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Fantasy fiction has come of age. Blame it on a kid with glasses.
Sales of science fiction and fantasy books have jumped 8.5% in the past five years -- nearly double the rate for all consumer books, according to Simba International, a publishing research company.
And much of that growth has its roots in the popularity of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series as well as renewed interest in J.R.R. Tolkien, thanks to the blockbuster movies based on The Lord of the Rings.
"Many of the kids who read the Harry Potter books when they first came out are now 15, 16 and 17 and are reading adult fantasy," says Brian Delambre, a buyer for Joseph Beth Booksellers, an independent chain based in Kentucky.
For evidence of the genre's rising popularity, look no further than the best-seller lists.
George R.R. Martin's A Feast for Crows (Bantam, $28) made its debut at No. 2 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list last week; Robert Jordan's Knife of Dreams (Tor, $29.95) opened at No. 2 a week after its Oct. 11 publication.
"Fantasy makes up roughly half the sales in the science-fiction/fantasy section of Barnes & Noble, and the lion's share of that is 'epic' or 'heroic' fantasy -- adventures of huge scale told over numerous volumes," says James Killen, a buyer for the chain. "On average, we've seen annual increases over the last few years in the area of 10% to 15%."
True, too, at Borders and Waldenbooks, says Micha Hershman, their science fiction and fantasy buyer. "We have seen a double-digit increase in sales this year over the same period last year."
At the same time, the image of adult readers of fantasy novels is changing, says Jason Dengel, founder and webmaster of DragonMount.com, a Jordan fan website started in 1998.
"The fantasy genre is commonly associated with the geek and the nerd subculture, but what's so fascinating to me, particularly about (Jordan's) Wheel of Time series, is that it really does interest a lot of people from all walks of life," Dengel says.
"When you go to large book signings, you'll see 13-year-olds, people in their 80s and everywhere in between."
Books by Jordan and Martin, says Joseph Beth's Delambre, "are kind of like what Unforgiven is for Westerns and Crouching Tiger (Hidden Dragon) is for kung fu flicks. They take all the things you learned from the old ones and turn it into something better and greater."
And then there's the escapist appeal, says Tom Doherty, founder of fantasy publisher Tor.
"It's nice for people to get away from it all and say, 'In this world, I'll suspend disbelief, and good will triumph, and the good guys will win.'"
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