Genre’s just another word for selling books to you

I’ve mentioned before I’m currently in the submission process with my novel, The Prodigal Hour. So far it’s okay; not spectacular, but not terrible, either. Of course, “spectacular” would probably be defined as “offered representation,” and I’ll be sure to let you know when that happens. I considered talking more about the submission process itself, but I think I’m going to do so more after I’ve been offered representation, and not before.

I’m going through the process as you’d expect; search the Internet and Writers’ Market and etc. for agents who are either actively seeking new clients or sound like they may be vaguely interested. And then I send a query, which looks pretty much as you’d expect a query to look: intro, synopsis, bio, and out. The intro gives me some trouble, though, because that’s where I mention the title, word count, and genre of my novel, and boyhow is that last characteristic ever a trouble spot. Many might think it’s easy: time travel automatically = science fiction.

But not so fast, I say.

Because I don’t feel like I wrote a science fiction novel. I don’t generally read science fiction novels. Science fiction is all wars among and treks across the stars, and it has a long and illustrious history I don’t feel a part of. Growing up, my choices for reading material were all Dean Koontz and Stephen King pretty much straight across the board, with digressions into Douglas Adams and Christopher Stasheff. Given that among my first experiences with Stephen King was a short story called “Strawberry Spring,” after which I read Different Seasons, I always had trouble thinking of him as a ‘horror’ writer. I never read It and never got to his straight-up horror until after I’d already read “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.”

Try showing someone with no previous knowledge of their origins the movie adaptations of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me and then explaining to them they were both based on books by a horror writer.

Because they certainly aren’t horror stories.

Admittedly, King is a bit of an exception; he himself is pretty much as much a genre as “horror”. People buy his books for his name, not for the genre.

Few people are going to buy The Prodigal Hour for my name, and you’re probably already reading this, anyway.

So far, I’ve been calling it a techno-thriller, but even that is a bit of a misnomer. It is thrilling (well. That’s the hope, at least), but character and plot work in pretty much equal measure, and it’s certainly not just about the thrills.

I sort of understand the requirement; it determines, basically, where your book is placed on bookstores’ shelves, which is key. I rarely venture to the scifi/fantasy shelves except to grab Neil Gaiman’s newest book, and again, I’m buying the name, not the genre.

I’m also thinking ahead. This one may be about time travel, but my next two big ones are about vampires and then werewolves, and both do things with those myths I’ve never seen nor heard done before. You can lump them all into science fiction/fantasy, I suppose, but I certainly wouldn’t, and I honestly think publishers and booksellers do more harm than good in categorizing books. Yesterday, Mitzi Szereto wrote about how publishers label books and how those labels can affect their sales, specifically related to erotica.

One of the things that’s gotten me thinking about this, too, are the writers who write stories that seem pretty categorically genre but whose books are not placed there. Lethem started out writing mostly weird science fiction tales. Crichton’s got Jurassic Park and Timeline, at least, not to mention Sphere and The Andromeda Strain. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was narrated by a dead girl, while Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife seems like science fantasy.

And then there’s Michael Chabon. He just won a Hugo for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The Hugo is a major award so known for science fiction that, when a handful of fantasy novels won (including JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Gaiman’s American Gods), some controversy got stirred up.

I haven’t heard any such controversy about the award having gone to Chabon’s novel, which is mostly an alternate history set in the present (I haven’t read the book. I tried. Got about twenty pages in before I gave up on it). But Chabon is an author with both mass appeal and a Pulitzer under his belt, and, in fact, more so than controversy, the win has mainly stirred up discussion like here, where IO9 asks which mainstream authors its readers would like to see write science fiction.

Personally, I don’t want any mainstream authors to deign to write anything they don’t enjoy. Personally, I’d like someone to point out, hey, wait a minute, twenty of the twenty-five movies with the highest worldwide gross ever have been genre movies, and, arguably, science fiction or fantasy movies. The only exceptions are Titanic, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Da Vinci Code, the last two of which are certainly genre movies (adventure and thriller, respectively) even if not science fiction or fantasy.

Seems like it’s mainstream to me.

It’s like people expect good entertainment from all media until they hit books, and then some weirdo mechanism steps in and says that it must be “literature” to be any good while preventing the memory that the whole reason Shakespeare is awesome is because he wrote swordfights and fairies and witches so damned well into really exciting stories.

15 thoughts on “Genre’s just another word for selling books to you

  1. SHANESHOCK

    Hi. I happened upon your blog, and thought I would take a moment to wish you good luck on your publishing endeavors. I scrolled down your page a bit and read that a sample of your manuscript had been requested, so congrats on that, too. I’m seeking publication myself, although I only sent my first query out a couple of weeks ago.

    Again, good luck to you, and if you don’t mind, I’ll pop in from time to time to see how things are going.

    SS

  2. ALMA

    Hey there…sorry I’ve been remiss in my commenting…busy, you know…

    Personally, I think that genre-defying thing is a good thing and makes your work more marketable…makes you more marketable. I’ve never really understood the obsession publishing peeps have with such things. If something is good, chances are it doesn’t matter to the reader. But, then again, I’ve never seen much use for agents. No one I know can sell my work better than my work itself. That includes me.

