Switching Genres – Peter Grant
I’ve just had the fun of publishing my first Western novel. In the process, I’m learning a lot about marketing across different genres and categories, and its implications for success.
‘Brings The Lightning’ is a considerable departure from my earlier science fiction novels, plus one volume of memoir; but there are also similarities. Someone – I have no idea who – is alleged to have said that “Space opera is Westerns with rayguns”. Sounds reasonable to me, particularly in the light of my Laredo War trilogy, which explicitly begins on a planet named Laredo where old-fashioned Western-style chemical firearms are deployed in the very first chapter! There’s even (according to Wikipedia) a literary genre known as ‘Space Westerns’. I’d never heard the term until I started researching this article, but there you are.
I got into the Western genre through three different, but mutually supportive avenues. The first is that I was born and raised in South Africa. Its history is not unlike that of the United States in terms of internal expansion. The USA saw the opening of the Western frontier through early settlers and the so-called ‘Mountain Men’ in the first half of the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, emigration to the west accelerated and expanded, so that by the end of the century the west was no longer wild, but settled.
In South Africa, internal expansion was to the east, not the west, and was driven by resentment among the Boers (descendants of the original Dutch settlers) against British colonial policies, including freeing the slaves. However, whereas in the USA settlers and emigrants overwhelmed the resident Native American tribes by sheer weight of numbers, in South Africa the opposite was true. White settlers never amounted to more than 10% of the total population of the country, and were usually a far smaller minority in the frontier regions.
The inevitable wars between settlers and native tribes were decided by the superiority of firearms over primitive local weaponry, and by a xenophobic racism fueled by a strict, ill-educated and very primitive Calvinism. The Boers regarded black Africans as the Biblical children of Ham, and therefore subject to the so-called (and mis-named) ‘Curse of Ham’. They were regarded as divinely predestined to be in perpetual subjugation to the white race. (This, in turn, went on to form the often unspoken underpinnings of the later policy of apartheid.) Having grown up studying in school the history of colonial expansion into the African interior, and the wars with native tribes that were thus engendered, it was natural for me to see the parallels between it and white expansion into the interior of the USA.
This was reinforced by the second avenue by which I came to the genre: reading Western novels during my youth, and particularly during my military service, where they were endemic in army camps, barracks and other installations. The latter was frequently frustrating, because a book would become so tattered and worn through being handed around that the first and last few pages would often go missing. One might find a particularly engrossing tale, only to be left in ignorance of how it ended until one could get one’s hands on another, intact copy at the next base and learn how things unfolded.
The third element in my interest in the Western genre was moving to the USA in the 1990’s, and being able to see many of the places mentioned in the books for the first time. Frontier towns such as Dodge City and Abilene were no longer just names, but places I could actually visit. Exotic-sounding locales like Tucumcari (used to good effect by Sergio Leone in his ‘spaghetti Western’ movies) and Taos (infamous for its eponymous bootleg alcohol) were no longer all that exotic, but every bit as dusty and beat-down as the histories described them. I renewed my acquaintance with Westerns from the benefit of that new perspective, and enjoyed them all the more.
The big question for a writer (and, in the case of my new book, the small press that’s published it) is: how does one reach readers in a genre where one hasn’t previously written? I note from initial sales that the book is popular with readers of my blog, and the shared Mad Genius Club writers’ blog, and other books from my publisher. However, despite using categories and keywords typical of the genre, it doesn’t seem to be attracting much attention – yet – from ‘regular’ Western aficionados. That’s not surprising, given that most of them don’t know it exists yet; but what channels should be used to inform them? The genre’s been moribund for so long that it’s hard to think of a commercial outlet that will reach them.
One avenue I’m going to explore is the shooting community. The sport of Cowboy Action Shooting is very popular, and the various organizations involved have their own Web sites, forums and newsletters. Since I’m a shooter, and I’ve striven for authenticity in my descriptions of the weapons involved, there might be a natural tie-in there. I’m also going to talk to the Western Writers of America about potential marketing outlets. If anyone knows that market, I guess they will.
Finally, I’m going to have to learn to fine-tune my Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Choosing categories and keywords for the book is an important part of marketing, and knowledge in one area (such as science fiction) doesn’t necessarily carry over to another, like Westerns. My wife and I made an initial study of that area, but we’ll have to analyze closely who’s getting to my new book, and in what way. We’ll look to reinforce avenues that are proving fruitful, and modify or replace those that aren’t bringing in new readers.
This will be a long-term effort, because the picture doesn’t remain static. For example, who could have predicted, twenty years ago, that changing tastes would put ‘Mail Order Bride’-themed books – which in the past were considered to belong to the romance rather than the Western genre – squarely in the Western category on Amazon.com today, and well up in its bestseller lists? Being a traditionalist, I think that’s nothing less than heresy, but I’m sure the modern fans of those books regard that as the opinion of an unreconstructed stick-in-the-mud. Oh, well… just as long as they don’t expect me to write one!