Genre Isn’t Always Obvious

Peter’s getting close to publication on another book… I’m calling it a western.

This one isn’t a western by strictest definition, because it’s set in the civil war naval battles, instead of out west. Which is going to interesting to market, because the most likely readers will be the western genre readers, even though it’s not technically a western.

This is one of those conundrums. You can *write* anything, but how to find readers? That’s where covers and genre make the author wince and complain “but that’s not right!”

Yes, I know. However, the market for “civil war” is utterly dominated by non-fiction books, and the reader expectations for the civil war fiction are very centered on the massive land battles. If I try to market this for “people who want fiction about civil war sea battles”, that’s going to be an extremely tiny market and almost impossible to find.

If I try to market this for “people who want civil war fiction”, it’s going to be very oddball and lost against the land battles.

If I try to market it under alt-history, then it’s going to massively disappoint the readers who expect the modern-mentality protagonist and the rapid pacing and the tropes of alt-history, like massive divergence from history due to “if only this had happened”.

So in tone, in style, in pacing… it’s a western. We market as a western, because it’ll hit all the things western readers like in the classic western subgenre, from faithful historical detail to a more formal wording. The cover image (old oil painting style), and the font will match those expectations – even as it’ll probably show an appropriate ship on fire, to signal that this is, indeed, at sea with battles.

As for the title – Peter is trawling civil-war era poetry as we speak, to come up with an appropriate title. Which is why I’m getting jokes over coffee about heaving bosoms and my pulchritude…

Never dull around here!

42 thoughts on “Genre Isn’t Always Obvious

  1. Genre is sort of like pr0n. When you see it, you know what it is, I think.

    What I am wondering is, is there any point to hitting a bunch of different tags, just to get more potential eyeballs on the work? I do not mean things that the book is obviously not. But the Venn diagram of readers of alt-history has to overlap at least a bit with Westerns, I should think. Like the gamelit stories that tag adventure, fantasy, high fantasy, gamelit, litRPG, and so on all at once.

    It’s really down to finding the audience, as you said, then. As long as they show up, chances are they and their interests will come from all over.

    1. The question is compound, so the answer is complicated.
      Part 1: “is there any point to hitting a bunch of different tags…”
      Part 2: “…just to get more potential eyeballs on the work?”

      Part 1: Absolutely yes! Tags are how you help readers find your work outside of main genre/subgenre listed. So for the very few readers who really do want civil war sea battle fiction, tags are to make sure they can find it! Choose keywords wisely to find the other readers out there.

      Part 2: Absolutely not! You never want “more eyeballs” without filtering for the interested eyeballs. The Amazon keyword system is fundamentally broken in several design spots, and if you put in keywords that guarantee it’s going to be seen by people with no to negative interest in your work, then it actually has a negative impact on your overall visibility – as it results in your also-bots not hitting the target market, and the ratio of exposures to clicks dropping, and then that partially drives the amount of exposure. This also hits hard in sponsored product ads.)

      A note on the brokenness of Amazon ads: I have seen romance – scifi authors come in for a lot of hate for “cluttering up” the scifi – milscifi and scifi – adventure charts, both from readers and other authors. I shall now tilt at windmills and tell you that hating the author is like hating the guy directly in front of you for the five-mile-long traffic jam, and blaming your speed on him.

      Because their category is romance, subgenre scifi, the keyword system is pinging on scifi and attaching it to the scifi genre whether the romance authors want to be there or not.

      Same thing with when they have a soldier (common romance-scifi trope, alien warrior). The keywords for romance readers to find their favourite trope are the same keywords for the military scifi subgenre. It’s not that they want to be in the milsf category – they don’t, there isn’t reader overlap, so they don’t want those uninterested eyeballs – it’s that the keywords will populate both places.

      It’s incredibly human to blame the people and products you see instead of the broken system, I know. But we can rise above!

      1. So, if I ever intentionally write romance, never title one Homefront. Got it.

        I really shouldn’t find that so funny. Though that does make me wonder if there couldn’t be a sub-genre niche of mil/scifi themed romance targeted at being gifts to wives/girlfriends of military and science fiction readers?

        That would probably end badly, wouldn’t it?

      2. I think that’s a problem of weighting the algorithm poorly, but I could be off. The off genre stories getting into their subgenre lists.

        Perhaps a better system would incorporate subgroups within an overarching theme. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance, Thriller, Horror, and Non-Fiction, then drill down into specifics. There would still be some wild ones, stories that are as much sci-fi as horror, or the alt-histories, and the like.

  2. I need to find a good concise source on what the common genre beats and essential themes are.

    I keep hearing pieces of it. One example was that the core theme of the detective story is moral accounting. The detective is seeking the truth of the situation so that just rewards and punishments can be metted out, and that the transcendence of the detective novel is for the detective to suspect themselves if being not on the right side.

    And that sort of crystalized for me why David Suchet’s Murder of the Oriental Express was such a powerful version of it. By the end of it, Poirot is fundamentally questioning what is right and what is wrong, and just doesn’t have an easy answer or an easy way out of the question.

