Commercials and Genre: It’s All in the Signals

—Alma T. C. Boykin—

Is the book urban fantasy, plain fantasy, historical fiction? Yes? The correct answer is Yes.

So, the annual “fun commercials with a football game in the middle” has come and gone in the United States. The general sense among my friends and coworkers was that with one exception, the commercials were dull, confusing*, or both. What I recall was sort of a general sense of “we’re being cute to sell something” but that’s about it. Which means that the advertising failed miserably. When people say, “There’s nothing as good as [ad from 20 years ago], companies need to rethink their ad budgets and commercial writers.

We authors sometimes have the same problem. “I thought this was a sweet romance but it’s cosmic horror!” or “The cover said ‘high fantasy’ but it’s literary fiction and I don’t like it.” It’s all in the signals, what the cover copy says, what the cover signals, and how the story opens. If we mis-label things, readers will balk. Make it too hard to guess the genre, and readers will tell everyone how lousy the book was. It’s a general rule of thumb that it takes ten atta-girls to make up for one oh-sheep. That’s especially true for books. You gotta signal your genre as clearly as you can.

Fantasy, sci-fi, sweet romance, erotica, adventure, men’s adventure, urban fantasy, westerns, they all existed as flavors of story long before someone started dividing books into genres besides fiction and non-fiction. People found what they liked, asked other people who liked similar books, looked in publisher catalogues, asked the book seller what might be close to [title of book or author], and read magazines that offered a variety of stories. China Mieville and others have tried to go back to those days with reclaiming “speculative fiction” to describe their work, but the ship has sailed. Genre appeared in the early 1920s-30s, and love it or hate it, we sell books based on it now. Or more importantly, readers buy books based on genre.

“But I write cross genre! This doesn’t apply!” Um, yes, it does. Back when I started, ten years ago, I know that what I was writing was closest to military science-fiction, with time-travel, alien encounters, and adventure as distant secondary categories. What I wrote wasn’t “pure” mil-sci-fi, not like John Ringo, David Drake, and some of the other masters of the genre. However, that was the closest fit. So my covers and cover copy aimed at the mil-sci-fi market. Fortunately, mil-sci-fi had expanded to include more than purely battles in space (if it was ever that narrow to begin with), and people found my books.

The Colplatschki books were even more of a challenge, because the main element was again, military, but in a world that had lost tech access and had reverted to the 1600s, with bits and hints of a higher tech past. However, historical fiction certainly didn’t fit. Military fantasy wouldn’t work, either, because the stories have zero fantasy elements. Dystopian fiction? Um, not according to the characters, and that was when dystopias all seemed to be “industrial accident/germ warfare/military tech test goes wrong” if they weren’t “capitalism caused climate disaster.” Women’s fiction? None of those fit my hoped-for reader pool. I didn’t want to signal “organic oat milk” but serve German beer. So mil-sci-fi was the primary category, and I leaned hard on the keywords to carry some of the load.

In the last 10 years, more options have come available for signalling your brand, be it drinks, cars, books, or clothing, or hand-made egg warmers**. This is good, because we have more ways to reach audiences that might not know to look for our books. The down side is that there’s more noise-to-signal. You don’t want to be the person who was selling erotica as sweet romance in Waterstones. (Because a lot of us would like to have a word with that person/people. In a dark alley. Without witnesses.) You don’t want to turn off readers by promising ice cream and delivering tofu. Romance readers are especially clear on what they want and don’t want, which is why you have sweet vs. steamy, Christian vs Amish (no, they are not the same, although there’s overlap), profession romances (nurses, military), and lots of others. If you write romances, you know how it works. Fantasy also has more variations and niches now, although a really good book will escape its assigned subgenres and sell. My first Merchant book accidentally hit the same beats as a popular blue-collar sci-fi series, and a reader of one let fans of the other know. I was fortunate, and learning that shaped how I marketed the series from then on.

So you gotta know your genre. You don’t want a dud of a very, very expensive TV ad. Likewise you don’t want to release a fantastic book that flops because the cover sells to the wrong market.

*If you have to tag the commercial as a commercial for [product], it might not be a great sales tool.

**You can laugh, but I knew someone who sold knitted or quilted caps to put on top of fresh boiled eggs in egg cups, to keep the eggs warm until people ate them. She had a very niche market for her egg warmers, but people bought them!

11 thoughts on “Commercials and Genre: It’s All in the Signals

  1. Ok, what was the blue collar Sci-fi series?
    (The main benefit of ebooks is that my “to be read” pile isn’t a threat to my physical well-being.)

  2. Genre signals are indeed very important — if you actually have eyes on your book, it’s your one chance to hold onto them. That’s why it’s the primary thing your cover has to consider, especially if they won’t recognize your name (yet). Only then will they pause to read the blurb.

  3. *Nods* I got much steadier downloads of the two free books in the Jaiya metaseries, after coming up with a unified set of covers that least vaguely signaled “fantasy with a Middle Eastern or South Asian influence.”

    1. Start from the other end. Most people who are looking at their stories are saying “My story has X, Y, and Z, and Q, so it’ll fit in all these genres, which one do I pick?” Start at the other end. “Would the average reader in X genre enjoy this story?”

      Writing is about the story and the world. Marketing is about the reader experience.

  4. Sigh – I had a short story cycle, back in the early 00’s, of three military women – based on the conceit of Kipling’s “Sergeants Three” – back when I was newly-retired and still getting it all out of my system – and was utterly stuck on what category those stories fit into, for marketing purposes – women/feminist fiction, or contemporary military fiction? The Orvis-Maculhaney-Leroy cycle didn’t fit readily into either category … so how could I go about pitching it to publishers?
    Thank God for indy-publishing. I could put them out there under my own brand.

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