Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Your Novel Is Different, And That's Bad

During the last month I've been sending off queries to literary agents to see if I can find someone willing to represent my novel If You Can Get It an early version of which some may remember from National Novel Writing Month some years back. Lest that effort prove in vain, I've also been researching publishing and marketing novels independently. A very good resource on marketing for self published novelists is Nicholas Erik's "Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing", which I'd definitely recommend to anyone interesting in the topic. I've been coming to the conclusion that not only is this good information for my backup plan, it's also a good explanation of the difficulties of selling a novel to an agent as well. After all, what is an agent going to do with a novel? Try to sell it to an editor, who in turn would buy it in the hopes of selling it to lots of readers. So really, when you send a novel off to an agent, the agent is thinking: How likely is it that lots of people will want to buy this novel.

Now as I was reading Nicholas Erik's guide, particularly the section on market research, I kept finding my sense of taste rebelling. Erik, like a lot of successful self published novelists, is a big advocate of finding a very defined sub-genre and working within it:
All sci-fi readers are not seeking the same experience; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is a different sub-genre than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation). Study what makes Snow Crash (cyberpunk) a different reading experience than The Expanse (space opera), despite sharing some tropes – or a billionaire romance different from a bad boy rock star one. In many instances, this is an emotional feeling, rather than “include tropes X, Y & Z.” You can identify these differences by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best method is reading books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Still not convinced this process is necessary?

Selling authors have done this for over a hundred years. They will do it for a hundred more, long after your books are forgotten. If you are going to write a romance, understand what readers expect. Thriller? Understand what those readers expect. Want to mash up the two genres into romantic suspense? Fine – understand which elements must be present to craft a satisfying cocktail.

Then retire to your writing lab and execute it.

Let’s address the elephant in the writing room. Because writers often dismissing market research by saying things like I want to write anything I want. This is for my soul. This is for fun.

Fine. Unless whatever you like to read and write is a commercial genre/sub-genre, you’re unlikely to make money, no matter how good your book is. Almost any author who tells you to write what you love – to write the book of your heart, and that readers will connect with that passion – was fortunate enough to really, really like a genre that was super commercial. Passion means nothing. Quality means very little if you miss genre conventions.

Writing whatever you like without any thought to the market will usually result in sadness if your goal is to sell books.

Let me be clear: There is no coming back from a book that misses the market. You face an uphill climb at best, or your book is dead in the water (at worst). Many of the books people claim are “super original” or “weird mashups” are actually right in the genre pocket with some fringe details changed for decoration. That doesn’t mean you have to be super-formulaic and hit all the tropes (although that’s an option, if you’d like). Instead, it means you need to understand what readers want when they pick up a certain type of book. [source]
Now, of course, my first reaction to this was: Wrong! I'm a reader, and I don't just want to read the same tropes in the same sub-genre again and again. Lots of people that I know praise books they like by saying they're different not by saying they're exactly the same as all the other books in the genre. So surely if I've written a book that is unique, that's a good thing. Right?

I continue to think that's true to an extent. However, as I've thought about the actual marketing tactics involved in finding customers to buy my book, I've also come to realize that while he may be a bit off on how readers think, he's dead on when it comes to how to sell books efficiently.

Say you're a writer, like me, with a book you want to sell to other people. You release the book on Amazon and you tell your friends to read it and review it. They do. Now you've sold two dozen books and you have four reviews, all positive. However, people browsing Amazon do not simply go to a page which says, "Show me books which have sold a few dozen copies and have four positive reviews" and find the next gem. How do people find books?

Well, I often find books via reading reviews in the WSJ or other major publications. However, forget about that one, because those publications don't review obscure, independently published books

Next option: I often find books via the "related to this item" links on Amazon. Some of these are generated by Amazon's algorithms, based on what books actual consumers have also bought, but others actually ads. If you want to sell your book, you find another book which is similar to your book, and you pay Amazon to show your book as a "related to this item". As you sell more books, you hope that your books starts to show up in the "also bought" lists as well.

Now here's the challenge. If your book is very unique and not like other books, what other book to do you pay to advertise it next to? Let's look at the two books I'm reading at the moment:

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers is a fantasy novel set in Los Angeles. The books advertised on that page are all other fantasy novels.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre is an espionage thriller, and all the ads on that page are espionage thrillers.

Now, I'm a real reader, and I've bought both of these books within the last month and am currently reading and enjoying both. But here's the trick: my actions are hard to predict. Sure, some people who go to the Alternate Routes page will also want to buy The Honourable Schoolboy and vise versa, but that affinity is hard to predict. Other people will have ended up on the Alternate Routes page because they want to read an urban fantasy. Those people may be persuaded to read another urban fantasy as well, or instead, and the ads are targeted at them.

