Book Sales: Is Genre driving them or Literature?

Ilustración para un divertidísimo cuento de La...Image by laanfitriona via Flickr
Once upon a time, literature was an art and publishing supported it. Now, everything is changed: publishing is an industry, and it is in the throes - hopefully not death throes! - of a major digital changeover, what with e-readers and e-books flooding the market.  Amazon's Kindle alone has over 750,000 titles and all new Kindle buyers go on a buying spree in the first 6 months of ownership, buying three times as many books as before!

E-publishing is fast changing the rules of the game, and a lot of people who watch the industry are beginning to suspect that e-book bestsellers build on themselves, pushing out of view all other titles. See here for Nathan Bransford's take on this and the Shatzkin Files's thoughtful investigation. In other words, "book discovery" rarely happens on line where you are presented with a screen on your e-reader that gives you a list of the "top best-sellers" and limits you to them. On line shopping is fine if you know exactly what you're looking for (title and author). If you don't, then it's a real hassle. You find yourself wasting time and going back again and again to the same list of 25 books in any given section. Book discovery is still something that happens mainly in book stores, where you can roam around ever-changing display tables and chat with the clerk.

In all this, what has happened to the writer? Faced with a deluge of books, there is little doubt that a new writer has to do something phenomenal to be noticed. If you are non-fiction, you need a "platform" to sell, and as everyone knows, a platform is something that lifts you above the crowds. Nothing new here. But if you're not a celebrity, an actor, a politician, a professor or a scientist, forget it. You don't have a platform, you can't write non-fiction.

Ah, but you say, I'm a very good cook, my friends keep asking for my recipes. Good for you, enjoy your own good food, but don't think you can turn that into a book! No, you have to be a recognized chef, preferably with several Michelin stars, or the owner of a chic restaurant in a trendy place on the Mediterranean or in California...

Harry Potter LightningImage via WikipediaOr...You can be a blogger! A blogger with a (good) following. Aim for at least 1,000 hits a day. How do I know that? I checked Google AdSense, a programme which lets you put advertisement on your site and pays you a tiny percent if that ad gets hit and leads to a purchase. I don't know the details but looking at the numbers Google puts out to explain the system, one thing struck me: if you don't have at least 1,000 hits a day, it just isn't worth bothering (the return is just too small).

So that's the goal: a minimum of 1,000 hits a day or you're nowhere. J.A.Konrath's successful blog the Newbie's Guide to Publishing gets 500,000 hits per year (do the calculation: that's more than 1,000/day!). The post on that blog that I just linked you to (do click it!) tells about a friend of his who's decided, like he has, to leave "legacy publishing" and go down the road of self-publishing e-books. That's what Konrath started doing a couple of years ago to enormous success, as we all know. Perhaps not as amazing as Amanda Hocking, but that cinderella story is one in a lifetime. Don't believe you can repeat that!

Yes, more and more writers are turning on line to build up a fan following and thus, even fiction writers who supposedly never needed a "platform" to launch their books - they "only needed" (though that's not easy!) to produce a stellar story with a unique "voice" - well, now they need a platform too! If you're an aspiring writer out there hoping to catch the attention of a lit agent and (eventually) a publisher, you better join in the bloggers' ranks asap! It takes at least TWO years to build up a blog with a consistent following. And that assumes you have an entertaining and content-rich blog that attracts readers (yeah, better not blog about your migraines and writers' block!)

Even if you have such a wonderful blog, it is not enough  You have to be ready to do all sorts of additional things: twitter, facebook, MySpace, YouTube, video, podcasts, book trailers and run contests and give out prizes and I'm probably forgetting something here. For comprehensive and good advice, click HERE.

Well most people are probably not that marketing-savvy or willing to give up their writing time in order to build up their blog and on line presence. Takes up a lot of time, believe me (I often kick myself for staying too much on the Internet!). In that case, go the traditional route: first a lit agent - next a legacy publisher. But here too there are all sorts of limitations you have to be aware of.

Agents and publishers consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of taste - and I think that's a great idea and a great role for them (I'd add booksellers but alas, most of them, probably pressured by the digital tsunami, seem to have relinquished their gatekeeper role).

