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A Beginner’s Guide to Marketing Indie Literary Fiction [Guest Post]

The following is a guest post by James Campbell.

Over the past few months, certain members of the literati have been occupying themselves with the question of genre vs. literary fiction – what do these terms mean, which is better, and so on.

First there was Arthur Krystal’s piece in the New Yorker, followed by Lev Grossman’s reply in Time, completed by Michael Kardos’s rebuttal to both on the Huffington Post’s book blog.

A quick summation: yes, there is a difference between genre fiction and literary fiction; no, genre fiction is not necessarily ‘lower’ than literary fiction or mere escapism; yes, literary fiction has just as many cliches and tropes as genre fiction; and yes, there are many examples of top quality work and utter crap in both categories, and people shouldn’t pigeon-hole their reading habits to solely one or the other.

Left Out of the Discussion

One thing that wasn’t discussed, however, was how books of each type tend to be marketed specifically within an indie pub context.

I’m fairly new to the indie pub world – I wrote and finished polishing my first novel, Typhoon Season, a couple of years ago, but only recently put it on the Kindle store – but it’s obvious early on that the vast majority of indie pub books would be called ‘genre’ fiction.

Almost everything I’ve seen from indie pub writers so far has been either fantasy, sci-fi, spy-thrillers, erotica, memoir, or some combination of these (e.g. horny vampires in space). And that’s fine; as mentioned above, genre fiction is not below literary fiction, and while some of these indie pub books are no doubt atrocious, others are probably great.

But I write ‘literary’ or ‘contemporary’ fiction, or whatever else you want to call it. The ideas I have for novels often have to do with societal or political issues focused through the lens of a personal story.

This is the only type of book I see myself writing in the near future, but it creates an interesting problem: whereas it’s fairly straight-forward to tell someone your book is fantasy or sci-fi or erotica and give them a pretty good idea of what to expect, describing it as ‘literary fiction’ does absolutely nothing for you, and so makes it much more difficult to market.

How to Define the Undefinable – and Myself

My book has mysterious elements to it, but it’s not a whodunnit.

It has sex, but it’s not erotica.

It references politics, but it’s not strictly about politics.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between a father and his son, but it’s not a family or generational drama.

So when people ask me what my book is about, you can see my predicament as compared to someone who has written a straight-up fantasy or horror novel. I can’t use the genre as a marketing tool as writers of genre fiction can, and while I have to market the specific elements of the book to the best of my ability, that’s more difficult to do without giving away a lot of the story.

Basically, I’ve realized that the main thing I have to market is myself, and I have to literally create my audience for me because, again comparing to genre fiction, one doesn’t already exist as it does with fantasy or romance or the like.

To put it more bluntly, I have to work harder at my ‘personal brand’ than perhaps a genre fiction writer would. Typhoon Season takes place against the backdrop of the ongoing Taiwan/China tensions, so I have to be cognizant of this and make sure I’m doing the following things:

  • Connecting directly with people who are interested in or involved with this issue, on Twitter, Facebook and forums, and try to convince them to give the book a try
  • Staying up-to-date on all the latest happenings in case they somehow relate directly to what I’ve written about, and use these opportunities for promotion
  • Setting myself up as at least somewhat ‘authoritative’ on the issue, which means being not only a content re-distributer (e.g. re-tweeting things), but a content creator as well.

Aside from this, I also have to connect with both writers and readers in the indie pub world and do all the usual stuff like convince people to review it, get it reviewed on blogs etc.

Compounding the difficulty is that my content takes longer to create, with a lot of travel, research, writing and editing involved, making it impossible to compete with genre writers who can bring shorter works to market more easily and grow/sustain their audience in that way.

Get Out There and Meet the People

To counter this, and as part of the ‘personal brand’ building, I’ll need to do more face-to-face and event-style promotion. In the coming months, I plan on having a launch event with another writer friend of mine where we’ll present both of our books together and try to garner more readers and influencers in that way.

The main piece of advice I see floating around on blogs and websites that offer to help indie writers is ‘know your audience.’ Know what they’re buying and go to them. I wonder if the vast proliferation of genre fiction in the indie pub world is due to this advice, as genre fiction obviously outsells literary fiction by a large margin, and probably always will.

