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/
May 26, 2014 at 9:05 am
What a lovely interview! And it’s so topical right now in my own circles. The question of genre vs writer has been asked many times recently, so I’m really glad I can reference this piece with proof that it’s not about the genre, but about the author. Thank you!
May 26, 2014 at 5:35 pm
Thanks Cole, and thanks for the reblog too 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 9:06 am
I loved reading this. It echoed all my thoughts about the subject – thanks, Jo and Linda! Although not at your level, Linda, I have all the same ‘problems’ – I write about relationships, not romance, and sometimes the central characters are male, too… I have been told many times that I have ‘a genre of my own’ – ask Jo, she’s read lots of mine! I’ve just gone from contemporary women’s fiction to a 20th century family saga, and my novella to come out next month will have a ghost in it…. honestly, reading this has really given me confidence about something I wasn’t sure about. Thank you!
I must read one of yours before too long – I will let Jo recommend!
May 26, 2014 at 10:18 am
Terry, I wish there was another genre – “Relationship novels”. Actually I think this is one of the most popular genres, but no one gives it a name!
I’m glad you found my interview with Jo encouraging. As writers we should listen less to editors & marketing depts., more to readers, bloggers and intelligent reviewers. They are the ones buying the books and they know what they’re looking for. But having said that, I still think we should write the book of our heart, the one *we* want to read. I wanted to find out if I could write a ghost love story. (I was fairly sure I couldn’t!) It turns out I could. So then I wrote another. Now some fans are actually asking me for another paranormal.
Readers are looking for quality reads among the indie dross. We should aim to make our names the literary version of M & S or John Lewis – a by-word for reliable quality products & dependable service. 😉
May 26, 2014 at 10:29 am
LInda, I couldn’t agree more – ‘relationship novels’ may not be as huge as bad chick lit, but it’s getting there! They’re mostly hidden under such categories as contemporary women’s fiction and romantic suspense, alas. You’re so right about writing the novel you want to write – I am so often asked why I ‘chose this genre’ – but I didn’t choose any genre, I write the novel I want to then worry about where to stick it! My 4th book, Dream On, had a male main character and didn’t do as well for me, but it actually has the best reviews of all of mine, apart from the most recent; and I found some more male readers, too! I wasn’t dissuaded by the people who said I ‘shouldn’t have had a male main character’, and wrote the sequel too; one and a half years later, Dream On is doing better! I WAS worried about the paranormal thing, but happily it’s starting to come together now – and will be continuing with it with renewed vigour after reading this piece!
Nodding my head for a third about your last paragraph – a lady after my own heart. It’s why I like to bring other very good books to people’s notice – sadly, they’re often the ones that don’t sell so well, but the whole ‘indie’ thing is still so much in its infancy, and I am (maybe a tad idealistically) hoping that the good may rise to the surface 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 5:37 pm
Thanks Terry. You and Linda are similar – you both march to the beat of your own drum, and I think readers love you both all the more for it. I’d recommend any and all of Linda’s books, but I started with House of Silence so that’s what I’d recommend first too 🙂 x
May 27, 2014 at 8:09 am
Thanks! Okay, that’s the one I’ll get, then 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 9:06 am
Reblogged this on words~pictures~music and commented:
If – like me – you’re on the cusp of releasing something awesome, but are asking yourself whether you should commit to one genre for the rest of your life, read this! Wow – I’m so inspired!
May 26, 2014 at 9:38 am
Yep, it’s about the story and the voice. This is why we all buy books, whether we realise it or not. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, but some historical authors leave me cold; for others, I rush to buy what they’ve written even without reading the blurb. I know it will be good read.
May 26, 2014 at 5:39 pm
Thanks Alison. An interesting question for you – following the success of your current alternative history series, do you think you’ll ever write in a different genre?
May 26, 2014 at 10:26 am
Very heartening and encouraging to those of us who walk a similar path!
Story and voice.
Brilliant. Thank you and very good luck.
May 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm
Thanks for your comment, Viv 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 11:43 am
Oh excellent! Rousing cheers! In genre terms I have sinned most extravagantly. My first novel is a reincarnation story + odd romance + unusual fantasy + women’s fiction. My second is a horse story + dystopia + pastoral future + commentary on social media. Editors told me this was wrong, wrong, wrong. Readers adore their quirkiness, variety and originality.
Carry on blazing the trail, Linda. Carry on writing posts like this – and books that confirm you’re right.
