Earlier this week, I attended the—Self-Publishing Show Live event in London — two days of presentations from some of the best in the business, and the opportunity for a few hundred writers to get together, talk and have fun. And learn a lot. I’ve barely started processing everything, and when the videos of the presentations are released, there are many I’ll be studying in detail.
But one thing that struck me was the range of books people are writing. The event kicked off with two sisters (Caroline Peckham and Susanne Valenti) who, over a couple of years, have built up a seven-figure business (yes, we’re talking millions here) writing dark fantasy romance and bully romance. Bully romance? That’s fairly niche. I can’t imagine mainstream romance fans going for it, but these women have found enough readers that they’re making a very good living from their books. They’ve been at or near the top of the Amazon ebook chart since January. And they’re truly independent, doing everything themselves (or hiring others for the work they can’t do). They don’t have backing from a publisher. They’re not household names, yet they’re out-selling just about everyone else.
It would be impressive if they’d been writing in a more mainstream genre (crime or urban fantasy, for example). Bully romance doesn’t seem to be on the radar of traditional publishing. It doesn’t feature heavily in book stores. But they’ve found their readers.
Ebook sales have continued to rise, especially over the last couple of years (who would’ve thought that being stuck at home encouraged reading?). More people are reading, and people are reading more. Every reader has their own taste, their own things in books that they’re drawn to. And while the big publishers have to aim for commercial, mainstream success, the independents (smaller publishing companies and, especially, indie-publishing authors) can cater for these increasingly smaller niches.
While many of the writers at the event were working in more obvious genres (science-fiction, romance, young adult and so on), a lot were narrowing down, or coming up with interesting combinations of genres. I spoke with a few writers whose stories combined both science fiction and fantasy — a hybrid that might upset some hard-core fans from either camp, but something that is gaining popularity (Chris Fox’ MagiTech books spring to mind — well worth a read if the idea of space battles between gods appeals!). One of those on stage was making a living writing 1920s cosy mysteries. And I managed to spend a few moments talking with Heide Goody, the co-author of books that, among other things, combine comedy with Lovecraftian horror (if that sounds interesting, check out the Oddjobs series).
The list goes on.
I spoke with one writer (sorry, I can’t recall names) who wrote ‘sports fiction’. That’s both a niche term and a broad one — many ‘sports fiction’ books are also romances. His, however, are dramas, similar to Rocky — struggles against adversity set against the backdrop of sports. And while that feels specific (and the specificity means he struggles with advertising), there are readers looking for books like this.
I wish I could remember his name, because I’d definitely check those books out.
Genres can be tricky, though. Words can have many meanings, and getting the wrong ‘word’ can cause problems.
I had a conversation with a writer who thought the first book in her trilogy was romance (yes, romance crops up a lot in self-publishing — it’s a huge genre, and romance writers are incredibly business-savvy). The story focused on someone finding happiness through love, so of course it was romance. But the readers disagreed. She didn’t abide by the expected tropes. Her story might have been about love, but it wasn’t romance.
That doesn’t make sense? People hear ‘love story’ and immediately think ‘romance’, but consider a story like Romeo And Juliet. It’s all about love, but it wouldn’t qualify as a romance by today’s book genre definitions. It doesn’t have the obligatory happy ending, for one thing. It throws out important ‘romance’ tropes.
Personally, I prefer ‘love stories’ like Romeo And Juliet and Wuthering Heights to some of the other romances I’ve read. I’ve tried a few recently, and the insta-love, ‘when will they get together?’ stories bore me. I’ve got nothing against these books, or the many readers who enjoy them — they’re simply not for me. I prefer darker tales. I like books that confound my expectations, that twist or even throw out genre tropes.
I’m in a minority here, I know. I can be contrary, in my consumption of media (I’ve always gone for ‘different’ music and films), and also in the books I write.
I classify my Dominions books as dark Dystopian thrillers, but Dystopian fiction is closely tied to Young Adult, and Dominions is definitely not YA. Also, the thriller aspect is more slow-burn than many mainstream thrillers (like Jack Reacher or John Milton.) The genres fit, but they also confuse.
Then there’s my Shadows trilogy, my attempt to combine science-fiction and horror. Yes, there are very successful sci-fi/horror hybrids (and Alien was a major influence on Shadows), but why would horror fans want to read a science fiction book, and why would sci-fi fans want to scare themselves with horror?
My new series, ShadowTech, is more mainstream, but it’s still veering toward the darker side of things. I’m interested in the internal struggles of the characters, more so than the external action the stories (and the mainstream readers) demand.
But these are the types of stories I enjoy writing, and reflect the stories I enjoy reading. I might be in a minority, but I can’t be alone in this. In fact, I know there are readers who have enjoyed my books — reviews and comments tell me that.
There are millions of individual readers, and millions of books. It’s a struggle bringing compatible readers and books together. But the options are out there. No matter how obscure, no matter how niche, there are books for every reader, and readers for every book.
And when I get my head around everything from this conference, hopefully I’ll be in a better position to make those connections.