Sunday, 11 September 2011

MIXING GENRES: FUSION OR CONFUSION? by Linda Gillard

Author Linda Gillard
What do you like to read? Do you like to know exactly what to expect when you open a book? Or do you like to be surprised? Do you stick to favourite authors? Do you read only certain genres or do you like to try something new?

The publishing industry is based on guessing what readers like to read. (I say “guessing” because I’m yet to come across any adult fiction publisher who does reader market research, apart from Harlequin, Mills & Boon.) Sales figures show what readers bought, but not what they enjoyed and there’s a difference between the two, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been disappointed by the gap between what a much-hyped book promised to deliver and what actually lay within its pages.

I write fiction for a living, so I have more than a passing interest in what readers like to read. Over the years, I’ve found myself at odds with editors over this - which brings me to the thorny question of “genre issues”, a problem that has dogged many an author’s career, including mine.

At the beginning of this guest blog I asked what you liked to read. Let me guess… A well-constructed story about interesting, believable characters, told by a distinctive voice. Would I be right in assuming you’d also like this story to be well-written? After that, I’d guess it would be a matter of genre and this is where those of us who love, buy and produce books fall into two different camps.

In one corner we have readers and authors. Readers would like to read the best book ever. Authors, coincidentally, are trying to write the best book ever.

Kindle e-book (£1.90/$2.99)
In the other corner we have publishers and retailers who share a common goal: to sell the largest number of copies ever. I’m sure publishers would also like to publish the best books ever, but actually their priority is volume of sales, not quality of writing. I have many emails from UK and US editors, the kind known as “rave rejections”, in which editors enthuse about my writing, my characters, my original “voice”, but they all end with the same regretful formula, which says, in essence, “We don’t think this will sell, so we don’t wish to commission it.”

When publishers say something won’t sell, they usually mean, “We wouldn’t know how to market it”. Books that don't belong to a clear genre - or belong to more than one - are (it is said) impossible to market and the quite reasonable assumption is that, for something to sell, it has to be marketed. Big budgets and marketing departments are organised around what purports to be a commercial fact of life.

But it no longer seems to be a fact. I’ve sold 12,000 copies so far of my genre-busting Kindle bestseller, HOUSE OF SILENCE . I’m almost unknown, I have no publicist, I don’t have a blog, I didn’t do a Podcast, I didn't give copies away, I don’t even Tweet. My marketing budget was £100 which I spent on a very good cover. Perversely, I advertised the e-book on the Amazon product page as a mix of several genres and my teaser blurb ended: “REBECCA meets COLD COMFORT FARM.” But genre (or lack of one) was apparently not a problem for all the 12,000 readers who’ve clicked. 

So if genre isn't key, how do readers choose what to buy?...

E-books are cheap and there’s a vast range to choose from (much of it dross, it has to be said.) Readers want a good story at a good price. Apart from that, they have a fairly open mind and, for 99p, some aren’t too fussy about literary quality. It appears readers are also happy to step outside their usual genre comfort zone, especially when they can sample the book for free.

Kindle e-book (£1.90/$2.99)
This new way to buy books has led to a proliferation of genres, sub-genres and a lot of creative inter-breeding, so that boundaries have become blurred, genres more complex. I haven’t actually looked to see if you can find gay-dystopian-fantasy-romance on Kindle, but I expect it’s there somewhere. Whatever you want to read (cougar rom-coms, gay nautical historical fiction, Roman romance with gladiators, male or female), someone will be writing it and now, thanks to indie e-books, someone is publishing it. And why not? Bring on the gay gladiators, comic cougars and vegetarian vampires. Put them into the fictional melting pot and see what happens. The result, if well-written, could hardly be dull. Let books find their readers! 

I’m hoping to repeat the unaccountable success of HOUSE OF SILENCE with my latest novel on Kindle. Another hybrid-genre marketing nightmare, UNTYING THE KNOT is a love story about a couple in their 40s who are divorced. From each other. There’s a rom-com subplot, two weddings, some explosions, several war zones, flashbacks (in all senses) and the restoration of a ruined Scottish castle. In short: TWO WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL meets THE HURT LOCKER. 

