It’s no secret that Linda Gillard is one of my favourite authors. Her novel, House of Silence, is one of my top 5 favourite books of all time, and it was an article about her in a 2011 edition of Writing Magazine that inspired me to self-publish. Today, I’m delighted to share with you Linda’s thoughts on genre. Why this is so especially interesting to me is, I am currently in the position of wondering whether to focus on one particular type of book (commercial women’s fiction, with a light romantic comedy feel) or whether to continue to branch out, exploring all the ideas that appeal to me, in the hope that readers will forgive me and come along for the ride. Anyway, enough from me. Let’s hear from Linda herself …
Linda, you’ve said that your seven novels belong to no clear genre and you’ve made no secret of the fact that you parted company with your publisher over the issue of how to market them.
The problem was my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE. My editor claimed if I didn’t re-write it as a romance, they wouldn’t know how to market it. My previous novel, STAR GAZING had been shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year, so the obvious thing to do was promote me as a romantic novelist. But I’m not. HOUSE OF SILENCE was a family story with a mystery at its heart. The love story was subsidiary, so it was a very different book from STAR GAZING, a completely different genre.
So if you’re not a romantic novelist, what sort of novelist are you?
I don’t know, but I do know I’m easily bored. I’ve written a three-generation 20thC family saga, a country house mystery, two ghost stories and three love stories where either the hero or heroine is disabled or mentally ill – so not exactly romances. Three of those novels are literary fiction, but I’d describe the others as commercial women’s fiction (though some of my best reviews have come from men.)
So as you can see, I’m a marketing department’s nightmare!
Nevertheless, since you went indie you’ve become very successful! How did you overcome the so-called ‘marketing problems’?
By ignoring them. By refusing to believe that selling fiction is all about genre. It isn’t. It’s about story and if the stories are good enough, publishing success will eventually be about the storyteller because readers are prepared to buy whatever you write.
In the 1970s bestselling Mary Stewart turned from writing romantic suspense to Arthurian fiction. She took me and millions with her because we trusted the storyteller. Now, when a traditionally published author wants to change genres, s/he has to have a new name or insert an initial in the old one, like Iain M Banks. But mostly publishers don’t allow authors to change genre. It’s deemed commercial suicide.
But I like to write different kinds of books, so when I went indie, I decided to promote myself, not the genre. And it’s worked.
That was a brave move, and one I find particularly heartening.
Some would say foolhardy! But I was listening to my readers and following my heart.
Years ago, when I was promoting my first novel at a library event, I asked the audience if they preferred an author’s books to be similar. Were publishers right to tell authors to stick to a successful formula? These readers were unanimous in their rejection of that marketing philosophy. One woman said, “I don’t want to read the same story over and over, but I do want to hear the same voice.”
That remark gave me the courage to believe that a voice could be as interesting as what it’s saying. I thought perhaps I could persuade readers to buy different kinds of books if they liked the way I told a story.
I think that’s how readers work. They looking for authors to fall in love with. When they find one, they want to read everything s/he’s written and at indie prices, they can afford to do that.
That’s such an interesting point! In fact, it’s stopped me in my tracks – a real ‘Aha’ moment. There are some authors (I won’t name) whose books I’ve enjoyed, but then I stopped enjoying them because they are very samey. And what I love about your books, I think, is your unique way of looking at the world. Which kind of proves your point.
Do you think readers care about genre? I said in the intro that I was concerned about focus – so far I’ve branched out into contemporary mysteries, and I have a couple of novels coming up which are a lot grittier than my previous romantic comedies, and a few kind-of thrillers planned. Should it be a concern?
Time and again readers have told me they don’t care about genre. For them it’s all about the story or the characters. I know what they mean. As a young woman I was a big fan of Margaret Forster. I wasn’t concerned with genre. I trusted Forster to deliver a rattling good yarn, whether it was a family drama, historical fiction or even a memoir.
So in genre terms, what’s the biggest leap of faith you’ve asked your readers to make?
My sixth novel, THE GLASS GUARDIAN. It’s a contemporary love story, but the hero’s a ghost. And it’s not like GHOST, the movie. The hero in TGG has been dead for almost a hundred years.
How did your fans react? (I know how I reacted – I loved it! There is a scene in that book that stands out in my mind as one of the best written scenes I’ve ever read.)
Some weren’t too happy about the idea in advance, but there are now a lot of favourable Amazon reviews, some describing the book as “paranormal romance for people who don’t like paranormal romance”!
Do you think if you were still traditionally published, you’d be writing the books you’re writing now?
I wouldn’t be allowed to. To retain a publisher I would have to conform to rigid genre conventions which in my view stifle creativity. When I was looking for a new publisher, my agent told me I wouldn’t be able to sell UNTYING THE KNOT because the cracked-up soldier hero is central in the story. According to the genre police, the heroine must always dominate women’s fiction. Well, who knew?…
(Ah, Linda – you’ll never know how good this is for my writing soul.) So going indie has allowed you to write the mixed-genre books you want to write?
Yes. I’m in the unusual and fortunate position now where I can write what I like and know there will be a market for it. My readers will buy the book, not because it’s a paranormal romance or a saga or a psychological drama, but because I wrote it.
I know that sounds insufferably smug, but since going indie I’ve acquired reviews that say, in so many words, “This is the first book of Gillard’s that I’ve read and I’ve since downloaded all her others.” Someone reviewed me on Amazon saying she’d read all seven novels in two months. That’s someone buying a voice, not a genre.
Do you think successful traditionally published authors could take their readers with them into new genre territories? Of course, you need a particularly engaging voice to do so, which not everyone has.
I’m sure they could and many have, but editors (who have to follow the dictates of the marketing men) don’t like it, so it’s discouraged. But this is where indie authors score. We can take risks. We can mix genres and create new ones. We can see if readers of literary fiction will swallow a romantic ghost story. They will!
It’s a brave new book world out there now and we’ve discovered that readers are far more open-minded and adventurous than publishers give them credit for.
Thanks so much, Linda. You’ve given me – and I’m sure lots of readers – much to think about. And for anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Linda’s fantastic novels, please give them a try. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Linda Gillard lives in the Scottish Highlands. She is the author of seven novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and HOUSE OF SILENCE, selected by Amazon UK as one of their Top Ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category.
Amazon UK page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Linda-Gillard/e/B0034PV6ZQ/
Amazon US page: http://www.amazon.com/Linda-Gillard/e/B0034PV6ZQ/