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Importance of Genre in Reader Expectations

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Importance of Genre in Reader Expectations

Beaulieu, Cole, Pape, and Ahmed. Photo by Patrick Wolohan
At Epic Confusion last weekend, I sat in on a panel about genre-blending.  It was moderated by Myke Cole, but included authors Bradley Beaulieu, Scott Lynch, Saladin Ahmed, and Cindy Spencer Pape.  Cole, after a little talk about how each of the panelists' novels were genre blending in some way, posed the question -- what significance, if any, does genre have to a writer/publisher outside marketing?  The panel mostly agreed that it had none -- nor should it.  That got me thinking.  Value or not, genre and marketability have a tremendous amount to do with which novels editors buy, and even more with how they're presented to the marketplace.

On an earlier panel, author Kameron Hurley (God's War, Infidel, and the forthcoming Rapture) commented that several large publishing houses passed on her novel because they just didn't know how to market it.  Was it science fiction? Fantasy? Having read the novel, I can see where these houses were coming from.  What Hurley wrote is unique.  It's got flavors of gritty fantasy, but there's nothing remotely 'fantastic' about the world or plot.  Even the magic system seems more like biotech than wizardry.  Neither is it science fiction.  None of her 'speculations' have even the tiniest connection to actual science.  The fact is, God's War was lucky to see the light of day.  Night Shade Books took a chance on it.  Because it doesn't have a genre, it's a veritable boondoggle of marketing.

So how does that impact the reader?  That's a harder question to answer, and to do so I have to ask two more.
  1. How are genres marketed to readers?  
  2. And is the reader harmed by their own predisposition to spend money only on those things they know they'll enjoy?
To the first question, genres are marketed to readers primarily via cover design.  Perhaps, in the modern electronic world, genre has become a search term in and of itself, but even in cyber-shelf-space I find myself attracted to titles based on their covers.  Let's say I love literary fantasy.  Give me something with beautiful prose, some deep undercurrents, and I'm sold.  In that case, Glen Duncan's, The Last Werewolf, cover says all that right things, where Karen MacInerney's Leader of the Pack... doesn't.   Unfortunately, it seems the only time we get a cover like Duncan's is when a publisher is trying to target crossing over into the 'mainstream' (cue ominous music).

The fall-out of that is that covers will (most often) reflect those aspects of the novel that target a genre demographic.  Case in point, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon and Myke Cole's Shadow Ops: Control Point, two novels due out in February.  Both covers are done in a cartoonish style that calls to mind kinetic action, promise of violence, and tangible magic.  They offer nothing to suggest that beneath the surface Ahmed and Cole actually pose weighty questions to their readers.  They're being marketed to the so-called 'fan boy'.

At the risk of being overly illustrative, I'd point out another interesting cover conundrum.  Bradley Beaulieu's debut novel, Winds of Khalakovo, was presented with a beautiful artistic rendition of an airship listing in a mountain pass.  The sequel, Straights of Galahesh, features a character driven illustration of the novel's protagonist leaping from an airship into the open air.  It suggests action and excitement, but does nothing to communicate true tone of the novel so well captured by the previous volume.  Will the new style sell more books?  I'm almost sure.  Does it send the right signals to the reader?  I'm not convinced, and therein lies the answer to my second questions.  Do genres harm readers?  The answer: you're damn right.

Genres create a false paradigm.  One that presumes that every book is like another, when in fact they are all unique.  Does Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves call to mind Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora?  Yes, but the truth is they bear little resemblance to one another.  Yet for the next twenty years they'll be spoken of in the same breath, bear covers that communicate their similarities, and few who don't like one will ever read the other.  And why?  Because marketing demands they be akin.  Forget the fact that they sound nothing alike and are built of entirely different foundations.  As far as an a publisher is concerned, a thief is a thief and that's the reader to target.

