Monday, April 12, 2010

Do you love me or is it just my clothes?

The conventional advice given to authors (by agents and indeed by publishers in that they hate to buy out of that niche) is "If it works DON'T ever leave that niche or even series."

I've often wondered about this. Is it the niche? really? So any other plonker who wrote quest stories with a representitive cast of elves and hobbits and wizards, or a emo sparkly vampires or boy wizards at boarding-school would be a run-away success? Yes, well that kind of thinking does seem prevalent or there would be no trends... to fail. Because they all do. Sooner or later readers explain to agents that no, it's not a ring - quest with a substitute gnarlstone, or emo sparkly vampire with a new home-town that they actually wanted. It was more JRR Tolkein or Stephanie Meyer. Which of course is not what they got... The typical response of the gatekeeper fraternity in response to this is 'there must be a new trend'.

There are trends... but I suspect they are an effect rather than a cause. The cause is a good piece of writing intersecting with reasonable distribution, a good cover and something in the public zeitgeist of the time. And these are not equal in proportion, but all are required to make it work. Of course the proportions are what seperate the sheep from goats. Think about it: Think of your favorite author -- be it David Gemmel or Terry Pratchett -- would you read their work if the wrote outside their niche? (if the answer is yes, then their work's success is not a result of distribution, cover or the zeitgeist. It's no use using them as a 'trendsetter'(if you're an agent or publisher) because that's not why they're popular.) Of course some authors did/do some niches better. Heyer wrote better Regency than detective. But as often as not authors are forced into adopting psuedonyms (which because the distribution/cover/zeitgeist thing is a lottery often fail). Yet readers do follow names.

So: Should writers stick to their narrow lasts? Are trends even worth guessing at?
would you follow your favorites into another genre? I'm thinking about writing a non-fiction foodie/self-sufficiency type book. Would you read it - assuming you enjoy my fiction?

40 comments:

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

I've never really understood the niche thing. I would definitely follow a favorite author into new territory - whether the new book followed familiar ground or not.

The fact that these experiments on the part of the author are not supported is very frustrating for me as a reader.

David Gemmell had strong feelings about reader expectations. So much so that when he decided to write and publish a contemporary thriller, he did so under the name of Ross Harding. Now that drives me crazy because that particular book sank like a stone and I cannot get my hands on it anywhere - and I have read every other single thing Gemmell ever wrote. It's like my literary white elephant. One day I am going to get my hands on it.

But it should not have been that difficult. I wish he could have published it under his own name and got the success he deserved for it. Sigh.

C Kelsey said...

A lot of it comes from how books are shelved and classified in the stores, I think. For example, if all SF and Fantasy, even romance, was shelved in the generic literature section it would be a lot harder to just put an author in a niche. They write books. However, since stuff is shelved in SF/F, or Romance, or Mystery, or YA, you associate an name with a specific genre and shelving category. From then on, a reader has an expectation that whatever the author writes, it will be found in that specific section. This would be why Sarah has so many pen names, and why people still get thrown for a loop when they find some of John Ringo's stuff in literature, not SF/F.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

My feeling on limiting oneself to niches can be best summed up in the words of Robert A. Heinlein: "Specialization is for insects."

The biggest problem I see with sticking to a niche is that niches collapse. Sure, one can be the master of Alternate Historical Werewolf Clown Romances, but what happens when the readers get burned out on that and go elsewhere? Entire genres have been known to collapse -- look at the Horror genre a couple decades ago. And niches are on much more unstable ground then genres.

So, I think it's in an author's best interests to diversify. Look at Heinlein for example; Robert A. Heinlein's bibliography is about as close as you can come to a literary Swiss Army Knife. He dabbled in everything -- and dabbled quite well IMHO. The thing is, he had something for everyone. One man's Rocket Ship Galileo is another man's Friday and a third's Glory Road.

And that's the thing: purely from a reader's standpoint, I like it when my favorite authors branch out, when they try new things outside of their usual niche. Sure, I do have my favorite niches to read, but if an author I like writes something outside their usual niche, I'm going to take a look at it -- and I might discover a whole new niche I like in the process. Also, if an author whose niche I haven't read writes something in a niche I do read, I might check that out as well. That's something the "Don't Leave the Niche" crowd overlooks. Not only is there the possibility that the author will bring her readers with her into a new niche, she might attract a whole new batch of readers by going into that niche.

Take David Drake for example. He's most well known for his military SF, but he also writes some damn fine fantasy, horror, and space opera as well. And if I remember correctly, while military SF is the niche he's best known for, his Lord of the Isles fantasy series has been a huge commercial success.

