Thursday, March 26, 2009


I've thought for a while that a big chunk of marketing (pimping, promoting, whatever you want to call it) is about managing expectations. Recently the universe has been dropping this concept onto my head like a series of anvils -- in a review of a book which wasn't quite what the reviewer was expecting, although she liked it anyway; in a couple of blog discussions about badly-researched historicals; and in a review I did recently for my publisher -- so before I go completely comatose from the multiple concussions, I thought I should talk about it.

About twenty years ago, I was a huge Alan Dean Foster fan; I always looked for anything new by him when I browsed the SF/Fantasy shelves at the bookstore. One day I saw a new book of his called Maori. It was set in 19th century New Zealand, which I'd barely heard of at the time, and it sounded interesting. I'd read a few historical fantasies before and this one seemed new and different, so I bought it and read it. And all through the story I was waiting for the "fantasy" part to begin. And waiting, and waiting and waiting. After a few hundred pages I'd gotten kind of annoyed. After all, if this was a historical fantasy, then the "real" plotline probably couldn't have begun until we actually, like, saw something magical, right? Well, the writer seemed to be taking a horribly long time to get on with it already, and then I got to the end and he never had.

Of course, it wasn't a historical fantasy -- it was straight historical fiction. It was a good historical, but it wasn't what I'd expected, so I spent the entire time I was reading it waiting and waiting, getting more and more annoyed and confused, and despite its being a good book, I didn't enjoy reading it because my expectations had been set up for a different experience.

My expectations had been based on a few things. First, it was Alan Dean Foster. I'd never known him to write anything before which wasn't SF or fantasy, so it seemed reasonable that this was too. Second, it was shelved in the SF/Fantasy section of the bookstore, which is usually a pretty good hint as to a book's genre. Third, the cover had the words "The epic historical fantasy of the year!" printed on it. So I don't feel too bad about making this mistake. [wry smile]

In this case, a good book -- and once I was finished, I could look back at the book and acknowledge that yes, it'd been a good story and well-written -- was ruined for me because the marketing led me to expect oranges and then gave me carrots. They're similar -- they're both produce, they're the same color, and they can both be described as "sweet" -- but when I'm set up to judge a product by its orange-ness, carrots are always going to fall short.

Some historical romance fans don't know and don't care that Arthurian-era Britons didn't use forks to eat, or that Arthur's knights wouldn't have worn full plate armor. They're just looking for a fun romp they can enjoy while kicking back with popcorn, they don't want to think too much, and what's fun for them is reading about two hot people having adventures and sex in cool costumes (and no, the women in that period didn't wear hoopskirts either) and maybe a couple of sword fights. Too much historical authenticity can actually be a turn-off for these folks; they've gotten their ideas about what the Middle Ages or King Arthur's Court are like from Hollywood and they don't want to be slapped in the face with the grim, dirty, flea-ridden reality of it.

Other historical romance fans are history buffs, or even have degrees in the subject. Having your Regency lady wearing her gloves at an inappropriate time will have them rolling their eyes and writing snarky blog posts. Describing your character as a Florentine Guelph and then showing him cheering the Emperor (unless of course he's trying to get close enough to slip that dagger between his ribs) would probably get your authorial persona burned in effigy. (And even without the flames, there'll be more snarky blog posts.) To a dedicated history fan, details are important, and you always have to assume you have readers who know more than you do, so you need to do your research and be thorough about it, and careful to get things right. Perfection is unattainable, of course, but it should always be your goal if you want to satisfy this group of readers.

Both kinds of books have their audience; each kind is preferred by some people and rejected by others. This is good news for authors who like writing one or the other type, but only if you make it clear what you're writing, so the readers who'd enjoy your book know that it is the kind they prefer. If you fool someone who likes rigorous historicals into buying your popcorn historical, you get their money that one time, but they're left with a negative experience associated with your name. There's a good chance they'll never buy another one of your books, even if you later start writing rigorous historicals. And they might feel iffy about your publisher, too.

Which isn't at all unfair, because much of the responsibility for marketing the book rests with the publisher, especially if it's one of the larger New York houses. If you're writing a popcorn historical and your publisher gives it serious art, and writes the cover copy to emphasize the sweep of historical events rather than the sex, adventure and humor which are its real strengths, the writer is pretty much hosed right along with the readers.

The problem isn't always a matter of overt marketing, though. Some writers or publishers become known for certain things; if 90% of the books published under a given label have romance plots, then readers will come to expect romance from those books. Even if a book doesn't have "The epic romance of the year!" printed on its cover [cough] if every other book a person has read by that writer or that publisher has been romantic, then they'll probably expect the next one to be romantic too. If it's not, then there's a good chance that reader will be disappointed, even if the book was excellent for what it was. When this kind of exception to a rule -- even an unspoken one -- is made, it's good for everyone, writer, readers and publishers alike, for the readers to have some way of knowing in advance just what they're getting. If they're set up for a genre romance and they don't get one, they're likely to be disappointed and annoyed. If they're set up for a mystery or an adventure or whatever the book is, they're more likely to enjoy the story because they're not waiting and waiting for the romance while they read, or left disappointed at the end when the main characters shrug and wander apart.

