Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guest Post by Zander Marks

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

You can read Joe Flynn talking about his publishing history here:

You can read Richard Stooker talking about bestsellers here:

You can read Nikki M. Pill talking about fear here:

You can read Billie Hinton and Dawn Deanna Wilson talking about categorizing your book here:

You can read Helen Smith talking about her publishing journey here:

You can read Jeff Carlson talking about his publishing journey here:

Now here's Zander Marks...

Square Pegs and Round Holes

It's no jaw-dropping epiphany to readers of this blog that massive changes are underway in publishing. It's also no jaw-dropping epiphany that traditional publishers are worried about it, as evidenced by the full-page Patterson angst-fest, the occasional incoherent fatwa from Mount Turow, and the Jeff-Bezos-with-horns-and-a-tail narrative.

But I'm not here to talk about all that. I'm here instead to talk about one of the side effects of the turmoil. I'm here to talk about what happens when people believe the sky is falling. (The fact that it actually is falling is of little relevance here.)

When the sky is (or seems to be) falling, people tend to run for safety. They tend to become risk-averse. They tend to favor the safest choices possible. They tend to cover their hindquarters.

As an author, that's a problem for me. I just wrote a book that is not for the risk-averse. And this is not a good time to do that if one wishes to go the traditional route.

What's wrong with my book? Everything! I'm a white guy who has just written a book set in the 'hood. My protagonist is not only African American, but he is (gasp!) an African American character with complexity, inner conflict, and a buffet of issues. He's no Alex Cross. My protagonist has some serious growing to do.

(Meanwhile, Slate Magazine--in the twenty-first century--still feels the need to make the apparently controversial case that such writing is not off-limits.)

What else is wrong with my book? It's a mash-up of two seldom-linked genres: Urban fantasy with urban fiction influences.

Now, most major publishing houses have urban fiction imprints these days. Teri Woods opened those doors years ago by--ahem, self-publishing--True to the Game and proving that there was a market. It's safe now, so they do it. But somebody had to show them that it was safe first. And of course everybody's doing urban fantasy. But both at the same time...not so much.

So what does all this have to do with self-publishing? The industry is battening down the hatches, piling up the sandbags, and that means that fewer editors are in the mood to stick their necks out too far. That's not a good thing if you're coloring outside the lines or playing outside of the sandbox.

But at the same time, we see that new genres are being born all the time--Fifty Shades being one of the harder-to-avoid examples. Of course, Fifty Shades was incubated in self-publishing before it crossed the transom.

My prediction is that we will see more and more of this. In addition to the greater creative control, rights control, and income that authors are finding in self- and hybrid-publishing, there is one other factor that doesn't get discussed as much, but in my mind is just as important: The freedom to bend and blend genres, invent new forms, and take creative risks.

That's good for readers as well as writers.


Zander Marks is the author of Death Ain't But A Word: A Supernatural Hot Mess. This book is free for Kindle from July 27 through July 31.

"An enticing blend of the paranormal and urban fiction. Highly recommended." -- Midwest Book Review

"Death Ain't But A Word is a fast-paced, thrilling book that is both hilarious and off-the-wall book that is impossible to put down and impossible not to love." -- San Francisco Book Review (★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars)

"Marks delivers a sixth-sense thriller with a intriguing tale with an unlikely protagonist, and he may have also created a new urban-fantasy subgenre...Marks' prose provides a sense of hope and humanity in bleak situations. He also delivers a thought-provoking story, with a high level of creativity and flair...just the right amount of intensity throughout. An imaginative, offbeat urban-fantasy..." -- Kirkus Reviews

Joe sez: I landed an agent in 1999 with my novel ORIGIN. She wasn't able to sell it. ORIGIN was a sci-fi/horror/occult book that fit into the technothriller category except for one difference: it was funny.

My follow-up, THE LIST, also failed to sell. Like ORIGIN, it mixed thriller elements with comedic elements.

Apparently, trying to combine thrills and laughs wasn't marketable according to New York Publishing. Here are some of the things said in the rejection letters for these books. Each is from a different publisher.

