“Sci-Fi? Don’t be ridiculous.”

A look into Customers, authors and booksellers views on fiction classification

First and foremost I would like to say these are my views and generalisations, in no way are they gospel or the views of any other person. I only want to give my opinions and experiences, and hopefully throw up some interesting talking points. I have left out names of the people and authors I’ve quoted as I believe it’s not fair to run someone down for a snapshot opinion.

In any form of entertainment there are classifications and genre breakdowns. These, in my view, are in place to maximize the level of success for the product and to encourage fans of similar things to take notice. Books are a great example of this. Each and every book that is delivered to a bookstore is placed within a genre which will help exploit its sales placement within that genres market place, because, let’s face it, a person who enjoys a good romantic comedy will never enjoy some space opera science fiction… or would they?

Image

It’s not an issue I’ve thought much about over the years as a bookseller but it’s one that never seems to go away. Customers will always have their favourites to go back to, but trying to recommend a similar book to somebody and receiving a horrified expression in return, based on its genre, is sometimes incredibly frustrating. Recommending books you love to people is the best part of a bookseller’s job. As they walk out the door with something you loved, you get a feeling of jealousy that they’re about to take the same journey you did or a different one altogether. Here’s an example of a customer’s stance against genre.

Customer:  “Can you recommend me a good book?”

Bookseller: “Of course, what have you enjoyed recently?”

C: “I really loved Justin Cronin’s The Passage, so something like that?”

B: “Ok, have you ever tried Stephen King? His book The Stand is fantastic and along the same lines, humans survival from a virus, just without the vampires.”

C: “No, I don’t like Horror.”

You would be surprised how many times I’ve experienced a similar conversation and because Stephen King is classed by the mainstream media as the, forgive the pun, “King of horror”, this person was instantly put off without really knowing anything about it. Another example is a customer who loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and was looking for a book along the same lines but was bored by the idea of historical fiction without ever trying any others. It works both ways too with Science Fiction fans who don’t try Margret Atwood or David Mitchel simply because they aren’t shelved in the dark corner of a shop.

Not all readers are like this of course, but it still fascinates me that, because a book like The Passage is classified in stores as Fiction, not Horror, its changes how people buy, as if buying it from a different shelf makes a difference. Most of these outlooks are down to day to day stereotyping, which is something we are all aware of and again is something I experience with customers and colleagues daily.  A colleague and I used to have a running joke about Science Fiction and Crime, where we would consistently come up with generalisations on each other’s sections.  SF was a boring, every day mundane object but just “in space” and with Crime you just had to read the back page to find out who done it. Even though these comments were meant in jest, it represents what I encounter daily.

There seems only one way to break down a book or genre stereotype and that’s by major main-stream exposure. A perfect recent example being G.R.R Martins Song of Ice and Fire series, which now a major HBO show.

After the first episode of Game of Thrones aired there was an instant demand for the relatively old book, first published in 1996. This shows that if an adaptation is done well, it can make a huge difference and get more and more people reading. However, when I recommend other fantasy books to these readers, like Joe Abercrombie’s fantastic First law, sometimes the response can be, “I don’t like fantasy”. The adaptation effect worked so well for Charlene Harris True Blood Sookie Stackhouse novels that were separated from Horror into Dark Fantasy to try and capitalise on the books success. A reason for this, and maybe all, segregation is to try and entice readers to pick up similar books to enjoy, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to quite work that way. I can remember Twilight outselling all of its rivals by such a margin that it was quite clear the majority of people buying it didn’t continue to read similar books and maybe didn’t return to the store they got it from at all. I don’t think segregation a bad thing, especially in these media tie-in situations, because it does inspire some people to become readers and to scratch beneath the surface. It is astonishing though that most people, who obviously enjoyed the adaptations and subsequent books, don’t keep it up.

Image

The authors I’ve met are very vocal on the subject of how their books are classified. There had been a few occasions where I’ve attended an author panel event where, more often than not, all or most on the panel have an issue with being classed as a genre fiction writer, feeling that their work won’t get the exposure it deserves on the shelf’s in Horror, Science Fiction or Crime. This sort of attitude doesn’t realty endear themselves to the audience, who turned up to the evenings because they were billed as genre events. Only once have I seen somebody speak up and defend where they were placed against a genre-slamming author by cutting them off mid-sentence:

“The first place I go to in a bookstore is the SF section. I am honoured to be classed as an SF writer and if you’re not maybe you shouldn’t write SF.”

