Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Getting Found In the "Other" World

One huge problem writers face nowadays is being able to "Choose a BISAC Category". Or, in simple language - Where the hell does my book fit in this big long list of categories that don't fit my book?

My SO writes a lot of male/male romance. But there's no such category on most of the common publishers' lists. We have things like "Gay" but that doesn't really fit, because the stories may not be about "being gay" as much as they are about being human.  Okay, so we move on to "Erotica." But that doesn't really work, because a large majority of the population automatically envisions a heterosexual pairing, and so your work will get panned by the uber-conservatives who still think love only exists between a man and a woman in the missionary position (and everyone else is going to hell, just ask 'em). Moving along, we come to "Romance."  But again, that probably isn't going to work for the same reasons that "Erotica" isn't going to work. Preconceived prejudices and false belief systems to protect and all that. So then we come to the inevitable "Other" category - into which go things such as "Auntie Mae's Reviews on Maps" or "Things To Make Out of Rain." Put simply - placing your book in the "Other" category ensures its obscurity despite what your old professor in college may have told you. Truth is - he doesn't want the competition, so he's probably not your best friend when it comes to marketing.

What to do?

Sometimes we need to let go of our
original idea and rebirth a book in a new
format. Sons of Neverland was such an
What I've found in my own work is that categorizing it may not matter nearly as much as we think it does - at least not to the general readers, who tend to browse by keywords rather than trudging through pages upon endless cyberpages of a publisher's online catalog. I could be wrong.  My SO tells me I often am. So take my comments with a large block of salt (iodized sea salt is generally best).

I finally got so annoyed with the whole idea of trying to label my writing (most of which fits into NO established category) that I listened to some "experts" who say that the category of "Literary" is the absolute WORST, as far as selling books is concerned. Hmmm. So as an experiment, being the rogue I am, I decided to list one of my books as "Literary > General"  Just about as generic and nondescript as one can get.

Sold more copies of that book in the first month than I had sold in the 3+ years it  had been listed as "Gay>Paranormal>Science Fiction>Romance>Naughty Naughty Naughty>Men With Aliens on Crack>Don't Read This Or You Will Go Blind" or whatever absurdly absurd category in which it had been previously listed.  (Don't be too impressed. It had only sold maybe 10 copies in 3 years - largely because it couldn't be found, so selling that same amount in a month is no cause for balloons and cake.)

I'm not saying that listing in the Literary category will help you sell your books. I'm just saying (just sayin'!) that stressing over what label to stick on your own butt is generally a waste of time and energy. One likes to HOPE (a lost art) that readers have the good sense to take a long, hard look at the "Look Inside" provided by many publishers and distributors. And if the obscure e-book site YOU use doesn't believe in a "Look Inside," then drag yourself over to Amazon despite your abject hatred of All Things Corporate, and use their "Look Inside" even if you never buy a single book from them. It's free to look, after all, and it will (maybe) save you a lot of grief down the road.  Returning an ebook can be like trying to step in the same river twice. Good luck with that.

Of course, another problem is that bad writers have gotten savvy to the fact that Amazon (and others) generally tend to offer the first 10-15% of the book as their "Look Inside." That being the case, writers who know they can't rub two words together to create an original thought have taken to working and re-working that first 10-15% so that admittedly readers can be fooled. Some writers even hire professional editors to revamp the opening chapter(s) of their book, so that when we buy it, we're impressed with the beginning, and then we are treated to all the spelling errors, grammatical terrors, and complete inability to punctuate, paragraph, or otherwise create a single sentence that isn't full of glaring mistakes (as well as being full of another sticky brown substance we would all rather not step in). And, yes, I know that's improper grammar. But ya gotta know the rules before you can take the liberty of breaking them, and far too many "writers" simply don't. 

