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.


Diane Henders said...

I read Zander's book a few months ago and loved it, so this interview caught my eye. I also self-publish a genre-bending series that breaks some rules. I didn't expect a traditional publisher to touch it, so I didn't even try.

My protag is a middle-aged woman who gets caught up in a spy's life. It's a mix of suspense, sci-fi, action, and comedy, and the protag's penchant for ripe language and frank sexual observations would scare off most traditional publishers.

When I made the first book, Never Say Spy, free in February, I fully expected to get slammed in the reviews because of the "offensive" language. Instead, the book shot into the Kindle Top 100 free list, and it's stayed there ever since, with mostly 4 and 5 star reviews. The bad reviews typically focus on the language and sexual aspects, but the majority of readers compliment the gritty, funny, realistic character, and they go on to buy the rest of the series.

Maybe it's too soon to tell, but so far it looks as though self-publishing this series was the right decision.

J.R. Pearse Nelson said...

This topic is definitely timely -- thanks Zander! In my opinion, genre-mixing is one of the major benefits of self-publishing.

I'm one of those writers who can't seem to avoid blending genres. My paranormal romance series is a fantasy based on Irish myth, with LOTS of sex. You know, the type of stuff I like to read. :) When it has sold it gets good reviews, but it's definitely not your run of the mill paranormal romance.

Then I followed up with a fantasy novel, Queen Witch, set in the modern world, with an underground society of witches forced to serve immortals. Combining the modern with the magical makes for interesting category choices. I just moved it to occult fiction after having little success with the fantasy genre. I'm writing the sequel, and it will be a trilogy.

So I'm trying to tackle both ends, keeping up the writing -- my way, with all of my quirks -- and trying to find the readers who will like it. I know they're out there. :)

Thanks for all of your advice over the years, Joe. And thanks for this post, Zander. Best of luck to both of you!

Jessica Thomas said...

You've piqued my interest in your book, Zander. Good job.

I'm finding Science Fiction from a Christian worldview difficult to sell to traditional publishers so I've decided to go it alone after much contemplation.

Tabitha Maine said...

Your book sounds awesome.

Unknown said...

The novel that got me my first literary agent was a suspense novel with a lot of humor, even though the POV character is a paranoid schizophrenic. It also got me a lot of the same types of comments from editors as Joe has just shared, while never selling.

Today, "Crack-Up" is my all time best seller with, to date, 49 reviews on Amazon USA (4.5 stars) and 16 reviews on the UK site (4.8 stars).

Monica Shaughnessy said...

I've written two novels that blended genres, always to my detriment. My agent couldn't sell either. My first, a YA thriller with talking animals, was always praised by editors for its originality. But no one wanted to take a chance because talking animals had never been done for that demographic. (Though they're popular with adults...go figure.) it's now my best and most reviewed book since I self published. A lot of readers really "got" my story. And that's gratifying.

Gary Ponzo said...

Thanks for the post Zander. Great stuff. If you're not stretching the envelope or bending genres then you're playing into the hands of those more established authors with bigger names and Big 6 backing with larger bank accounts to outspend you for attention.

Yes, go for it. I applaud your effort and root for your success.

Jude Hardin said...

DIRTY MARTINI remains my favorite book of yours, Joe. Everyone should download it while it's free!

Speaking of which, how is the free thing working for you guys these days? I have a BookBub promo coming up, and I'm curious about what to expect.

Downloaded yours as well, Zander. I can tell from this post and from the sample that you're a good writer. You might want to experiment with the title and the cover of your book, though. I doubt if I would have paid much attention to it if it hadn't been posted here on Joe's blog. Just my opinion, of course.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

My current bestselling series is both too short (each ebook 10k-20k words) and is based on another writer's original story. WOOL author Hugh Howey has opened his world to other self-publishers, something unheard of in traditional circles. With four of these shorts out to date, I sell about 100 copies a day.

Amazon thought the idea was so good they've now adopted it for their Kindle Worlds. That's because they respond to what's working -- and get in on the action.

Thanks for these tremendous guest posts. I'll be sending mine in this week.

Kyra Halland said...

