Spicy Opinion: Modern Fantasy writers are up against dead guys and cannot compete.

I expect this is going to be a very controversial article if the thread on Twitter is anything to go by and I will try to show both sides of the argument by being open to all opinions presented.

Recently on Twitter I had an article pop-up on my timeline with the caption “*Losing to dead guys*” above it and I felt the need to dive into it:

An old article that has re-emerged recently

So let me take you back to the start of this so you are fully aware of the context of this debate. Back in March 2019, Fantasy author Fonda Lee (Green Bone Sage, Exo, Zeroboxer) posted a thread to social media site Twitter highlighting that her local Barnes & Noble store in Portland was stocking 3.5 shelves of Tolkien’s books, 1.5 shelves for Jordan’s books (Remember this was over 2 years ago and might have changed).

The start of the thread 1/4

Fonda goes on to say that she loves Lord of the Rings too but felt that 3.5 shelves was too much. She says there is so much great modern SFF work out there and when she looked she found one copy of her WFA-winning book (World Fantasy Award) and one of most of the other Hugo and Nebula nominees. There were 18 copies of LOTR.

Fonda actually makes a great point when she highlights that people go into bookstores like Barnes & Noble (or the UK equivalent Waterstones) to discover new books but do people really need to discover Lord of the Rings (and with 18 copies on the shelf?). Fonda ends the thread explaining that this is why we need to support Indie (independent) bookstores.

You can read the original thread on Twitter here.


From Fonda’s POV:

She is a modern fantasy author who has written great fantasy stories. As a female author I would expect that she faces tougher hurdles than a male counterpart would to get her book on the shelf and from the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag from last year, probably does it for less money too, at least initially.

Fonda walks into her local store looking for a new book, maybe to sign some of her own books and finds that B&N have a hard-on for the classic stuff. The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time and possibly others like Malazan or Dune. She looks for her WFA-winning book and finds a single copy. If that book gets firstly found and secondly purchased and isn’t replaced for 48-72 hours on the next delivery (based off of how retail works on a sales/replenishment system), how many customers might miss out on discovering Fonda’s WFA winning book? From my experience you could put that number between 5 and 20 customers (rough estimate). Now you’ve got a potential deficit of 5-20 customers across hundreds of B&N stores. This amplifies in the way that if a customer enjoyed one book then they are most likely going to purchase the next one in the series. This then means less money for Fonda and her publisher goes off of sales figures when deciding whether to sign her for further books. This isn’t a problem if you stock 18 copies of one book however.

The question to ask is who is choosing how these shelves are stocked as this is a huge factor. Are the shelves being stocked by a merchandising sheet from head office where they have decided which books they want where or are the shelves being organised by a member of staff as they see fit? The reason I ask this is because if it’s the first option then the fact that these shelves were over-populated is the doing of head office but if it’s the second option, that a member of staff wants to promote their favourite fantasy books, then that is an issue unique to each guilty B&N store.

Claire agrees with Fonda’s opinion

From the side of B&N/Waterstones:

Stores like B&N are businesses. They need to sell what makes money so it’s no surprise that in 2019 (or any year) the store are putting out arguably two of the best-selling fantasy series in troves because they know people recommend them, buy them and love them. Add onto this that any list that has ‘Top 100 Fantasy books’ will inevitably have LOTR and WoT in the top 5 making them even more of a desirable shelf filler by bookstores.

This very recent comment shows that some people are die-hard Tolkien fans

The argument could also be made that Fonda has a book on the shelf, so should be grateful that she has done what a lot of authors might not achieve and that she can’t expect to compete with authors as big and revered as Tolkien or Jordan since they’ve been around much longer, not to mention many people consider Tolkien to be the father of Fantasy books with his then groundbreaking Middle Earth books. Why should Fonda get an easier ride to the top with bookstores helping her (or other authors) by removing such fantasy juggernauts as the aforementioned two from their shelves making it a fair battle. Business isn’t fair and stores need to make money through whatever means possible and if this means promoting two huge author’s works over “smaller” authors then so be it.