Or do more writers simply write genre fiction because they, as readers, tend to read more of it? To be honest I really don’t know, but for my purposes, I suppose that question doesn’t really matter. Whereas most indie writers are tiny fish in a large ocean, I’m more like a minnow; given the types of books that I write, I’ve got to work harder, through ‘personal brand’ building and direct engagement, to create and grow my audience.

The coming months will show how well (or horribly) I’m doing.

James Campbell’s debut novel, Typhoon Season, is available from the Kindle store. You can find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

  • Linda

    You present an interesting dilemma. Many novels do not fit into a specific genre or they fit into multiple genres. I think it’s possible to write a romance or thriller or fantasy that is literary fiction. I get that you have to work harder on your author brand because there isn’t a category that precisely fits your book. Would you also advocate dropping the literary fiction tag and go with the genre that is the closest fit? If you are self-publishing, how do you get around all the category requirements by Amazon and others?

    • Harlequin’s books are all ‘romance,’ but then Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is also a romance; while I think it’s easy for most people to call Harlequin ‘genre romance’, could you see Greene being anything other than literary fiction? It really is quite tricky.

      I personally don’t want to see lit. fic. dropped as a category, because it’s just not going to be possible to fit some books into the genre categories. What I would like to do is help build ‘lit. fic.’ up as a more robust and readable category in its own right. I want to try to help people forget their horrible memories from high school or university where they were forced to read too-challenging books and deconstruct everything to death and where they probably developed their distaste of lit. fic. in the first place. The only way to do that is write good books and promote them as lit. fic. and show people there’s more out there than the latest flavour-of-the-week stuff.

      In terms of Amazon, it has both ‘general’ and ‘literary’ fiction categories, so it’s fine from that perspective.

  • I feel your pain as I’m in the same boat. I write Contemporary, Literary, Coming-of-age type stuff, and yes, it is VERY hard to generalise.

    You raise some good points, and I agree that you need to make it more about YOU. Try and get people to fall in love with you as an author. Hopefully this will help pass a few people on your book :)

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

  • Jenn Crowell

    Thank you so much, Shannon and Toni, for featuring this post, and thank you, James, for putting it out there. I write literary fiction and have followed the careers of several successful self-published novelists who also write in that catch-all category. While their success is inspiring, it does strike me as an extremely uphill battle. Other genres are much easier to market to, because they have so many more built-in online communities and (let’s face) it genre conventions that make it easier to hit that marketing target.

    But for literary fiction, a lot of the truisms of indie publishing (no one cares who your publisher is; everyone reads ebooks now) just don’t apply. Literary fiction is the one genre where spine imprint, pre-pub reviews in journals like Kirkus and PW, and the availability of print books in brick-and-mortar stores all still seem to matter. Hence the uphill battle for brave authors who go the independent route — which can be a great route to go in this climate where publishers are so risk-averse and pass on books that defy easy categorization. My hat is off to all of you, and I wish you the best of luck!

    • Hi Jenn, thanks.

      ‘Risk-averse’ is definitely the way to put it. Publishers may complain that the market is falling out from under them, but they must shoulder some of the blame for chasing short-term gains and rushing to publish clones of whatever happens to be popular at the moment, instead of searching out true talent and nurturing those authors over years like they used to.

      But the market did change on them pretty quickly, so it’s not all their fault. But going independent really seems like the only option now.

  • Jenn Crowell

    Oh, and if anyone is looking for some examples of those self-pub folks who are doing well, check out Orna Ross, Roz Morris, Dan Holloway, Terri Giuliano Long, and Laryssa Wirstiuk. (Mega-bestseller Darcie Chan is often placed in the category of literary fiction as well, though she has such strong thriller/suspense elements in her work that it’s probably much easier for her to cross over.)

  • definitely better than my idea of killing someone famous in order to appear on the radar. Especially as all the best Beatles are unavailable. Still, I peaked at twenty four thousand and something one day in Amazon’s ebook list. Gonna rest on them laurels for a bit. Market myself you say? Worth a try…

  • I hear you! I thought that my first novel was a historical romance (it’s based on a real event and has a love story), but I quickly realised that Historical Romance is very strict both in the setting ( Regency, Victorian) and in the structure (happy ending). My next two novels are loosely based on historical events ,but also have a “witchy” theme-hence paranormal. Reviewers didn’t like them because they had too much sex and not enough paranormal ( Vampires, werewolves).
    Historical fiction seems too dry for my books and, though written with a certain regard for the prose, I wouldn’t call them literary…….