So going outside the niche is not a bad thing.

And yes, Dave, I would read such a book.

matapam said...

I'm not sure we're a good group to poll on this. We all admit to an addiction to the printed word.

But perhaps most readers are like that.

I've followed authors (generally whining and complaining)to new genres and enjoyed them once there.

I read Travis Taylor's Alien Invasion manual.

On Facebook, John Ringo is pondering writing a Zombie Fighting Manual, as he figures it's only a matter of time and teenagers with genetic engineering kits until it happens. He's getting a pretty enthusiastic response.

A living off the land/a hundred incredible ways to cook what you catch and grow/this is Flinder's Island Book would be excellent. IMO.

Lin W said...

Great discussion! And, right up front, I would *buy* your foodie live off the land book in a heartbeat :-)

I think a good writer is a good writer no matter what 'niche' they're in. Conan Doyle wrote a great novel set in the crusades, even though most people think of him as only Sherlock Holmes.

Growing up, our local (South Omaha, Nebraska) library shelved all fiction by author's last name. Period. Around the time I hit 6th or 7th grade, they started putting stickers at the bottom of the spine for SF, Mystery, etc. It was very interesting to see how many *different* stickers a given author would have. (Of course, the stickers fell off after a bit and weren't replaced...they were intended to go inside a plastic jacket that our library didn't use.)

I would like to see a return to that. Yes, I had favorite authors. And I would read *all* their genres. Still do.

Yes, I walk through the bookstores and look in the different 'genre' areas -- but it just strikes me as being easier to 'lose' an author's books. If they get mis-shelved, nobody can find them.

Personally, I'd really like a return to 'last name by author' for fiction. I've read Andre Norton's Western (Rebe Spurs, a delightful retelling of 'beast master' set in Texas right after the American Civil War). I've read Louis L'Amour's SF/F (great stuff about alternate worlds accessed via a kiva in the American South West). There are hundreds of examples like that -- good authors, with a great command of plot and character, will be good in any genre, IMHO.

Heaven's, just look at Sarah! I have yet to read a book of hers that I didn't care about the characters or their fate! Good writing transcends genre, always.

Lin

Anonymous said...

This may be to my discredit, but I do not follow writers out of their genre if I don't like that genre. Janet Evanovich comes to mind. I love her Stephanie Plum series (mystery/thriller), but she cut her teeth on romance. I have one friend who had read her for years before I even knew who she was. I don't like romance genre reading, and even though Evanovich is an amazing author, I don't follow her into the romance realm. It just doesn't interest me.

Now, Evanovich does a little borderline fantasy series with the Stephanie Plum character. Her latest book with this series is Plum Spooky. I was so excited to see her drift into this area, and I love this series also.

I would follow her into a genre that I even halfway liked, and I think most readers are that way. As stated above though, not into a genre that I know I don't enjoy. And I'm willing to try new genres. That might be what it would take to pull me into that new genre...following a loved author's work.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, guys. That was me.

Linda Davis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I would read whatever you wrote. I like the "Dave personality." In fact, Heyer and Mercedes Lackey are the only two authors I read assiduously where I HATE one of their modes. (Detective for Heyer, the later Valdemar for Misty.) With Heyer I would think it's because detective just wasn't natural to her. It reads stilted and sideways, like she was trying to immitate detective writers. (I could be completely wrong, of course. One never knows. I have been accused of not being a success because I don't put the things I care about into my books. It's a perfect "reason" to give me, because I'm by definition guilty until proven innocent and I can't prove a negative. The fact that I care passionately for almost all my books (and not by any means the most successful. Sigh. Plain Jane is still my best selling book, and it was work for hire written in three days, AND has a horrible cover) It's possible Heyer loved detective series and really wanted to write them. The way she does it just does not do a thing for me.) Valdemar just got really, really, really into that world and lost the force of the first three books. It lost me, but clearly not the majority of readers.

But all my other favorite authors, I'd stop just short of reading their grocery lists. What I like is the personality I sense through the books. I like... being in their minds, for lack of a better term. So yeah.

Of course, I'm told part of my problem is writing everything... Head>desk. "But I read EVERYTHING" doesn't seem to cut it as a reason.

John Lambshead said...

I have pretty catholic and eclectic reading tastes so I tend to hop from genre to genre. I even read my own stuff when desperate.......