    That was a bit digressy…

    1. The big problem is, the minute you make a Definitive Source, someone will break it.

      Just like my brain threw up a violation to Sarah’s very clear example of “naked dude on cover.”

      1. I mean true, but right now I’m looking even actual words to use for things.

        Right now I’m at the “there’s a thingy here that’s shaped like something. Like the thing. You know the thing? That thing…”

      2. And how would that “Definitive Source” handle Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett?

        Is it a Fantasy novel (per title) or is it a Mystery Novel (since it involves a “locked room” mystery) or is it an Alternate History Novel? 😉

        Oh, I classify it as a Fantasy. 😀

        1. AU Fantasy, yes, but I’d lay money that folks who like Sherlock would like it, too. His Lord Darcy “tastes” like Sherlock, to me.

          1. Garrett was writing for John W. Campbell — who had a decades-long history of breaking genre boundaries in a lot of what he published in Astounding/Analog, and even more so in Unknown.

            But Too Many Magicians (along with the rest of the Lord Darcy stories) falls relatively cleanly into the combination “Mystery” and “Magic as Science” genres (with a zillion literary and fannish references thrown in for fun, including multi-lingual references to 60s TV shows).

            1. I heard that Garrett heard somebody claim that a mystery story couldn’t be written in a world where magic works.

              IE The magician would just cast a spell and the mystery would be immediately solved.

              He decided to write a mystery in a fantasy world where magic could help the detective solve the mystery but the detective would still have to work to solve it.

              And yes, his Lord Darcy had a strong Sherlock Holmes element in his nature. 😀

              Of course, it is very possible that Campbell set up the challenge about writing a mystery in a fantasy world. 😀

              1. However, I’m not sure Campbell thought of this as a “fantasy world”.

                We have a letter from Campbell to Wilmar Shiras (Sept 1967, quoted in the Campbell Letters, Vol1), where he said:
                – – –
                “I don’t know whether you’ve been reading Analog the last few years, but Randall Garrett has been doing a lovely series about a world or history line that branched off from ours (or vice versa!) when Richard the Lionhearted came from the Crusades and settled down to being a good ruler of England and France.
                “In the world, Science never developed; instead Magic was developed into a sound, logical, reliable and workable technique. One of Garrett’s principal characters is Master Sean O’Lochlainn, Master Sorcerer, duly licensed by the Church as a White Magician.
                “Magic, approached as a logical, laws-of-nature system, is not fantasy— it’s science fiction. But magic approached as a sort of LSD-dream-come true, without limits or coherence, is fantasy— and not for us, no matter how good a yarn it is.”
                – – –
                So, while to us it’s likely to have Lord Darcy classified as “fantasy”, Campbell may well not have. Modern genre/subgenre limitations and classifications weren’t something that Campbell would have related to, I suspect.

        2. I think the question I’m more trying to understand is what makes a book feel like a mystery? What makes something feel like a Western? Or a fantasy?

          What is it that people are really expecting, that I’m expecting when I dig into science fiction? Flight of the Dragonfly and Revenger are both very hard scifi, and good books, but what was it I expected going into the later that I didn’t find?

          That last one in particular bothers me, because the setting is brilliant, the writing is good, and the characters are compelling, but I can’t figure out why I don’t enjoy it.

          The only thing I can thing of is, despite being built on a hard science framework, Revenger seems more like a pirate ghost story than whatever it is I’ve got pinned in my head as scifi. And I was never someone who was into ghost stories in the first place.

          Or for all I know it’s like my encounter with spinach enchiladas. I actually love spinach, and I grew up with a lot of Mediterranean food, which had a lot of spinach things in it, including a spinach pie thing, that’s absolutely awesome. So I expected to enjoy spinach enchiladas too. I didn’t, and it took me some time to figure out why.

          The Mediterranean stuff usually used mint or onion. The Mexican version used cilantro. I’d gone in expecting the tangy bright flavors of the spinach pie I was accustomed to, and got something massively different.

          I sort of feel like that’s what happened there, except I don’t have the words for mint and cilantro to describe it.

    2. As much of a black hole as it is, is actually an excellent source for that.
      Also books on things like “how to write a cozy mystery” or “how to write clean romance” or “guide to science fiction and fantasy” will have basic guidelines, that you MUST fill in with extensive research into the genre. I don’t mean pick up a handful of sparknotes books, I mean devour 50 – 100 books in the genre in a very short period of time. Then try to replicate them.

    3. Have you looked at the Writers’ Digest guides? A lot of those have genre beats for the genre under discussion. (Libraries often have them).

  3. Check out where Master & Commander is slotted, as well as where most of Bernard Cornwell’s books are. There is a thriving area for historical navel fiction, read by sailing fans, history bluffs, etc.

      1. Sea stories, Sea Adventure Fiction, and Action & Adventure Literary Fiction is where the Aubrey/Maturin novels fall on amazon, I believe.

        1. Of the three, Sea Adventure Fiction is probably going to be closest to what you’re looking for, from browsing the top 100 lists.