For Ahmed and Cole that means fan boy.  What I lament is that those same readers will never find Jo Walton's Among Others or Paula Brandon's The Traitor's Daughter, all because they are presented in such a way that make readers pause and say, 'that doesn't look like it's for me.'  Sound familiar?  That's the same thing every literary critic has said for the last fifty years when they walk by the Science Fiction & Fantasy section.  In allowing genres to persist, largely due to marketing concerns, I believe genre publishers are limiting themselves.  For every reader gained by producing something that fits a genre niche, another is lost who would never try such a thing.

What's worse, is that once an author finds a market it becomes almost impossible for them to do something else.  Their agents and editors want more of what sells, not necessarily more of what they want to write.  Writing is an artform as much as it's a business, and reading should be as much an appreciation of the art as it is an escape.  Genres retard that process.  It provides a path of least resistance to readers when it comes to choosing their next novel, allowing the publisher to continually target the same types of novel again and again.

Look, I get it.  It's a publisher's job to sell books.  They have to make a value judgement on each novel and find a box for it.  Meanwhile, readers will spend their hard earned money on titles they are sure to like.  It is a self fulfilling prophecy, but not one I have to like.

Do I?

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At January 27, 2012 at 7:45 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

To the first question, genres are marketed to readers primarily via cover design.

Yes. I recall an ancedote from Lisanne Norman, who insisted on a spaceship on all of her novel covers, to make sure they looked like SF.

At January 27, 2012 at 9:19 AM , Anonymous Stefan said...

Excellent article, Justin. It makes the same points, in a very considered and lucid way, that the folks at Good Show Sir ( make in a more comical way.

At January 27, 2012 at 9:45 AM , Anonymous Brad Beaulieu said...

A small aside: Stefan, I love that site! I've been watching it for a year or so, stopping by occasionally to guffaw at the bad, bad covers.

Justin, I think this partially misses the point of marketing. One of the things I raised on the panel was that marketing is not being done at the whim of the publisher or even the store owners. It's being done because readers demand it. No, I know, they're not standing up and screaming for genre distinctions. But take them all away, and what would you have? A million books and no way in which to choose among them.

I think about that guy that said he runs in and grabs books while his semi idles on the highway outside. And there are moms buying for their daughters and sons, and themselves. They're looking for something quickly identifiable. And not just that. Many, many readers want the same reading experience they had in the last great book they read. Only different. (Cue smirk.) And genres, along with their covers, allow them to come ... close. Clearly it doesn't always work. Sometimes the publisher is lying to us. Sometimes the book sucks, or has subject matter that relates in only the smallest of ways to the cover. But it's a tool that readers use—especially when looking for something new—to find something that's likely to give them the experience they're looking for.

My point is this: publishers do not drive genre. They are reacting to the readership. Or, said another way, the publisher and bookseller are merely enablers for this basic consumer desire.

At January 27, 2012 at 9:53 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Absolutely, that's how it works. And while I freely admit the necessity of it all, I lament that how much phenomenal work people miss out on because it doesn't look like it something they're used to. Your first book comes to mind, or Howard Andrew Jones's DESERT OF SOULS.

Or just the reverse, how much great work the mainstream readers miss out on because Saladin's book looks like a D&D wet dream.

There's no perfect solution, but I do hold that genre, or the concept of it, does harm our (our being a universally inclusive term) ability to appreciate literature as art, unfettered by expectation.

At January 27, 2012 at 10:23 AM , Blogger Brad Beaulieu said...

"There's no perfect solution, but I do hold that genre, or the concept of it, does harm our (our being a universally inclusive term) ability to appreciate literature as art, unfettered by expectation."

That's fair, and I agree, and yet it's a Platonic ideal that has almost no relevance in our world.

At January 27, 2012 at 10:37 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Allow me to slightly disagree, Justin.

Genre, taken to extremes in atomization, would lead to, say, Brad's books being shelved under "Russian themed Fantasy". That sort of slicing and dicing does no good. On the other hand, if I wander into a bookstore and I am in the mood for fantasy, if there is no "genre" called fantasy, I have a lot of sifting to do.

I don't want to live in a world where I'd have to sort through books by Delilah Beasley and Charles Beaumont to spot The Winds of Khalakovo.

How is some of the work of sifting achieved? Genre.

At January 27, 2012 at 11:28 AM , OpenID elsiewontknow said...

