Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Genres are a bit like political parties; aligning yourself with one gives you ready access to thousands of pre-existing fans who are far more likely to find you and approve of you than if you have no affiliations. This is one of genre’s great advantages as a concept but, as with political parties, people are often hesitant to cross lines and appreciate any perks from the other side.
While we can’t tackle the problem of political animosity today, if you’re looking to win fans from other genre camps, this article can help you do just that. Winning fans in unexpected places can be key to a book’s longevity and popularity. For evidence of this, look no further than the Harry Potter series, which boasts hundreds of millions of fans, many of whom wouldn’t have otherwise touched a fantasy book with a ten-foot wand… er, pole.
The right hook
If you want to catch fish, you need a hook. Even for the existing readership of a genre, a hook is necessary to catch attention, so you can imagine how vital it is when you’re trying to attract a brand new audience.
There are a few simple ways to bend a good hook. The first thing you want to do is ask yourself what’s unique about your story. One of the main reasons people break out of their routine is that they are compelled by something novel and surprising. Ask, ‘What does my book do that no other book does?’ Don’t get caught up in the literal implications of the question: there’s nothing new under the sun. But there are things that feel new, and your book will almost certainly need to make a case for its own novelty if it’s going to succeed within your genre or without.
The second thing you can do is to explore the dust jackets of best sellers, popular books in your genre and especially outside of your genre, books that you like, and books that you dislike but that have done well. Compare and contrast. Do you see any patterns? Do you see any words that appear again and again? Do these blurbs ask questions or create cliffhangers or use power words? Most successful book blurbs start either with an author’s pre-existing reputation, some really powerful marketing tools, or the description of the book itself – its hook. Assessing what has worked well for other authors will provide you with a loose formula and also give you a base from which to diverge. If something works well, a rule of thumb is to keep it but with whatever strategic changes best suit your project.
Watch, too, for overused words and phrases, like ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘will so-and-so find the doodad in time to save the such-and-such?’ Take inventory of how many character names are usually revealed in successful plot summaries. If you find the blurb boring, ask why, then dig deeper. Serious research diminishes the role of luck in this equation and builds your ability to craft a killer hook.
Finally, consider hiring a professional blurb writer. When launching a book into the world, it can seem like there’s a new expense at every turn, but consider the value of a professional hook: no matter where and how you publish, no matter where and how you market, the first aspect of your book people encounter after the cover (and yes, people judge books by their cover all the time) is the blurb. If the hook is lackluster, chances are the fish ain’t going to bite. It could be well worth a few greenbacks to secure a professional writer with solid knowledge of today’s reading market and let them work their magic.
Word of mouth
While there are still a few diehards who will happily spend half a day in a Barnes & Noble with their noses obscured by glossy hardbacks, most of today’s readers decide what to read based on everybody else’s opinion. Word of mouth can be a powerful way to gain readership and popularity, but it can also be difficult to get the right people talking.
We’ve written at length elsewhere about how to get reviews and guest posts, so here let me just underscore the importance of making this happen. If you want people from other genres to give your book a whirl, you’re going to have to go find them where they live, which means you’ll need some reviewers and bloggers from other genres on your team. Using some of the pitching tools described below, approach your cross-genre targets with the amazing hook you developed in the section above.
In the special case of trying to sell a book to an unlikely readership, you may also want to ask a rather unique and audacious favor of your reviewers, friends, and beta readers: see if they’re willing to directly recommend the book to someone they think might like it. Seem simple? Many of us will solicit test read-throughs, proofreading help, and moral support from communities and loved ones without ever asking outright if they’ll make a personal recommendation.
You’ll need to be sensitive in how you do this, making sure no one feels any pressure or discomfort. This isn’t about asking someone who thought your book was ‘meh’ to list ten acquaintances and their home phone numbers on a notecard. This is when someone sincerely loves your book and you say, ‘Can you think of anyone else who might love it? Would you be willing to recommend it to them?’
Another underused tactic for spreading the word is to offer referral rewards in the way of many startup and subscription-based internet companies. Online grocery delivery, wine clubs, shaving supply subscriptions, and dog biscuit boxes typically give customers a referral link and allow them to earn rewards – $10 off or a free bottle of wine. For an author trying to push books, a referral link might offer a free signed book, or a small giftcard to Powell’s Books. Keeping the gifts small ought to make the system manageable for your personal budget, and you can easily put limits on how many referrals will earn a reward, or only reward successful referrals (i.e. only a referral that gets you a book sale is rewarded). Small rewards will also ensure that the referrals are genuine. You don’t want people recommending your book for the incentive, you just want the incentive to nudge people who would have recommended your book anyway.
Controlling your brand
A strong brand is essential in today’s indie market, but it can also erect fences. Think of how many people would say that Nora Roberts isn’t their cup of tea, regardless of whether they’ve read anything she’s written. They don’t need to; she has a strong brand, and for better or worse, readers think they know what she has to offer. This means a strong fan base, but also a strong anti-fan base (remember my political analogy?)
