Knowing the genre you write in and sticking to it, is part of the road to success, says fantasy and romantic historical fiction writer Fiona McIntosh.

Have you been following the success of Game of Thrones? It started out as volume one of a fantasy work first released in 1996 of the same name and spawned a series of books that ended up as #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. The TV series is arguably the hottest thing to watch on the planet just now. It’s become a phenomenal success with adults especially enjoying its often R-rated images and language.

This is genre fiction flexing its muscle. It is seductive, addictive escapism and genre these days no longer hides in cultish corners but resides squarely in mainstream, especially with women readers who comprise the most powerful and loyal audience.

So if you want to be successful in the world of fiction, you should be writing within a genre for ease of access. But it’s no good you writing what you want and believing with all of your heart that a global publisher should also love your work. I have to be tough here so forgive me. No one gives a flying fig what you like or want to write … indeed no one cares that I want to write a cookery book! My publishers only care that I continue to write best selling fantasy and best selling romantic historical fiction.

All you should care about if you want to survive and thrive in the hard commercial world of publishing is to write what the market is salivating for.

Everyone’s take on success differs. I applaud those who may describe it as a drawer of rejections and who take the ‘because what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ kind of attitude. These are warriors. They don’t give up, they understand that persistence is the key to winning that elusive contract, and they have the almighty capacity to start again on a new manuscript and push through to its finish. Others may consider success as being self-published. I heard a lovely story recently that a writer was sharing her ‘amazing success’ with a book she’d recently released and was bubbling over with the news to her writing group that she’d sold 200 copies … and she was ecstatic. So success is a difficult word to pin down. My idea of success in the field of commercial fiction is hitting the Australian National Top 10, selling the novel overseas and into foreign language, having my publisher’s sales team gleeful over their units sold graph, my editor fizzing with delight at how well our baby is performing and having Acquisitions eagerly discussing my new project. For me, and my shallow take on my business life, success is (a) happy publisher and readers and (b) happy earnings.

However, I readily admit that I don’t care about awards, being asked to sit on panels, being wined/dined, being invited to events, etc. The way I choose to measure success in my field is by my publisher requesting more contracts, my audience telling me it can’t get enough of my books and knowing there are advances and royalties trickling in regularly.

So … if we’re all agreed that genre is ‘it’ for commercial success (read $$$), then please be sure you are writing in a clear genre. If you don’t know what you’re writing and where it fits then you’re going to struggle to sell it to a publisher.

It has never been more important to dovetail into a neat compartment so that websites can easily point to your novel with headlines like ‘If you love Fiona McIntosh, you’ll love so and so’. If you can’t fit into a genre, how does a huge beast like Amazon help readers to find you?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Amazon should be your only focus but electronic marketing of novels is increasingly demanding more and more attention from publishers, booksellers and of course epublishers, ebooksellers.

We’re all online more hours of the day than perhaps most of us care to admit and marketers know that, so that’s where the mighty dollar is going to grab our attention. And, as much as I detest being pigeon-holed, I realise I have to make sure my novels fit neatly beneath an overarching genre where people new to my work can stumble across my titles, or where someone whose attention has been piqued by an ad or a review can easily hunt down my books.

Contrary to how it may feel to any of us waiting for a big break, I believe publishers are as active as ever in searching out new talent but they are having to be ruthless in looking for genre writers who can deliver a manuscript that has the potential to sell in the tens of thousands. In Australia we have publishers who are generous and above all, nurturing.

Our publishers know it’s rare to find a writer who can be an overnight success so they will help to build you but only if your stories have that wonderful commercial whiff about them … and only if they sense that both you as a writer and the range of your storytelling has the potential to keep developing, keep increasing sales by drawing more readers to your books.

Some of the cast of characters from the highly-successful genre program Game of Thrones.

Some of the cast of characters from the highly-successful fantasy genre progam Game of Thrones, based on the series of books which were #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Please get it straight in your mind that genre fiction is about commercial endeavor … everyone has to get their slice! The publisher has to make a profit out of you; it is not a charity and increasingly publishers should not and do not feel obliged to take on a writer just because their story is terrific or their writing is sublime. If it can’t sell and generate money out of it, it’s a lost cause. Sad but true.

