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?
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.
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