If you want sound footing in your own camp, your author brand should heavily reflect your chosen genre. If you want the chance to win readers from outside that genre, you’ll want to think of how people view you as a whole. What kind of books do you recommend, rate, and review online? If they all belong on the same shelf, then readers will assume your book belongs there too. What kind of material do you quote? What kinds of topics do you use in shorter pieces? What kinds of authors do you guest feature on your blog or website? Who features you on their blog or website? All of your online interactions contribute to the image people have of you, which, with success, becomes part of your personal brand. If you want cross-genre readers, you’re going to need to spark cross-genre conversations and be willing to dip your feet into pools in which you don’t normally swim. Diversify your online actions and interactions in order to broaden your brand and diversify your readers.
Foregrounding the ‘right’ features
Imagine you’re opening a Mexican restaurant. Mexican food is pretty popular, and you’ve got an amazing chef (yourself), so you’re confident the restaurant will do well. Somewhere along the way, you realize that, in your area, the number of people who already like Mexican food isn’t enough to support your business. You’re confident that, once people have visited your fantastic restaurant, they’ll come back for more, but you still need to get new customers through the door. The best ways to bring in new kinds of ‘diners’ are already mentioned above: stellar marketing and cross-genre word of mouth. In addition, though, you might want to consider putting some things on the menu that wouldn’t normally appear in a Mexican restaurant, to cater to the tastes of the people you’re trying to attract. McDonald’s knows this; it’s why, for instance, their restaurants in the Philippines offer fried rice and spaghetti.
As an author trying to attract readers who would normally eat somewhere else, you might want to incorporate – and advertise – aspects that are popular with the crowd you’re targeting. You don’t have to sacrifice the integrity of your genre (McDonald’s in Budapest still sells burgers); it’s more about finding out what people like and offering it to them, packaged along with the new thing you want them to feel comfortable trying out.
Notice how effectively Firefly married a futuristic space setting with Western themes. When the show was canceled, the bereavement of its rabid fan base demanded the creation of a movie that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. You don’t have to all-out merge with another genre, just be open to how elements of other genres might enhance your story and invite unlikely readers to pick it up. Be sure to highlight these elements in your hook and subsequent marketing.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has readers that might ordinarily prefer a good crime novel diving neck-deep into a world of mythology. Cloud Atlas captures anyone who likes a good maritime, post-apocalyptic, crime-themed, or sci-fi book.
Two things to bear in mind when mixing elements from different genres: number one, put the story first. Don’t mangle your story for the sake of attracting new readers, because you’ll just lose the readers you’d have gained from telling an interesting tale well. Number two, don’t fake it. If you want to bring another genre to your writing, you’re going to need to spend some time in field research. A cowboy hat does not a Western make, and the ‘feel’ of another genre is just as (if not more) important than the mere aesthetic. Attracting new readers by pretending to deal with the ideas they enjoy and then only including a few props just gives you a pile of dissatisfied readers.
Downplaying the ‘wrong’ features
On the flip side, be sure to downplay the less popular aspects of your genre as you market to out-of-genre readers. So head-over-heels for your genre you’re not sure how anybody could not love it? All you need is ten minutes on Reddit to glean some valuable data on this question. Particularly for the more polarizing genres – romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror – it isn’t too difficult to find out exactly what people don’t like.
As you read, suppress your urge to object. If your chosen genre has been your reading-by-flashlight material since the fifth grade, people’s online comments are probably going to strike you as lame at best, completely philistine at worst. Now, full-blown haters probably aren’t going to be your target market, but they will give you the most extreme form of the criticism that you’ll need to overcome. This may be in the form of insightful critiques of genre clichés or uninformed assumptions that paint with needlessly broad strokes, but either way, these are the perceptions you need to address.
For example, one popular criticism of fantasy writing is that it’s all too similar, taking too many cues from Tolkien while forsaking invention. That may not accurately describe the best in modern fantasy, but it does tell you what’s keeping many non-fantasy readers from trying your new book. That’s why marketing for B. Catling’s fantasy novel The Vorrh foregrounds Alan Moore’s glowing appraisal that it’s, ‘Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.’ (A quote you better believe is on the cover.) That’s the kind of recommendation that goes right to the heart of any naysayer’s assumptions about genre and convinces them to give this book a try.
Trying something new
It’s a well-known fact that the human brain craves new experiences. We like the safety of familiarity too, which explains genre loyalty, but even the stodgiest armchair critic can be tempted out of their comfort zone with the promise of a dopamine hit of novelty. Use this to your advantage, and be the author who gains new readers by offering them something genuinely new.
What compels you to pick up something you wouldn’t normally read? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Find Your First Ten Readers and The Thing You Need To Know Before You Write In A New Genre for more great advice.