I’m discovering the significance of how books are categorised, tick-box fashion, into ‘genre’.
With the naivety of the unpublished author, I crafted Saxon’s Bane from an idea that was fighting to land on the page. It was that passion that drove the story, not a need to fit a label defined by a publishing industry I knew nothing about. It wasn’t until the book was finished and agented that I began to learn the reality of book marketing.
Saxon’s Bane started with the catalytic linking of two characters. There’s a man emerging from the trauma of a car crash in which he almost died; his character grows on his journey to mental and physical healing. And then there’s a woman, an archaeologist whose obsession with her excavation of a Saxon grave develops into a preternatural understanding. Her character slides into turmoil as she struggles to reconcile professionalism and intuition, evidence and belief. The crisis builds around them as present-day events begin to mirror the ancient, bloody past.
Then came the question of pitching the finished manuscript to the market. My pride knew no bounds when my agent (Ian Drury at Sheil Land) described it as ‘an astonishingly accomplished debut novel that blurs the line between genres’, but that’s when my genre lessons began.
“Loved the book,” said one editor of a major publishing house when I met him at a conference, “absolutely loved it. But I’d never get it through an acquisition meeting. Too cross-genre. Got anything else for me?”
“Whaddya mean, ‘too cross-genre’?” I struggled to contain my frustration.
“Well”, he explained, “it has flashbacks to the Dark Ages, but not enough to put it into a Historical list. And although Saxon’s Bane has supernatural threads, they’re too ambiguous for us to put it on our fantasy list. Super book, though.”
“But that ambiguity is important. I wanted to write a book with a plausible plot, with characters that face real-world pressures and threats. I didn’t want readers to have to suspend their disbelief.”
That started a master-class in publishing reality. The big publishers, it seems, are having a tough time and are intensely risk-averse. They in turn are selling into a retail distribution chain that is having an equally bad time, and which also works on ‘lists’. If you’re writing about spooks, I gather you need to write about full-on spooks, complete with woo-woo noises and rattling chains. If you’re writing history, that means at least 30% of the plot must be set at least 50 years before the present day. Publishers want material that is new and fresh and exciting, provided it is not significantly different to what’s already out there.
Watching the book being pitched into genre was fascinating. Imagine turning up at a country fair with an animal for sale. There are buyers for sheep. There are buyers for goats. Kids stuff too – just follow the bleats. Romance? Rabbits are very popular this year, sir, we’ve had fifty shades of fur already. What’s that you’ve got? Haven’t seen one of those before. A horse, you say? Never heard of it. Lovely looking beast, but I’d never get it on the van. There’s a good market for sheep, though. Got one of those for me?
My agent consoled me with the anecdote that Tolkein had a tough job selling ‘Lord of the Rings’ because until LOTR there wasn’t a fantasy market. Tolkein created it, but he might well be rejected today. How my ego loved him for that analogy, even if no parallel was intended. What we need, he said, is one of the smaller, entrepreneurial publishers, the sort that want to eat the big guys’ lunch.
Bingo. Saxon’s Bane acquired a publisher (Solaris) and, within the contract, the genre label ‘fantasy’. Here my ignorance showed again. I’d always thought ‘fantasy’ meant other worlds, with dragons or hobbits or dark magic, not books about how this world can be touched by an ‘otherness’. My main character, for example, has fought his way back from a hinterland mapped more by faiths than by science, and who is to say that a man’s experiences at the edge of death are ‘real’ or the product of his own mind? But don’t misunderstand me; I’ll settle for whatever label sells the book.
I was lucky, and the euphoria of that oh-so-elusive debut publishing deal is still coursing through my veins. But there are legions of other writers producing work of publishable quality who are not blessed with an agent, particularly one who believes in a genre-bending book enough to land a deal in a risk-averse market. I fear that in the major houses’ retreat to the perceived safety of strict list criteria, the reading public is being denied the chance to try a mass of fresh and exciting work.
Views and comments welcome!