Pub Rants

Market Savvy

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STATUS: I’m battling myself to not leave the office early. It’s 70 degrees out. Must go to Park. Must take Chutney for a walk RIGHT NOW. No, I must be good and wait until at least 4 o’clock when it might be reasonable to pop out early to enjoy the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FALL ON ME by R.E.M.

I have to say that I really enjoyed reading the discussion in the comment section of last Friday’s blog so a quick thank you to all who chimed it.

It’s clear to me that writers who have considered the question of market will not run into a problem when querying a work—even if it’s not clear exactly where the work might fit.

Writers who understand and have analyzed the issue will figure out how to label it (literary fiction in an SF setting for example) or decide to not even try and really focus on the storyline in the query.

It’s hard to explain the issue of market savvy versus not when I can’t share a real query letter received that so exemplifies when it misses. The closest example I can give is that when writers miss, it’s usually because they describe the work in an odd manner so it ends up sounding like some strange cross between nonfiction and fiction (my work is women’s fiction that embraces many principles of psychological self-help that will really help readers). Or something like that.

That’s when Sara and I end up shaking our heads in wonder about the aspiring author’s cluelessness regarding the market. If I want psychological self-help, I’ll read a nonfiction book for it. I don’t read a novel to get those principles. I’m much more interested in the story unfolding and how the characters will grow and develop (and if those psychological self-help principals are subtly interwoven so I don’t notice it but it does enhance the story, all power to the writer—but it doesn’t need to be highlighted in the query.) Did I explain that well?

But I do agree that sometimes the most interesting and original fiction can come out of the exercise of writers bending the genres. I personally love that.

Several years ago when I first shopped Shanna Swendson’s ENCHANTED, INC., we were in a little quandary about what to call it.

Was it paranormal chick lit? Or was it fantasy? We ended up calling it paranormal chick lit for submission but in truth, that wasn’t quite right. Maybe today I’d call it lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy (and how many descriptors can I put on that?). That’s actually more accurate but three years ago, nobody in publishing was calling stuff “lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy” so we opted for the first option.

It can be annoying but we do have to name things when going on submission.

And I personally like to hear how writers consider their own work (even if it ends not being completely on target). It can be very telling about how writers perceive themselves, what they want from the work, their career, their style, their direction etc.

28 Responses

  1. Troy Bierkortte said:

    Did yo happen to notice Miss Snark’s post of 3.11.07? I read hers right after I read your Friday entry. Is it me, or did you both make exactly the same point by saying pretty much the exact opposite of each other?

  2. Anonymous said:

    I’ve been shopping my book – a memoir – for a short time. I’ve gotten some good feedback and have an agetn looking at the entire thing right now.

    I guess, I’m sort of wondering how a writer decides between memoir and novel. I had to condense people into a single character and skip some events altogether.

    I’m guessing an agent who loves the work will be able to help me, but I’m wondering what you think.

  3. Brenda Bradshaw said:

    I think the problem with some writers is that they only read certain lines. I used to read a lot of horror, thought I was writing horror with sex (because in my opinion, that added stake was missing in King and Koontz and I wanted romance in my horror, dammit!) but what I wrote is actually romantic suspense, which I quickly recognized when I started reading Linda Howard and Sandra Brown, etc. (I now write contemporary, and if asked, I specify it as romantic comedy.) I think if all writers read across genre lines and expanded what they expose themselves to, they’ll be better able to know where their own work fits. Even if you guess wrong, or an agent pitches it differently, you’d be a lot closer in your labeling. I may say womens fiction with romantic elements , but then it’s sold as chick-lit. The first isn’t that far off from the second, and it’s tons better than, “Well, it’s got this and this and bits of this so I’m not sure what it is” in a query letter.

  4. Kristin said:

    I think you have really given your audience a lot of valuable information here. I marketed a book of mine last year to agents as “serious chick lit.” Whatever that means. I guess I meant that it wasn’t all happiness and fun and banter all the way through.

    After sending out numerous partials and one or two fulls, I got rejects every time. Now, some of the rejects were probably due to the need for a good edit, but I also think I may have missed the mark when querying for the right agent.

    Now, after quite a bit of editing, I have returned to the agent hunt, but this time I think book is a better fit under “mainstream fiction” with the subheading of “for women.” I seem to be getting just as many interested agents, so let’s hope I did the right amount of editing and found the right marketing angle for my book!

  5. j h woodyatt said:

    I write fantasy. I don’t have a hard time identifying it as such. I’m guessing the wizards pretty much give it away.

    Assigning a subgenre is a bit difficult. It would be “high fantasy” except I’ve dispensed with the epic worldview, the heroes with special abilities, the bloodline fetish, the quasi-medieval setting, and I’ve turned the quest driven plot completely inside-out. Gimme a few minutes to think about it some, and I’m sure I could add to that list.

    How about I just call it a fantasy novel and move on to obsessing about other pointless trivia?

  6. Anonymous said:

    I write science fantasy.