Great post, Justin, and I'm with you every step of the way. It's always a shame when genre stops helping a reader narrow their search and starts narrowing the reader. But we seem to love labels and pigeonholes. I think genre is something that needs to embraced on the one hand, and all of its advantages exploited, whilst challenging and pushing it on the other hand and never letting it rest or become stagnant.

At January 27, 2012 at 11:46 AM , Anonymous Brad Beaulieu said...

It also occurs to me that one of the things that social networks and sites like Goodreads do is to break down genre walls. If my friend, whose opinion I trust, recommends a book, I'll give it serious consideration, regardless of genre.

At January 27, 2012 at 12:05 PM , Blogger Stuart said...

With the advent of ebooks, it'd be interesting if publishing houses start using different covers depending on how the book is found/shelved/marketed.

Look at the different Wheel of Time covers. Depending whether hardcover, mmpb,YA, or reprints, the covers have all been aimed at a different demographic. What if modern marketing will be able to "pick" the right cover that will appeal to each of us individually (the way Google ads pcik what shows up in my ad space)?

So, my werewolf book will have a Michael Kormark cover, while yours may have a more literary sparse cover or some other more appealing art.

It'll be interesting, to be sure.

At January 27, 2012 at 1:36 PM , Anonymous Mark Lawrence said...

You think I'd sell more copies of Prince of Thorns with a mushroom cloud and a computer terminal on the front, or fewer? I don't know for sure... The notion that genres present barriers is odd to me - they do - but it's odd. Some people have said (typed) to me 'how can magic and science be together... that's silly.'

Whuh... sillier than magic? The cartwheel in 'The Wizard of Standard Fantasy Castle' is science...

At January 28, 2012 at 12:53 AM , Blogger Douglas Hulick said...

Genres are a collaborative effort. It extends between writers, publishers, readers (both fans and non), and, yes, reviewers. Part of the reason for them is ease of classification and identification of the books, yes; but just as much is also for the self-identification and classification of the particular sub-cultures of the fandom.

Think about your average SF con. Many of the people who attend cons revel in their fandom; in their devotion to esoterica; in their passion to their particular flavor of genre. These are people who don't just look for the label on the bookshelf--they embrace it enough to spend entire weekends (and longer, in the case of con organizers, merchants, etc.) devoted to their particular brand of literature/media. Branding makes this easier, yes, but you can't tell me that people wouldn't be laying down cash and time even if there weren't lines being drawn by the publishers. Those lines would be drawn regardless--they'd just be drawn by someone else. And people would still find or miss things.

The labels we use make things easier to find; but I don't think not having them would necessarily broaden as many horizons as we might hope. So even if we "break down" genre walls in some ways (which I am still debating is even truly possible), I can see just as many going up using similar technologies and social platforms. People tend to like to put things in boxes so they can find them easier, and that's all that a genre label is at heart. It's our nature of put things in other things, and I expect we'll keep doing it no matter what.

At January 30, 2012 at 11:44 PM , Blogger Mieneke said...

To me genre distinctions always remind me of library classification systems. You have several top categories, some subcategories, and endless sub-subcategories. These can be visualised as numeric strings, with the main categories as full numbers and subcategories and beyond by decimals etc. Now that main number and the first decimal are pretty useful, it lets you separate fiction from non-fiction, adult from children's books etc. The second decimal is also useful letting us separate crime from literary fiction, historical works from political works and yes, fantasy from SF and so in. But the SFF community seems to delight in going on into the third, fourth and fifth decimal to get as precise a niche description of a book as you can get.

At January 30, 2012 at 11:50 PM , Blogger Mieneke said...

Sorry my iPad froze and wouldn't let me rescue my typed text, so that's why the broken post :-/ Let me continue my train of thought.

Such detailed niches are harmful for anyone in any genre, I do agree with you, but I also agree with some of the other commenters that the main categories of genre distinction are a necessary marketing device and a good way to preserve not just the readers' sanity, but also that of the librarians and book shop employees, who need to keep the books organised in a way that makes sense to everyone, not just those with an advanced degree in library science.


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