Dragonlance setting and line of modules and books needs no explanation so I'll get to my thoughts on the subject. A third of the way in I paused to reflect on the first novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, first published by TSR in 1984. I started to wonder, how did this series became so popular, and why this didn't also work for Greyhawk yet seemed to replicate well for Forgotten Realms. I've come to the determination it was partly effort and mostly about timing.
Tracy and Laura Hickman wrote modules for TSR including the successful Ravenloft. Margaret Weis worked as an editor for TSR's books division, primarily the Endless Quest line. Under the direction of TSR the Hickmans and Margaret combined their talents to write a series of modules first then translate them into novels. Though Andre Norton's loosely based Greyhawk novel Quag Keep came years before, it was never fully integrated with the game setting and no modules bore Quag's name. Thus when Dragonlance came along, this process was still innovative by TSR and Gary Gygax was marginally involved at the time. When the first novel took off in 84, Gygax did take notice however and scrambled to copy the success over to Greyhawk with Saga of Old City.
A decent novel in of itself, the story of Gord nonetheless never took off with the RPG public who was fully immersed with Dragonlance by then. Eventually the Greyhawk novel line was punted to Endless Quest's star writer, Rose Estes who tried and failed horribly to say the least. The ascendance of Dragonlance is remarkable in that it came during Greyhawk's heyday. Consider, fans had clamored for Gygax to publish Greyhawk for years and they got their wish. The World of Greyhawk boxed set was only one year old at the time Dragonlance came out, and to boot, several iconic series of modules had preceeded the setting. All that Greyhawk lacked was a novel line. What happened then? Did fans get tired of Greyhawk too soon, or did TSR not want to test an unproven publishing method on their number one game world?
With Gygax's departure from TSR in the late eighties, the Dragonlance brand continued unabated well into the 90's and then Ed Greenwood and his Forgotten Realms came along just at the right time. It was another creative effort away from the Greyhawk line and since then, this line has exceeded Dragonlance not on Greenwood's shoulders mainly but rather by the talent of R.A. Salvatore who began with The Crystal Shard in 1988 and his break out drow character Driz'zt spawned a whole franchise of novels on his own.
So to sum up, I believe Dragonlance was successful because beyond the game setting's intitial design by one or two people, it became a shared world of different authors once you got to the novel adaptation phase. I'm not saying Gygax was a hack fiction writer (Ed Greenwood is no better) and only a good world builder, it's just that there also seemed to be less a concerted effort by TSR to back a novel line for Greyhawk even though the source material and characters were right there to be exploited! Today, Dragonlance for me reads like the basic modules which they were based on, but what still makes them gripping is the well developed characters and their interactions. My guess is Gygax rushed out Gord, a wholly new character in the Greyhawk milieu, when he should've gone with a more traditional ensemble group of characters that fans were familiar with like Tenser, Mordenkainen and Robilar. D&D is about parties of adventurers after all. I'd love to know what his thoughts were on going with a solo protagonist in Saga of Old City. Then when Estes came along to provide a fresh hand, we instead got another set of totally forgettable characters set in Greyhawk that may as well been in a random Endless Quest book for all Estes cared. It would be many years later before other authors would be given a shot at writing novels finally based on Greyhawk modules (which I won't go into nor have read). Too little too late in my opinion.
With all this swirling from my head to this post, I now look to the present and Gencon in a few short days. Rumor has it Wizards has a big announcement in the making besides their D&DNext edition. Apparently part of their plans involves the rebirth of a popular setting. Part of me thinks it'll be Dragonlance since it's a proven property all around and the Forgotten Realms has never really stopped in order to warrant a rebirth. Dragonlance never got the 4e setting treatment either so it could be due. Then again, if it's Greyhawk that gets chosen this time around I'm hoping not so much for RPG setting success since I have plenty of old material to use, what I want is redemption for a novel line that could've been.