  3. GOTHAMGIRL

    Gone With The Wind. I know your list was short but for cryin in a bucket, every time they calculate movie ticket prices of then and now Gone With The Wind remains on top.

    Since you want to be a name brand anyway, you could retitle the book “Buy This Book.” Hey Coka-Cola’s best advertisement campaighn was simply “Drink Coke.”

    Okay, genres suck. So do taxes, death, and politics. What’s your genere for this book? (since your adamant about it not being science fiction because it invovles time travel.) I’m just curious. (what else is new?) If it’s inbetween genres perhaps you should seek out agents that have handled books inbetween genres, assuming of course you haven’t already thought of that.

  4. L.A. MITCHELL

    Hi Will,

    We have so much in common. I was aiming for paranormal romance, but my last novel just kept falling too far outside that genre’s box. We tried marketing it as a “time thriller” to sci-fi and mainstream houses, but there was too much romance. I thought spanning the chasm of genres makes an author more marketable, but that only happens with established authors. No house wants to take a chance on a new author they don’t know where to shelve or how to promote.

    The Time Traveler’s Wife was originally a small press book, picked up for its lyrical, quasi-literary tone. I’m glad it found success in mainstream. To be a debut author in mainstream, which is almost impossible, an author has to have a crazy out-there voice or concept that pushes the boundaries. I’m convinced it’s easier to get published in genre, gain an audience and sales record, then stretch a bit into the direction the author really wants to go.

    I wish you all the best with your submissions. I’m subscribing so I can celebrate with you when you get that contract 🙂

  5. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Alma: nice to see you back. Been a while! I’m trying to understand, but it’s difficult, sometimes.

    @Gotham: well, I was going by the IMDb, but even with adjusted gross (when GWtW is on top), still 9 of the top 20 are genre (horror and sci-fi), with several being animated.

    And like I said, so far, I’m going with techno-thrillers with the caveat that it’s more commercial fiction.

  6. WILL ENTREKIN

    @LA: hi! You slipped right by my last comment, so I didn’t see it before I responded. And I totally hear you about being a new author trying to find a place. I was going to say it’s so frustrating being one, but truthfully, I’m not sure it ever truly changes.

    I actually met the guy who bought The Time-Traveler’s Wife for Harcourt (his name escapes me now). Good guy. I’m not sure about your conviction to start genre if only because: if you get picked up in science fiction and then write a fantasy, I think a publisher would attempt to dissuade you from writing, say, a mystery. Or some suchlike.

    Anyway, thanks for the luck, and glad to have you aboard!

  7. GOTHAMGIRL

    I realise this is kinda a closed topic, as in no one else will comment, but I ofund this quote and though you should see it too.

    “Seperating section at a book store keeps people from reading books they would love…A good book is a good book for any age” -Stephenie Meyer

  8. GOTHAMGIRL

    Whose books have made the New York times best seller list as well as a movie deal. Hey aren’t you a fan of some kid’s book about wizards? Harry Potter right? I don’t think you have the right to judge.

    I found a quote that went along with what your saying and you through it back. Do you not like quotes or something?

  9. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Gotham: “Whose books have made the New York times best seller list as well as a movie deal.” But that was my point! I wasn’t throwing anything back. The point of the post is that genre is usually just a marketing term, and scifi and fantasy are totally mainstream. Which you corroborated, because young-adult fantasy horror vampire books are selling like hotcakes and about to become a movie.

  10. GOTHAMGIRL

    “right, said the young adult fantasy horror vampire writer.”

    “But that was my point! I wasn’t throwing anything back. The point of the post is that genre is usually just a marketing term, and scifi and fantasy are totally mainstream. Which you corroborated, because young-adult fantasy horror vampire books are selling like hotcakes and about to become a movie.”

    Uh-huh. Your first statement didn’t really express what your second statement did. I’ll trust you though.

  11. THEWRITINGRUNNER

    Hey, I just stumbled across this post and wanted to wish you the best of luck! I COMPLETELY understand where you’re coming from on two fronts:

    1) I started my “adult” reading with Stephen King

    2) When it came time to shop my first novel, I was very worried about how to label it because it crossed boundaries… AND my next two books (already in the works at that time) were definitely in different genres than the first, so I knew publishers wouldn’t be pleased with me trying to “break out of my box.” 🙂

    Good luck and best of luck!

  12. WILL ENTREKIN

    @Writingrunner: Welcome! Nice to have you, and hope you’ll stick around. And yeah, totally with you on different genres.

    Thanks for the luck, and right back atchya!

  13. J

    Hi

    Stumbling late on this to but an interesting post. I’m still a long long way from ever being published but it’s made me think about the sort of stories I write. I tend to write stories with an element of time travel but they are resolutely not science fiction more historical adventure stories, I hope that’s not going to ‘confuse’ publishers.

    I agree with what you said about Neil Gaiman (I was tag surfing Neil Gaiman), I only ever venture into the fantasy part of the store to find his books and really he should be in a category of his own because he’s not as fantasy like as some of those orcs and trolls books out there. I think book stores should just put all good books together.

    On changing genres after already having published something, I was most alarmed at one writers talk I went to, there was one lady who had written a successful series of books based in one particular continent, she then wanted to write about somewhere else (who’d blame her, I’d get bored writing about the same place all the time) and her publishers didn’t want it. It took a long long time for her to get published again apparently.

    J.


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