In these troubled times for the book business I’m seeing a few authors selling much better than expected, many declining drastically, others staying flat. Part of the reason for that crazy volatility, I think, is the unpredictable appeal of some genre books to readers who usually read other things.
But my clients’ attempts to reach out to this wider audience often come a cropper and don’t sell to anyone. Figuring why this is so, and what people are doing wrong, is a subject of constant discussion in my office.
The question was never one of navigating from SF/fantasy to mainstream; it was navigating from SF/fantasy that mainstream readers shun, to SF/fantasy that mainstream readers read.
The subject came up recently in a conversation with a renowned editor who had a crucial insight into this problem. I haven’t named him because he might not want his name dragged into print when he has no control over the words, but the idea is his.
We were having that conversation that has come up 100,000 times among science fiction and fantasy professionals: “Why is Harry Potter so successful when it doesn’t contain a single element that has not been done many times, and done just as well, by established fantasy writers?”
He said that SF and fantasy writers grow up in the tradition of the genre and expect to be read by SF and fantasy readers. These readers bring a different set of expectations to what they read, compared to what normal people expect.
SF/fantasy fans expect to work harder. We know that certain passages have to be read with focused attention because they provide crucial information about the world.
The same is true of historicals. Many mainstream readers shun SF, fantasy, and historicals. A novel set during the Wars of the Roses requires just as much careful study as any SF/fantasy novel. You’ll have to learn about the political factions, the economic and military background, the dynastic implications, the resource struggles, that sparked these wars, or the story won’t make any sense.
Historical fiction readers love to do this, as do SF and fantasy readers. The same readers often love all three genres. But we are wired differently from normal readers, who don’t love it.
JKR’s clever instinct, the editor said, was to postpone the point where you need to learn a complex background in order to continue following the story. By then you would have absorbed so many small, easy-to-learn, easy-to-digest details that when you finally got to the Big Lesson, it wasn’t intimidating.
I imagine it’s like moving to some exotic foreign country. You land in their capital and they say, “To buy food here, you must recite the names of the Emperors of the Fourteenth Dynasty.” You’d starve to death before you had time to memorize them all.
But if you only had to memorize one emperor per month for the first year, you wouldn’t starve. By the end of the year you’d be used to the culture and would know all those emperors. You’d fit right in and could easily handle any other practical challenges in your new home.
People like us are eager to crack the code of a science fiction or fantasy novel by learning about all the complicated background necessary to understand it. But the other 90% of the audience gets so annoyed by the homework — learning the magic systems, the galactic politics, etc. — that they can’t enjoy the superb storytelling, characterization, and ideas that are on offer in so many of the genre’s fine works.
What JKR managed to do, probably without realizing it, was to introduce magical elements slowly, so that the heavy background lessons are held back until we are acclimatized to her world.
There’s more to Harry Potter than that, of course, but I think this is certainly one element of the series’ success, and therefore something we need to think about in the eternal battle to get more people to read our stuff.