February 11, 2014

Just Be Glad It’s Not a Woman’s Bare Shoulder With a Tattoo, and Her Head Cut Off! (or, Code and Coding In Genre Publishing)

by Jeremy Lassen

Editor's Note: Since Alan's waist-deep in construction, and has been doing things like working 22 hours straight and then disappearing to sleep for 10 hours and then returning to work another 20 hours,  I've asked some other staffers to contribute From the Office pieces for the next few months.  Don't worry; all the rest of us are just as opinionated as Alan, and he'll be back with his own special brand of analysis in a few months.  He's even mentioned possibly doing a Screed!  (We're both kind of pissed off at Apple right now.)  But meanwhile, enjoy a guest piece from Jeremy Lassen, Borderlands' first (and longest continuous) employee.  (Please note that while Borderlands is probably the only bookstore in the world with its own SWAT team, and that I and Alan will personally back any of our employees in a street fight, their opinions are their own and don't necessarily represent those of the store.)

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter last month.  No, seriously, I did.  Someone Tweeted a jape about a book that was being described as “ENDER'S GAME meets THE HUNGER GAMES.”  The person was really unimpressed with the “jam two best-sellers together” marketing pitch.  I had read that particular book in galley a few months earlier, and absolutely loved it.  And while, plot-wise, the comparison was apt, it wasn’t perfect.

The elevator pitch for RED RISING, as embodied by the blurb on the cover, failed to convey a larger sense of history and dialogue with SF literature.  The book was smart, and savvy in a way that the facile best-seller mash  description just didn’t get across.  There was a detailed colony-society on Mars . . . there was a caste system, and a revolutionary movement to overthrow the established hierarchy.  And there was a hero whose tragic history gave him the passion to do terrible things, and at the same time filled him with a sense of doubt and inadequacy.

From my perspective as a cranky old SF reader, this book had a bunch of Zelazny, a bit of Philip Jose Farmer, and maybe some MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and some Vatta, (and maybe even some early, early Piers Anthony  -- CTHON or the Phaze Adept stuff -- but trying to reference the GOOD Piers Anthony versus the BAD Piers Anthony may be trying to slice the cheese a bit too thin, so I’ll stick with Zelazny and Farmer for now.)

When I pointed out to the original Twitt-ee (not sure what the proper term is . . . but whatever) what RED RISING reminded ME of, my Twitter correspondent indicated they would check it out, and asked why the publisher didn't just say THAT. . . instead of “HUNGER GAMES meets ENDER'S GAME.”  To which I replied, "Because that would sell the book to you and me. . . but not to most book buyers and not to most casual readers.”  Which in retrospect may have sounded kind of elitist.  Which is NOT what I was trying to imply or suggest.  Just because I read a lot of really good (and really bad) 60’s and 70’s New Wave SF doesn’t mean I’m BETTER than other readers.  It just means I have a different perspective than most, and I use different code to describe things.

Another example of code and coding in the genre, before I try and make my point; in my previous life as Art Director for Night Shade Books, I had a lot of time to think about the role and purpose of cover art.  Covers DO matter, despite how much readers might protest.  Covers don’t function as wholly discrete pieces of independent art.  Covers are meant to convey the type of experience that you are likely to get from reading a given book. Does it LOOK like a fantasy book?  Or a military SF book?  Habitual readers of genre fiction associate certain cover types or styles with their favorite books, or genres.  And if they are looking for a David Drake-esque military SF thriller, they look for books that LOOK like that earlier book.  Same goes for urban fantasy or paranormal romance.  Thus the tattooed lady parts, referred to in the title.  For about a decade, all urban fantasy looked pretty similar.  For the simple reason that, THAT’S WHAT READERS EXPECTED IT TO LOOK LIKE.

I can speak from personal, and costly experience (see Art Director role above) . . . if you package a book counter to its contents . . . you are simply setting up an author and a reader for disappointment.  I mean, if you want to TRICK a mainstream reader into reading that fantasy book by putting a mainstream cover on it, that's fine . . . but no fantasy readers are going to pick it up, and btw, if that book is in the fantasy section, no mainstream readers are going to pick it up either.  If you want to sell a fantasy book to a mainstream audience, it better be in the mainstream section of the store, published by a mainstream publishing house, and reviewed by a bunch of mainstream periodicals.

For example, when JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORELL was published, it was published with a “best seller” cover, from a mainstream publishing house.  And it sold far and wide.  Even though it was fantasy.  If that book had come out from, say, Tor, with a painted-fairies genre cover, it wouldn’t have reached that mainstream audience.  But it's a double-edged sword.  JONATHAN STRANGE is one of the few examples of a package that had its cake and ate it too . . . .  Because clearly a lot of genre readers also picked up that JONATHAN STRANGE . . . .  It doesn’t always happen that way.  Publishers tried a similar trick with John Crowley, and pretty much nobody bought his books on either side of the genre line.