Even the 'also bought' links will generally be based on close affinity. For Honourable Schoolboy the 'also bought' links are all other le Carre novels. For Alternate Routes they're all fantasy novels, two of them also by Tim Powers.

This doesn't mean that the average reader of le Carre or Powers only reads other books of the same sub-genre. Many of them may have eclectic readings tastes. But all genre readers are alike, while each eclectic reader is eclectic in his own way.

Indeed, we've been trained to look for books through affinities. If I were looking for another spy thriller, I would start by looking up a book by le Carre or Alan Furst, and then I'd look for related books. If I were looking for an urban fantasy, I'd start from Tim Powers. If I were looking for a military history novel, I might start with Jeff Shaara.

So if you've written a unique book, it's not that people may not want to read it, it's that you will have a much harder time finding the people who want to read it. This means the the pull of genre is not so much that people only want to read novels that conform to genre tropes, it's that you will more reliably find people through the means of the kind of similarly which genre provides than you will through wide open advertising to "everyone who reads".

I find myself wondering if in our crowded media landscape (with the advent of self publishing there are hundred of books coming out on Amazon every day) there's far more market pressure to conform to genre than there might otherwise be. Imagine if only twenty books came out every week, and if you subscribed to a newspaper with a good books column you could read reviews of all of them. In that case, you could easily read a review that might alert you to the attractions of a unique book that you might not otherwise find. Movies end up following this model. There are few enough of them coming out that if you follow a major newspaper you can read reviews of basically all of them. Thus, a quirky movie has the chance to explain to people it's charm.

However, instead of a score of books coming out every week, we have hundreds coming out every day. Only the largest releases get any kind of review in a major publication. So how do you find books? Via advertising. And how does advertising find you? Via placement on similar books. And how do you find similar books? By identifying every more granular sub-genres.

You advertise your zombie novel on the pages of other zombie novels. You advertise your medical thriller on the pages of other medical thrillers. You advertise your Amish romance on the pages of other Amish romances. And so on. People write to genre not because readers only want to read novels that conform strictly to genre, but because in the vast pool of books and the vast pool of humanity, it's easier to track down readers who might want to read your particular novel if you write a novel which is clearly similar to other novels that people already like.


Anonymous said...

Ads are not the way to go. Readers are swamped with ads. Word of mouth is far more powerful. How does one get that if an indie writer? It's a steep uphill battle, but not impossible. One way is to give away copies to reviewers. Another is to serialize a novel on Wattpad or one of the easily accessible sites, and build a readership there. A good cover is vital, unfortunately: though it has nothing to do with the book, it first must catch the eye.

Sally Thomas said...

I wouldn't discount real-time, real-life networks. After ten years in NC, I have just, this year, joined both the NC Poetry Society and the NC Writers' Network, both of which do a lot of . . . networking. There is an online component, in that you can send them your news for their monthly email newsletter (and yes, in NC anyway, there are a lot of indie writers in various genres who propagate their publishing news this way). But there's also a real-life component in that there are readings, conferences, gatherings where you can share your writing.

As a poet, I benefit from the open-mic nights at a coffeehouse in the town up the road from mine -- last time I went, I read a little bit from my last chapbook, and five people asked if I had copies to sell (I didn't at the time, silly me -- but I'm taking them next time). Prose may be a little trickier -- they don't usually do fiction open-mic nights! But I really do think legwork like that, if you can do it -- getting not just your work out there, but you attached to it, on whatever scale "book tour" you can manage -- makes some difference.

But as a poet (though I do also write fiction) I have exactly zero expectation of actually making money. When I do -- and sometimes I do, though in little drips -- I'm caught totally off-guard. Still, the more I meet and talk to people, and the more I capitalize on whatever opportunities there are to be out in person with my work, the more those little drips tend to come in (and the more people who aren't my immediate circle know my name).

Book contests -- though submission fees are something of a boondoggle -- are an option as well. There are many good competitions open to novel-length fiction submissions. Poets and Writers is a good source of information, offering listings of literary contests month by month. The Submittable submission engine, which most presses and magazines use now (and which is a Godsend for people like me whose whole literary career would otherwise stall out at the "find a stamp" step of the process), also lists competitions and other submission opportunities. All presses are not equal, of course, and the playing field is pretty interesting these days. I find that the market for my rather old-fashioned literary fiction is pretty limited. But it's there . . . Anyway, that may be another legitimate option to explore.

Agnes said...

I think it's a wrong way to put it to "find your genre and work within it" - although "find your genre" seems to be a good advice if you want to find a target readership. it could be actually a good way of advertizing if your book is similar to X genre but differs in Y specific way. It seems to me not a bad thing to define your writing against a known genre, even if one's sense of poetic/creative identity rebels against "working within the confines" of that genre.