being “too Christian.” Or, per China Mieville, “too reactionary”. Or “too racist”… orcs are people too!

    Now, it is irrelevant whether you are correct or not about what “the best fantasy” is. You’re entitled to your opinion, as “stupid” and “ignorant” as it may be. The point that GreenGestalt made and that you did not address was that PC-edited fantasy rendered fantasy less attractive to its previous market without making it any more attractive to the prospective new markets. That is straightforward sales suicide.

    In answer to your questions, yes, it certainly does matter that certain groups don’t buy fantasy if publishing resources are being directed to cater to their tastes and away from the tastes of those who actually buy books. And while we should respect people who don’t share our literary tastes, that does not mean we should cater to their tastes when they are not going to buy books anyhow.

    Comment by Theo - October 30, 2010 3:19 pm

  13. francisco72,

    I’m just about finished on it. Had some RL Delays so I’ve pushed back the debut date for the holidays… Still doing some ‘testing’ and looking for possible advertisers first.

    It’ll be .pdf (no DRM, but hidden serial #) with tons of stories, articles, full color illustrations. It’s a gestalt of classic “Pulp” magazines and the “Men’s Adventure” magazines.

    And, the first issue will be free!
    -I’ll post a notice here.

    Sorry for the delay, but I want to make sure I’ve got the stuff set in motion to make sure the second one is out in a timely fashion and so forth:-)

    Comment by GreenGestalt - October 30, 2010 6:31 pm

  14. GreenGestalt : I know I said I might wait to see what your ‘zine is all about, but now I’m getting excited. Do you have more details on how to place ads?

    Comment by Mister_Alex - October 31, 2010 11:17 am

  15. [...] on From Brazil With Steam.Amal El-Mohtar on Towards a Steampunk Without Steam.Brian Murphy on The end of Realms of Fantasy begs the question: Too much fantasy on the market?Juliette Wade on Do more research to give the impression of less “research”.Jonathan Dotse on The [...]

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  16. [...] days ago, a fellow named Brian Murphy wrote this article on the Black Gate blog, positing that Realms of Fantasy‘s fold had to do with a glut of [...]

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  17. Tyr,

    I agree with you. I also fear that political correctness has forced modern fantasy into conforming to our twenty-first century Western paradigms, and therefore much of the richness of historical and worldwide cultures and belief systems have been squeezed out owing to our modern sensitivities. That is truly regrettable.

    Theo,

    I certainly didn’t mean to come across as saying those who want to incorporate other historical cultures into fantasy, or even create their own, are ignorant or stupid. I was only referring to the stereotypes Green Gestalt described, such as those of crazed Asian mystics lusting after white women. If attacking these depictions makes me wrong, then so be it.

    As I said above, I do agree that forcing fantasy into our modern aesthetics is counter-productive. Fantasy relies on exotic and fantastic settings, and as such, it requires us to Other races and even species. I understand this, and I also understand that Political Correctness has reduced the ways in which we can treat other races in stories. A race such as HG Wells’s Morlocks probably would meet with outrage these days, because we reject descriptions of any race as being purely evil, degenerate, etc. even though The Time Machine wouldn’t work without it.

    I certainly wasn’t implying “orcs are people, too.” I only meant that there has to be a line between cultural richness and monosyllabic black cannibals with rolling white eyes who accept the white men as gods because they carry lightning-sticks. (I’m not saying there aren’t documented cases of blacks treating white men as gods because of their technology, but I hope you understand it’s the underlying racial assumptions in the way they do so in some stories that bother me.)

    There’s a difference between catering to tastes and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. I agree that endless descriptions of women as capable, bold, independent warriors is getting stale. The “I can do everything the boys can do, but I do it in heels” chick can work in some stories, but sometimes I just want to read about a woman who needs rescuing from evil–a situation most of us, male or female, would find ourselves in if we were in that position. But the line appears somewhere around where the screaming woman accidentally reveals the hero’s location, falls face-first into an obvious trap, or gets tricked into betraying the hero by a more intelligent man. While it’s unfortunately true there are stupid, cowardly, and inept people in real life of both sexes, to base an entire character around these qualities seems wrong to me.

    I didn’t mean to cause offense. It seemed to me, perhaps wrongly, that Green Gestalt was lamenting the loss of the caricatures he described. On second reading, it seems he noted that fear of these caricatures has completely restrained our use of any ethnic quality in fantasy. If we include female or non-white characters, we have to make these characters heroes, for fear of someone complaining that a white male character is taking precedence over them. That I can agree with. Or if we include a culture based, say, on historical Arabia or Egypt, we may be attacked for cultural appropriation or disrespect. That, too, I think is a shame.

    Part of my response, I admit, stems from much of my knowledge of fantasy (and the perspectives of fantasy writers) being at least half a century out of date. Again, I probably misread Green Gestalt’s intentions in his comment, and it was only as a response to the caricatures he described that I made that last part of my comment. If I am still wrong for being disgusted by those caricatures, that’s something I can’t change.

    I welcome a respectful conversation on this topic, and if I went too far in my earlier comment, I offer my sincere apologies.

    Comment by Daniel Nyikos - November 2, 2010 11:30 pm

  18. I’d just like to point out that over the years there was almost no high fantasy printed in Realms of Fantasy. The covers that Sovereign Media used suggested that the magazine was filled with high fantasy, but it never really was. Anyone who thought that it was didn’t actually read it. It’s hard to take this writer’s analysis seriously when it’s clear that the writer has no idea what was actually inside the magazine.

    Comment by Warren Lapine - November 8, 2010 11:54 pm

  19. I have to say I think GreenGastault has some good points; I think PC-ness did take a toll on genre fiction in general, at least for a while, but I also thinks its become very apparent, most people who are fans of good tale-telling usually could care less about PC-ness. Like Mr. Murphy pointed-out; Abercrombie’s is just about as non-PC as one can get, and he’s books are very popular.
    I agree that there is just too many fantasy books out there for RoF and the like to make it. Especially now-a-days more then ever.
    There was probably a decade that passed, late-80′s to late-90s, where I personally struggled to find any good fantasy books (and it did seem to me that the market was flooded more with female-intrest then male). Now, between the internet, some really good small publishing companies forming, user-friendly e-books, and just increased popular interest due to movie success, I can’t find enough time to read all the books I have on my to-be-read list. Great old stuff is being re-published in awesome new formats, and their is a lot of new stuff that’s just plain great, and with all the blogs and websites its a breeze to find-out about it all and you don’t even need to leave your home to shop for it, (and with an e-reader you can be ready to go with a new book in minutes).

    Comment by kid_greg - November 9, 2010 12:34 pm

  20. Warren: You may want to re-read the post, then. Outside of a single line where I said I never warmed to Realms of Fantasy because it seemed too high fantasy to me, the entire post is about fantasy magazines failing because there’s too much competition in the marketplace. It’s purely speculation on my part, but I never said RoF failed because it was too much high fantasy.

    Comment by Brian Murphy - November 9, 2010 3:28 pm


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