The Bottom Line

No one on either side of the Atlantic could ignore the gibbering hysteria about Harry Potter IV or Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. Other fine fantasies were just as eagerly awaited by discerning fans but hardly made a splash at all. Often there's a mysterious transatlantic divide in these matters: Terry Pratchett may be an astonishing mega-success in Britain (and also very big in Australia), but he's merely an OK seller in the USA.

Here in Britain we have to go to import shops or Amazon for the latest books by two of the best living fantasy authors, because they're weirdly not available in the UK. Gene Wolfe's Return to the Whorl completes his intricate and wonderful "Book of the Short Sun", a trilogy of which not one volume has been published in Britain – although its predecessor "The Book of the Long Sun" did appear here, and the whole thing is linked to his classic "Book of the New Sun", recently reissued in the Millennium Fantasy Masterworks series.

John Crowley's fate is uncannily similar. His most famous fantasy Little, Big is also available in Masterworks, but the very fine tetralogy he's producing right now is currently invisible over here. Book one, Aegypt, had British editions in the late 1980s; the sequels Love and Sleep and (published 2000) Daemonomania appeared only in America. I had to make a special trip to Florida for a signed copy of the latter ...

This transatlantic divide also annoys British author Brian Stableford, who lives just down the road from me. His far-ranging SF sequence about the bioengineered abolition of death – whose titles include Inherit the Earth, Architects of Emortality and The Fountains of Youth – seems to be doing very nicely from Tor Books in New York. The reviews are consistently enthusiastic, and there's even talk of movie options. But British publishers won't touch it.

Authors always whinge about publishers being dominated by accountants who look only at the bottom line. Even idealistic editors have to worry about selling the books they love to their own firm's marketing people, who are quite capable of sabotaging the prospects of anything they dislike. It happened to me once, despite strong support from the enthusiastic editor who'd bought the book.

The next obstacles are the book distributors with their dread database software, judging new novels by the sales of the author's previous work. If the current system had been in place in the 1980s, it's possible that Terry Pratchett's breakthrough book The Colour of Magic might never have appeared. "The database says his first novel The Carpet People sank without trace and the SF books that followed didn't do a lot better. Let's not take a chance on this dodgy proposition."

Which is why some authors now try to relaunch their careers with brand-new identities, hoping to escape the curse of database prejudgment. British readers have probably never heard of Dave Wolverton, a midlist SF author in the USA. When at last he came up with a blockbuster fantasy that seemed a candidate for the big time, it was released in 1998 under a brand-new name with no existing track record: The Sum of All Men by David Farland, a surname redolent of fantasy ...

Did it work? "Farland" got best-seller promotion (the book was pretty good), but some expert onlookers consider the whole thing is mostly superstition – a floundering attempt to do voodoo with the magic of true names. Dave Wolverton seemed a little bit ratty when my own SF newsletter Ansible revealed his secret identity, but it was hardly a top-security issue. For a start, the title The Sum of All Men had appeared among "other books by the same author" in a Wolverton SF novel.

Another US author who had a similar relaunch was Megan Lindholm, whose streetwise 1986 fantasy Wizard of the Pigeons still has a cult following but whose career later seemed to get bogged down. Exit Megan Lindholm, pursued by a royalty statement; enter Robin Hobb, author of six whopping volumes beginning with Assassin's Apprentice in 1995. It seems to be working for her.

Now I'm planning my own novelistic comeback with a hard-hitting military SF series under the subtle pseudonym Rambo Nukefist, plus a sequence of ethereal fairy tales as Galadriel Moonshadow Starborn. Or maybe, to avoid being crudely obvious, those names would work better the other way around.

David Langford already tried re-inventing himself with a brand-new image as Dave Langford, but no one seemed to notice.