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31 January 2010 @ 04:14 pm
I Am My Own Fairy Godmother: Going From POD to Published--A Cinderella Story  
[Second essay]

Part 2. Happily Ever After? Genre or Literary?

In Part One, I talked about how the recent rise in POD (print-on-demand) DIY publishing had made it possible for today’s Cinderella authors to get to the ball on our own, without waiting for the fairy godmother of an agent or publisher. But once we’re there, how do we find our collective prince, our readers?

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, my m/m/f ménage story released by HarperCollins in 2008, was sold, and shelved, as general fiction, not as romance. Nevertheless, segments of the romance community embraced PBP for its originality, and I was invited to speak at a conference on romance fiction at Princeton University. When, in a delirium of excitement, I announced my news to a neighbor, her reaction was worthy of the meanest of stepsisters: How did it feel, she wanted to know, to be celebrated as a rising star in a field notorious for bad writing?

Wonderful! I said.

Her question, whatever its motivation, was based on an accepted “truth.” Fiction, in the standard view, is divided into High and Low, Literary and Genre. Literary has the prestige but, apart from a few famous exceptions, poor sales; genre fiction gets by quite happily on filthy lucre alone. Taken altogether, the genre with the worst reputation for quality has the highest sales: romance, in all its permutations—historical, contemporary, paranormal, Western, erotic and Regency—outsells all other categories.

At last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, a panel of esteemed if lesser-known literary authors led a bitter discussion. One spoke of still needing the economic security of a demanding academic career despite having published a number of critically acclaimed novels, some of which sold no more than 1500 copies. Low Sales for High Culture was damned as the culprit, and the F-bomb was dropped—quoting an agent—regarding the public library's free lending, which results in multiple nonpaying readers for every copy it buys. Nobody on the panel or in the audience agreed with or approved of the statement; the quotation was offered as evidence of the desperation of publishers in the face of diminishing sales.

One of my goals in writing PBP was to bridge what I saw as this artificial divide. I hoped to write within the form of the romance novel, while appealing to readers of many genres—or none. Not so long ago, fiction had a respectable middle, between the Literary High and the Genre Low, works of general fiction that, while not bestsellers, sold steadily over the years, providing a reliable income for their authors and publishers—the midlist.

Nowadays book marketing is all about finding the right niche. If a work isn't “literary” it must fit into a recognizable category. Bisexual romance? Target the LGBT media. Chick lit? Women’s magazines. There’s no point in trying to sell a Jane Austen sequel to James Patterson fans, after all. Writers now do much of their own publicity online, banding together by subgenre in blogging communities devoted to “cross-promotion.”

But so far, I haven’t found a good fit for my mix of comedy, pastiche and m/m/f love. I suspect my niche, if there is one, consists of a slice of every niche out there. My readers come from every category and subcategory I can think of, and my greatest asset, what got me noticed in the first place, is my uniqueness.

In most versions of Cinderella, the heroine wins her prince not because of her good housekeeping, but because of her beauty and innate nobility, symbolized by her small feet. She prevails because of who she is (a princess displaced or wronged), not for what she does (kitchen chores). To quote from Wikipedia: “The word ‘cinderella’ has, by analogy, come to mean one whose attributes are unrecognised, or one who unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect.” This is the aspect of my Cinderella story that has thrilled me more than anything: that sense of being recognized for my intrinsic good qualities—my writing—beneath the ash-covered rags of the POD, rather than for any aptitude at the drudgery of marketing and promotion.

The real revolution brought about by the rise of POD “self-publishing” may be a redefinition of success. A writer like me, with no agent, no MFA and no connections to the literary establishment, could not have been published at all in the recent past. Now I’m in print, on bookstore shelves, however briefly, but with a below-minimum advance and little or no in-house publicity. In today’s world of PODs and e-books, if we’re all potential Cinderellas, we’re also somebody’s stepsisters, and many of us are only too happy to settle for Prince Charming’s younger brother, or his valet. For me, though, it's more of a love match.

Would I like to have a bestseller and go on a book tour? You bet! But to get that, I might have had to write something very different than a bisexual ménage romance, and a lot more popular, even assuming I could; something that didn’t reflect my own truth, however awkward or peculiar—and what’s the point of that?

By taking the chance of self-publishing, I found an editor who was willing to take a chance on me. My Prince Charming may be more of a Mr. Right. He’s not rich, but he appreciates me for who I am, and he encourages me to write exactly what I want, no compromises. Genre fiction or literary, or something in between? Who cares? I’m living, and writing, happily ever after.

My new book, Pride/Prejudice, is a 21st century reinterpretation of the classic novel that expands it with significant queer themes. (Pretty radical stuff!) It was published by HarperCollins on January 26, 2010, the 197th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.
martianmooncrabmartianmooncrab on January 31st, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
as a rising star in a field notorious for bad writing

any publicity is good publicity. I bought 4 copies of the last book and made my sister buy her own copy of it. I found it to be an absolute hoot. Growing up on Heyer's Regencies just made the book even better.

I have your new book to be picked up ... and I really am not that big a fan of Austen, but, I am willing to give it a go because you *can* write, and I want to see how you fare in that world. Then I will go back and get a couple more copies for presents.
ann_amalieann_amalie on January 31st, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
"any publicity is good publicity"--as long as they spell my name right :D

You're the kind of reader I can't thank enough--buying all those copies!

As to Austen: Did you by any chance see Laura Miller's discussion of this on Salon?


She (and her readers) think all of us pastiche writers are disgusting (no comment ;) ) but she had a backhanded compliment for me:

"Herendeen does a better job than most of approximating Austen's style without aping it."

I love Austen's writing, and having even a disapproving critic say I did a good job with her style is high praise indeed. For me, adding in a lot of m/m and m/f and some f/f sex really wasn't meant as dissing Austen. I have no higher compliment for an author than that she's that good I want to write pastiche and bring out the homoerotic subtext in her work.

So...if you don't like Austen to begin with, you might or might not like my P/P. I use a lot of dialog, because her books, especially P&P, are very conversational, and I included a lot of sex, because it's the only important thing she left out.