Trouble is: once something is a matter of taste, it becomes subjective and you have to be prepared for a lot of rejections. J.A.Konrath (still him) claims he went through 500 rejections for his first 9 unpublished novels.
That shows remarkable determination and patience! But short of that, you won't get anywhere. A tough road, and he was at least in a well-defined genre. In the end, that's what helped him land a deal: he came up with a nice humourous twist on the police thriller with a Chicago police woman protagonist named... Jack Daniels (great name, and very enjoyable reads!).

Yes, because that's the other interesting thing about his experience: he wasn't in a well-defined genre from the beginning. His first book was a mixture of several genres and he couldn't sell it. Beware of such "cross-overs". The first thing agents and publishers will tell you is that they don't fit into any particular shelf at the bookstore. If your book doesn't fit into a well-defined genre, you're in trouble. There are lots of genres out there: sci-fi, thrillers, romance, fantasy, horror, YA=Young Adults, MG=Middle Grade etc etc and then there are sub-genres, complex things like dystopian urban fantasy or paranormal romance. And let me add that if you're Stephen King and you've added magic and mutants to your story, that doesn't put you into a crossover genre mixing fantasy with horror. You're still a master of the horror story, period. Fantasy is an element in your story, it's not what defines its genre. That is defined by its overall purpose: in the case of the horror genre, the aim is to scare you silly, that's what!

But if you happen to be special in some way, say your writing is "stellar", you have a "unique" voice and an "original" take on the human condition - basically you're the next Tolstoy and Dickens rolled into one, well then you're going to end up in the "literary" category. Nice? No, that's the least marketable and the hardest to sell.

Yeah, if anyone of you thought literature was at the top of the pyramid, think again! Sure, some literary masterpieces "make" it, films are made from them and everything is fine in the best of worlds. But it happens very,very rarely. Can you quote one such recent book? I can't really. Not even Booker Prize or Nobel winners come to mind - I mean the kind that turned into major blockbusters. The big blockbusters are Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code or Stephen King's latest, and notice that all these are quite clearly well-defined genres. No wishy washy cross-over stuff...

My point is that "genre" sells. Actually it's the industry's shorthand to indicate what the market consists of. For example, "chick lit" is a genre on its way out (too fluffy and soft) and "women's fiction" is on its way in (more serious and tough). And if you want to fit in a given category, you better write exactly within the parameters: for women's fiction, the protag is obviously a woman and the length shouldn't exceed 90,000 words. If you're into Young Adults, then aim for 45,000 to 60,000 words and keep in mind that a female protag is better (meaning "easier to sell") than a male one (does that mean teen-age boys don't read? Mmmm....). And if you as a writer feel constricted in your genre box, that's your problem. Your agent and publisher will tell you they know better than you what sells and you should toe the line...

Books that cross-over into other genres exist but they are like those categorized under "literature": nobody knows how they will fare. They are NOT safe bets. Because publishing is an industry and it looks at past sales to figure out where the market is headed. Someone famously said (I don't remember who, sorry about that) that it was akin to driving with only the rear-view mirror as a guide. It certainly is. And it explains those sudden success stories that come out of the blue, most famously J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series and Stieg Larsson's trilogy, both of whom had been rejected by major publishers and eventually came out on small presses (yes, they do have a role in spite of their modest size: they are often pioneers and willing to take risks the bigger ones won't).  If the publishing industry had not been using its rear-view mirror, it might have seen them coming.

So how could the publishing industry improve its chances of spotting the Next Big Writer? I have some ideas about that and I'll put them in a future post. In the meantime, let me throw a question at you:
are you a habitual reader of a given genre or are you willing to try different genres?

I know that I can't stick to a given genre. I might read a lot of thrillers, and then I give up. I need a change of pace and start reading completely different books (including a lot of non-fiction).

How do you read?

Is the publishing industry right in assuming that genre is a major key to successful marketing, or are they missing out on a lot of people who "switch" genres at the drop of a hat?

Do let me know! I've added a POLL up on the right sidebar: please vote!
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