getting the labels right

If customers were to walk into a bookstore, where would I send them to find novels like mine?

Week 3 Query Totals (Agents Only):

  • Submitted: 30
  • Rejections: 4
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

I’m well on target to meet my goal of at least 40 queries by the end of this month. After that, I’ll take a break from querying, in part because once August begins I need to give my full attention to getting the semester up and running at Avila.

One of the most difficult things about querying is making the transition from a writing mindset to a marketing mindset. Like all professional endeavors, writing and publishing have their own unique languages, and while you wouldn’t expect it, there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two. Unless, of course, you’re a writer who writes to the market. But most writers I know simply write the stories they want to write. When they’re done, they then have to spend some time and effort figuring out which square marketing hole is the best fit for the round peg that is their unique novel.

It doesn’t help that the best novels rarely fit neatly into a particular marketing category. And it helps even less that marketing labels and categories are in constant flux, as the publishing industry tries to track, define, and anticipate the preferences of tens of thousands of readers.

As a not-so-random example, take my trilogy, The Silver Web. There is no marketing label that is a perfect fit for this work. While The Silver Web draws heavily on traditions of high fantasy, it is written more like historical fiction with a healthy dose of magical realism. More importantly, the novels carry strong feminist undertones, in the way patriarchal systems are perceived, discussed, and challenged by its characters.

When asked for an elevator pitchI often describe The Silver Web as “feminist high fantasy.” Of course, that label is not all-encompassing. Worse, it kind of dooms me.

Most readers of high fantasy have no interest in feminism, fascinated as they are with ‘the good old days’ when men were ‘honorable’ lords and women their pliant and faithful servants (NOT – but we’ll leave the realities of medieval life for another post). At the same time, most feminists steer clear of high fantasy because of its history of overt sexism in the treatment – and exclusion – of women.

So “feminist high fantasy” is not a good marketing label, but nor is the simpler designation “fantasy.” The former label doesn’t exist in bookstores, and the latter, while it exists, is unlikely to attract the full range of readers who would really enjoy my work.

Querying for The Hunting Grounds has brought me back to this labeling dilemma. My new series is contemporary fantasy with strong paranormal elements, but there are no vampires or werewolves or any of the other creatures commonly associated with paranormal fiction. Like all my stories, romance lies at the heart of The Hunting Grounds, but the love story is by no means the sum total of the novel.

The book is dark, sensual – erotic, even – and sometimes violent, but there is no BDSM and certainly no forced sex. The main characters are bisexual, but the story does not dwell on dilemmas of sexual identity or “coming out.” They are who they are, and they live their lives and their desires accordingly.

Oh, and my novel has a forty-something woman protagonist – an uncommon, even revolutionary, age for the genre, where 18 to 20-something protagonists are more the norm.

How do I summarize all this in a single marketing sticker?

A year ago, when I started my first round of queries, I called The Hunting Grounds a paranormal romance. But I’ve since discovered the label ‘paranormal romance’ has strong associations that don’t describe my novel. What’s worse, paranormal is on a downswing because of these associations. People are tired of reading about teenagers with vampires, so they are turning away from paranormal shelves in bookstores.

Fortunately, publishing changes its labels almost as fast as readers change their tastes. There’s always another label out there that just might work for your novel.  In this second round of querying, the label that’s caught my attention is “upmarket commercial fiction.”

Of course, no reader goes into a bookstore looking for “upmarket commercial fiction,” but apparently among agents and publishers, this is now the go-to label for novels like mine that cross multiple genres, are written in a more literary style, and have the potential to appeal to a broad audience.

So there you have it. I write upmarket commercial fiction.

Problem solved – until, that is, the labels change again…

6 thoughts on “getting the labels right

  1. Yep, I have the same problem and I have an idea for us. The most recent Smashwords survey says that 70% of sales are in the Romance category. Forget truth in labeling. Let’s label our novels as Romance with a secondary tag of Fantasy Romance (Fantasy rose to number two this year, yay!). I know you’re not a Romance novelist. Neither am I. But we do include romances in our stories so, if it’s impossible to pigeonhole them anyhow and we have to pick some random ill-fitting category, why not pick number one — Romance? I’m just being facetious by the way. My fans are important to me and I think the label “Romance” on my novels would make them throw up a little in their mouth. I suspect you feel the same. By the way, Stephen King picked Horror as his label early in his career, even though he was really writing Science Fiction. Horror was a much more popular label at that time — possibly the most popular one of all. Once a writer becomes a best seller like King, bookstores start labeling their work as Mainstream Fiction, no matter what genre they really write. Bookstores couldn’t care less.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jini! Actually, I do consider myself a romance writer, and I embrace that label with pride. One thing I neglected to mention in this post is that the advantage of being cross-genre is that you can pitch to a lot of different markets until you find the best fit, or perhaps more accurately, the best fit finds you!

      Liked by 1 person

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