          1. And that’s why I asked how you find new sea-borne stories, not how amazon does. Because looking at action-adventure fiction as a whole, it will be lost in the noise. Action & Adventures: Sea Adventures is full of thrillers, with a dose of mystery and horror set at sea (and a historical series that’s not actually sea-borne at all). Given this doesn’t have thriller pacing or thriller tropes, it’s going to be an extremely tough sell to put it in there.

            Literature & fiction – sea stories is even worse, as the first entry is Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, and a healthy mix of women’s fiction set on the beach, cozy mystery set on the beach, and romance. So not exactly a great spot to go browsing for your latest historical sea novel.

            Do you have a website or review blog or discord server or specific search term that this thriving area can be found?

      2. (slow, had the flu this week, not plague)
        Master & Commander shows up in:
        Action & Adventure Literary Fiction, Sea Stories, Sea Adventures Fiction (Books), Contemporary British & Irish Literature, Historical British & Irish Literature

        Some keywords associated with the series are:
        naval, nautical, age of sail, historical fiction, adventure, war & military, british & irish, historical, sea stories, sea adventures, history, war

  4. Patrick O’Brian’s books are full of sea battles. He’s Napoleonic era, but there’s overlap with Peter’s, it sounds like. And, like J Farmer said, Bernard Cornwell has a U.S. series.

  5. The excerpts are about Blockaders, which is a subject not taught, as it leads to questions of tariffs, and Federal gov funding before 1913.
    There may also be problems with being historically accurate in a mass market whose “education” is lacking in historical accuracy. Eg: most people expect sailing ships in the 19th C, though steam ships were running in the 1840s. Westerns should catch some readers, American History, Westward expansion, throwing in “slavery” would get attention, but the book would be counter to the narrative that the Civil War was fought because of slavery, but no Whites fought in that war, because all Whites support / ed slavery and institutional racism.
    Good luck with the book.
    P.S. A cover might show a distant fort firing black powder cannon, a mid distance ship burning, with a “Confederate Flag” flying, and a foregroung partial view of a ship deck, with a cannon firing and a blue coat officer commanding.

    Keywords are critical at Amazon, as their “recommended books” section on Kindle is horrible, same books showing for months, etc, and getting to the Amazon page to actually buy a book is also a frustrating process.

  6. Mid-Victorian poetry . . . the horror . . . the horror. And the “how can you be stilted and schmaltzy at the same time? Like this!” [A former coworker’s favorite poem was “Casabianca.” I fought to keep a straight face, because all I could think of was the parody.]

  7. I like fiction about civil war sea battles, and I am not tiny. Ask anyone who knows me. I am even shaped kinda like a Dahlgren.

      1. For me, the sea stories just pop up. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that I am a frequent book reviewer and an author of maritime history. Editors tend to send review copies of sea stories because they know of my interest in them. (Sarah and Cedar can tell you how to get in touch if you want to go that route.) Also I am a member of Nautical Research Guild and get a lot of recommendations from them. Plus, Instapundit and Amazon have recommendations. (I buy one sea story and Amazon sends a dozen recommendations. Plus, send review copies to wargaming magazines that do reviews. Or to the Naval Historical Society.

    1. Harrison did one stinker Alt-History Civil War trilogy.

      Now Harry Turtledove did many more Alt-History stories (including at least two Alt Civil War ones). Oh, some of his early Alt-History stories are fun to read, some people think he’s gone down-hill in his writing.

  8. FWIW I personally never buy or navigate via Amazon’s categories. Ever. The times I have dug into them I have found them to be utterly useless and unable to show me any book I want to buy. I just did so again now to see if it had changed and it’s no better. I find that either the category is full of stuff I’m not interested in or the category contains books I already bought (or in a very few cases both).

    The way I find new authors is by the “Customers Also Bought Items by” lists on the side/bottom of author pages or books I have already bought or are interested in buying

  9. FWIW I dislike Westerns because I read for sensa place (A thing Mrs. Hoyt does superbly* but does not appear to appreciate) and the West sucks hard vacuum**.

    Nonetheless. The kind of stories Westerns tell are *brilliant*: part of the glorious USAian pulp tradition.

    So if Mr. Grant has managed to write a Western without … yaknow, the West… Huzzah!!! Firefly FTW

    *If anyone can get her to explain how or why she fell in love with Colorado, I’d be in your debt. My beau ideal is a temperate rainforest, but I am building my new home in… Colorado biome.

    **Dust. Unfriendly snakes. Rubbish native plants with burrs and poisons. Dryness. Brown scruff. Heat. MOAR deadly dusty scruffy dry dead beetle-y dusty brown.

        1. I incline to a certain . . . starkness in art and landscapes. I appreciate lushness and ornamentation, but my preferred decorating style and natural environment is . . . Clearer? The lines are easier to see, edges and shapes and colors more distinct? It’s hard to figure out exactly the words I want to use to describe what appeals to me.

  10. In fairness Peter’s Ames series does start in the bitter end of the ACW. Much of the attraction for me in that first book was the protagonist’s ability to snooker the powers that be to his advantage. That and bless Peter’s heart for getting the bloody guns right, as that so rarely happens.

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