When it comes to books, an easy was to start doing this is through identifying your novel’s genre, thereby making your target audience the readers of said genre.
Many writers descry genre. I’ve hear it stated that genre conventions impose limits to creativity and the possibilities a writer can introduce into a story.
Some also claim that genre is a means by which the traditional publishing industry pigeonholes the market by only publishing stories adhering to this or the other trend, which ultimately comes to define various genres as a whole (e.g. the dystopian trend in YA).
Yet, whether one agrees with the above statements or not, genre is the means by which readers have been trained to locate books within the publishing landscape. Whether a book is traditionally published or self-published, it’s the GPS that helps lead readers to the promised land of similar content and fulfilled expectations.
According to bestselling sci-fi author Hugh Howey,
[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in becoming discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book…. Random fantasy books sell better than random randomness.
But what happens when your book doesn’t quite fulfill those expectations? What happens when it meets some of the conventions of its genre, yet blithely disregards others?
What happens if your book is like my book?
My novel has an identity crisis
My novel-in-progress is a work of historical fiction, set in thirteenth century England around the time of Magna Carta. It’s carefully researched and, to the best of my abilities, written in a sensibility that adheres to the prevailing societal attitudes of the day.
It’s not historical fiction of the sort that contains real personages from history as main characters (a conscious decision on my part to instead focus on the society itself as a main character).
Historical fiction as a genre isn’t required to showcase historical figures. Yet, it seems to me that the most popular HF titles dealing with ancient history (i.e. Biblical, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Medieval, Renaissance) tend to be those with protagonists who already have their own Wikipedia entry.
My novel also contains various romantic elements: unrequited love, love at first sight, marriage.
The romantic elements don’t necessarily occur in the order listed above, nor do they all necessarily happen to the same character.
My novel is not a capital-R Romance, the convention for which is that the would-be lovers meet within the first chapter (they don’t), that the love story is central to the plot (it’s not; it’s merely or just one of many things that happens and contributes to the plot), and that the story ends in a traditional happily ever after (truth be told, I’m still not entirely sure if the ending of my novel will qualify as “happy” at all.)
As well, my novel contains warring factions, backstabbing, intrigue, and all the political machinations inherent in a medieval epic, plus suspense, if nothing else, in the broadest sense of the reader (I hope!) wondering what’s going to happen in the end.
There are no on-screen, political thriller/war fiction-esque battle scenes detailing the inner workings of siege warfare because the story is narrated from the first-person POV of a lady, who naturally wouldn’t be there on the front lines. Nor is the story’s pace one that’s consistent with any type of thriller.
It’s also something of a work of feminist fiction, for I wanted to emphasize some of the hardships women faced in the thirteenth century as a means demonstrating how much – and in some cases, how little – women’s lives have changed in the present day.
(And I won’t even get into how, in its earliest incarnation, my novel was actually a work of fantasy, and still contains modified versions of a few of my favourite tropes from that genre.)
How the hell do you market something like this?
No, really – how?
Ask (of) the audience
The increased legitimacy of self publishing does offer writers a lot of freedom from traditional genre definitions and conventions. That said, Amazon allows only an author two genre descriptors/browse categories for a given self-published novel.
Which I actually consider quite reasonable, I should note. It doesn’t seem particularly wise to try marketing a novel as everything but the kitchen sink. I could just see the tag line now: “Literally: a ~little~ something for everyone!”
Luckily, I found advice via Anna Genoese, a former acquiring editor at Tor Books whose blog I used to follow back in the days I was writing fantasy.
Random curiosity led me to look her up again, and a few clicks around her site led me to an article called “Genre as a Market Category”. The article is from 2006, but the information still seems valid to me. Anna writes,
The way to figure out what genre your manuscript should be classified as … is to pick one and then ask yourself: would the readers of this genre be satisfied by the story I am telling?
This may well entail finding beta readers of each of the various genres I’m representing and literally asking them.
Question: Writers: Do you struggle with defining the genre of your work? Readers: Are you tolerant of stories that mix genres or otherwise disregard some of the conventions of genre?