Marketing Categories: The Genre Question

I read an article from Quill and Quire today that talked about a new marketing category that has evolved – new adult fiction. It described how an author had trouble selling her book because it featured a protagonist in her 20s.

The article said that this presented trouble for publishers because YA conventionally deals with high-school age protagonists, while adult fiction generally features protagonists who have reached full adult maturity.

It made these works difficult to categorise… until somebody came up with a name for it.

My first novel is a coming of age story featuring protagonists who have recently entered adulthood. The arc of the protagonists is one which centres around the assumption of adult responsibility: finding a path, choosing sides in political conflict, learning to be a leader, to make priorities, building stable relationships.

I’d been calling it a young adult novel when I described it because, well because once you’ve written a book, marketing categories matter.

They matter because they will affect the metadata that goes along with the book. That metadata will in turn influence E-Marketplace recommendations and will determine where a book shows up when browsing.

They matter because book stores and libraries care about marketing categories. They matter because society, in general, implies certain assumptions about a book based on its category.

And that’s where things get difficult. Because the assumption might not be a correct one. Let’s take, for example, the division between Science Fiction and fantasy. Where would we place a book like Ecko Rising? The book starts off in a pretty standard near future / cyberpunkish vein, with a protagonist, augmented with cybernetics, fighting against the ruling corporate elite of a dystopian England.

And then the novel curves into left field as the character is suddenly and without explanation dropped into a fantasy setting with centaurs, wizards, warriors and a teleporting tavern.

The tension between the sci-fi protagonist’s expectations and the fantasy world he inhabits becomes a key element of the story. But what is it? Is it sci-fi or is it fantasy? This actually matters because science fiction and fantasy have distinct tropes and if a reader expects one set of tropes and suddenly gets another they may not be pleasantly surprised.

Now in this example, the subversion of expectations is handled elegantly by Ware, who allows the protagonist to voice the science fiction expectations only to find himself by turns frustrated and enthused by the differences between the expected world and the one he is in.

Of course some stories don’t have to actually pull a bait and switch to meander over genre lines. Look at any comic book: Power-armour clad scientists duking it out with gods carrying magic weapons; aliens and wizards collaborating; time travellers and mutants and mystical prophecies all jumbled together. There’s some very interesting and fertile ground for stories in the spaces between genres.

But how to sell them?

That’s been a perennial problem for comics, which have struggled against the idea that they are somehow “lower” artistically than other stories basically forever.

In the end, I think Quill and Quire gets it right. Authors will generally, eventually, find a home for good work. In time, no matter how hard it is to sell, somebody will probably at least give it a shot. If they do, and if they sell successfully, hey, voila a new marketing category is born.

And then everybody will be complaining about how many awful steampunk zombie mashup retellings of classic novels they keep seeing in their bookstores, no matter how bold the initial concept of something so bizarre might be.

So, I guess, I’d say this – write your story and write it well. Never, while writing, consider the marketing category. You can pigeonhole your book after you’ve finished it.

Because you will have to think about it. And that’s when it’s time to assemble your elevator pitch. But in the meantime don’t sweat it.

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