If you're selling carrots, make sure your sign says "CARROTS" in large, easily-read letters. Make it clear to the orange lovers that you're not selling oranges, market specifically to people who love carrots instead, and your customers will be happy. If you want to tap into the orange-lover market, get some oranges to sell; don't try to slip them carrots and hope for the best.

Which seems to be what Mr. Foster's publisher tried to do, twenty years ago. They knew his main audience was SF and fantasy fans, so they put "Fantasy!" on the cover of Maori, and the bookstores put it on the SF/Fantasy shelves. It went out of print pretty quickly; I don't know how well it sold, but I've never gotten the impression that it was a fan favorite. And that's a shame, because it deserves to be a favorite of the kind of readers who are fans of historical novels. Even if some bookstores put a few copies over on the Historical shelves, chances are anyone who preferred straight historicals would've avoided it because of the "historical fantasy" text on the cover. Mr. Foster and his book were screwed from both sides.

Looking at a list of all his published books, I just realized that after I read Maori was when I backed away from Alan Dean Foster's work. I still bought some of his books, but I was more likely to stick with series books I already knew I liked, and less likely to pick up his single-title books. He'd been on my buy-on-sight list before that point, and after that I no longer trusted that I'd always enjoy his work. I didn't even consciously realize it at the time; it's only now, looking at the timeline, that I see what I did and when. So whoever made the marketing decisions about Maori lost me as one of Mr. Foster's raving fans, one of the people who bought everything with his name on it. After that, I was only a regular fan, someone who bought his books occasionally. I wonder whether Ace thinks getting my $4.50 for Maori was worth that loss?

What really annoys me is that if it'd been marketed as the historical novel it was, I'd probably have bought it anyway, enjoyed it, and kept buying all of Mr. Foster's books. That's my loss as well as theirs.



Charles Gramlich said...

You've hit a lot of nails on the head here. I've done the same thing with writers as you did with Foster. Read one book that didn't fit my wants or expectations and then be cautious about any others.

Marketing is just an insane proposition to me. I really don't understand it and I do think that bad marketing, putting that phrase "Historical fantasy" on Maori, for example, is worse than no marketing.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I completely agree about this. It's misrepresentation and the expectation can and will ruin an experience no matter how good the product was - just because you expected something else.

Steve Malley said...

I was thinking about this the other day too, though I have to admit, not as cogently. :)

A friend was putting down William Gibson, for similar reasons to those you gave for Maori. Over the last decade, Gibson's made a gradual transition from hard SF to techno-thrillers to what one might argue are just plain modern thrillers.

He's willingly lost those readers who want razor-blade fingers and chips that plug into your skull. He had to, to go deeper into his exploration of the strange ways technologies change us all.

Sticking him on the SF/F shelves, as so many bookstores do, seems wrong. The cyberpunk crowd are confused and disappointed, and he's hidden from those who like a solid, beautifully written technothriller.

I like the way you said it better!

Angie said...

Charles -- thanks. And I agree about bad marketing being worse than no marketing. Especially for an established writer like Foster, that ridiculous statement on the cover of the book hurt him permanently, probably with a lot more of his fans than just me, and I doubt it helped him at all.

Ello -- exactly. [nod] If I'd known it was a straight historical novel from the beginning, I'd have enjoyed it much more.

Steve -- thanks. :)

I didn't know Gibson had made that switch, but I've seen a few other writers do it too, and still be shelved in their old genre section, with similar results. :/ Maybe the answer is to always start over with a new pseud when you clearly switch genres. I can see wanting to take advantage of an existing fanbase, especially for the bigger-name writers, but if you just end up making them mad? In Foster's case, Maori was a one-time thing, but if someone's actually changing formats and plans to camp in the new genre for a while, establishing a new identity for it would seem like a viable option. Even if it's incredibly similar to your old name -- Al D. Foster? [grin] -- it'd at least make people stop and try to figure out what's different.

The other option, of course, is to keep the same pseud but clearly mark the new books so it's obvious that they're a different genre, or subgenre or whatever. That doesn't seem to be an option for some publishers, though. :P


laughingwolf said...

gotta say i concur with those who posted before me... there are some i've boycotted for the same 'reasons'

Lana Gramlich said...

"the marketing led me to expect oranges and then gave me carrots"

I hear this--and it's so completely pervasive in our culture. It inspired me to come up with an art idea that would merely involve setting up & turning on a TV with "Everything seen & heard here is a lie," painted across the top or bottom of the screen.

Angie said...

LW -- it's got to be pretty blatantly deliberate before I'll actively boycott (I assume that in the case of Maori it was the publisher rather than the writer who was responsible for the marketing bungle) but I'll definitely be more careful with my book money and reading time. [nod]

Lana -- that'd work. :D Or maybe a photo or painting of Madison Avenue, with "Everything which comes from here is a lie," or something similar. That's really what's so frustrating to me, that they focus so much on getting your money right now, for this sale, that they aren't thinking about long-term customers. If you get me to spend my money on this product here, but then I'm disappointed and annoyed enough to deliberately not buy your next six products, how is that good business. :/