y two-year-old daughter is obsessed with Sesame Street. To the best of her knowledge, the characters – Ernie is her favorite – are six inches tall, since that’s how they appear on television. The other day we took her to a park that features people dressed as Sesame Street characters, and there was Ernie, taller than me, shaking hands with the crowd. Well, her eyes nearly popped out of her head. She pointed, looked at me, and said, “Big, big, very big Ernie!”
Sometimes something that appears little can, in being enlarged, become qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different: a new kind of thing, not just a bigger version of the old thing. My daughter wasn’t just seeing a very big Ernie; she was undergoing a conceptual breakthrough.
In publishing we have big things, middle things, and little things: blockbusters; “mid-list books” that die unless saved by reviews or word of mouth; and the bottom of the list, the dependable paperback genre books such as mysteries, science fiction, westerns, romance, horror, etc.
While the little books occasionally break through to big sales, they’ve long been considered a dead end for writers. You can write 20 of these books in a lifetime, 50, 100, and eventually you might build an audience, but it’s no way to get rich.
When we had a client on this level we thought was capable of bigger things, the idea was to break him out of genre. But that’s starting to change. If you’re a novelist interested in commercial success, think about writing genre novels. Don’t worry about giving it “mainstream appeal,” about “breaking out of genre.” Make it big, big, very big.
The people coming into power in publishing are part of the first generation to grow up after the paperback revolution. They love genre stuff, as does the baby-boom audience now buying a huge portion of all the books being sold. For me, it was science fiction; I can still remember Dad telling me to put that junk away.
Many of these editors gravitated naturally to paperback publishing when they grew up. They’ve been biding their time, but an evolution in the industry has given them their opening. That’s the blurring of the distinction between hardcover and paperback editors.
A Pocket editor can do a book at Simon & Schuster. A Bantam, Dell, Warner, NAL, or Penguin editor can do a book for his house’s mass market, trade paperback, or hardcover lines. A Ballantine editor can take a book to one of the many Random House hardcover imprints, or do it as a Ballantine hardcover, and the same thing happens at the many-tentacled Putnam/Berkley Publishing Group. Morrow and Arbor House, the two hardcover imprints owned by Hearst, have recently gotten closer to Hearst’s paperback house, Avon, and we’re seeing Avon editors take books to either house and setting up hard/soft deals. Over at Zebra, a house synonymous with genre paperbacks, they’re bringing out their first hardcovers. Tor started out as a house devoted to science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genres, and now has a thriving hardcover program handled by the same editors. At St. Martin’s, the hardcover editors are now acquiring paperbacks for their new mass-market paperback line. And it’s become a regular thing for experienced paperback editors to turn up as editors as hardcover houses, and the reverse.
But these editors aren’t just doing paperbacks with hard covers. It’s not enough just to churn out an OK horror novel, or whatever. The big change, the conceptual breakthrough, is in the idea that the right genre novel has a potential audience as big as any other kind of novel. More than anything else, what makes a genre novel the right genre novel is scope.
I don’t necessarily mean length. I mean big canvasses, big characters, big consequences for the characters’ failure or success. A big novel usually has a large cast of characters, a variety of locales. The locales are inherently dramatic, whether a major city or a remote corner of the world where only the brave and crazy go. The characters are extraordinary people, or ordinary people from whom events bring out the extraordinary qualities, strong motivations and intense emotions of which all of us are capable. Whatever they’re doing in the novel, it’s something they want to achieve as intensely as people are capable of wanting; if they succeed, their worlds will be utterly different, and if they fail, they’ll be destroyed. Their problems are big problems, not easily solved, often requiring plots that cover years or even decades.
When a romance or a detective novel becomes big enough in scale, it becomes qualitatively different: without ever leaving behind or de-emphasizing the qualities that make it a genre novel, it becomes a mainstream novel. If it’s good enough, it can go right to the top of the publisher’s list, skipping the middle.
This is where we get Clive Barker (The Damnation Corner) in horror, Danielle Steel (Fine Things, her most recent in a long line of bestsellers) in romance, Elmore Leonard (Stick and many others) in crime, Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon) in fantasy, Arthur C. Clarke (who first made mainstream bestseller lists with 2010: Odyssey Two) in science fiction, Louis L’Amour (The Haunted Mesa is his latest) in westerns.
Ask yourself what traditional paperback genres have a hungry audience, plenty of writers delivering the usual stuff, but few or no books with breakout potential. There’s a place on the bestseller lists for writers who answer that question and can deliver something special.
Postscript: The basic themes in this piece are every bit as relevant to today’s market as they were to that of 1988, but the information about specific houses, imprints, and publishing programs is of course very much out of date.