Genre chasing

As any artist (especially we indie folks) will tell you, marketing is hard.  It takes time, money, effort, a fair amount of patience, and holds no guarantee that a given marketing effort will be successful.  It’s the same problem the big players face. 

On a recent episode of one of the regular podcasts I listen to, they started discussing news from this year’s annual Comic Con.  Most of this discussion centered on news announcements from Marvel and DC Comics about major superhero films to be released next year or in 2015.  This has me reflecting on the business side of storytelling and how much we all collectively suffer from genre chasing. 

What’s that mean? 

For a moment we’ll stick with films to explore this issue.  Several decades ago almost none of the studios were willing to finance and market a big budget superhero film.  The perception was that such films were inherently campy, would attract only die-hard comic fans, and would basically bomb at the box office.  Fast forward a few decades and the biggest film news (and films with the biggest box office return) comes from two comic book companies.  What changed? 

Back in the 1950’s the safe money was primarily in stories from the Western genre; this year one of the biggest flops of the summer is Disney’s The Lone Ranger.   The late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s witnessed a resurgence in the science fiction genre (also big in the ‘50’s).  Eventually that trend too was replaced.  Sooner or later the glut of big (and small budget) superhero films will also dissipate.  The billion dollar question then becomes: what genre do audiences want now? 

Authors suffer a similar problem.  We want to tell stories that people will find interesting and hopefully read.  Big publishers want to sell books and make money.  The easiest way for them to do that is to push or embrace hot trends in certain genres.  Harry Potter becomes an international sensation and suddenly you’re better off telling stories about magic.  Twilight makes a big splash; good thing you had the foresight to write about vampires.  The Hunger Games hit; quick, write a dystopian novel aimed at YA readers.  50 Shades of Grey has sex and sex sells…

Oh wait, your work doesn’t have these things? Your book doesn’t follow the same structure as these stories?  Your book is in what genre?

It can be maddening to try and deal with the genre chasing.  Again, it’s understandable that big publishers (like film studios) want to make money but as a storyteller it can be extremely frustrating to have worked so hard on a writing project only to have genre chasing limit its chances for success. 

But remember that this is nothing new.  Publishers, authors, and readers have been dancing this waltz for a very long time.  And it’s unlikely the music will stop any time soon. 

So what’s an author to do?  Do you give in to a genre trend and craft a story that has a better chance of getting serious notice from publishers because it appeals to the audience of the moment?  Do you ignore these trends and tell the story you want to tell, regardless of the genre and try to discover your audience?  Should you go visit a local fortuneteller to guide you to the right genre?  Hire a bunch of people in business suits to predict what will be the next genre to mine? 

My simple advice is this: write your story first.  Write what you want to write.  Tell the story you feel passionate about telling. 

Decisions about marketing often begin to fully take shape during the editing process.  The feedback you receive might give you new directions to explore that take your writing in a completely different direction than the one you originally envision.  Pay service to your story first before you pay a service to help market it. 

If you end up with a story that doesn’t neatly fall into a genre that’s currently rife with bestsellers — don’t panic.  If your story is well-crafted, interesting, and something you truly want to share it will find an audience in time.  Besides, the genre chasing never stops so who knows; you may just be ahead of the curve.