Saving Epic Fantasy Books 200,000+ Words at a Time: Big Publishing’s Attempt to Stifle the World’s Most Popular Genre

There is a certain magical sub-genre of fantasy fiction called “Epic Fantasy” or “High Fantasy.” According to Wikipedia, the term “epic” derives from “the epic stature of its characters, themes, and plot.” I would argue that it must also be epic in scope (which I will argue has some correlation to length). Certainly, I would not argue that it need be more than some arbitrarily fixed number of words, (although writers in this sub-genre generally tend to write lengthy tomes—the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan are some good examples); nevertheless, the work must be substantive, as with an “epic poem” or an “epic film.” One would hardly call a short story, that otherwise would fit the definition, an epic fantasy short story; it would better be refereed to as simply a short story in high fantasy genre.

Inherent in the nature of epic fantasy is the implicit promise that behind the colorful facade of mythical/fairyland characters and settings, lie deep truths that ring so true they can transcend imagined other worlds to shed light upon our own. From Homer, on down through the ages, the great bards of epic lore have told tales about giants, pixies, sorcerers, and monsters not because they can tell us anything about how we might deal with such creatures when encountered in the subway, at a park, or in the local post office but specifically because these Goliaths, Tinkerbells, Merlins, and Smaugs are representative of epic themes we all face in the real world—bullies, innocents, sages, and corporate/political/etc. juggernauts.

In epic fantasy, the reader is so immersed in the magical world(s) created by its author, that he begins to gimps a gestalt of epic proportion (excuse the pun). The truths of Middle Earth ring true, eternal and relevant here, now, and forever—the horror of war, the threat of tyranny, the power of believing in oneself, no matter how small or insignificant seeming, and so forth. When read carefully (and sometimes even casually), an epic fantasy novel will change the reader and his worldview. He will no longer be able to see our world—in terms of race, religion, humanity, or any of a myriad other issues an author of epic fantasy might chose to explore—in exactly the same way as he saw it before beginning on page one.

I recently sent out a series of query letters for literary agents and was shocked by some of their responses. One’s entire response was: “Your book theme sounds interesting. I can tell you, however, that your word counts will be an immediate deal breaker for almost all publishers (and therefore, agents). For any author who doesn’t already have a known track record, anything over 100k will be a near-certain reject. Can’t help you here.” And, he wasn’t the only one to insist as much. Granted, I am not a Tolkien, Brooks, Martin, or Jordan (yet); but the manuscript I was submitting was a substantial 40,000 words less than The Sword of Shannara and 75,000 words less than either A Game of Thrones or The Eye of the World, each the first book in its respective series (one, the author’s first published book).

But you say, “The times, they are a’chang’n.” “Things just don’t work that way, anymore. New authors almost never get manuscripts over 100,000 words published.” Nevertheless, it seems unfortunate, to me, that the publishing industry has decided for the rest of us readers and writers that “short and to the point” is always better (in fact, requisite). As with the modern plagues of the sound bite and Wikipedia summary, in place of in-depth news reporting and primary source research, we are told that our modern attention spans simply can’t handle substantive input, let alone “epic.” If publishers could get $25 for a hardcover “tweet,” I’m certain they would be thrilled and determined to limit all subsequently published books to 140 characters or less. And, that makes good financial sense.

But, it seems strange to me that there should be so much pressure to produce shorter epic fantasy novels, especially in a time when the “cost” of publishing a book has dropped so precipitously that anyone with an Amazon account can produce a hefty book of 500 pages for around $8.50 plus markup ($0.015 per page plus $0.90 per cover). And, that price can be achieved for a one-off on expensive paper; when printing by the thousands of copies per run, it must certainly be far less expensive for traditional publishers.

On top of that, this is at the same time that so many of the most successful epic fantasy series are among the most “epic.” Just look at The Lord of the Rings—half-a-million words; Harry Potter (although not strictly “epic fantasy”)—over one million words in the series; The Dark Tower—a-million-and-a-quarter; A Song of Ice and Fire—one-and-three-quarter-million words and still going strong; and then, there’s The Wheel of Time—over four million words long, some books in the series almost 400,000 words in length.

I call it a case of not only throwing out the baby with the bathwater but throwing out the basin, as well. Even as epic fantasy is becoming increasingly more and more popular among the general reading (and formerly non-reading, as exemplified by the huge numbers of young Potter fans introduced to the idea of reading the story rather than passively watching it unfold before their eyes) public, there is intense pressure to change one of the fundamental elements that make such books so popular—the utterly immersive and compelling world-building that is achieved by the very nature of their epic sizes.

I can almost imagine an editor at St Martins or Random House imposing a limit on latest edition of The Bible of “no more than 100,000 words, if you please; and that should include the Old and New Testaments… In fact, can’t we get the sequel’s message across with just the words: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ Why, just last week we combined the latest editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey into a 50,000 word novella simply by ‘economizing’ the poetry.”

I don’t know whether the books in my own epic fantasy series, The Hero Sagas, will be best sellers or not; they won’t start to roll out until Spring of 2014. But whether they are eventually published by one of the “Big Six” (soon to be “Five”), stay with the small independent press printing Book One, Rüneglaive: Sword of Heroes, or whether subsequent volumes are self-published, I will continue to write them as though people really do want to read epic tales of epic deed wrought by epic heroes and told in epic form.

Title treatment for Rüneglaive: Sword of Heroes