"The feel here is very MEN IN BLACK. To me, it works better as a movie."

"I'm afraid the story is a bit too weird and over-the-top for my taste. I don't think this could be easily classified as thriller or horror, so it would be difficult for us to package and market."

"Mr. Konrath's voice is confident, his prose crisp and engaging and his characters three-dimensional and believable. That said, I have to confess that I really couldn't get a hook on the story itself."

"I felt the second half of the book was too derivative of Alien and other movies of that type--being trapped in a remote location with a creature of evil and destruction."

"I thought the rather light-hearted tone diminished the impact of the novel's darker potentially more interesting elements."

"It is breezily written and has its funny moments. I think it's going to be a challenge, though, to market. With a blend of suspense and humor it'll be difficult to peg readers."

"This kind of tongue in cheek humor is tough, and the bizarre subject matter makes this even more difficult."

"I'm sorry to say that despite the good writing and humor, I think the story may be too fabulous for us to publish it successfully."

"While it is certainly not a plot I've seen before, it seems familiar all the same, plus the humor in the storytelling seems a little forced and sitcom-ish."

"I found the premise extremely imaginative and original, and the author does a remarkable job balancing the brisk pacing and humor. In the end, however, I thought it would be hard for us to really break this out in a competitive fiction market, as its novelty almost seems to hamper its commercial potential."

"I read with great interest. It's certainly an original premise, and Konrath has an engaging style. I'm afraid though that ultimately we weren't sufficiently drawn in to the thriller aspects of the novel."

"The constant joking, while witty at times, also eroded the tension and sense of menace."

"Amusing, but ultimately we felt it was a bit too odd and were concerned about the audience."

"I certainly give Konrath lots of credit for trying to put forth a most creative and different type of thriller novel. And for the most part his wise-cracking dialog held my attention, too. I just think this would be a very difficult thriller to sell to our sales force in a major way."

"It had a lot going for it--especially certain moments of humor--but in the end it seemed too much like the novelization of a movie."

"It lacks the spark and sustained suspense required to stand out on the crowded fiction shelf."

In 2009, I self-published ORIGIN and THE LIST.

Since then, they've received over 1000 reviews (averaging four stars) and have earned me over $325,000.

Those who follow this blog know that after ORIGIN and THE LIST I wrote a book with zero comedic elements, DISTURB, which is my poorest selling and poorest reviewed novel. When I returned to mixing thrills with comedy in WHISKEY SOUR, I finally landed a publishing contract. (Incidentally, ORIGIN, WHISKEY SOUR, and DIRTY MARTINI are currently free on Kindle, and my other Jack Daniels novels are 99 cents.)

Now even though the rejections stung at the time, I actually do understand the publishers' concerns. A publisher's batting average is awful when they sign books they actually think they can sell--I've heard only 1 out of 5 legacy-pubbed books makes a profit. It's very important to pigeonhole paper books so they can be shelved correctly and find their intended audience. Mixing genres, and adding humor to what has traditionally been a humorless genre, could potentially confuse the marketing team and the sales team, making it difficult to sell.

Happily, these novels have found and audience--an audience large enough that I get several emails a week asking for sequels. The books haven't changed. What has changed is the way books are sold.

One of the many cool things about the indie ebook revolution is that properties once considered hard-to-sell--like novellas, genre mash-ups, thrillers with humor--can now reach readers. Readers who, in many cases, are drawn to the very attributes these publishers dismissed as negative. Brick and mortar bookstores don't have a "Funny and Scary" section. But funny and scary are keywords that can be used to search for books. Readers can now specifically and quickly find kinds of books they like, without having to wade through shelves and shelves of  "Horror" or "Romance" or "Mystery" or other umbrella one-size-fits-all labels.

As self-published authors, we can take much bigger risks with our prose than legacy publishers ever could. And sometimes those risks pay off.

So who else is finding success by breaking the rules and mixing up genres? Let me know in the comments.