genre wars: urban fantasy vs. sword and sorcery

Okay, I admit it. I’m a genre snob.

There. That was easy. I can breathe deeply and move on now.

You’d think that, with my fourth book in the Nysta series coming out this week, I’d be focussed on marketing it. Well, you’d be wrong. Firstly, I’m hopeless at self-marketing. The best I can do is squeeze out a few Tweets and update my Facebook. I gave it a half-hearted try, once. Sent out a few reading copies to some reviewers who I never heard from again. I even got so far as considering a “blog tour” which is very trendy these days. Unfortunately, I am not very good with people so decided to simply allow my books to talk for me and pray for some word-of-mouth.

Secondly, I’ve been absorbed in how to position my book in Amazon’s endless swamp of genre codes.

At first, it sounds easy to pick a genre. I’m firmly genre fantasy. Firmly Heroic or Sword and Sorcery. I’m definitely not considered epic. I don’t have those big cartwheeling character arcs or page-counts numbering in the thousands. So, you’re thinking I just click and leave.

But I don’t. I actually am a bit of an egoist, so I try to figure out where I sit in comparison to others. It’s great to see I’m rather high on the Coming Soon charts. Yesterday, I was fourth. That gave me a grin. But when it comes to where I sit in the Sword and Sorcery genre, I am somewhat down the ranks. Sometimes I get around the 130-mark. But I can’t seem to break the Top 100 long enough to get it mentioned on my book’s page.

I can accept I’m no Joe Abercrombie or David Dalglish. I can accept Brent Weeks, Mark Lawrence and James Barclay also have me beat. I mean, they’re awesome writers. They should be up there above me. I’m proud simply to have any of them nod at my Twitterisms. I don’t expect to be among their elite cadre. But when I’m perusing the genre listing, I’m not seeing these authors. I’m seeing a ton of Urban Fantasy instead. Vampire hunters in modern L.A. or romantic liaisons between demons and their human Private Eye lovers. A few fairies. Virtually no one’s carrying a sword or an axe. Everyone has tattoos. Because tattoos are cool, obviously.

This isn’t a rant about the quality of urban fantasy. I’m sure it’s great. It wouldn’t sell if it wasn’t. And, as someone writing what can only be described as cheap pulp sword and sorcery action-fantasy, who am I to make judgments? But I have to say I’m completely befuddled at why many of these books are categorised as Sword and Sorcery. Does this mean I am not what I think I am?

Have I mistaken the genre? I always thought Sword and Sorcery was, at its heart, the story of a loner or small group of heroes running about from point a to point b and killing a bad thing at the end with their swords. Add some magic thrown in for effect. Nothing complicated. Always melodramatic. Always set in a medieval or historical setting. Not in New York. I’m wondering if maybe I should classify myself as Arthurian. Or Fairy Tales. Seems to make as much sense as half the books classified as Sword and Sorcery.

Defining your genre is a painful experience for most writers, but for Indie writers it’s an exercise in trying to find your audience. Trying to reach your reader. I kind of understand the desire to blanket Amazon with your goods in order to be found, but I still don’t understand why defining yourself as a genre you are clearly not is helpful to the readers themselves who probably end up hunting you down because they couldn’t find you where they expected you to be. In the end this blanketing is blurring genre definitions, and I wonder at the longterm consequences. If vampire books, for example, are now Sword and Sorcery then why can’t Guardians of the Galaxy be considered a Heroic Fantasy series of comics? I mean, it’s got heroes in it.

I’m not as bitter or cynical as you think I am. Actually, I’m more curious about what’s actually happening. What expectations do readers have when they’re browsing genres? Do they feel satisfied with vampire and Urban Romance being classified as Sword and Sorcery? Or does it frustrate them that they have to keep clicking on ‘next’ to get past items which don’t relate to what they think they’re looking for?

And, finally, whether there’s any point in having sub-genres in the first place if the items within it are mislabeled?

- published 30/08/2014

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