As I work to build Hybrid up into something more, I’d like to share my thoughts on a few topics that I really enjoy about working with books! I hope you enjoy.
If you ask any writer, you’ll get some…pretty complicated thoughts on genre and what all it entails. If you ask any publisher, and you’d better be prepared to sit down for an hour or two to hear all of their thoughts.
And, well, I’ve got some time…
As an author, I’d like to tell you that genre doesn’t matter. Especially when it comes to the divide between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”, it can be used to devalue one’s work. To have your work labeled as “genre fiction” is to have it me made somehow less than. Genre fiction, in the eyes of many, is seen as a condemnation to the shelves far in the back of the bookstore, a relegation to fandom and nerdery. “Literary fiction is what adults read,” says the MFA in your class.
It’s all patent bullshit, of course. Genre fiction — that is, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and so on — requires all the art and skill to write that literary fiction does. It has to! The things that build up a good story are the same when writing a romance novel as they are when writing contemporary fiction. The skills required to sit down and actually pen a faster-than-light, lasers-and-spaceships science fiction novel are the same that any author of the coveted “next great American novel” would use.
Writing is writing, at the end of the day. The minutiae of the craft may differ — the research that goes into an historical novel will by necessity be different than the research that goes into a contemporary murder mystery — but the basis is the same across genres.
Genres don’t matter. They are too easily turned into a facetious way to pigeonhole authors’ works into reductive niches, and often used as a way to divide readers by class or perceived maturity.
As a publisher, I can’t honestly tell you that genres hold no value.
Writing fiction, as a craft, is something pure, in the way that any art is. It is a creation that comes from within the writer’s mind and is borne of a set of skills, personality traits, and far-flung ideas. Writing itself exists independent of any idea of genre. Of course, the stories may contain genre tags and ideas that are specific to a certain time period or mood, but words are words. Sentences and paragraphs, chapters, voice, style…all of these things are just writing.
Reading, however, is a little different. Reading requires some sort of alignment between reader and author for things to truly click. A reader may say, “Hey, I really like very flowery sentences that explore deeply, almost mystical ideas about our futures.” To which a bookseller may say, “Ah, have you read Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin?”
To readers and booksellers, genre definitely matters. It’s a way of breaking down an overwhelming choice into something that’s merely difficult. “What should I read next?” becomes less of impossible question when you can say, “I like reading about detectives solving difficult cases.” At that point, the bookseller can point you to the mystery rack, and guide you from there.
The publisher’s role is, as always, one of being an intermediary between author and reader. We have to take a look at a piece of writing and figure out how to get it into the hands of readers who would enjoy it.
This is where marketing, that most dreaded of words, comes into play.
Could one market a science fiction novel in the same way as a romance novel? Perhaps! Perhaps with the right story, one could come up with a campaign that would land the book in the hands of both sci-fi readers and romance readers who would each love it
Should one market a science fiction novel in the same way as a romance novel, though? That’s a good question. Sure, one could market it as I just mentioned, but is that going to be the best way to get it into the hands of the people who will love it most? The publisher has to look at the novel and say, “Is this a science fiction novel with aspects of romance, or is it a romance novel set in the future?” and then work from there to come up with the best marketing strategy. Lots of amazing books touch on more than one genre, and it’s the publisher’s job to make that work for the readers.
Sometimes, the answer is to come up with multiple marketing schemes. One example of this is our friends over at FurPlanet, who also have a separate imprint, Argyll Productions. Their first foray into dual branding was with Watts Martin’s delightful novel Kismet, which was broad enough in scope that it could be marketed both to a more specific audience of fans of anthropomorphic literature via FurPlanet as well as to a more specific audience of fans of science fiction via Argyll. They even had the artist come up with separate covers to help with this marketing: one for the furry audience, and one for the science fiction audience.
Genre mixing can also be done in anthologies. One of the anthologies I edited a few years ago, Arcana - A Tarot Anthology, featured stories from many different genres, relying on the unifying theme of archetypes embodied in the major arcana of a deck of tarot cards to keep it together.
This can present some challenges in marketing the product, however. There were a few sci-fi stories in there, and more than a few stories featuring LGBTQIA+ characters (hey, it’s me, you should expect nothing less), but should we market it to sci-fi fans or the queer community? Or should we lean on the tarot side of it, even though the concepts were vague in the extreme for some stories? It was a real challenge!
To this end, our anthologies which don’t specify a particular genre in the submission guidelines do also include the caveat, “while there is no restriction on genre of submitted stories, we will aim for a cohesive anthology after the fact.” It’s something that helps us get the book to readers who will enjoy it.
All this is to say that, even though when one is writing, one isn’t always thinking about genre so much as the story one wants to tell, genre does matter from the publisher and bookseller’s point of view. It helps us to ensure that the author’s works make their way into the hands of those who would be made happiest by them.
We stand by the adage that one should write what one wants. Write literary fiction! Write alternative histories! Write mysteries in space! Write noir romances! Those are all things that we want to see in the world. Just trust that your publishers will use genre as a tool in marketing your work.