I don't know about success, yet; I'm new to this (released my first book in February, and have two more out now) so my numbers are still small, but people who do read my books tell me they love them and ask for more.

I've never seen anything quite like what I write. Fantasy-world (as opposed to set in the real world) fantasy with a romance between the two main characters as a major component of the plot (as opposed to romance in a fantasy setting, where romance is the main plot and the fantasy is secondary). Not multi-volume gritty fantasy, not Tolkeinesque, no elves, no dragons, no vampires or werewolves, not urban fantasy, not paranormal romance, certainly not YA, also certainly not erotica... I call it dark-edged romantic fantasy for grownups. Doesn't seem to fit in anywhere, but it's what I love to write and what I'd love to read if I could find it.

The fantasy-western-romance series I'm writing right now would probably make agent/editor heads explode.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I wrote a detective thriller with a supernatural twist back when only Dean Koontz was doing cross-genre work. St. Martin's bought the book, but the first thing my editor said to me was, "I've never read anything like this and that's a good thing and a bad thing. We're not really sure how to sell it."

Not comforting words, I assure you. And he was right. They didn't know how to sell it.

Hollis Shiloh said...

I wanted to see more sweet (i.e. not focused on sex, not sexually explicit) gay romance, so I started writing and self-publishing it. It's doing pretty well. :) I'm branching out a little (I tried one erotic piece to mix it up, and I'm also submitting some pieces to a publisher), but most of my stories are self-published and *very* tame in the bedroom department. And they seem to be finding their audience. (There are stories like this already published, too, but they can be difficult to find, since there seems to be a baseline assumption in general that gay=porn.)

David L. Shutter said...

"Apparently, trying to combine thrills and laughs wasn't marketable according to New York Publishing"

You've told this story before and I'm always at a loss whenever I hear it. Especially considering that during the timeframe of rejection moviegoers were forking over billions a year for action-comedies. But I guess BigPub never had a trusted cookie mold on the shelf that said "action-comedy" on it, so no dice.

The guest blogging has been terrific BTW. Thanks for all the work that's gone into it!

Suzan Harden said...

This is wild! I put Zander's book on my wishlist two weeks ago. LOL So of course, I downloaded it today.

Thank you to Zander and all the guest bloggers for contributing their personal stories.

I've been cleaning out my office and stumbled across rejections for my zomromcom series from 2005-2006. They all go along the lines of "Great writing! Great voice! Zombies won't sell but send us something else."

I followed Joe's advice two and a half years ago, and my first anniversary for quitting the day job will be Wednesday. I must say it's been a fabulous experience!

Jude Hardin said...

Speaking of zombies, and laughs mixed in with scares, my latest Thomas and Mercer release has all of the above.


Billed as a thriller, but I've been pleased with the number of people who have noted the humor as well.

Michael Alan Peck said...

Yet another example of why this blog is tagged as "must read" in my Feedly settings (and these guest posts have been one reason after another). Great piece, Zander. I happily downloaded Death Ain't But a Word and look forward to cracking it (electronically, of course—please permit me my obsolete expressions).

Of all of the comments in your rejection letters, Joe, the most telling is the one about it being too difficult to sell to the sales force. So salesman were the ultimate arbiters of what would make it to the shelf. I knew that already, but it's still jarring.

Thank god for change.

Anonymous said...

I was told several dozen times that 'chick lit' was finished and that my 'no sex, no cursing, no bloodshed' paranormal romance/mysteries would not find a significant audience.

In 2+ years I have published 16 novels, received 1000+ 4/5 star reviews, and sold 200,000+ copies. And recently landed a traditional print-only deal.

While the Big 5 needs to pick up $100 dollar bills in order to pay the rent, I am doing just fine picking up quarters, truckloads of them.

Go get 'em Zander!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Zander. We 'out of the box' writers really need to hear this more often!

As a writer of m/m historical fiction series (with a murder mystery twist), self-pubbing is THE way to introduce readers to a whole new, naughty little sandbox. Traditional publishers wouldn't touch my work with a ten foot dildo.

Thanks for the offer to download your book. Snagged it. And thanks to Joe for this blog! It has become an inspirational, slap-in-the-face place for daily visits.


Anonymous said...