What’s more, if traditional booksellers cannot shift plentiful copies of that book, there’s no point in ordering, stocking, finding space on their expensive retail shelves for them. And they are going to send them back to the expensive warehouses that publishers increasingly don’t want to pay for. The days of having wonderful books in stock just because have gone. Ebooksellers have more flexibility but even so they will not give you that prime position on their home page if your story can’t make money for them, while readers must have a fantastic experience in order to buy more, more, more of the same.

Finally, you have to make money out of this manuscript. You want to be paid an advance, and then you want that novel to earn out its advance and start earning you lovely royalties. And that will bring the publisher back to you with a request to sign a new contract. That’s the merry-go-round of commercial fiction. Final sad truth – there are loads of fabulous writers with genuinely fabulous stories that unfortunately don’t offer enough commercial potential … they don’t fit mainstream, they don’t suit a genre, their audience simply isn’t wide enough to generate enough dollars to make it worthwhile for a publisher to take it from raw first draft to finished, polished product on a store shelf.

This is where self-publishing is pretty amazing but please tread with caution. Research, take advice and spend time finding the perfect fit software or better still, an experienced e-publisher for your precious manuscript, or risk condemning it to the wastelands. Coming out of epublishing are some heartening tales and it can be a clever pathway into print if you enjoy some less expensive electronic success first. If you can demonstrate an eager audience, I promise you that a top print publisher will be banging on your door. And you might also find that traditional publishers, while they may not want to take you into hard copy initially, may well road-test your potential by publishing you in ebooks first. So the potential for you out there is broadening, not contracting, despite the perceived doom and gloom of fewer opportunities in publishing.

So what constitutes commercial fiction with potential to earn?

Well, firstly knowing where you fit – who is your audience and who are their favourite authors? Do you fit neatly among them and does your storytelling play to the expectations of that audience?

Are you catching a wave? Not always essential but oh so very desirable if you’re early enough. Right now for instance rural romance or RuRo if you’re in the know, is smacking them out of the park. I swear if I see another cowboy-hatted girl, wearing gaucho boots and denims, leaning against a fence and sucking a straw I am going to suffer apoplexy in the middle of Adelaide airport. But right now women readers can’t quite get enough of RuRo. It is burning hot and there are some very good writers who’ve suddenly found themselves in the spotlight because they’re writing engaging romance set in country Australia. Catch it if you can.

Meanwhile, if you’re planning to write about vampires then you’ve arguably missed the wave. So for genre writers, my advice is that you craft a story clearly within the solid lines of genre fiction of the kind that never stops selling e.g. crime, romance, epic fantasy, family saga…and historical. That last one that potentially stomps across all genres should appeal unashamedly to women e.g. my recent pair of novels – The Lavender Keeper and The French Promise.
Is there conflict in you story? Are your characters being challenged?

Is your story confident? By that I mean does it stride straight into the action? Can you set the scene immediately in a single paragraph and then fling your reader straight into the story?

Are you a fabulous storyteller? Can you let your characters do the walking and talking? Is your story emotional? Sensory – full of imagery?

Is it written in an easy to read style? No room for pompous, flowery prose in commercial fiction.
Is the action zipping along? Are the characters in motion?

There’s a whole lot more to consider but then this would turn into a workshop and that’s not what I set out to do. I run five-day Masterclasses twice a year on just this subject, so it needs a lot more than this article to tease out the invisible elements that combine to make a potential best seller. However, getting all antsy and artistic is not the answer to solving the genre riddle – the solution is found by diving in, swimming with the mainstream shoal and sticking to the fastest current when writing. And, while the daily grind of being a commercial novelist is demanding, I am having fun at work and that’s one of those intangible elements that contribute strongly to a successfully earning novelist. Enjoying your writing – losing the anxiety in other words – is the oxygen that’s going to boost your stories.
Never feel anything but proud about writing genre fiction. Remind yourself that it’s where the dollars are spent by publishers and especially by the readers. And where the most love is given by your audience … and that there’s room enough for all of us.

So come on, swim in the mainstream that genre fiction has become!

Visit FionaThis article is reprinted with the kind permission of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.