In case this is not clear from the literally dozens of market-oriented posts all of us have written here at MW over the past several years, publishing is a truly crazy business. Publishers and editors seem to want one thing, until they get it and then realize that they’re not so sure they wanted it after all. They are hungry for “something new,” until new appears before them and they brush it away as if it were a venomous spider and run away, screaming like frightened children. If they weren’t the arbiters of my professional futures, I would tell you that all of these people are certifiable. But you didn’t hear that from me.
As today’s example of what I’m talking about, I present for your consideration the genre-bending novel. Now, I should pause here to say that Thieftaker is actually a cross-genre novel. (Yes, I’ve mentioned Thieftaker in a MW post; I’m sure all of you are shocked . . .) It is a fantasy, with strong mystery elements, and a historical component that is absolutely essential to the narrative. In my mind, that recommends the book, and as I’ve talked to people about it, they have responded with great enthusiasm to the book’s conceptual core.
But in marketing the book, I have always emphasized the fact that it is, at root, a fantasy. It’s being published by Tor, which specializes in speculative fiction, and so that logo on the spine is an immediate marker for potential readers. When it is released (July 3 — fourteen days, seventeen hours and fifteen minutes from the time this post goes live — but who’s counting?) it will be shelved in fantasy. Its most important readership will be fans of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy. In fact, when I first saw the jacket art, I loved it, but I was worried that there were no visual markers in the image that said “fantasy” to potential buyers. At my urging, the artist added the very faint and subtle “magic” that appears in the hand of the standing figure. It’s not a lot, but it is enough to let readers know that the book has a magical component.
And that really is important. Because while publishers might say that they are looking for new books that break down traditional barriers among various genres, the truth is, they don’t want that at all. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from fellow writers (and my colleagues here will back me up, I’m sure) that they submitted something that crosses genres and offers that fresh take on storytelling that people in the business claim to be after, only to be rejected because the publishers “didn’t know how to market it.” “Loved the book, but we just don’t know who the audience would be.” “Great story, cool character, love the tone, but it really doesn’t fit in with our marketing right now.”
I know a writer — his books sell very, very well, and he has been equally successful as an agent and editor — who says that while publishing claims to want books that straddle genres, the truth is that they don’t know how to handle them. More to the point, he also says that “cross-genre” promotion is actually a myth. Fantasy and science fiction books that try to sell themselves as multi-genre, he says, are almost invariably doomed to failure. Because publishers don’t really know how to market them, bookstores don’t know how to list them or shelve them, and readers are frightened off by the inclusion of genres in which they don’t normally read.
By his reckoning, if we were trying to market Thieftaker as a mystery AND as a fantasy AND as a historical, the book would probably do poorly. Why? Because many readers of mystery tend to eschew books in other genres, particularly in speculative fiction. Because readers of historicals often feel the same way. And because readers of fantasy tend to gravitate toward their sections of bookstores and libraries, to the exclusion of other sections.
Now, before you object too loudly, I am NOT saying (nor is my friend) that every reader is like this. Some readers like to be eclectic, and would be generally enthusiastic about books that can be categorized any number of ways. But what he is saying is this: The notion that if a publisher markets a book in all three genres, it can triple the readership for the book by attracting readers from all three genres, is patently false, and has been proven so again and again by the disappointing sales numbers for these sorts of novels.
So is Thieftaker doomed to disappointing numbers? I don’t think so. Because, again, we have marketed the book as a fantasy. And we’ve told fantasy readers that, in addition to magic, it has a historical element and a mystery element. We didn’t try to sell the book as a mystery, or as a historical. We had no illusions about attracting readership from every genre. We stuck with our core constituency and developed a marketing strategy that would maximize our readership within it.
But all that said, I find myself wondering if publishers and even my friend, who knows as much about the business as anyone I know, might be underestimating the flexibility of readers. And I wonder if, as we shift to a virtual book market rather than a physical book market, some of the existing barriers will come down. Think about it. It’s prohibitively expensive, not to mention incredibly inconvenient, for a bookstore to shelve copies of Thieftaker in the historical fiction section, and in the mystery section, and in the fantasy section. But cross-listing electronic versions of the book in all these genres is easy and costs booksellers nothing. So as these infrastructure barriers to cross-genre promotion continue to break down, it’s possible that the industry’s hesitancy to publish such books might do the same. Or, it’s possible that nothing will change at all. Never underestimate the power of a change-averse industry to stay exactly the way it is.
So what do you make of all of this? Do you like cross-genre novels, or do you prefer to read fantasy when you’re in the mood for fantasy, mystery when you’re in the mood for that, romance when you want romance, etc.? And where do you think we’re headed in this regard?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net