I’ve been noticing a lot more lately that there is some significant confusion in the book trade as to what, exactly, constitutes a fantasy novel. At times this is just kind of an academic exercise, but if your livelihood relies on a clear understanding of the book trade, it begins to matter when you go out looking for statistics that might help you make better business decisions. When we look at the fantasy genre and ask how it’s doing, overall, it would be nice to get accurate information, and more and more there’s one strange misconception that’s causing real confusion in the book business, and that’s that horror novels belong on the fantasy best sellers list.

Right up front I want it on the record that I am a big fan of the horror genre in both print and movies. If you’ve been following my (mostly) weekly blog novel Completely Broken, (now for sale as an e-book) you’ve probably sorted out that I write horror, too. Nothing in this post should be taken as a stab (no pun intended) at horror. I love the genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s “fantasy,” and when the two are mixed it has a tendency to make the trade book business just a little less clear.

Here’s what I mean:

BookScan “Fantasy” Best Sellers, October 16, 2009

1. A Touch of Dead by Charlaine Harris

2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

3. The Ghost King by R.A. Salvatore

4. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

5. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

6. Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

7. Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris

8. Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris

9. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

10. Dead To The World by Charlaine Harris

BookScan is a service of the Nielsen Company, probably best known as the television ratings people. They collect sales data from participating stores, and more and more this service is being used to make decisions in the publishing world. They do a pretty good job, and I’m not criticizing the way they collect data, just how they present it, in this particular case.

Go ahead and accuse me of splitting hairs, but of the books on what BookScan thinks is their “fantasy” top ten list only two (The Ghost King and Unseen Academicals) are actually fantasy—maybe we can widen out to include The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I think an equally cogent argument could be made that that’s actually science fiction. The rest, all by Charlaine Harris, are clearly horror novels.

Again, that doesn’t mean I think Charlaine Harris doesn’t deserve every bit of the stellar success she’s been having—even before the TV series started up—but her Sookie Stackhouse novels clearly are horror. They’re set in the here-and-now, and the major beasties are vampires, always more a horror archetype than a fantasy trope, and they’re meant to be scary. That’s horror, and that’s fine, so then why are all these horror books on the fantasy best sellers list?

The horror genre, like pretty much any genre (except mystery, which always seems to be fine) tends to come and go in cycles. Horror, in particular, appears closely tied to economic and social conditions. Not only does the nature of what’s scary seem to change—with cold war horror typified by SF-tinged stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing, to the 1970’s “slasher” films that were all about a fear of violent crime (a bigger problem in the Seventies than it is now)—but it also seems to get more popular when the economy is bad. The great Universal monster movies all came out during the Great Depression and were wildly popular. Stephen King rose to world domination during the Reagan-era recessions of the Eighties. Now we’re back in the economic doldrums and movies like Paranormal Activity are burning up the box office while Charlaine Harris, Stephanie Meyer, Laurel K. Hamilton, and a whole new generation of horror authors are firmly entrenched on the best sellers lists.

But then there was the Nineties, when it seemed as if everything would be okay, and horror really took a nose dive both in book stores and at the box office. Some stores eliminated their horror sections entirely, and all of a sudden, calling a book “horror” was sales poison. How did the creative and talented book trade sales professionals solve that problem? They happened upon a little-known sub-genre called “urban fantasy” and just flat-out co-opted the name Voila, here they are on the fantasy list.

Urban fantasy, by the way, is what Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files book are. And yes, there really is a difference.

Of the fifty titles ranked on that list, just one more than half—twenty-six—were actually horror novels, leaving only twenty-four fantasy novels on the list of the fifty best-selling fantasy novels.

Now that the next Great Depression is in full swing and horror is back, keeping it on the fantasy list does not make sense anymore. It may even be causing the fantasy genre to appear more successful than it really is.

There actually is a difference between fantasy and horror, and not recognizing that ends up feeling a bit deceptive—at least disingenuous—especially when it seems as though some people at least are deliberately misusing the “urban fantasy” moniker. First off, if those lists were broken into their real genres, fantasy books wouldn’t start selling more, and horror novels less. We would be able to look at both lists and determine things like: Horror is outselling fantasy. Among fantasy books, here are the fifty that people are buying the most.

Of course we can still do that with the existing list, but then we really only have the top half of both genres. Best seller lists only matter in very narrow confines, and if you were the author of the twenty-fifth best selling fantasy novel the week of October 16, 2009, you didn’t make it on that list, nor did your friends among the rest of the bottom twenty-six. There are twenty-four horror authors getting the shaft, and twenty-six fantasy authors sharing their pain.

Science fiction has its own separate BookScan list. The best-selling SF book that week was The Host by Stephanie Meyer, with one-week sales that would have put it at number eleven on the fantasy list. The second best-selling SF novel, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, would only make it to number twenty-five on the fantasy list. So we know that both fantasy and horror, pound for pound, are outselling science fiction, but I also know that the twenty-fifth best-selling SF novel is Xombies: Apocalypse Blues by Walter Greatshell (with sales below the fiftieth book on the fantasy list). If BookScan is willing to tell me that, and that the fiftieth best-selling SF book was Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer, why can’t I know what the real twenty-fifth fantasy book is, or the real twenty-seventh horror novel?

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. You’ve sold me on this crazy scheme of yours. Horror, off with it’s head! Or, at least, off to it’s own list.

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