I have been neglecting this blog for too long, so, starting this week, I’ll be posting a new blog post every Sunday. Woo!
(Full disclosure – these posts all originally appeared on Night Shade Books’ Night Bazaar Blog, but I don’t think too many people saw them there, so I’m taking the liberty of republishing them here.)
Right. Here’s the first one. Enjoy!
A SILLY STORY ABOUT GENRE BOUNDARIES
I once worked part time in a friend’s bookstore, and one day she gave me a box of used books she’d just purchased and told me to shelve them while she went to lunch. No problem, I said, but when I looked through the box, I found myself in a quandary. They were all paranormal-ish, with covers full of brooding, half-shadowed guys and tough chicks with swords and knowing looks, but I wasn’t quite sure where to shelve them.
Well, I didn’t want to be a pest and call the boss while she was eating, so I took the initiative and tried to decide for myself. Did they go in fantasy, because they all featured werewolves and vampires and travels to magical lands? Or did they go in Romance, because they featured strong love stories?
In the end I picked a completely arbitrary, but I thought pretty safe, indicator and used it as my guide. If the books had men’s abs on the cover they went into Romance. If they didn’t, they went into Fantasy. Boom. I was done in five minutes.
A NOT QUITE SO SILLY STORY ABOUT GENRE BOUNDARIES
Having sold Jane Carver of Waar to Night Shade Books, my agent asked me what else I had lying around that he could read. I sent him a novel I’d written a few years back about an ex-cop who is asked by the ghost of his dead ex-partner to solve her murder. He read it in a weekend and wrote back to tell me he loved it, it was a really great story, but… he wasn’t sure how to sell it.
Why? It wasn’t scary enough to be Horror. It wasn’t romantic enough to be Romance. It didn’t have vampires or werewolves or a kick-ass female paranormal investigator, so even though it was an urban fantasy, it didn’t fit this year’s definition of Urban Fantasy. And it wasn’t straight enough to be Crime Fiction.
Yeah. He’s still working on it.
ART AND COMMERCE
So, there you go. I’ve been on the bookseller’s side, and I’ve been on the writer’s side, and I sympathize with both.
The bookseller just wants to know where the book goes. Defining what category a book fits into is vital to sales. She can’t sell a mystery if she hides it in the fantasy section, and she can’t just lump everything into general fiction. It would all be a mish-mosh and nobody would be able to find what they wanted at a glance.
The writer just wants to be true to his muse and tell the story he has in his head – at least he does if he’s the naïve kind of writer I was back when I wrote that novel – and he doesn’t worry about what category of story it is until after he’s written it. (Which drives his agent crazy.)
Of course an older, wiser writer is aware of this problem, and begins to tailor his stories to the market. If someone says to him, “I’ll take a look at anything you got as long as I can put a dragon or a space ship on the cover,” he goes home and comes up with a story that fits the bill.
But that’s kinda sad, isn’t it? That kinda guarantees that we will all work in a very safe, homogenous genre. It doesn’t allow for wider, wilder flights of fantasy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with writing inside the lines. I’ve been writing gaming tie-in fiction for the past six years. Have laptop. Will travel. That’s me. I’m the last guy to say that one must be true to one’s art, and that commerce has no part in deciding what to write next. I’d sure as hell rather write to measure than spend eight hours a day in a cubicle farm so I can maintain my high ideals.
But sometimes even a hack like myself comes up with a story that doesn’t fit one of the preset genre pigeon holes. Sometimes he has an idea for a fantasy with no magic in it. Sometimes he wants to write a science-fiction story that features a pair of star-crossed lovers. Sometimes he comes up with an idea that defies the standard “It’s X meets Y meets Z” pitch. And sometimes he can’t ignore it. Labels be damned, he has to write it.
What I’m saying is, that once he’s written it, there should be a way for publishers to accommodate it, and for marketing departments to sell it.
And maybe, now that we live in the future and all, there is.
Cross-genre fiction’s problem with brick and mortar stores is sections – the Romance section, the Mystery section, the Fantasy section. On-line booksellers, aping their predecessors, have adopted this model too, with sub-menus that read just like the section headers in a store.
But there are other ways of discovering books on those pages as well. There is the “customers who bought this book also bought…” list. There is the list of tags or keywords that can be used to describe the book. There are links to author pages. There are store-hosted forums where buyers can discuss books of all genres. And away from booksellers’ sites, there are all the social media hubs, blogs, message boards, fan forums and youtube channels where readers can share book recommendations.
All of these are ways to alert potential readers to books they might not find if they only searched through the genres they’re familiar with. They are the word-of-mouth and hand-selling of the digital age.
A well-tagged book, with keywords highlighting all its potential hooks – two-fisted heroines for example – might lure someone from romance to mystery, from fantasy to historical, from science fiction to thriller, or from any genre to a book that has elements of one or two, yet fits none. A word in the right forum or a review from the right blogger can get people talking about the story of the book – or the heroine – rather than its category, and maybe make it something people will cross borders to read.
And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To make potential readers aware of the stories we tell. That’s what I think this new #tag model of categorizing will do for the genre-breakers among us. It’s not as neat and tidy a system as shelves and sections, it’s harder work for publisher and author, and it’s kinda amorphous and intimidating to people used to the old way, but I think it just might save us. I think it just might be the thing that makes a book’s story more of a selling point than the dragon or space ship on the cover.