    Does anyone market that, however?! I don’t see anyone calling books “science fantasy”. At all. Science fantasy is a teeny tiny sub-genre that is so unknown it’s practically imaginary.

    It’s also the perfect label for my book. Woe and gnashing of teeth. Am I going to seem like a rube if I call my book that to an agent’s face?

  7. Pat Logan said:

    Science fantasy … if it’s dealing with magic, just call it fantasy. If it’s something like Star Wars, call it space opera.

    I’m not an agent or published, so YMMV.

  8. Michele Lee said:

    Okay, First book: I thought it was horror. I called it tragic horror with werewolves. No interest. So because it also has some heavy romance in the first half Istarted calling it “Dark romance”. A better fit I think, and so did the agents wo looked at it. Still no rep, but lots of interest. I explained why it was horror (tragic ending) and why it was romance (um, duh). Mentioned readers of anita Blake might like it… some gore and violence, lots of luv.. LOL

    So now, I’m trying to figure out what the devil to call the new one. I’m using “paranormal forensic” for now. Agent X put it under Urban fantasy. But it’s in a future world, post a devistating disease (scifi), with vampires, shape shifters and magic (urban fantasy) and them ain character is a cop solving a crime. It’s not suspenseful enough to suspense or thriller, more like a character driven mystery really. But I can’t fit all that into a query letter!

  9. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Michelle, I’d call that urban fantasy. Dystopian future, vampires… sure.

    The early Anita Blakes were all mysteries. Most UFs are. With, like, magic and stuff.

  10. Niteowl said:

    I was relatively confident calling my work Humour Fantasy. But I just saw you write ‘light-hearted urban fantasy’. What’s the difference between ‘light-hearted’ and humourous?

    Other names for the genre I’ve heard:
    Low Fantasy
    Comic Fantasy

    Are there any other terms I’m missing? This is the genre of Terry Pratchett, Piers Anthony (Xanth Series), and Robert Aspirin.

  11. Linda Adams said:

    Last time we made the submission rounds, we simply called our book a thriller and tried to play up on our military backgrounds. On this round (after a major revision), we’ve been calling it an “action-adventure thriller for women.” With the rise of urban fantasy, the strong action heroine is going to eventually spread to thriller.

  12. Anonymous said:

    I had similar sort of quandary submitting mine around. I called it paranormal suspense due to the fact that the villain and one of main characters are vampires, but it was bordering on mystery and thriller as well. Since the stakes weren’t high enough to be a thriller, and it’s not too far into the book that you know who the killer is, it became suspense because it was more of a ‘how the hell are we going to catch this guy?’ A significant portion of the story also dealt with the protaganist’s emotional issues and breakdown when the villain kills her partner, but I had a really difficult time incorporating that bit into a query dealing with a suspense story and vampires that functioned a bit different than your typical ones.

  13. Heather Janes said:

    My book is a young adult mystery — I’ve got that part down. But it’s got elements of fantasy (essentially, the main characters are witches) that, though they aren’t central to the plot, are present throughout the novel. First and foremost it’s a YA mystery but I’m torn between mentioning the fantasy part in the opening paragraph or just leaving it for the description of what happens in the plot.

  14. MLR said:

    Anonymous said…
    Science fantasy is a teeny tiny sub-genre that is so unknown it’s practically imaginary.

    It’s also the perfect label for my book. Woe and gnashing of teeth. Am I going to seem like a rube if I call my book that to an agent’s face?

    Really unknown…like the very popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffery.

    I think agents and editors who work in the speculative fiction field will know what you are talking about immediately. They’re a heck of a lot more savvy about their field than I am, and I knew what you meant. No worries.

  15. John B said:

    This is why writers often resort to author/movie comparisons, which also seems inappropriate. We can tell what something is like, but trying to peg it down to a specific sub-category causes us to create brand new sub-sub-categories that are too specific to be of any value to an agent or a bookseller.

    Me, my novel in progress falls under the general category of humorous literary western science fiction fantasy thriller romance, or Luke Skywalker-meets-John Wayne-and has lunch with the Three Stooges-to discuss Shakespeare’s sonnets-and flirt with Lara Croft while having a couple beers. It’s gonna be big!

  16. Celeste said:

    I think you can overthink your genre to death. I’ve been guilty of thinking so hard on my market (because I was torn – was it this? or that? or a combination?) that I didn’t send the query. Isn’t that just foolish? Nowadays, I try to pick the one label that comes closest to the heart of the story, and it’s much easier on my brain and self-confidence.

  17. Anonymous said:

    If you’d seen a query three years ago with “lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy” listed as the genre, what would you have done? Can we invent these kinds of genres?

  18. Christine said:

    Okay, it’s probably me, but when trying to explain what your book is about to someone, if you can’t put it in one line, you need to think about it some more.

    When someone asks me what my first book is about, for example, I had to think. Then I came up with, ‘It’s like Dorothy goes to Middle Earth.’

    I sell a lot of books at signings with that line, because it’s instanty recognizable and sums things up nicely.

