Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Leaving Money on the Table: Why is There No New D&D Fiction Being Published?


A shelf of books from the Forgotten Realms line. 292 books in the setting have been published between 1987 and 2020.


Dungeons and Dragons is bigger than it has ever been. 2019 was the biggest and most profitable year in the game’s near half-century history, building on the massive success of the several preceding years where each year saw greater success than the one before. The 5th edition of the game, launched in 2014, has been the best-selling ever. Celebrity gamers, YouTube video series and a starring role on Stranger Things have helped propel D&D to a level of popularity unthinkable a decade ago, when the game’s fourth edition was attracting a lukewarm reception and gamers were flocking to competing products, such as Pathfinder.

A new, big-budget D&D movie is in development and a high-profile video game, Baldur’s Gate III, is set for release early next year. But there seems to be a glaring and baffling omission when it comes to the popularity of the game at present: the total dearth of tie-in, written fiction. Since 2018, a grand total of three novels based on the Dungeons and Dragons brand have been published: Timeless, Boundless and Relentless, all by R.A. Salvatore. 2017 was the first year since 1983 in which no D&D fiction was published at all. There are currently no scheduled D&D novels for 2021 or onwards.

This state of affairs is bizarre, all the moreso because it wasn’t too long ago that D&D fiction was being produced and selling at a rate completely at odds with the game’s then low-profile.

The cover art for Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984), the very first novel published by TSR, Inc.

As of next month, 623 novels and anthologies* will have been published with the Dungeons and Dragons logo on it or set in one of the D&D worlds. The first, Andre Norton’s Quag Keep (1978), was published by DAW, but almost all of the rest were published by the D&D game creators themselves, TSR from 1984 to 1997 and then Wizards of the Coast from 1997 to 2016. The last three books by RA Salvatore have been published by HarperCollins, under licence from Wizards (and their parent company, Hasbro).

The D&D line’s biggest performer is easily R.A. “Bob” Salvatore, who started writing for the line with his Forgotten Realms novel The Crystal Shard, published in January 1988 as just the second book in that franchise. Salvatore’s signature character, the honourable dark elf ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, has gone on to become arguably the single most famous and popular Dungeons and Dragons character of them all, and the books starring Drizzt or spinning off from them (now totalling 38) have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. That’s more than every single D&D sourcebook, campaign setting and adventure since 1978, combined (estimated by WotC at around 20 million). Salvatore’s sales performance makes him one of the biggest-selling living fantasy authors, behind only Terry Brooks, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling (add J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Robert Jordan and Terry Pratchett for deceased fantasy authors, and the still-living Stephen King if you count his brand of horror-fantasy) and ahead of the likes of Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and, at this time of writing, Brandon Sanderson (although Sanderson is catching up like a freight train).

Salvatore’s success puts him in a different league to any of the other authors in the same line. The second-biggest-selling Forgotten Realms novelist seems to be the creator of the setting himself, Ed Greenwood, who had definitively sold 3 million books by a decade or so ago (including a million of his debut, Spellfire, by itself) and probably a couple of million more since then. Paul S. Kemp, Elaine Cunningham and Troy Denning all seem to have sold at least a million books apiece in the setting as well. But, although strong, that’s in a completely different league to Salvatore, who remains the outlier.

In the wider world of Dungeons and Dragons fiction, Salvatore’s only competition comes from the team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the co-authors and co-creators (with several others) of the Dragonlance Saga. Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy had sold 4 million copies before the end of the 1980s, making it one of the most successful epic fantasy series of the decade, and their total sales since then (including a dozen or so additional books) are on the order of 25 million.

The non-Weis and Hickman Dragonlance books have not sold anywhere near as many copies, but they have done cumulatively quite well. In total, it is estimated that approximately 100 million Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels have been sold since the lines began in 1984 and 1987 respectively.