May 26, 2014 at 1:49 pm
Roz, if there were any awards going for multiplicity of genre, I think you’d be on the shortlist. 😉
I’d like to quote a few lines from my 1st novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY. The bipolar textile artist heroine lives on a bleak and remote Hebridean island and here she’s beachcombing in February and discussing the landscape with the hero…
‘It’s so beautiful here, it makes me ache! Even on a day like this… the space, the scale… Oh, I can’t describe it!’ She lets down a cascade of hair. ‘And you certainly can’t photograph it.’
‘Aye, you really need a wide-angle lens.’
She rakes the dunes with narrowed eyes, then stares out to sea. ‘Actually, I think you need a wide-angle mind…’
Authors have wide-angle minds. We see the big picture. We see that everything is connected. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would expect writers to write or readers to read books that are grossly simplified versions of the lives we all live. By all means try to *improve* on life with escapist fiction, but simplify?! Why? What would be the point of that?
May 26, 2014 at 8:36 pm
Linda, I love that phrase: the wide-angle mind. I shall use that – attributed of course.
The connections we make create our artistic identity. Your connections will not be the same as mine, and that’s great. That lets us express and explore what we feel about the human condition. The traditional publishing world seems to have forgotten how to value the original.
May 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Some authors have resolved the problem by adopting one or more pen names to use for different genres. But of course their fans suss them out. As Linda says so well (well yes, she tends to say everything well!), “[it’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.”
Personally I find it all very frustrating, especially the current trend to place books in the Young Adult section to capture the hot market there, even if the books are – to me, at any rate, clearly adult books, or at least, cross-market. But I also agree that many readers are fairly savvy and can figure these things out, in spite of the worst efforts of marketers and publishers to sabotage the whole process!
May 26, 2014 at 2:53 pm
Jill, you’ve put your finger on one of the things that bugged me when I was traditionally published – the sense that publishers (or their marketing people) were coming between my books and their readers. How did we manage before there were bloggers to tell us about all the books that didn’t have huge marketing budgets, books that weren’t stocked in the local book shop or were out of print?
Book bloggers are a big part of the brave new publishing world. They’ve shown readers just how much variety is out there and they’ve given authors much needed encouragement. Bloggers became our champions and “go-betweens”, mediating our books for readers.
Indie authors have tapped into the curiosity and insatiable appetite stimulated by book bloggers and now we write for *readers*, not editors or marketing men.
May 26, 2014 at 5:47 pm
It’s interesting that this brilliant interview came together at the same time as I read a post about Bella Andre and Barbara Freethy’s top tips for success – two hugely successful indie authors in the US (who were both previously trad-published too). I’m reporting third-hand here, but they both said that if you write in different genres you should use different names for each genre, and write 5 or 6 books in one genre before switching. (Link to Liz Harris’s great post here: http://www.lizharrisauthor.com/?tag=bella-andre-barbara-freethy-london-book-fair)
My heart sunk when I read this because I know in my heart-of-hearts I will want to try my hand at different genres/styles of writing before I settle on one – if I settle! And I also know that I don’t do well with the idea of pseudonyms. I could probably stretch to J.G.Phillips, or even at a push Jo Phillips, but nothing else 😉
And as you say, reader figure it out anyway and in the end it must make more work for the writer – having to run one author platform is hard enough!
May 27, 2014 at 8:08 am
Ladies, what a popular post – every time I look at my email there are more comments! I posted it on Twitter yesterday, and saw that a couple of other people had too. Anyway, Jo, that’s most interesting what you just said about 5/6 and pen names. Earlier, I took a look at a writer I was a bit pally with when I first started all this, who has published 5 books in 4 different genres. I knew about two, was surprised to see a 1920s cosy mystery enter the arena! The two of the same genre sell, the others don’t – and I’m talking 200K in the Amazon ratings ‘don’t’. I don’t know how your different ones do because I don’t examine your author page!!!! – but I can see what those two highly successful ladies mean. I think Linda’s still get read by all her usual readers (as do mine, though I have less regular readers!!!), because they’re not a genre switch, but incorporating other elements into her ‘relationships’ books (same as I do).
I think even with the most successful people, a big switch is inadvisable. Susan Howatch, one of my favourite authors ever, wrote Penmarric, Cashelmara and 3 others – wonderful historic sagas. Then she suddenly changed to religious thrillers. Big dive. I stopped reading her; I think many others did, too.