They say to be really successful in print publishing, you need to be a brand. Booksellers and supermarkets like brands. They like series. (I’m not sure why. I suspect because they don’t have to be marketed, they can just be advertised with, “OK, here’s more of the same...”) Sadly, Linda Gillard is not a brand, like Jodi Picoult or Sherrilyn Kenyon, but fortunately you don’t have to be a brand to sell e-books. Readers browse and decide whether to click on the strength of the cover, the price, the title, the blurb and the reviews. (Price is a big factor and that’s where indie authors really score.)

Of course with indie e-books, there’s no quality control – something which irritates, even depresses some readers. But at least you can download a free sample which will reveal whether you’re reading the work of a real writer or a deluded amateur. And don’t forget how many books you’ve started, then abandoned, asking, “Who ever thought this was worth publishing?” or even, “Did no one proof-read this book?”

Kindle e-book 86p/$0.99
Quality control has been an issue for years. Editing and proof-reading are expensive services and some publishers decided long ago that money could be saved by cutting a few corners. With the e-book explosion, quality control is now a much bigger issue, but the book world is already adapting. Blogs like this one, websites and Facebook pages are offering e-book recommendations. Even Amazon has realised that, if it’s going to publish all-comers, it needs to give buyers some guidance. They’ve set up a Kindle Indie book store on Amazon.com.  I hope we’ll soon have one on Amazon UK.

 I’m very happy with the latest developments in the book world and I’m thrilled that my books are finding lots of new readers. But I’d like to see a new genre being developed and promoted – not least because I think my novels would sit rather well within this niche. The name of my new genre? Rattling Good Yarns.

It’s a genre everyone will read and enjoy. And it will never go out of fashion.

8 comments:

Susan Price said...

Linda, I downloaded House of Silence, and I loved it! A very good read - no wonder you sell so well!
A tight, well-structured, entertaining story with believable characters who talked like human beings! Well produced too - I don't remember noticing any typos. As you say, sadly, that isn't true of quite a few e-books, as I've been discovering.
I'll certainly be checking out your other books.

Linda Gillard said...

Thank you, Sue. How very kind of you to say so. :-)

You might be interested to know that the very complicated plot of HOS was inspired by an old family story my mother told me, which must have lodged itself in my brain for years. (If I tell you she was the eldest of 4 daughters, neglected by a selfish mother, you'll get my drift!)

One of the reasons I wanted to publish this much-rejected book was so my aged mother could read it (the novel's dedicated to her) but the funny thing was, when she did, she didn't recognise its origins, she just read it as a new story!

But she loved it anyway.

Enid Richemont said...

Like you, I have, so often, been the victim of the 'rave reject' - better than the total silence which makes you wonder if you still exist, but not much. And, like you, no, I'm not a brand, and I've always loathed series, both as a reader and a writer.

My Y/A novel, FOR MARITSA WITH LOVE, was published in 2001 with a glittery launch and all the works, and then dumped by S&S just over a year later because it didn't sell in squillions of copies. It's now, via my agent, going out there again electronically - so we shall see. I find the present situation both depressing and exciting (emotional geology?)

Linda Gillard said...

I do sympathise, Enid. I had to attend several award junkets (and even collected one award) after my publisher had dropped me. ("Disappointing sales".) I decided I could have my own entry in the Guinness Book of Records for Most Short-listed Author Without a Publisher.

Good luck with MARITSA.

Kathleen Jones said...

Just reading the book Linda - and loving it!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent and inspirational piece, LInda, and I couldn't agree with you more. I've been a victim of the Rave Rejection too and it's the most frustrating thing in the world to have so many editors saying 'I LOVE this book, but I couldn't carry the marketing department with me!' Or at least it used to be frustrating, but now the remedy seems to be in our own hands, and I don't think conventional publishing has fully understood this yet. It all makes me think of an excellent book called The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. (All writers should read it!) which explains about the limited 'inventory' of conventional sales and the unlimited virtual shelf space of online selling, and how the long tail of niche markets could constitute a huge percentage of total sales. He was writing largely about I-tunes and music, but he said the same might apply to books - but I don't think even he anticipated the success of e-book readers. All very exciting. Downloaded Untying the Knot and will be reading it this week, I hope!

Chris Longmuir said...

Excellent blog post, Linda. Like others I've been published and dropped, and had my share of rave rejections. I'm now firmly in the electronic publishing arena and very happy to have control over my own career.

Linda Gillard said...

Thanks everyone for your positive feedback. :-)

Great to hear you're enjoying one of my books, Kathleen. Please tell your friends. ;-)