by Will Viharo
Borders are being blurred across the indie publishing spectrum these days, as the DIY digital revolution redefines what it means to be a “professional author.”
Just like mainstream methods of reaching one’s target audience have drastically changed over the past few years, so too have the once restrictive perimeters of genre.
Since all the old rules are being broken and reinvented, why confine yourself to just one category – even within a single book?
When I decided to return to my first love – fiction – after a lengthy hiatus, I decided to define my work as “pulp fiction,” since my novels freely blended aspects of horror, noir and erotica. I had no idea at the time that even in the post-Tarantino 21st-century, “pulp fiction” had become a thriving literary subcategory.
The reason I chose to market my otherwise unclassifiable novels this way was precisely because they combined several different genres, or else they didn’t fit neatly into a particularly niche, including my “Vic Valentine, Private Eye” series, which spun the whole notion of detective fiction on its head.
I still needed a niche for marketing purposes, so I chose “pulp,” which didn’t adhere to any one particular genre. “Pulp” originally referred to the actual paper used for printing the cheaply produced, often lurid mass-market magazines of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, which covered everything from cowboys to gangsters to aliens to monsters, hence hybrids were presumably more acceptable to its small but discriminating modern fan base.
Also, being an advocate of honest advertising, and there’s no percentage in willfully misleading potential customers, I wanted my audience to know that my stuff wasn’t like anything else they’d ever read. That is exactly what makes them so challenging to promote, but also so much fun to write.
Make it a Surprise Package!
When someone thinks of “horror” or “science fiction” or “crime,” a specific set of images and narratives immediately spring to mind. But if you want to really stand out in the crowd, you need to break away from preconceptions, and set yourself apart as a unique individual, even if you’re working in an established field with inherent expectations.
This is a risky proposition for indie writers trying to break into this overwhelmingly competitive marketplace. You’re essentially walking a tightrope between giving readers what they demand, and creating a new type or reading experience that you hope they will appreciate, if only for the sake of offering something different.
Balancing your personal need for artistic satisfaction as an author with commercial consideration of your audience is basically a matter of on-the-job training. There are no official guidelines for someone pioneering their own path, especially in otherwise well-trafficked terrain.
Your voice may still get lost in the din of so many others vying for the same attention, but it’s worth the effort, I believe, because otherwise you’re just playing it safe, and when it comes to success as an author, there really is no surefire formula. It’s all a dice roll. Might as well load those dice with as much creative innovation as possible.
Hybrid genres are often a slam-dunk solution for enterprising authors fortunate and talented enough to have the spiritual and financial backing of supportive publishers with high profile marketing resources.
For instance, Richard Kadrey has written a series of bestselling books featuring his protagonist Sandman Slim, a renegade warrior/investigator from Hell battling all sorts of demons and other supernatural forces, combining familiar elements of noir, action, mystery, horror, thrillers, and fantasy for an original yet successful stew of his own making.
Just Say “Noir”!
If fact, the term “noir” itself is not definitively designated even though it’s being marketed as a subgenre of “crime” and “mystery,” since it hails from the world of classic cinema. Back in the 1950s, French film critics retrospectively celebrated and deconstructed a certain downbeat but highly stylized trend in postwar American movies they dubbed “film noir,” literally “black film.”
The recognizable category of cinema we now know as “film noir” was never intended to be its own genre. Initially these films were distributed as straight up crime pictures, melodramas, or even “women’s pictures” (Mildred Pierce, etc.).
Nowadays, “noir” – as well as “pulp” and “grindhouse” – have become marketing catchphrases for certain types of fiction, but since their perimeters are so loosely defined, that leaves the authors plenty of wriggle room to mash-up various tropes, defying traditional boundaries.
If you decide to pitch your genre-blending work to a publisher, I would recommend trying small presses first, since they offer not only the “validation” of their professional logo, but their bottom line is likely a bit more flexible than that of bigger houses.
Most agents and large publishers will probably balk at signing with a novice attempting to flout the rules of the game without a proven track record yet, but you never know until you try. Small presses might be the easier way to get established as a risk-taking author before you try to break into the big leagues, where the bottom line supersedes most creative considerations.
A particular small press’s less ambitious but more artistic mission statement may mean they’re willing to take a chance on bold material that doesn’t conform to any particular formula. Do your research before submitting anything to anyone, though, so you don’t wind up wasting all of your time.
Self-publishing may potentially bog you down with an unfair stigma, but it provides you with the freedom to experiment. It also means all the marketing is on you. Of course, this is also the case with most small presses and even many larger ones. Any author of any stature these days will need to self-promote via his or her own social media network, to varying degrees.
Basically, I always recommend writing exactly the kind of book you’d like to read, regardless of formulaic constrictions, even if that means no one else has written it yet. Which is exactly what will make it so special, for both you and the reader.
PHOTO: ARVELL DORSEY JR.