This went down a storm, and I have to say I loved the author’s response at the time but thinking later on, the disgruntled author had a point too. There is plenty of mass market fiction with lines to Science Fiction and Horror. Why not his novel too? A classic SF novel such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, where the only tie to SF is a futuristic operation to raise someone’s I.Q, is in Science Fiction but another classic like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, containing timeline jumps and an alien planet, is classed as Fiction. It’s interesting to think why these books are placed where they are. The nature of the business is that Mass Market Fiction gets a lot of attention these days through promotional offers and exposure whereas nearly all new titles for SF and Horror (slightly less in Crime) are on the heads of the booksellers to promote, which of course is our job. This I can completely understand as Fiction titles have the larger fan base but, as Game of Thrones has proved, a genre book can be massively successful with some mainstream exposure.

Larger fan base or not there are plenty of occasions where a Fiction title takes centre stage without any logical reason. A debut author recently, let’s call them Author A,  was rammed down booksellers throats and, by most accounts in reviews or from colleagues I’ve spoken to, the book is pretty awful, yet it was decided that everywhere you turned or any site you logged on to, it would be staring you in the face. All this hype and buzz for a debut can go one of two ways. Too much hype and it’s impossible to live up to it or it projects the writer into the upper stratosphere of the industry. It’s a shame to see so much effort go into a book and none for books such as Author B’s latest genre novel which, outside of the author doing a UK tour and a popular SF magazine website promoting it for a few weeks, I saw no buzz outside the normal channels. Is that me being biased? Just because I didn’t like Author A’s book doesn’t mean others won’t but seeing Author B work a crowd at his events was a pleasure. He was a genuinely nice guy, whereas Author A was a bit of a diva, demanding to be interviewed one hour before an event where only a handful of tickets had been sold. And because Author A was deemed as a high profile person it sent are events team into a spin and for what reason? Sadly just to satisfy an ego.

So what makes a book commercial? What makes the giant publishing houses pick up a book and run with it? In five years of being a bookseller I can honestly say that I have got absolutely no idea.

I’m extremely lucky where I am, my colleagues and I are encouraged to get behind books they’re passionate about, but we can only do so much. If the roles were reversed and Author B had as much backing as Author A, who knows how well it would have done.

I don’t think I’ve given any answers, just my observations. I do believe genre fiction breakdowns are a must for fans of that particular genre or people trying to find new books within them. It’s just the lines in which classification is made are extremely blurred and the lines of which books are heavily promoted and which aren’t, are even more so.  I’m not for one moment saying genre should be in the mainstream spotlight over mass market fiction; I just feel that sometimes the genre tag can hold a book back from reaching a bigger audience that it deserves.

A friend of mine recently said: “People who buy Nicolas Sparks will never enjoy SF or Horror.”

Wouldn’t they? Or is it that people just say they won’t?

I’d love to hear your views on this because, in my mind, there is no wrong answer

Advertisements

15 Comments

Filed under Views from the front line

15 responses to ““Sci-Fi? Don’t be ridiculous.”

  1. Well played, Sir. Terrific post! It is an interesting topic, how books get classed in their various genres. As you pointed out with some of the examples there doesn’t seem to be a rational reason behind some of the classifications. Likewise, some people don’t look past the genre to the actual story.
    I write Fiction- all forms basically. I’ve done sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror… It goes on. I see being a genre writer as a situational issue. Some folks want to be a “Horror Writer.” I’m totally cool with that. Personally I’d like to be classed as a Fiction Writer, and place my books in their respective categories.
    Great post! I enjoyed your take on the on-going “genre, or not to genre” debate. Thanks much. 🙂

  2. I think it’s easier to find a book in a shop or library if it’s classified properly but I’m not a big fan of judging books by their genres. There are a couple of genres I don’t like (Romance and westerns. Or romantic westerns…) and will pretty much stay away from those. Otherwise I’m willing to give most books a try. I also try not to rely on recommendations too much because we all have different tastes. This means that I don’t like to recommend books either because I don’t want the responsibility of someone hating my recommendation. I love sharing my thoughts on books though.

    I’ve found that graphic novels tend to get a bad rap in bookstores sometimes. I remember asking someone if they had any Manga Shakespeare and the woman looked at me like I was something to be scraped of the bottom of her shoe.

    I feel that people should be more open-minded. Especially if they’re asking for your recommendation!

    • On the nail 🙂 its such a great subject for discussion. I hope you still got the Manga Shakespeare 😉 It seems like all the worlds problems would be solved by people just opening their minds.

  3. Interesting post! In a small way, I hit the genre issue quite often on my blog and find I’m tagging a book with 3, maybe even 4, genres. That’s OK online, but not so easy in a physical store. Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral is a prime example – superbly written, Victorians trying to signal Martians, with insight into colonial history. Sci-fi? Lit-fic? Historical? To stick it in only one of those genres means it will probably be dismissed by a large part of the possible audience.

