When I was seven, my dad took me to the Mystery Spot, in the redwoods near Santa Cruz, Calif. I dropped a marble on the floor and watched it roll uphill. I could not get my brain around the fact that the marble was defying the laws of nature as I knew them. I feel just as baffled now to learn that everything I thought I knew about book marketing is wrong.
I've always written for a diverse audience. Readers of my humor and feature articles are men and women, young and old. When my comic novel, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, was published this summer, I was surprised and irked to see that, according to the book's jacket and marketing, I had suddenly become a writer of women's fiction and its subcategories (I'd thought my book had wider appeal). Let us ignore my predilection toward irkiness and focus on my presumption that these categories drastically limited my book sales by ignoring men as potential customers.
Art is all well and good when one has a trust fund, but I write for money, and sales are important to me. I did a little research on marketing. I expected to find evidence that everything that rises must converge, everything that goes up must come down, and that gender-specific marketing reduces readership by half.
Just as I was swayed by the optical illusion that the marble was rolling uphill, I trusted the perception that marketing my book only to women would limit sales. In both cases, my intuition was wrong.
The debate about gender in literature—men write fiction while women write women's fiction, chick lit, romance, etc.—has been going on for too long. Discussions always focus on whether women writers are being denigrated by having their novels placed in gender-specific categories. But people rarely talk about the reason for these categories from a sales perspective.
I talked to Joel Vincent, a marketing consultant in San Jose, Calif. He explained, "There's definitely a philosophy that satisfying one set of customers 100% is more effective than toning down your appeal to that segment in order to be attractive to other customers." When I expressed my skepticism, he agreed that it seems counterintuitive to neglect huge groups of customers, but insisted that going "whole hog" with your most likely audience is a far more successful strategy.
Katy Munger, author of the Casey Jones comic mystery series, pretty much concurred: "As much as you hate being stereotyped or labeled, how do you stand out in a huge, overglutted market?" Munger considers herself a crime fiction writer, but her novels have been shelved in various sections, including mystery and chick lit.
These categories are determined by book merchandisers, not publishers, critics or authors, I learned. Vincent, who specializes in wine marketing, pointed out the role that snobbery plays on both the production and consumer sides. At what point does a writer choose perception of artistic merit over increased sales? "For artists, it's a very personal thing," Vincent said. "[But] if I wrote a book... I'd want to be in the chick lit section."
Nathan Barker, owner of Kayleighbug Books and Scrybe Press, publishers of sci-fi, fantasy and horror books, reiterated the popularity of such books: "Romance and chick lit outsell all other genres by almost five to one. Many great speculative fiction and comic titles are being released as 'chick lit' these days." According to Barker, in the last five years, more horror has been published in the romance genre than in the horror genre.
Barker thinks this odd categorization will eventually help speculative fiction, because "the lines are blurred, the books sell more, and the authors get paid higher advances." Still, I wonder how many men will pick up a novel from the Love Spell imprint because they're told it's a great werewolf story?
Finally, Barker told me, he goes through books to find out which ones are actually paranormals or horror novels being marketed as romance, "in an attempt to restore [those books] to general readership."
General readership... that's all I wanted in the first place.
|Marta Acosta is the author of the comic, women's, vampire, chick lit, Latina, horror novel, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula. Her next book, Midnight Brunch, will be published in May.|