"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."
Oscar Wilde

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

John,
For some reason I only read my own stuff when I'm ill. No, this is true. If I'm ill and depressed I go back to the stuff on diskettes and start going through it. Unfortunately everytime I do, an idea I thought staked through the heart comes back and demands to be written "new and improved."

OTOH that's how I got DST, so...

On the previous topic -- some people on this blog know -- there is one pen name (which is right now rather active) which even my mom doesn't know about. My agent and my husband and some of my first line critiquers do. But the reason to keep that secret is not so much a matter of different genre but the matter that some people would have legimitate reason to hate it, legitimate reason that might "contaminate" my "open" writing.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, first of all, YES! I'd be more than happy to read your non-fic foodie/self-sufficiency book. As for whether authors should stick with their "niche" or expand, I am more than happy to try a book that is out of the usual niche for an author. If they write something I enjoy, great. I guess the way I look at it is that niche markets come and go. Horror, on the whole, disappeared for awhile. I keep hoping that sparkly vamps and emo werewolves will soon disappear. But that's me. So, if an author is stuck in that niche and it goes down the tubes, that author is SOL.

Another problem with staying in one genre or sub-genre is that so many authors simply recycle the same plot from book to book. They change the names and places but the plot is the same. I'd rather those authors try their hands at something different than keep putting out the same book with a different cover and bore me into never reading them again.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I'm not interested in food. It is just fuel to keep me going, while I do things that interest me. Yes, I know I'm a Philistine.

On the 'up-side' I follow authors. If I find one who is interesting. I read everything they've written. And I try to read them in chronological order to see how they develop as a writer.

Dave Freer said...

Chris I've always felt the 'you must use a pseudonym' borders very closely on an insult to both the author and the genre.

Dave Freer said...

Chris K - that is something I hadn't actually considered. Mind you in the bookstore of tomorrow - the electronic version - the searcher could get the books by author or genre

Dave Freer said...

Bob - I believe genres collapse because of the pile on the bandwagon syndrome, rather than merely 'we're tired of it'. And yeah, agreed, a good author can be good for a genre. And thanks for the vote of confidence.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, agree we're probably a hopeless poll-group!

"A living off the land/a hundred incredible ways to cook what you catch and grow/this is Flinder's Island Book would be excellent. IMO."

Thank you:-) Now if I can persaude local publishers that yes, I do have some pre-cut audience.

Dave Freer said...

Lin W - Thank you :-) As I just said Matapam - if only the local publishers will accept the idea that a sf/fantasy audience principally in the US would indeed follow and buy the books. But in talking to an agent who does non-fiction here I got that same annoying response - to paraphrase that all my sf/fantasy writing was worth was that I had experience of working with publishers. I suspect it would actually translate to several thousand sure pre-sales - enough to make their buying the book a safe bet. But how to get this idea through? I know very few sf/fantasy readers (or writers) who ONLY read sf/fantasy. I know a huge number of mainstream thriller readers who religiously do touch sf/fantasy (and romance). I think some genres'readers are more conservative in their exploration than others.

Dave Freer said...

Linda - I do agree that you lose SOME readers. And of course readers of say high fantasy are more likely to follow into urban fantasy.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

You make a good point, Dave. Thinking about it, I can see how, when enough folks pile on, the bandwagon can collapse from its own weight -- especially when it comes to niche stuff. You wind up with so much stuff out there, the audience can't absorb it all. So they don't. And this is where loyalty-to-author wins out over loyalty-to-niche.

Thus, when Author X sees the writing on the walls, telling him that the Vampire Lawyer and Werewolf Accountant niches are about to tank, he's got enough of an audience to keep him afloat when he switches to writing in the tried-and-true Elf Soccer-Mom genre.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah - to me some author's style and voice are so recognisable that I'd 'know'them in any disguise. And their followers - well, they want to read their books - because they _trust_ them.

Dave Freer said...

John, I find I have to wait years before being able to read my own books... and then I enjoy the writing of the stranger odf similar tastes that wrote it.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - the potential for down-valueing a name by getting the author to write endlessly in the same genre/ series is so real i am surprised that it doesn't ring alarm bells with publishers and agents.

Dave Freer said...

(chuckle) Rowena, I don't mind. But 'foodie'books like Peter Mayle's YEAR IN PROVENCE - if well constructed are entertaining even if you DON'T have much of an interest in food (like Honor Harrington books interest people who have no intrest in future military hardware).

Kate said...

I suspect that many publishers (and people in publishing) fail to realize that people mostly follow authors. Me, I'd read PTerry's grocery list (not least because it's probably got interesting footnotes and comments about his next novel on it). Other authors I wouldn't touch with the proverbial ten foot stake... *ahem* barge pole.

