Genre as a Marketing Tool: Does it really Work?

Barnstar of Harry PotterImage via WikipediaThe publishing industry is battered by the digital revolution - and in particular by the 99 cent e-book that blows to smithereens the economics of traditional publishing - yet everyone holds on to "genre" as the one, major, solid, reliable marketing tool.

Do you think that's reasonable? Do you really read in one single genre or are you like me, the genre-flitting kind, moving from paranormal to historical to romance to whatever, damn it, is a real GOOD story? Please take the poll (top of the right-hand side column) and let me know!

Yet traditional publishers rely on genre classification not only as a basic way to direct book distribution to the "right" shelves in bookstores - because that's what works best in the real world to ensure "discoverability" of a new title - but to track the size of the market. Everybody knows that romance is the biggest selling genre, it generated nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2009. That's where it's easiest for new writers to break in, that's where the biggest advances are paid (most of the time - but the advance question is another one that needs to be looked at: it has taken a tremendous beating with the digital revolution...).

Genre therefore is an easy-to-use marketing tool: it classifies books and places them in nice little boxes, giving a sense of order. And woe to writers whose works don't fit into a genre: their literary agent may kindly speak of "crossover genre" but s/he knows it means it's going to take twice the effort to sell such a book to publishers. Nobody likes people who rock the boat!

In short, genre makes life simple, it neatly divides up the readers in predictable segments. Thanks to genre, publishers (and literary agents) can track past performance of any given market and predict the future with a fair degree of confidence.

You come to them with a romance, sci-fi, thriller or what not, and they feel they know exactly where they're going with it.

Or do they?

It's easy to blast the publishing industry pointing to all the numerous occasions when a book suddenly made the NYT bestseller list and no one expected it, starting with Rowland's Harry Potter series, going on with the Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner and ending with Stieg Larsson...Nassim Taleb famously labelled such books as "black swans" - those unexpected events that occur on the low tail of the Bell curve and that statisticians can never predict (mainly because they can't tell you where you happen to be sitting on that Bell curve).

What do all these "unexpected" black swan bestsellers have in common? Adherence to the requirements/features of a given "genre"?

Not at all: they were hard-to-classify, "cross-over genres" at the time they came out. But they had one thing in common: they were all damn good STORIES.

So what made them so superlative?

Is it a question of "voice" (or what used to be called 40 years ago, "writing style") ? Yes, it matters but that's not the whole of it. You could even argue that the writing shows shortcomings. For example, Stieg Larsson's books can be overly long and plodding, and I'm sure you can think up all sorts of writing defects in bestsellers you've read...

So is it the plot, the suspense? Sure, the book has to be a "page-turner". But above all, in my view, a black swan bestseller brings something new on the table: it is always chock full of IDEAS - yes, ideas, things people had never thought of in that particular context. Take the Kite Runner: it opened up new vistas not only on the war in Afghanistan, but on war in general, and on cultural differences that in the end are no differences at all, but merely aspects of the human condition. And I could go on and on about what makes a story really GOOD: relevance to our lives, to the issues that matter to us, to our fears, to our hopes, to everything that makes us up as human beings. The closer to the human condition, the better.

So no wonder readers are titillated, happy!

Do you agree with this analysis? And if so, what should publishers do to improve a book's "discoverability"? Genre works up to a point but it is obviously nothing but a gross tool. Much more is needed, and maybe (what a frightening thought for traditional paper book-lovers), in the virtual world of publishing, you can twist genres so that they become cross-over genre monsters that encompass every possible choice. As Passive Guy so aptly pointed out and I quote him:
Amazon has just begun the process of creating a million genres with its categories – Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue. We’re already beginning to see genre busters and there will be more. Look for Historical > Zombie > Arab > Arthurian > Cookbook

A million genres! Wow, what do you think of that?!