Like somebody else pointed out - you already wrote the book on "funny & scary" when you sat down and scribbled out the first few books in the Jack Daniels series, Joe.

Funny just naturally goes along with scary.

How many times in a horror movie has that dude in the hockey mask jumped out of the shadows and you crapped just a little and maybe even went eek or oh-my-god or just a heartfelt "HUH!!!" - and then right afterwards you sort of giggled and let your breath slide on out.

Part of that was most likely you trying to manfully cover up your inadvertent display of the chicken-shitters - but the bigger part of it was a whole lot more basic than that.

Every scream starts with the seed of a giggle.

It's like sunshine and shadow - you need one to find the other.

Another fellow who just naturally handles the funny and scary genre is Jeff Strand. He's a real nice guy and a hell of a writer and if you don't giggle a little while you're reading one of his books then your funny bone is seriously broke.

Now - if you really want me to get craven about this I'd have to mention my vampire and hockey novella SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME.

If you want to read a little hoohaw horror - with as much chuckling as shrieking - then swing on over to Amazon and hunt up a copy.

Without a trace of shame I will tell you that this is the finest example of "funny and scary" that you will ever find.

David Alan Glynn said...

This is a timely post for me, having recently self-published a novel which is not only ‘unpublishable’ in the conventional sense, but also has a premise which is guaranteed to alienate huge swathes of its potential readership.

The work doesn’t cross or mixes genres—it’s essentially a straight commercial thriller—rather it’s the theme/subject matter which serves as an impediment, an impediment that only self-publishing could overcome.

Or not.

Its title is VIGILANT GUARDIANS. The premise is that a writer who doesn’t believe the official narrative of 9/11 decides to write a novel outlining an alternative (and in his mind more viable) narrative, one in which the event was not perpetrated by a few disgruntled Arabs with boxcutters. Naturally, this being a commercial thriller, the bad guys find out his plan, a chase ensues, people die etc etc.

Does that sound like something anyone here would want to read? Or something that would inspire anyone to even bother going over to Amazon to check out the sample pages.

I ask only because it’s germane to the topic: is the power of self-publishing now enough that we can generate interest in and sales for books which not only the publishing establishment would never touch, but that readers themselves might initially, and large numbers, shun?

I for one am interested in finding out, and Joe, I am particularly interested in your opinion.

Paul McMurray said...

Zander, don't know if you'll see this, but great book! I got it yesterday and read most of the night and finished it the next morning after 3 hours of sleep. You said it was a fast read and it is, but that's not just because of your excellent writing but also because I just had to know...

Laura Resnick said...

"the occasional incoherent fatwa from Mount Turow, "

(messy coffee incident)

WARN people when you're going to say something like that!

Leigh Purtill said...

Zander, your books is fast-paced, fun, a really great read. I only took a break from it to put it on my GR "reading" list and walk the dog. :)

Can't wait to finish it! Cheers~

Unknown said...

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

ROTFLMAO. I just can't let this one pass.

Men in Black Stats:
Budget: $90 million
Box office: $589,390,539

Translation: "The feel here is very MEN IN BLACK. To me, it works better as a wildly successful cash cow. We wouldn't know how to handle that kind of revenue. Pass."

Unknown said...

And to everyone here who has said such kind words about my book, Wilkin says "Thanks for the love!" So do I.

As to the coffee stains, Wilkin promises to bring that up in his next phone call from Eula. He's pretty sure she'll have some ideas. Artie still doesn't understand why the Quik Chek Food Store has suddenly become Telecom Central for Wilkin, but he goes along with it because he's a good sport that way.

Oh yeah...and a new cover is currently in the works. We're pretty much all in agreement on that. :-)

Bill Cokas said...

Apparently suspense and comedy don't mix well, either (in the legacy world), but it's what I like to read. Got an agent with book #1, but he couldn't "place" it (no fault of his). Wrote book #2 in the same vein anyway. By that time, self-publishing had earned some credibility (and was a lot cheaper than it used to be), so I went that route. My reviews, while they don't number in the hundreds, make me feel vindicated for not compromising. My sales, however...let's just say I'm working on book #3 (suspense + humor? Oh, yes!).