So that brings us to Keywords. And therein lies a whole other can o' worms, just waiting to gnaw at the crisp white pages of your brand new book. What the hell is a keyword anyway? And how do you decide what keywords actually fit your book? If you've written about your cat-on-a-long-journey-home through the ghettos of Los Angeles and the penthouses of San Francisco, you've got it somewhat easy - or so it seems at first. Keywords might include: cat story, ghetto cat, penthouse cat, treacherous cat journey, long journey home" and the usual boring things we might come up with just to get to the end of the prep work and finally get the book in print. But... a writer who wants to sell her books is going to consider not just the obvious list of "easy" keywords, but think how your customers might think.

First of all, before you even write your book, if your goal is to sell it (and it may not be - some writers claim they write "strictly for fun" but I usually find writing about as much fun as a bucket of angry scorpions), you may want to stop and ask yourselves just how many people really want to read your cat-on-a-long-journey-home book. Sure, if you get struck by lightning (or your cat does) and your book goes viral and straight to the top of the New York Times Bestseller's List, then everyone on Planet Earth (and neighboring planets) will beat a path to your door despite your boring keywords. But if you're like most writers, you're not going to be the one struck by that lone bolt of lightning, and neither is your book about your cat. So - while I'm not discouraging writers from writing about any subject that interests them, it's important to define your own goals before you waste months or years writing a book that is going to languish in obscurity (trust me - I'm an expert on that!) What do you want from the book? Are you looking to be a professional writer and make a living at your craft? Is it a hobby, and you don't give a fat rat's shiny hiney if you sell a single copy? Is it something you're writing to impress your mother-in-law in lieu of getting a real job? Define your goals or don't be surprised when you are disappointed down the road. There's no right answer. The only "wrong" answer is to not have a clue.

But back to keywords and your heart-warming cat-on-a-long-journey-home story. What might readers search for if they wanted to read about your cat?  How about... "cat hero, cat left behind, cat comes home, stranger in a strange land, fish out of water story, survival in the wild" and on down the line of infinite possibilities. And remember - most sites don't restrict keywords to one word. Phrases are generally acceptable, so for my vampire novel (for example), I realized that readers were searching for phrases such as "I want to be a vampire," or "I want to live forever," or "I want to be immortal."  It's always about them - and knowing that can give you an advantage you might otherwise overlook. It's impossible to know what readers really think, but it's a good challenge for writers to at least consider it when working on keywords and fighting to keep their book out of that dreaded "Other" category. Use some of the obvious (because most people will go straight for the mundane) but think outside the litter box, too!

The first step is knowing which hat
you actually want to wear...
The bottom line here is simple (and kinda scary). We now live in a digital age where the indy writer has to wear all the hats. Writer, editor, publisher, typesetter, cover artist, marketing director, publicist - and probably a dozen more I've forgotten (because my brain is addled from wearing too many hats). At present, the field is wide open - which is both good and bad. Good in that writers no longer have to be entirely dependent on a publisher in order to see their work in print. Bad in the sense that the market is glutted with a lot of books by a lot of bad writers, but even worse - that mountain of crap is often obscuring the gems and jewels hidden behind it. Readers have been burned too many times by too much flaming horse shit and are now wary - and who can blame them?

There's no easy answer, of course. The major indy distributors (such as Amazon, just for example) really can't afford to hire an army of editors to weed out the weeds, and so there is no quality control standard -  not a standard to determine the social/cultural merit of books, but to determine whether or not the writer is in third grade writing bad porn in study hall and then publishing it as BDSM on the internet. That's another subject for another day, alas.

For now - start with this. 

Ask yourself what you want from your work. Once you have the answer to that question, a lot of the other chaos sweeps itself up into a nice pile... only to get scattered to the four winds all over again when you ask yourself the next question.

Do you  have the stamina, or even the desire to wade through snake-infested jungles just to get to the first sentence?

It really is a dark and stormy night.  But don't forget - I told you that in the first post of this dark and stormy blog. You can shoot the messenger, but the message will still be all too true.

So go write.  If you dare. And only if you care.

copyright 2014 by Della Van Hise
All Rights Reserved

Eye Scry Publications
My Books on Amazon

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