    • A brilliant point. I’ve seen a few small local horror writers come and go, in the past few years, due to there novels being set in the UK. Mass market genre doesn’t seem to work so well in England. Clive Barker is one that springs to mind. I think hardcore readers see the different genres as different shops within shops, all potentially interesting. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  4. Great post. I’m a YA horror writer and proud of it. I’m sure one of the large publishing houses would think it was career suicide to head into the relatively small YA market (in comparison to general fiction and even adult horror) and then narrow it down AGAIN into YA HORROR, but I’d rather be known for specialising in one area. Targeting such a ‘narrow’ market can only improve my writing and make my name known to those particular readers. I can’t understand why a writer would fight it unless it really is all about the £££’s for them.

  5. Ant

    I’m as guilty as anyone but I do think we should try and avoid pigeon holing books where possible. On the one hand confining a book to genre helps those already interested find similar works but as you have highlighted it also puts people off too.

    Part of that issue is social acceptance of genre works, something I hope improves with more prominent shows and films but I feel may always be an issue to some degree. There is still an air of snobbery about reading SF,F & H – much of which dates back to the last century and pulp fiction – but also fed by mainstream media largely ignoring it (something that is thankfully changing).

    Perhaps one way round this issue in a book shop would be to have an a-z area with everything and then still have separate sections for SF, Fantasy, Horror etc – Although that could be unworkable as far as available shelf space is concerned. – Perhaps we could sneak a few different novels each month into the general fiction category and see what happens?

    Personally I’d love to see more people enjoy genre works, those of us that read SF,F & H know that there are authors that match (or beat) anything that the “literary” world can produce. I read mainly SF,F & H purely due to the fact that 9 times out of 10 they have a better story and often a more serious message, often written much more effectively.

  6. You make a great point about genre fear. That can be applied to so many areas – music, movies… even people (i.e. that person is a computer programmer so must be boring). I saw a movie on Netflix recently called “The Man From Earth” that was incredible but when I describe it to my friends they say it sounds so boring – a sci-fi movie that’s just a bunch of people talking for an hour? Maybe I just need to do a better job selling it.

  7. I loved this. It’s one of those the genre knife cuts both ways sort of things. I think for avid readers they are definitely going to read what they want and enjoy the genre shelves because if they are in ‘that mood’ then they head to ‘that shelf’. But for the occasional reader they will read whatever is on the New York Top Seller’s list – which absolutely ticks me off. So many friends I have off the net ask me “Oh have you read this, oh have you read that” – like it’s the best thing since sliced bread because the Top Seller list told them so. Some yes, I’ve read – and what have I found? That they are sorely lacking! It chaps my arse to no end that some of these books made it up there when fabulous books/authors remain widely unknown. But that’s that bookselling world and all of us can only do what we can. I’m not a bookseller just a big pusher of books onto everyone I know – which is how I ended up bookblogging to spread my love of what books I love…and my mouthy opinions on ones I don’t.

    Like you probably do – I eat through more books than in one year than other people I know do in a lifetime. I even know people that have never picked up a book outside of HighSchool/College. Its a said thing but true. Those often will pick one up when they find out about a film or show that was based on a book that they love because they want more. It’s a sad state things are in when it’s all about the show first. I mean hey – it was written before it was filmed…even for those not based on books.

    Personally, I wonder all over the bookstore, but I always go back to my favorite genre racks. May your SF and Fantasy shelves always be overflowing such that you can’t restock them fast enough!

  8. Ultimately, a book can only be written for a single person: the author.

    If an audience loves it, that’s great. If critics love it, that’s also good. But if the author isn’t happy with it, then it’s not going to be a book that really takes off. What makes an author happy isn’t always set in stone. GRRM seems happiest when he’s killing off people by the dozen and someone like Tom Clancy is happiest when he’s paying someone else to write his books. It’s all a matter of finding out which ones the audience latches onto.

    To that end, you can’t really push a book onto a reader. They need to find out for themselves. And nine times out of ten, that comes from someone else reading it and telling them about it. To that end, if an author can keep a little momentum going, it’s almost inevitable that their books will eventually reach enough people.

  9. Excellent post. These problems have been around for a long time. I remember Harlan Ellison going ballistic when people called him a science fiction writer, which seems odd to me. Except, that is, when you realize people still say things like Sven Birkerts wrote about science fiction in his review of Margaret Atwood’s ORYX AND CRAKE, which I’ve linked to here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/18/books/present-at-the-re-creation.html?src=pm

    • A brilliant artical. Thanks,for posting it. It’s a fascinating debate. I’m yet to hear someone define the classification process so all I can think of is sales/literary. China Mieville is very literary but more off the wall so it’s SF. I will never know but really don’t think I want to ether

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s