A dear friend of mine tells great stories but over the years he has lamented the generally poor showing of his self-published book sales. Part of his challenge came into focus for me during the Brewed Awakenings metadata upload to our distributor.
The problem, in a word, is classification.
When a publisher uploads a new title, the publisher must assign between one and five genre classifications to the metadata associated with the International Standard Book Number. The system is robust and not at all open-ended. Think of your standard genres: romance, sci-fi, westerns, etc. Add a layer to distinguish adult, YA, child or anthology. Throw in some “genres” for non-fiction publications or for specialty titles like plays or music compositions. The result is a list of several hundred options that, for fiction work, distills to just a scant two-dozen or so unique literary genres.
The publisher can select more than one, but if a novel’s “true” genre isn’t in the list, then the book’s marketability just nosedived, because an off-genre novel doesn’t have a specific metadata classification, so retailers don’t know where to stock the title and readers don’t know where to search for it.
The technical term for a novel that blends more than one genre or sub-genre into a single story is fusion genre. Very many fusion books are good. But because there’s a higher barrier to market than with straight-genre work, very few publishers are willing to take them on, and in the crowded self-publishing world, the sheer volume of available works means that any one story almost assuredly will be lost in the crowd.
Consider the example of a gore-filled gay vampire romance set in the Old West. Assume you want to read it. At which shelf in the bookstore would you begin your search? Horror? Westerns? Romance? The LGBT section? General Fiction? If you worked at the bookstore, to which shelf would you assign the book?
Now assume you love westerns. If you saw 100 different Old West stories on the shelf, plus one that was a gory gay vamp romance, would you seriously consider the latter? Or would you stick to the former?
Hence the dilemma.
Writers who create works for fun — for themselves, for small-scale self-publishing, for a writing circle, for a contest — rarely need to think about the bonds of genre. But writers who want to break into a larger market can’t set the question aside.
A conceit of inexperienced authors is to “tell their story” no matter how fanciful the execution. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but those flights of fancy earn rejection letters even if the manuscript’s fundamentals are solid. Most large-scale publishers simply don’t want to take the risk of purchasing a story they can’t sell.
For aspiring authors seeking publication, then, the first question shouldn’t be, What story do I want to tell? Most authors don’t have just one story — they have tens of thousands of stories locked deep within, just waiting for the right moment to shine. The better question is, What story do I want to sell?
When authors think like consumers, and take the discoverability question to heart, much wailing and gnashing of teeth may be avoided by readers, writers and publishers alike.