May 26, 2014 at 4:27 pm
This is so interesting to me, Linda, as I had kind of decided that I should be writing genre fiction to really succeed in writing novels. But reading this has opened my eyes to the fact that what’s important to readers is the authorial voice and not necessarily the genre. Thank you for such helpful advice. 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm
You’re very welcome, Elaine. When I was dropped by my publisher some years ago I felt as if I was out in the wilderness, trying to work out what to do next. How could I get back in the game? I’d published 3 novels, I’d won awards, but my agent told me my best chance of finding a new publisher was to write a “debut” novel under a pseudonym! (It’s easier to market a “stunning debut novel” than “the latest reliably entertaining read from your old favourite, X”.) Humiliating, but I was prepared to it.
I started writing a paranormal novel because paranormal was big. If I couldn’t sell a paranormal, it was surely time to throw in the towel. But my paranormal didn’t come out right. My heroine wasn’t young (42), my setting wasn’t urban (Isle of Skye), there were no extended sex scenes and my hero was no buff alpha male but the ghost of a traumatised, 100-year old Highland soldier who quoted Milton.
So I told my agent to give up trying to find a publisher for THE GLASS GUARDIAN. I knew she never would. Despite my efforts to conform, I was *still* flouting genre conventions and I knew if editors asked me to re-write, I wouldn’t. I thought my book was fine as it stood. Just different.
So I published TGG myself. It’s been one of my most successful books in terms of both sales and reviews. And I think it might be the only paranormal romance on Amazon without a naked male torso adorning the cover. 😉
May 26, 2014 at 4:53 pm
I don’t know how to edit my comment, but I just wanted to clarify: the hero of TGG has been dead for a 100 years. He isn’t actually 100. Even I don’t bend the rules that much!
May 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm
Hi Linda, thanks for such a lovely response to my comment. It’s so interesting and helpful to hear more from you about your writing. Last September I published my debut novel ‘The Inheritance’ on Amazon Kindle. It’s a story that’s not very easy to categorise – family saga would probably be the best description for it – and to be honest with you, it hasn’t done very well!
So for my current novel that I’m editing and hope to publish later this year, I’ve stuck to romance as my theme. This is pretty much the story I wanted to tell anyway, so I’m not entirely deliberately switching genres. But I’ve been given advice that it’s a good idea to write to a specific genre with fiction. It’s certainly refreshing to hear you say otherwise.
In many ways I feel that ultimately I want to write what I want to write. I don’t want to be pigeon holed. The flip side is that I want to be successful and so I don’t want to write novels that no one’s going to read! I think perhaps it’s a bit of a juggling act between writing what we want and writing something that people are going to want to read.
May 26, 2014 at 4:28 pm
Reblogged this on Elaine Jeremiah and commented:
This article is so inspiring and informative. Check it out!
May 26, 2014 at 6:00 pm
Thanks for all the great comments everyone, and thanks too to Linda for taking the time to answer. I want to add my thoughts to this – some of these excellent points have really sparked off some interesting realisations.
I’m currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at MMU, and one thing I can tell you is that there has been very little talk of genre on my course. We looked at Benjamin Black’s foray into the genre of crime fiction (the pen name of literary writer John Banville), and that was as far as the topic extended. All the focus, in the reading novels modules and in the workshop modules, has been on story and voice. As a creative enterprise, writing the story you feel passionately about has to be the most important factor, because that passion will show through to the reader.
Of course, if your passion and vision fall neatly into one genre you could perhaps be considered very lucky! In my view there’s nothing wrong with genre fiction. But trying to ‘fit’ your writing style into one is rarely successful. After completing Can’t Live Without, I attempted a Jodi Picoult-esque ‘issue-based’ type of novel. It was a bit poor, to be honest, and fell completely flat even to my eyes. Emulating other authors is a non-starter, as is trying to fit your natural voice and style into a category that’s not authentically ‘you’. Like Terry and Linda, I wish there was a ‘relationship’ genre for the kind of books I like to read, and like to write – maybe one day there will be 🙂
May 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm
Or perhaps you could invent the ‘relationship’ genre for the books you like. If you don’t, someone else will…eventually.
I loved this post and all comments! I think this is one more plus for being an Indie author. You CAN choose to write the book you want to write.
Publish it yourself and move on to the next one. Hurray! 🙂
May 27, 2014 at 8:32 am
Indeedy! The old dictotomy: publishers are always looking for a ”fresh voice” and then telling it they want the same old same old”. Marketing depts are lazy beasts, in my opinion (and I’ve been published by OUP and Usborne). So are agents, as one of your commentators observes. My ex-agent discarded my novel as it was ”unpublishable” (translate: out of the reliable format) It was picked up by Crooked Cat, published as ”Diamonds & Dust”, has been up for 3 awards and has amazing sales figures. But it is hard to stick to one’s guns in the face of ”persuasion”.