These aren’t chump figures, and they compare very well to, say, Star Wars tie-in fiction (which has sold an estimated 120 million copies or so, in a vastly better-known franchise) and may even rival Star Trek novel sales, and are certainly far ahead of the sales of the likes of, say, Doctor Who. It’s an impressive achievement which brings us back to our original question: why isn’t more Dungeons and Dragons fiction being created?

The success of D&D fiction is not particularly tied to that of the roleplaying game; the majority of people who’ve read a Salvatore novel have probably never played a game of Dungeons and Dragons in their life, and the books all stand alone with no knowledge of the game needed to enjoy them. That in itself may be part of the problem: relatively few people are reading Star Wars novels or Star Trek books who don’t also watch the films or TV shows, but the same is not true of D&D. The cross-pollination between the novels and the game is, at least historically, limited. We can see that when D&D was selling very poorly in the late 1990s, shifting only a few hundred copies of the latest sourcebook, but the latest R.A. Salvatore hardcover was debuting on the New York Times bestseller list. Similarly, when the 4th Edition of D&D crashed and burned in sales (after a successful initial launch in 2008, but then a swift and ignominious outclassing by the rival Pathfinder RPG, which launched with a D&D-compatible and more popular rules set), the novels continued to sell quite well for years afterwards.

When the 5th Edition of D&D launched in 2014, the fiction lines were still running. There was a cross-brand, multimedia story event called The Sundering, which spanned several ongoing Forgotten Realms series with several of the setting’s most popular authors (including Salvatore, Greenwood, Kemp, Denning and successful relative newcomer Erin M. Evans), which seemed to do well. However, immediately after the Sundering concluded, the previous high output of the Wizards of the Coast fiction department seemed to drop. R.A. Salvatore published five more books, Ed Greenwood two and Erin Evans three, and absolutely none of the enormous battery of other authors on hand released any more books. All of the published books were additions to ongoing series, indicating that they were being released to fulfil contracts and run those contracts out. The low print runs for Erin Evans’ Brimstone Angels novels (hence the insane prices they are currently commanding on eBay) seems to indicate that this was the case.

With the release of Erin Evans’ The Devil You Know in December 2016, Wizards of the Coast shut down its book imprint, at least for new submissions. In fact, Hasbro terminated its entire fiction acquiring role outright. Other book lines, such as the perennially popular Magic: The Gathering novel series, were also shut down for new authors. The divisions would still exist, but only to reprint and pump out legacy sales (such as the excellently-performing omnibuses of Drizzt Do’Urden adventures).

This seemed counter-intuitive and baffling, but some logic soon emerged. The Dungeons & Dragons and Magic lines had not been discontinued, but they’d been moved to other publishing houses: HarperCollins picked up the Dungeons and Dragons/Forgotten Realms licence and announced a new trilogy contract with R.A. Salvatore. Del Rey announced a licencing deal for Magic: The Gathering. Interestingly, Wizards of the Coast and Del Rey had also lined up well-known, more mainstream fantasy authors to continue the Magic line: Brandon Sanderson, Kate Elliott, Django Wexler and Greg Weisman (although several of these would be online-only publications).

HarperCollins has so far not announced any plans for additional D&D or Forgotten Realms novels beyond Relentless by Salvatore (which is released at the end of July), which given the nuclear-hot status of D&D at the moment feels weird. I do think it’s likely that there will be more books from Salvatore and probably a new trilogy is deal is being discussed now. Certainly, many of the other, well-established D&D authors stand ready to write more fiction but they haven’t even had meetings with HarperCollins to that end.

