Book Business

You Gotta Know the Territory

So you’re writing a book. In what genre? Don’t know? You must.

My colleague, Dan Balow, recently wrote a valuable blog post (here) that touched on the many genre categories and sub-categories in today’s publishing world. You should read it—when you finish reading this, of course.

“I don’t care about genre,” you may say. “I’m a writer, not an editor or publisher.”

To which I say, “Tough.”

If you’re a writer, you must care about genre. You must know where your work-in-progress fits. And you must write according to the conventions of the genre.

As a young man, I set a goal to publish a book—just one—in my lifetime. So, when I took a day job as a magazine editor, I thought it would be a good opportunity to make strides toward meeting that goal (I had previously been a full-time pastor, which was not a nine-to-five job, to say the least). So, I put together two book proposals and mailed them off (this was back in olden times).

One proposal was for a book called, If Christ Had Sinned. It comprised twenty or so short chapters each of which retold a biblical event dramatically, as a biblical novel would, but with a different ending. I think I wrote three wonderful sample chapters, but I can remember only two: “If Adam Had Refused the Fruit” and “If Judas Had Changed His Mind” (the final chapter in the collection was the title chapter). The writing was stellar, if I do say so myself (and I do), and each chapter concluded with a set of “Questions for Thought and Discussion.”

I thought it was a brilliant idea. Short fictional chapters, an alternative ending, and a few questions making it useful for individual thought or group discussion. What could be better?

A book that fits into a genre, that’s what.

The proposal was rejected dozens of times. I thought editors were just being narrow-minded (never mind that my title chapter was dipping a toe into theological waters far too deep and murky for my abilities). At the time, I didn’t know why, but I do now.

Imagine if—by some miracle—my book had been published. Where would it fit in the publisher’s catalog (or, today, website)? Fiction? Nonfiction? Bible study? Group resource? When it shipped to a bookstore and the manager went to display it, what shelf would it go on? Or, in today’s terms, what would the Amazon categories be?

Sure, back then, I would have said, “Put it in every catalog section, on every shelf in the store!” But that’s not how it works.

Customers in a bookstore expect to find a Bible study in the Bible study section, and novels in the fiction section. They don’t want to be confused. They want to find what they’re looking for, whether that is Latin Dancing or Lithuanian Cooking. And publishers know that. Attention to genre helps them meet their book-buyers’ needs, and publishers that meet book-buyers’ needs sell books.

You may remember the scene that begins the Meredith Wilson musical, The Music Man. It’s called “Rock Island” and it takes place on a passenger train filled with traveling salesmen, rolling into the Rock Island, Iowa, station. You probably remember the salesman who says, “Look, whatayatalk. Whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayataalk, whatayatalk?” But when it comes to writing a book—fiction or nonfiction—I suggest that you remember to be guided by one of the other salesmen. You know which one I mean. The one who says, “Ya gotta know the territory.” That’s what writing in and marketing for a particular genre is: knowing the territory.

 

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