I can understand using a different name for something that would horrify your family and possibly also your main fan base (like, oh, you write hard-core BDSM porn for the $$$ and you really don't want your mom picking up THOSE books).

It's a shame that such a flawed means of reporting sales and an even more flawed method of understanding them has become the governing factor in people's careers (yes, that is the polite description. Trust me on this.).

Oh, and I'd cheerfully hand over the money for Flinders Family Freer: the book. (never the movie. They'd do something really stupid like cast some toy-boy as you).

Brendan said...

One problem with not leaving your Niche is sooner or later you may run out of things to say. I have read a few authors who start off well in their world and produce good stories, but later the plots become weaker or as Amanda pointed out simply rehashed.

Do something new please so I can learn to appreciate you again. I know you have it in you to surprise and amaze me!

Stephen Simmons said...

Dave,

As much as I love Hammer's Slammers, if I were pigeon-hole-minded, I never would have picked up "Lord of the Isles" - to my great loss. Fortunately, I don't think that way. And while I don't regularly read mysteries (despite a traumatic childhood memory involving being caught sneaking books from my sister's Nancy Drew collection after being told I was too young to touch them), I fully intend to follow Sarah there now that I've discovered her SF. I probably won't read her romances though - just not my cup of lemonade.

Stephen Simmons said...

In enthusiastic response to all the references to "emo vamps" in the responses today ...

T-shirt I spotted in the huckster room at RavenCon this weekend:

"Edward and Bela"
(picture of Lugosi holding a severed head)
"The Sparkling. Stops. NOW."

matapam said...

Well, how do you disguise such a book? Cast Flinders Island loose in the sea of time/space/dimensions and all other possible weirdness?

You start out with Wasse, then find yourself pulling trilobites off the rocks? The ferry and plane stop coming, but the Vikings and Romans have a battle just offshore?

I dunno, I was kinda picturing a coffee table book full of pictures of Flinders, fish and food. I don't think A Wandering Flinders would fly.

Kate said...

MAtapam,

A Wandering Flinders would need to grow wings first.

(runs)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dear Stephen,

I don't write romances. I mostly lie about it. A lot. The closest to romance I've ever written is the wives of Henry VIII -- no one's idea of romance. I have issues with "happy ever after" and also "perfect match" -- which is weird, having been married for 25 years this July and being as close to a perfect match as it gets with my very patient half.

I suggest you try Death Of A Musketeer and The Musketeer's Seamstress, which I hope will be available in ebook soonish. (In ebook I'm actually getting paid for, I mean, since I am OOP technically at prime crime.) I'm also in as yet not open negotiations with an epress to publish them AND continue the series.

Dave Freer said...

Kate there are times when I suspect it's more a case of "I can't hear anything la la la LA!" because that would involve a paradyme shift - ie the least valued and most 'replaceable' would have to become the inverse (which leaves guess who at the bottom of the pecking order).

And I am so a toy-boy... for your average she-ogre ;-)

Dave Freer said...

(grin) Brendan I would do something new if I could sell it!

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - yes, I've also followed authors around and been frustrated by 'nyms and OOP books in other genres -- Romonace (grin) I guess it depends on how much blood gets spilled.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - I wasn't thinking of coffee-table so much as Peter Mayle/ Lilian Beckwith / Gerald Durrell/ Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall /tuscan summer woman whose name avoids me type of book - writing about the place, experiences, people, and the things we do do to feed ourselves and of course, some mention of the food...

Brendan said...

Dave, you mean your publisher doesn't love you enough to have faith that not only will you maintain your current fan base if you genre hop, but that you will pick up a whole new one too?

Kate said...

Dave,

I knew it! I knew it! You're Shrek in disguise :-D

matapam said...

But Dave! You've got all those beautiful and fun pictures. All those recipes.

Hmm, maybe you should talk to publishers who've done cookbooks?

Which is not to say that your story isn't excellent all by itself. But you've already got the pictures, and keep giving us recipes in the Flinders Family Freer. Why not go for the whole thing?

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - it's more a case of none of them do entirely. Baen have bought fantasy and sf from me so fair enough some range. But I have a lot of proposals out there, some of which they have turned down and are with other publishers. Heh "...could be right, I may be crazy..." :-) I've got a mind that throws out some very strange story ideas.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - maybe down the lines of the River Cottage (Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall) where if one is successful it spawns recipe books and coffee-table books?