Back to the personal experience.  I had an author complain to me about a “hooded man” fantasy cover.  If you’re reading this, you probably know the type of cover I mean.  Sometime in the last 5 years, the default look for a Big Fat Fantasy novel changed, from a painted fantasy SCENE (ala Robert Jordan’s covers), to a closeup of a single character.  Often that character is in a robe or hooded cloak of some kind, so the face is in shadow, and all you can see is that BIG ASS knife/sword/whatever in his or her hand.  Orbit pioneered this type of cover, and now it's the go-to standard when a publisher is trying to convey “Grim/Dark” fantasy.  My author felt the hooded man covers were overdone, and we should go with a different motif.  After all, that author had spoken with a dozen or so other authors online and they all felt that the hooded man motif was overdone.  At which point, I tried to explain the point I’m trying to make here . . . of course it's overdone. THAT’S THE POINT!  That’s why it works as a visual shorthand, or code, for “That type of fantasy book I like to read.”  What I left unsaid was “Just be happy you didn’t write an urban fantasy book . . . have you seen what THOSE overdone motifs look like?”

So anyway, back to my point. Which is that oftentimes a publisher's choice of packaging or blurbs or descriptions or whatever may seem to be a misfire.  Sometimes it actually IS a misfire.  If you’re an old coot like me and you read GRRM’s  GAME OF THRONES in its first hardcover printing, you can see that Bantam slapped a “best seller” cover on it.  No painted wolves or snowy medieval scene.  It was a foil cover with a designed image that looked like a throne, under the author's name, which was bigger than the title.  And man, did GAME OF THRONES tank in hardcover.  It failed miserably.  That first hardcover ended up on the remainder tables in less than 6 months.  All the genre buyers passed on it, and no mainstream readers picked it up from its shelf in the SF section.  Which is really funny, considering how things turned out.  The publisher went back to a traditional painted fantasy cover for the paperback, it became really popular, and then the publisher went back to the bestseller covers without any of the painted scenes, as originally envisioned.  (It just took an extra 10 years to make those best seller covers work.)

But while sometimes a package may be a complete misfire, sometimes you just aren’t the target audience for the package.  Mainstream readers have this happen all the time, when they look at a genre cover.   I’ve seen a lot of  mundanes sneer at what I think is a really good cover . . . because they don’t get the coded messages embedded in a given style of cover.  All they see is “something I’ve never had a good experience reading” or worse, “something I would never frame and put on my wall.”

For a classic example of this, check out the essay that Nick Hornby wrote in an earlier issue of "The Believer", where he sneers for several thousand words about how he was embarrassed to be seen in a bookstore, buying an Iain M.  Banks book, because, “WTF was that sci-fi stuff all about . . . I tried . . . but really, fuck this geekery”.  (For the record, fuck Nick Hornby and his mainstream snobbery.)

So back to RED RISING and the best-seller elevator pitch comp.  The perfect elevator pitch isn’t for YOU.  It’s for the buyers.  Or for the reviewers.  Or for other gatekeepers who are going to make a decision based on that pitch (or blurb or whatever) and then end up putting it in front of you, hopefully with a bit more context or explanation (in the case of a reviewer) or on the shelf where you can stumble across it, in the case of a buyer.  Because the elevator pitches to YOU, the habitual reader of genre fiction, who subscribes to this newsletter?  Your frame of reference is a bit more rarified, and a bit different than the vast majority of readers.

So yes . . . I feel your pain every time a publisher does the “best seller mashup pitch.”  And I really feel it when the mashup isn’t even very accurate.  But the alternative is me coming up with THE PERFECT blurb for RED RISING . . . “It’s like Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept, meets Roger Zelazny’s LORD OF LIGHT with a hint of Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series.”  I mean, who would buy a book with a blurb like that?*  I mean, aside from me or you**.

*Seriously.  I tried that whole “keeping it real” elevator pitch once. You should have seen the look on the buyer’s face when I said “Sheri S. Tepper meets Neal Stephenson (and kicks his ass!) in a feminist-cyberpunk-thriller by Clarke Award-winner Tricia Sullivan.”  I should have just said “'Outbreak meets SNOW CRASH,” and called it a day.

**Books I referenced that you should read if you haven’t already: I’m going to assume you’ve read (or at least heard of and dismissed) GAME OF THRONES and JONATHAN STRANGE…. But have you read LITTLE BIG by John Crowley?  Or LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny?  Or World of Tiers by Philip Jose Farmer?  How about Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta series?  Been there, done all that?  Try and see past years of bad Piers Anthony books, and read The Adept Apprentice Series, or even CTHON, his first novel.  There’s a reason he was in Harlan Ellison’s DANGEROUS VISIONS anthology.  And of course, if you haven’t read MAUL, by Tricia Sullivan, you should run out and do so.  And finally, run, don’t walk, and pick up RED RISING by Pierce Brown.

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