I suspect the main problem here is licensing: Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast in 1999 and let them do their own thing for quite some time, but around a decade ago, in the wake of the mega-success of the Transformers movies, instituted a new corporate policy which insisted on maximum return on any deal. In particular, all Hasbro-owned properties would be required to generate a rock bottom amount (rumoured to be $15 million) in profit in any given year, otherwise they would be temporarily retired for several years before being brought back in a blaze of publicity. This meant that a product line could be successful at what Hasbro would consider a low level – generating several million in profits per year – but still not be doing enough for Hasbro to consider it worthwhile. Hasbro also wanted to make its own operations leaner and more efficient, focusing on its core brands of toys and games. Publishing was a tangent and they decided to shut it down so they didn’t have to bother with it and could just outsource licences to third party publishers.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it does create a significant entry barrier. If the licencing fee is high enough, then the publisher will become increasingly risk-averse. For an author like R.A. Salvatore, who is guaranteed to sell at least a million copies of their latest novel no matter what, that’s not a problem as their sales will easily make up for the lost revenue to the licence fee. For even a very solid performer like Ed Greenwood or Paul Kemp, whose latest book is still guaranteed to sell at least a couple of hundred thousand, the fee might make the prospect of publishing the book riskier. For authors further down the sales hierarchy, it actually becomes prohibitive.

If these books were still being published in-house, then the licencing fee wouldn’t exist: the profits would go to Wizards and thus Hasbro regardless, so even relatively low-selling authors who were still breaking even were still worth publishing, because it puts books on the shelves, keeps the brand visible etc, and that mass accumulation of sales can drive an overall strong sales performance. But since Wizards and Hasbro can’t be bothered with that approach, it’s not happening.

The Grand History of the Realms details some 38,000 years of history of the Forgotten Realms setting, highlighting its immense attention to detail and the size of its background lore, seen as both a benefit and a drawback.

I Fought the Lore and the Lore Won

I suspect there is another problem, much more specific to the Forgotten Realms setting. Created by Ed Greenwood in 1967, converted for use for his home Dungeons & Dragons campaign in 1976, converted as a background to Dragon magazine articles in 1978 and finally officially published in 1987, the Forgotten Realms holds a strong claim to being the most detailed, continuously-in-print and popular shared fantasy world ever created. This has manifested through approximately 243 dedicated gaming products (boxed sets, supplements, adventures, sourcebooks and adventure paths), 292 books, 53 video games and thousands of magazine and online articles and in-depth discussions on dedicated message boards.

This has resulted in a robustly-detailed world. The Forgotten Realms Wiki has 32,000 entries and is not still not remotely complete. Although the central tenet of Forgotten Realms has always been "make the world your own," including or ignoring elements of the canon as you choose, the setting did gain a - somewhat unfair - reputation for being impenetrable to newcomers or casual fans by the end of D&D's third edition in 2008.

This resulted in the highly controversial decision to nuke the setting. The version of Forgotten Realms that was released for the 4th Edition of D&D in 2008 moved the timeline one hundred years into the future - promptly killing every single human, non-magically-enhanced character in the setting - and saw the Realms effectively destroyed by a magical cataclysm known as the Spellplague, with the setting now adopting a post-apocalyptic tone. Needless to say, fans were utterly furious and most pointblank ignored the changes. The hope that the "factory reset" of the setting would bring in new fans also failed to materialise. The rival Pathfinder game stole D&D's thunder and its own setting of Golarion became an effective replacement for the Realms as the "default" D&D-style fantasy world for several years.

The success of D&D 5th Edition helped save the Realms. The Sundering event saw a second "factory reset" of the Realms, restoring the pre-Spellplague (and in fact pre-3rd Edition, in several key respects) version of the setting whilst maintaining the time jump. The 5th Edition of the setting thus maintains the rich backstory of the setting whilst not alienating the fans who came on board in more recent years. The absence of new novels is also helpful in not adding to the mountain of lore the setting has built up, allowing fans to get a better handle on the settle over a wider period of time.

Long-term fans of the setting note that the rich depth of the setting in terms of backstory and characters is one of its key appeals, and not developing that further through fiction is doing far more to damage the setting's appeal than inaction is in making it more popular.

The cover of Relentless, only the third D&D novel published since the end of 2016.

So, what does the future hold for D&D novels?

