Please welcome author Linda Gillard who has kindly agreed to write about her experiences in dealing with genre issues she has encountered in finding and retaining a publisher for her books, notably House of Silence, which I wrote about yesterday. This is the first of two parts.
What do you like to read? Do you like to know exactly what to expect when you open a book? Or do you like to be surprised? Do you stick to favourite authors? Do you read only certain genres or do you like to try something new?
The publishing industry is based on guessing what readers like to read. I say "guessing" because I'm yet to come across any publisher who does reader market research, apart from Harlequin, Mills & Boon. Sales figures show what readers bought, but not what they enjoyed and there’s a difference between the two (as you'll know if you’ve ever been disappointed by the gap between what a much-hyped book promised to deliver and what actually lay within its pages.)
I write fiction for a living, so I have more than a passing interest in what readers like to read. Over the years, I've found myself at odds with editors over this. We've disagreed about what readers like to read and it's led to discussions of the thorny question of "genre issues", something that has dogged many an author's career, including mine.
At the beginning of this guest blog I asked what you liked to read. Let me guess… A well-constructed story about interesting, believable characters, told by a distinctive voice. (Am I close?) Would I be right in assuming you'd also like this story to be well-written? After that, I'd guess it would be a matter of genre and this is where those of us who love, buy and produce books fall into two different camps.
In one corner we have readers and authors. Readers would like to read the best book ever. Authors, coincidentally, are trying to write the best book ever. A marriage made in Heaven, you might think, as neither in this reading partnership can thrive without the other.
In the other corner we have publishers and retailers who share a common goal: to sell the largest number of copies ever. I'm sure publishers would also like to publish the best books ever, but actually their priority is volume of sales, not quality of writing. I have many emails from UK and US editors, the kind known as "rave rejections", in which editors enthuse about my writing, my characters, my original "voice", but they all end with the same regretful formula, which says, in essence, "We don't think this will sell, so we don’t wish to commission it."
My first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY was published in 2005 and over the years I've been told many times that my novels belong to no clear genre. (I plead guilty as charged.) This apparently makes them difficult to sell. But this year I proved that wasn’t actually true by selling 12,000 copies (mostly in the UK) of a Kindle e-book I published myself, HOUSE OF SILENCE. I sold that number in five months and HoS became a Kindle bestseller.
HOUSE OF SILENCE had been rejected, not just by my own publisher (they wanted straight romance), but by every other editor my agent sent it to. One UK publisher nearly bought it, but their marketing department ultimately said "No" when they discovered that my next novel, UNTYING THE KNOT was very different. My agent received a final, regretful email, explaining, "Linda writes one-offs" – a phrase which sounds the death knell for the career of any author writing commercial fiction.
At least, it used to sound the death knell, before the e-book revolution. Things are rather different now. E-books are cheap and there's a vast range to choose from (much of it dross, it has to be said.) The e-book market is driven by readers, not retailers and readers want a good story at a good price. Apart from that, they have a fairly open mind and for $0.99, some aren't too fussy about literary quality. It appears readers are also happy to step outside their usual genre comfort zone, especially when they can sample the book for free.
This new way to buy books has led to a proliferation of genres, sub-genres and a lot of creative inter-breeding, so that boundaries have become blurred, genres more complex. I haven't actually looked to see if you can find gay-dystopian-fantasy-romance on Kindle, but I expect it's there somewhere. Whatever you want to read (cougar rom-coms, gay nautical historical fiction, Roman romance with gladiators, male or female), someone will be writing it and now, thanks to indie e-books, someone is publishing it. And why not? Let books find their readers!
I knew HOUSE OF SILENCE would be tough to market, but I didn't see why it should be hard to sell. It's a country house mystery/family drama/gothic rom-com/love story. Or to put it another way: COLD COMFORT FARM meets REBECCA. What's that? You're salivating already? Your clicking finger is itchy? That's because, like me, you love those genres. You don't care if they get mixed up and if you subscribe to the "Too much is never enough" philosophy, you perhaps don’t see why they shouldn’t be mixed up.
But sadly, that's not how book-selling works. In the world of book retailing, they like to keep things simple, so you, the consumer don't get confused.
Tomorrow in the second part of this guest blog, I’ll tell you how I marketed the unmarketable and how, very soon, I plan to do it again.