Urban fantasy is swallowing up speculative fiction book sales, according to a new sales chart from Tim Holman, our new favorite chart pornographer. The Orbit Books publisher says that urban fantasy now claims nearly half the SF/F bestselller list.
After having just tracked the most popular fantasy book cover art elements, Holman has turned his eye to urban fantasy's rise among speculative book genres. Using sales data from Nielsen/Bookscan, Holman shows that urban fantasy accounts for only 14 percent of the genre's titles — but it claimed 45 percent of SF/F bestsellers.
This chart shows the rise of urban fantasy among fantasy (not SF/fantasy) bestsellers in the last several years:
So if a large number of urban fantasy books are outselling all other science fiction and fantasy books, but publishers are still putting out relatively few urban fantasy books, it doesn't take a marketing whiz to see what comes next. Says Holman:
The rise of urban fantasy has without any doubt been the biggest category shift within the SFF market of the last 10 years in the US...
How does this affect SFF publishers? Naturally, publishers respond to trends (and publishers tend to spend more time and energy trying to follow trends than setting them). If, for example, higher sales can be expected from an urban fantasy debut than a hard-SF debut, more publishers will be more inclined to publish more urban fantasy debuts than hard-SF debuts. More authors being published in one category will generally mean fewer authors being published in another. Particularly when the alpha category starts to dominate bestseller charts...
It's up to individual publishers, of course, to determine the balance of their lists, and thankfully we don't all end up with the same strategy. However, publishers are still likely to reconfigure to some extent when there is a significant category shift in the market. For example, editors with expertise in the urban fantasy field are likely to be in higher demand (others less so). Why hire an editor with a brilliant publishing instinct for hard SF if hard SF only makes up 2% of the publisher's business?
Holman concludes that urban fantasy may not always be on top, and there may be another seismic shift down the line. And his company, Orbit, has made a strategic decision to focus on other types of science fiction and fantasy in addition to urban fantasy. He winds up hopeful that the rise of swords-and-skyscrapers lit is indicative of a surge of interest in speculative fiction generally. Here's hoping that these books are reaching a new audience, and might serve as a "gateway drug" to other kinds of stories that use our world as a departure point for journeys into the fantastical and the bizarre.