Hope for the genre-challenged?

- by Edie Claire

“I love it! But I have no idea how to market it.”

This is a direct quote from an editor; it came right before the rejection. I have no idea which editor it came from. I can’t even remember which book it referred to, since they all pretty much run together after a while. You see, I am cursed with a disease dreaded by all commercial novelists: genre confusion. (Please watch the spelling on that.)

All writers have muses. Some muses are savvy, business-oriented gals who know their profession, understand what sells, and can guide their authors to success like loyal, slathering bloodhounds. I’ve never seen one of those. If I had, I would have netted her like a butterfly and held her captive in a jar in my room. No…the ones that find and pester me are always dreamy-eyed flibbertigibbets, full of oh-so-fabulous ideas for oh-so-wonderful stories that I am assured readers will simply love…if they ever get to read them. But herein lies the problem.

To market effectively, publishers seek books they can distill to a one-sentence pitch, a high-concept catch-phrase, perhaps even a single (hot) category designation: e.g., “paranormal romance.” They like books that are clearly defined, easy to communicate the appeal of, and easy to place on that one magical shelf where potential buyers are already lined up and waiting for them.

This lets my muse out. Betty the Bumblehead wouldn’t know an appropriate shelf if she flew into it broadside. No…Betty has her own ideas. Betty likes mystery, particularly when it involves long-hidden family secrets; but she’s not into crime scenes. She lives for romance, and will tread air for hours dreaming up heartwarming scenes packed with tender emotion…but the steamy stuff makes her blush. She loves ghosts and gothics and spooky woo-woo; but no horror, please—she can’t stand the sight of blood.

I’ve tried to get rid of Betty. But once a muse has you in her clutches, the little beasts are nearly impossible to kill. My last muse, Jeanine (now vacationing somewhere in the South Pacific), was much more amenable—at least she knew a cozy mystery when she saw it. True, she tried getting away with “not murder,” and she broke a few cardinal rules along the way (not saying where!), but for the most part, she understood where her bread was buttered. Betty, in contrast, is an idiot. Betty thinks an author should be able to live on love.

The wench did help me sell Long Time Coming, my first RT Top Pick. But she also drove my publisher’s marketing department into a tizzy. When they bought the proposal, they bought a romantic suspense. After the manuscript was finished, they decided what they really had was women’s fiction. Imagine my surprise when I got the cover flats in the mail and discovered I had written a contemporary romance. Who knew? Sure as heck not Betty the Bumblehead.

She didn’t listen to reason then, nor would she bend to the dictates of the market the next time around. Meant To Be was an RT Top Pick too, she gloated, so what was my problem? My problem was that I couldn’t sell another book. Nobody but nobody wanted Borrowed Time, no matter how well-reviewed its predecessors.

“It’s a romantic suspense, you say?”
“Well, yes. At least it would be in the 80s. But it’s not really a modern romantic suspense, because it doesn’t have a high-stakes, thriller-type, plot, it just has a mystery—”
“So you’re starting another mystery series?”
“No, it’s just the one book. And it’s more about a woman’s journey—”
“Oh! So it’s women’s fiction, then.”
“Well, no…the romance is really strong, and it does have a happy ending—”
“Contemporary romance?”
“Well, yes…but there’s no sex—”

The conversation generally ended here, punctuated by a slamming door—and a few sore toes. I was not pleased with Betty. Once or twice, I even put arsenic in her chamomile. But Betty would not leave me alone. She just kept reminding me that she was a coffee drinker. And smiling that smug, annoying smile of hers.

And now, at long last, I’m thinking I know why. I’m talking about…you guessed it: e-books. The e-book revolution has changed everything. And I’m not just talking about how cool it is to carry ten books on a plane, or how exciting it is to go direct to market with a product that is both less expensive for readers and nets more profit for authors (as delightful as that is.) No, I’m talking about shelves. Specifically, that there aren’t any.

Now of course, the categories are all still there. Readers who “browse by genre” will find the same rigid, written-in-stone labels they’re used to seeing at the brick and mortar stores. But in the e-world, those labels are no longer the only way to find books, and there are a whole lot more books out there to find. Thanks to the beauty of the search engine, readers can search on keywords like Edsels, cranberries, and foot rot and see what they can see. Books can be listed in multiple categories. Authors can list their books in whatever genre they want to; authors can make up their own labels if they want to. Smaller groups of readers can find and connect with smaller-niche books that could never have been profitably published as mass-market paperbacks. And that’s all good. Because a good story is a good story is a good story…whether or not it fits neatly into the square boxes of the hour.

So I’m thinking maybe there is hope for me. And by association, Betty. Because as annoying as she can be and as much grief as she’s caused me over the years, I have to admit it—the wench knows what she likes.

I can only hope readers like it too.

***

Edie Claire’s first new novel in seven years, Borrowed Time, is available now! The ebook can be purchased for Kindle or Nook at $3.99; the trade paper edition is available now through CreateSpace for $9.99 and will become available through Amazon and all other major distributors by the end of June. To find out more, visit the author at her website or Facebook page, or send an email to edieclaire@juno.com .

11 comments

  1. Great blog, Edie. Betty the Bumblehead sounds like a keeper to me because the books sound wonderful.

  2. Betty the Bumblehead, hmmm? My muse may be her ornery twin sister Letty the Lightskirt — always following the most rakishly interesting idea, no matter the ability of said rake to be either faithful or supportive.

    Excellent post!

  3. Great post! I love the way you name your muses (I think mine must be Ox the Dunderhead). And I think you’ve nailed the biggest value of e-publishing–how it frees us from other people’s market expectations and lets us write the books we want to read!

  4. Thanks for the post and the great reminder.

  5. Your story shows the beauty of the new ebook world. We can write what we want, and find an audience without a publisher’s “shoulds” for a genre. My muse is an Indian brave who rides a pinto horse and gallops through my office to remind me to write! However, the bare chest and flying black hair are a terrible distraction.

  6. Great post, Edie! It may take a while to straighten out publishing so readers can find good books without using artificial categories, but the time is coming! I’m heading off to download the book (because ebook prices are better than Starbucks).

    And I think one of my muses is called Sarcastic B*tch and she’s really hard to sell.

  7. Thanks, everyone! I really am excited about the possibilities, because there’s no question that the odds of readers totally changing the way they search for and locate books seem considerably better than the odds of me ever latching onto a market-savvy muse!

  8. Wonderful post, Edie! Laughed out loud at your description of Betty. The e-book revolution really is changing the landscape, isn’t it? It will be interesting to see how things evolve…all the very best of luck to you and Betty!

  9. Great post. The type of books Betty urges you to write sound like just the kind I like to read, and might like to write myself. Just downloaded Borrowed Time and am looking forward to reading it.

  10. This post was just what I needed. I have received similar comments from agents, stating they loved my book but don’t know how to sell it. I didn’t think of the e-reader as a tool to break through the rigid walls of genre categorization until now. And my current muse must be Ella the Elusive, because she only appears about five minutes before my toddler wakes up from his nap…

  11. Thanks so much, JoAnn! And Mara, I totally know that muse. I swear the little wenches sometimes take pleasure in irritating us. But what can you do? Like our puny human brains could ever come up with such stories without them? No, they know they’ve got us… ;)