Sunday, May 7, 2017

Is the Kindle glut a genre-specific glut?

A bit of doom and gloom (or at the very least, apprehension) over at KBoards today, as one user notes that the number of Kindle books available on Amazon has roughly doubled in the last three years. 

There are plenty of factors to be considered here. First, there is the fact that writing has always followed a tournament structure, in which a small number of players reap a disproportionate amount of the available rewards. Stephen King and James Patterson, in other words, are not typical. They’re extreme outliers. 

Neither are the indie bestsellers in the Kindle store typical, by the way.  In literature, supply outstrips demand. That has always been the case. Many are called, but few are chosen by the market.

That’s why it has always been hard to make a living as a fiction writer (or, indeed, as any kind of artist). You want job security? Major in accounting or engineering. 

But what about the “indie publishing revolution”? There were a few years—perhaps from 2009 to about 2012—when there was a relative shortage of Kindle books. There were millions of consumers with brand new Kindle devices. They wanted to fill them up. It was a great time to be an indie Kindle author.

The gold rush didn't last. (Gold rushes never do.) The market, in short, is now saturated. It is still possible to make it big as an indie author. But the numbers make discoverability much more difficult.

But back to the doom-and-gloom post over at KBoards, and what might be less a pure Kindle glut, than a glut in particular genres.

Here’s what I mean: When I look at the indie writers who congregate in various places online (like KBoards), I notice that almost all of them tend to write in one of the following genres:

Romance. And I mean romance in all its multitudinous variations. There are paranormal romances, FBI romances, office romances, and…need I go on? There are more varieties of romance than there are species of insects. 

Romance readers are voracious, which counts in the favor of romance writers. Romance fiction, after all, is porn for women. 

But just as the Internet has made it harder to make money on porn for men, so the Internet will eventually make it harder to make money on romance fiction—as it already has. There are a lot of new authors vying for the romance reader nowadays. For many female authors, romance fiction is low-hanging fruit.

Science fiction: About a year ago, Chris Fox popularized the concept of “writing to market”, using military science fiction as his specific example.

Now, the concept of writing to market is a solid one. But since Chris Fox happened to use military science fiction as his example, many of his devotees took him literally, and decided that writing to market meant writing military science fiction, just like Chris Fox did! So now the number of military SF books for sale on Amazon has roughly doubled.

Fantasy: If an indie author isn't writing romance fiction or military science fiction à la Chris Fox, he/she is probably writing some version of fantasy. This includes sword and sorcery in the Tolkien/GRRM tradition, as well urban fantasy. (Oh, and anything to do with elves or dragons!)

Werewolf/zombie/vampire mashups: Does the market really need another sympathetic novel about a vampire who is merely “misunderstood”? Another Twilight knockoff? Or another tale of the zombie apocalypse? How about vampires vs. werewolves? Or vampires vs. werewolves vs. zombies? 

Maybe…But there are an awful lot of those out there already. 

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Please don’t send me an angry email if your heart is set on writing a vampires vs. werewolves novel. I’m just pointing out some trends. And while I’ll never write vampires vs. werewolves, or romance (gag me), I’ll freely admit to you that I’ve put together a rough outline for a military science fiction novel. (I won’t write this one for awhile, though. I plan to wait until all the Chris Fox wannabes have spent their powder and the market is a bit less saturated.)

According to all the experts, the best strategy for indie authors is to go deep into genre fiction. There is probably some truth to that. I can’t see an indie version of Jonathan Franzen getting a lot of traction on Amazon nowadays. And as for an indie Haruki Murakami? Don’t even go there.

But there are other genres besides romance, science fiction, fantasy, and vampire/zombie/werewolf. Here are some genres where you don’t see a lot of indie author activity…at least not yet:

Police procedural: I don’t see many indie authors writing these, unless it involves a romance/paranormal/magic angle. But police procedurals have been very lucrative for traditionally published authors like Michael Connelly and John Sanford. There is room here for indies to compete.

Westerns: Westerns aren’t particularly “hot”; but few ambitious writers have messed with them much for decades. There are a lot of story ideas in the traditional Western that could be revived for a new audience, and told in new ways. (Think: Philipp Meyer’s 2013 neo-western novel, The Son.)

Military: Once again, a qualifier: Few indies are touching this category unless there is an outer space/fantasy element. (I’m not talking about space marines here, in other words.) 

W.E.B. Griffin penned a number of military fiction series that sold very well over the years. Most were set in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. (I particularly liked the Brotherhood of War series.) W.E.B. Griffin soldiers on, pun fully intended. He is now 87 years old, and his books still sell. (His most recent title came out last December.) 

If this genre appeals to you, you might also check out the novels of Jeff Shaara, who is a bit younger.

There is no shortage of compelling stories to be told in this area—especially after nearly two decades of steady U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

Thriller (without a paranormal/outer space angle): Joseph Finder, Clive Cussler, and John Grisham only come out with about a book a year each. There should be opportunities galore here. Where is the indie John Grisham? I ask you. 

Historical (without a paranormal or romance angle!): James Michener’s Poland, Edward Rutherfurd’s Russka. Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon and Richard Sharpe series. The list goes on and on—in traditional publishing, that is. 

Historical fiction is a popular genre for traditional publishing, with almost unlimited story lines. Most of the big names in this field are in their sixties and seventies, so there is room for new talent. 

Oh, and you don’t have to write 1,000-page, phonebook-sized epics, like James Michener so often did. Bernard Cornwell’s novels are standard thriller-length. 

Note: Also peruse the work of the late James Clavell, who wrote historical novels of various lengths that were set in Asia.

I suspect that one reason these genres are underserved is that they’re a bit more difficult to write. To write a credible novel about medieval England, Tokugawa Japan, the U.S. military, or the LAPD, you’ve got to do some research. To write about vampires and office romance, not so much. Nor are you likely to crank a book out every month, as so many romance writers do.

The above suggestions won’t be practical for everyone, of course. I understand that telling a dedicated YA romance author to write military novels instead is a nonstarter. And the results would probably be pretty bad—like if Clive Cussler or W.E.B. Griffin tried to write romance.

These are only a few examples that occurred to me, almost at random. The above list is by no means exhaustive. 

The takeaway here is not that you have to write police procedurals or westerns. The takeaway is that while it’s sometimes fun to ride a bandwagon, the wagon moves slower as more people jump aboard it. 

Sometimes it’s better to find a wagon that no one is riding yet.