I suspect in the near future we will see confirmation of a new R.A. Salvatore deal. I also suspect that there are negotiations going on for relatively “big name” fantasy authors to perhaps line up a D&D novel or three (Brandon Sanderson would be a shoe-in, especially after his recent Magic: The Gathering novella, but he’s way too busy with his own Cosmere setting). One of the biggest factors in D&D’s current success has been the success of YouTube web series like Critical Role, and I suspect if Matt Mercer and a novelist teamed up to write a novel set in the world of Exandria, that deal would be done pretty quickly. I also suspect that if Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman came to Wizards of the Coast with a new Dragonlance proposal, that would also be snapped up pretty quickly.

Otherwise I think we’ll be seeing the licence-holder being quite cautious going forwards. There could be a tie-in novel for the D&D movie due in 2022, but beyond that things may depend on the success of the film. If it is huge, that could propel things forward on other fronts. I suspect, though, the days of 15-20 novels being published a year may be in the past, with a much higher barrier for entry in the future, unless Wizards of the Coast take the publishing arm back in-house. Given that D&D is, at heart, a series of rulebooks, it’s a bit weird that the fiction publishing arm was shuttered anyway.

What is clear is that there is an enormous audience out there for Dungeons and Dragons-branded fiction, whether set in one of the established worlds or a new one, and the current D&D licence-holders are leaving a lot of money on the table by continuing to ignore them.


* The count is currently 292 books in the Forgotten Realms line, 203 in the Dragonlance franchise, 40 in Eberron, 24 in Ravenloft, 16 in Dark Sun, 13 in Greyhawk, 10 in Mystara, 7 in Nentir Vale and 6 apiece for Birthright, Planescape and Spelljammer.

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4 comments:

Blakey UK said...

"although Sanderson is catching up like a freight train"

Love that. I discovered Sanderson as he wrapped up Wheel of Time, and I've been unable to keep pace with his output.

MrSquiggles said...

And then compare to Black Library and the immense output of W40K novels.

Anonymous said...

"For an author like R.A. Salvatore, who is guaranteed to sell at least a million copies of their latest novel no matter what"


Really? I wouldn't have thought Salvatore would be selling anywhere near that these days. Those are Brandon Sanderson numbers. And, for example, it took The Way of Kings around 8 years to sell a million copies.

The last time I could find Salvatore on the NY Times bestseller list is for Timeless, and it debuted at 15.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been reading Forgotten Realms novels since "Spellfire" and "The Crystal Shard" were first published (and having read nearly all of them), the lack of new novels has been a severe disappointment. These books and characters have been part of my life for over 30 years now, and with their passing...it leaves a void. Sure, there are other fantasy series, and of course I can reread my old books, but it just isn't the same.

Looking backwards, though, I do have to ask myself if it isn't a good thing. The quality of Forgotten Realms, or more specifically, the authors, certainly declined over the years. Take, for example, "Master of Chains" by Jess Lebow...that was the first FR book I stopped reading, because it was so utterly predictable, boring, and trite. Was every book prior to that a great book? No, certainly not, but that book was a new low that I found unacceptable. Or consider Erin Evans- the first book I partially read by her was "The Adversary". I stopped reading it because it was nothing more than two seemingly drama-laden teenage girls arguing. I'm sure that such fiction sells well to certain audiences, but it certainly did not fit with the FR.

Even Salvatore...I question whether he is writing books still because he has a story to tell, if it is fan service, or just for another paycheck. I am currently on book 2 of his latest trilogy (I like to wait till all three books in a trilogy are out before starting), and it is a let down. After reading in the last trilogy that vendettas against Drizzt were to be a thing of the past (and glad to see that well-beaten dead horse left to rest), once again we find a drow house out to get Drizzt. Yawn.

So, I don't know. I'd love to see more Forgotten Realms novels, but, if nothing else, the legacy of the series deserves good writers with stories to tell that haven't been written previously.

-HJ