publishing business

Finding a Category

I’m running behind schedule today because I ended up having to do a massive brain dump to get a bunch of stuff out of my head and on paper so it wouldn’t end up swirling around in my head and distracting me. I have a lot of thoughts about how books are marketed and sold that have maybe led me to realize what some of my problems have been, and they filled about four sheets of paper once I started writing. I’m not sure I prevented the distraction, though, because those realizations have spurred more thoughts.

One thing that’s frustrated me about publishers is that they only seem to know how to sell a book if there’s already something like it in the market. Something new and entirely different is a scary unknown, and they don’t know how to put it in their spreadsheets. Most of my books come from a place of writing the thing I want to read but can’t find, which means they’re really hard to sell. It would have to be something the publisher is utterly passionate about so that they’d put in the work it takes to create a new category.

I thought that independent publishing would get me out of that problem because I could publish what I want, without needing to look at comparable titles. However, there’s still that problem of knowing how to package and market something new. Readers usually discover a book by seeing it, and the cover tells you pretty quickly what kind of book it is. Categories are even more important online for discoverability. It’s not like going into a physical bookstore and going to the science fiction and fantasy section. You can slice and dice it into sub categories, which is good when there are zillions of books available and you want to focus on just what you want, but it’s bad when what you want (or what you’re writing) doesn’t neatly fit into any category.

I seem to write stuff that’s potentially commercial but not marketable. I came up with the idea for the Enchanted, Inc. series because I liked the Harry Potter books and wanted something like that for adults — quirky and whimsical and dealing some with the clash between the magical world and the real world. I had a corporation instead of a school and dealt with workplace issues instead of school issues, but there was still the struggle of personal life vs. fighting magical evil while trying to keep the magical world a secret. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, given the massive numbers of adult Harry Potter fans and the younger fans who’d grown up. There had to be a huge potential readership. But I can see how marketing it was a challenge. The Harry Potter books may have been popular for adults, but they were packaged as children’s books (there were “adult” editions in the UK — I have two of them — but they had arty black-and-white photography covers that I like but that wouldn’t have sold the books if they hadn’t already been wildly popular in other forms). They couldn’t really package my books like that and hit the right audience. They were contemporary fantasy set in a city, but they weren’t urban fantasy as was being published around that time. There was no established way to package those books that would signal what they were to the audience that would like them, so they threw them into the chick lit category, where there was a defined look, and did some marketing to fantasy readers and paranormal romance readers. But then when the chick lit market tanked, it took these books with it, even though by then they weren’t really chick lit. There was still no good fantasy category for them.

I’ve been considering trying some advertising for these books, but I can’t think of what audiences I would use to build a campaign. Adult fans of Harry Potter would be too broad (and expensive) a category. The closest comparison in adult fantasy I can think of might be the Dresden Files books, but those are a lot darker. There probably is some audience overlap, but I’d guess that most Dresden Files readers would see my books and be instantly turned off (I’ve had some amusing conversations about the similarities and differences between our books with Jim Butcher). Some paranormal romance readers like my books, but that category tends to go really sexy, and my books aren’t truly romances. Really marketing my books would require either a huge investment or a big stroke of luck. I think a publisher could have done it, but for whatever reason they were turned off by the idea of any comparison to Harry Potter, even the idea of pitching it as Harry Potter for adults. Publishers hate using major bestsellers that are a category unto themselves as comparable titles, and they really don’t like going to another category. In their mind, those were children’s books and mine was in the adult category, and never the twain shall meet. The next Harry Potter could only be a children’s book.

I think the solution to my issue may be going after a more defined category with an established readership, building a name and audience there, and seeing if I can drag them into other things I want to write. So this mystery thing may be a clever strategy.

7 Responses to “Finding a Category”

  1. Carradee, a.k.a. Misti

    What about looking at paranormal or fairy tale romance, like Kristine Grayson (a penname of Kristine Kathryn Rusch)?

    • Shanna Swendson

      Those categories can be all over the map. There was a lot of crossover with the fairy tale or romantic fantasy categories, and a lot of it was some pretty dark “reverse harem” stuff, along with vampire or werewolf sexy romances and even a few paranormal mysteries. Plus some YA and some super-clean stuff. There’s no clear definition of the categories, which makes it harder.

  2. Carradee, a.k.a. Misti

    Sorry. I should’ve clarified: I’m thinking in terms of finding an author or five who “fits” how you perceive your book, that you think would share a category with it, then working backwards from there to see what sort of categories, covers, blurbs, and other cues they use.

    • Shanna Swendson

      That’s been the “all over the map” problem. There’s no one kind of cover style I’ve found for the kinds of books I think fit, and sometimes the cover style I’ve seen on one that’s a good fit is also used on books that are very much not a good fit (I’ve even seen the same stock photos used for wildly different books). There doesn’t seem to be as clear a cover “language” in fantasy as there is in romance and mystery, and that also seems to apply in fantasy/fairy tale romance.

  3. Jodi

    What about a “cozy fantasy?” That’s what the Enchanted books feel like to me, and I wish there were more like them. The “cozy” will land with mystery readers, and the genre has elements of romance, but it’s not the thing. Maybe copy the style of the cozy genre in covers, and market alongside cozy mysteries?

    • Shanna Swendson

      That’s more of a marketing term than a category. The categories are set by codes that are used by all publishers and booksellers. Then Amazon has a few more categories of their own. You can call a book anything you want, but there are still set categories you have to choose when publishing.

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