    Of course there’s more to it, but if you take five minutes “There’s this girl, see, and she accidentally falls into this other world, and there’s dragons and fairies and an evil witch…” See what I mean? You’ve totally lost their attention. You only get so much time before they move on. Same applies to agents.

    I would never put such a thing in a query letter, but I think the same basic rule applies. Sum it up in as few words as possible. I think it’s a good way to figure out what kind of book you’ve got. If you don’t want to compare to other books, try to find that one line that fits.

    Maybe I’m completely wrong. Happens a lot.

  19. Tia said:

    I think this is easier for genre writer. I wrote a fantasy. It was easy to catagorize. It is not high fantasy (no elves) and it is not contemporary or urban. So, I just called it a fantasy. I had an urge to call it a “mythic fantasy”, since it is based on mythology, but I resisted. 🙂

  20. Anonymous said:

    I write science fiction, fantasy and horror. Each work is separate, though, and I can make the distinction well enough after the first page that I am confident in telling an agent what it is I wish to send them.

    I do think that they can all contain elements of one another. Is “Alien” a sci-fi flick, a thriller or a horror movie?

    Being an active reader is of paramount importance in this idea of being market savvy… if you don’t know what’s on the shelf, and don’t have a very long list of books read filling up your head, you probably aren’t going to be that good a writer. No one writes in a vacuum. Someone who writes sans an in depth reading career is essentially the best writer they’ve ever read, and with nothing to aspire to will end up sucking. A lot. Likewise, the guy who has only read one book… if that was “The Catcher in the Rye”, he’s more than likely to reproduce Salinger whether he realizes it or not (See, in “Catcher” the kids name is Holden, and he goes to private school… in my book, his name is Joe, and he goes to military school. Totally different.).

  21. EGP said:

    I have now settled on calling my novel (soon to be submitted, but must – have – paitence!) a conspiracy thriller. But it took a while to settle on that. I was pretty sure it was a thriller, and there are 200 agents out there that do thrillers, but of course there are many different kinds of thrillers.

    Action thriller sounded good, but I do read some of those and most of them are focused more on the action than the thrill, which isn’t exactly the case with my book.

    Political thriller also is close, but that brings to mind something where politics is a focal point, and that isn’t completely right.

    The catch-all “suspense thriller” might work, but I personally find that to be redundent, even though I understand that one can be thrilled without much actual suspense.

    From the beginning, I knew that Robert Ludlum’s conspiracy novels were the closest thing to my work, but not quite. I really do like Ludlum, but my book doesn’t have the melodramatic “feel” of his books, with all those exclamation points in the dialogue. In the end, I decided that since the main conflict is about a conspiracy, it is a conspiracy thriller.

    Ultimately, I think that designation will be accurate enough for my query letter, where the hook will make the plot very clear. If for marketing reasons we need to position it as another subtype of thriller for submission to editors – well that’s one of many reasons I need an agent to advise me.

  22. j h woodyatt said:

    Folks, I’m amazed at how difficult some of you seem to be making this. It’s really simple. When you go into the big-box bookstore chain, what is the name of the section where you will be expecting to find your book? If you can’t answer that question, then don’t expect your agent to bother answering it for you.

    The big bookstore chains don’t make up the names of these sections willy-nilly. Little independents sometimes do, e.g. my neighborhood shop separates the “vampire fic” from the rest of the sci-fi and fantasy (thanks be to jayzus). Pay no attention to them— they’re irrelevant for the purposes under discussion here. In what section are the big-box chain stores gonna display your book? That’s the question your agent wants to know you can answer. (ObPedantry: your agent may have a differing opinion than you, but that’s irrelevant to the query process, too.)

  23. EGP said:

    jh –

    I have found books like mine in large chain bookstores under “fiction”, and “mysteries”, among other things. In fact, I rarely have seen a “thrillers” section in a bookstore.

    Would that it were that simple.

  24. Anonymous said:

    Science fantasy … if it’s dealing with magic, just call it fantasy. If it’s something like Star Wars, call it space opera.

    *nods* It’s got wizards and swords, so I’ve been calling it fantasy.

    However, people then get very confused when I mention the computer.

    Really unknown…like the very popular Pern novels by Anne McCaffery.

    🙂 Yes, but even then, people tend to call the Pern books either fantasy or science fiction, despite neither label being perfectly accurate.

    I agree that those who specialise in SFF will know what I’m talking about, but big-box bookstores do not have “science fantasy” shelves. They have science fiction shelves and (in close proximity to those) fantasy shelves.

    Kristin’s comments not withstanding, Miss Snark and The Rejecter both say that you should describe your book in a manner that would make it easy for a bookstore employee to find the right shelf for it. Science fantasy would thus not be the right label for my book, even if it’s accurate.

    Woe and gnashing of teeth.

  25. Kathleen Dante said:

    Wizards and swords don’t automatically mean fantasy. The Liaden Universe and Mageworlds books, for example, have wizards but are classified as science fiction. Having computers in the story doesn’t automatically mean science fiction, either. Wen Spencer’s Tinker and Wolf Who Rules, which have elves and computers, are fantasy.