If B&N went ahead with removing the most popular Fantasy books (in this argument, those written by Tolkien/Jordan) then where does this end? As pointed out by a Twitter user, do we take down the Mona Lisa so other people’s artwork can get a chance to be loved? Do we take down re-runs of popular comedies so that newer comedies have more airtime?


My opinion:

I would personally say that I completely understand where Fonda Lee is coming from. She has written a fantastic fantasy story with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award (seriously check it out, one of my favourites), and of course she would like that book to have more exposure on a shelf in a mainstream bookstore.

That being said, bookstores have to make sure they’re making as much profit as possible to ensure their survival in an ever-challenging world where high-street businesses are unfortunately going into administration. If they be nice and put more emphasis on lesser-known authors over the classic best-sellers then how would that effect their sales. Then again, anyone compared to Tolkien is a ‘lesser-known’ author.


Final thoughts:

To conclude, I think that bookstores should stock the ‘big-hitters’ like Tolkien and Jordan but they should also have clear space for other books by all authors. That space should be fair and evenly displayed (ie front facing books or a debut authors shelf or a classics shelf where they have one shelf for all of Tolkien/Jordan and their like). Everyone knows who Tolkien is and his works but if someone doesn’t know, then give his books the same fair chance at being discovered by new fantasy readers as you would for books by Fonda or any other author in the SFF world. Maybe that reader would then get to pick their own favourites without a very popular author’s works being pushed at them through marketing or sales tactics.

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7 thoughts on “Spicy Opinion: Modern Fantasy writers are up against dead guys and cannot compete.

  1. Interesting article Ben. I can see this point, and I recall many years ago, before the internet age, falling out with fantasy because of the paucity of new SFF. There is only some many ways LOTR. can be told. However, when a new bookshop came on a new fangled thing called the internet, giving me access to authors like RA Salvatore etc I was overjoyed.
    However, Waterstones where I live doesn’t do a bad job TBH, and that was where I picked up Northern Wrath. They did stock Jade City BTW.
    However, again it is true that large bookshop chains will stock the ones with the most saleability.
    It’s a difficult one isn’t it, but it also shows a laziness on large stockists part.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Norm – it was interesting to research/write. I think Waterstones aren’t too bad and this information from the article is now over 2 years old so maybe it’s all changed. I’m impressed you got Northern Wrath in stores. Being a debut novel, it was largely unknown but I think the book is brilliant so glad you found it. I’ve got the sequel on my Kindle and will have a review up before release date.

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  2. Book stores are always a crapshoot it seems like these days. I agree it would be nice if Tolkien and (probably) Jordan got moved over to the classics section. They probably have decent representation in the discount section too as there are many printings and it seems like stores always want to sell of the old covers for new.
    I was noticing a similar effect going on with Brandon Sanderson. His series are so many volumes (and thicc) that he easily eclipses space on the shelf. I feel like I’d go to a store for whatever the newest release is, and maybe the beginnings of series could be stocked so I could discover them but not a couple volumes of each number. It’s like 40 books! Perhaps they’re hoping people will buy the whole set at once?
    I often find that I can’t find new releases by authors I love like Nnedi Okorafor. It’s crazy but I also don’t doubt that bookstores know exactly how to make the most money so . . . idk what to think.
    Anyway, thanks for typing this up! It was really interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the key word is ‘compete’. It’s not about how many books are on shelves. It’s about how good the work is. It’s about promoting the work and there are many more ways to do it these days. There’s a reason people are buying books written by those dead ‘guys’ and dead ‘girls’. And it’s more to do with merit than competition.

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      1. It surely is every writer’s ambition to have their work live on after them. I can’t imagine that those books that are dated would be reprinted. They are on the shelves because they still have something to offer today’s readers. Cream will always rise to the top.🤭

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