Professor Wu's Rulebook

Why can’t writers do both literary fiction AND genre fiction?

"Nobody ever accused James Kelman of being 'fun'" - author Nick Brooks talks about breaking onto the literary 'scene' and writing what you want to write

I’ve given up on breaking into any kind of literary ‘scene’. I have zero interest in it now.

Being part of a bunch of writers starting out can be great. You’re all trying to push yourselves and you’re in it together, this great endeavour. I have lots of happy memories of boozy nights arguing in smoky pubs about books and writing and authors. As far as a ‘scene’ goes, those are usually press-imagined things. If they happen along and you become identified with one, you can ride that wave. But they don’t last – and everyone moves on to the next thing. You have to be careful not to get left behind along with it.

The publishing industry was about to go through massive upheaval as I signed my first book deal. I was unaware of it. I was going to be a writer! Paid to do the thing I loved! I didn’t give a fuck about ‘the industry’, or trends within it. Then the interwebz and ebooks came along while we weren’t looking.

I’ve found it very hard to be ‘a paid writer’. Getting paid is the only thing that makes you any kind of professional. That’s just a fact.

Now, if you want to get published traditionally, you have to also have marketability. That means writing to genre. The traditional publishers are trying to play catchup with ebooks, who already stole a march on them.

I’ve not experienced any kind of loyalty from publishers. If you don’t have a hit right out the gates, you’re done. And most writers don’t. They are never going to say to you, ‘Look, we’ll stick with you, just keep doing what you do, we’ve got your back’.

The only times that might happen is when there’s a hungry market for certain genres and if you have a series. Sometimes those books take time to break through. Could book 3 or book 5 be the one that does it? Maybe. If that happens, you’ve got a catalogue you can flog off the back of it.

Publishing houses have become much more conservative in what they put out now. Getting a book signed at all is still a dispiriting task. And it takes years to go from manuscript to bookshelves. I mean literally years. Your average self-published indie can do the same job as a whole publishing house in a matter of a couple of months. That includes writing the book and all the promotion and marketing. If it’s a good book, and you hit all the right tropes in your chosen genre but put a twist on it, and all the marketing falls into place, you stand a chance of making some cash out of it.

A friend of mine who writes spy/political conspiracy/ espionage thrillers had much the same experience as me with trad publishing: couple of novels, nothing much happened with them, and he was moving naturally to the spy/espionage novel. Most of the publishers he did the rounds with, punting his first novel in that genre, turned it down. One told him there was no market for ‘the traditional British spy thriller’. Eventually, he was offered a deal on it, but he had misgivings about going with it; he knew the kind of chance it would get with them once it hit the shelves.

He opted to go self-published, online. It took a while, but he now has three novels out in the space of a couple of short years, and recently hit 21 in the whole Amazon Kindle Store. That’s out of all the books in their whole catalogue. He’s given up his day job and gone full-time. Plus, 70% of the royalties are his. And the novels are great, too. Page-turning, well-written, well-researched, pacy, plot-driven stuff.

His name is Andrew Raymond, you can check out the books and judge for yourselves:

But being realistic, we have to ask ourselves who is the vanity writer here? Is it the self-published ebook indie, writing books for a hungry audience of tens of thousands? Doing everything by themselves – from writing to formatting, cover design and marketing? Or is it the ‘literary writer’, catering to a tiny audience – or no audience at all? Because they eschew such things as plot, pace, and dramatic action? You know, those things readers care about and like.

I’ve had this problem all my writing life. Because I actively want to write genre fiction that sells! I love certain genres; noir, crime, hard science fiction, psychological horror; westerns. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a way to do any of them, though.

In principal, I don’t see why I can’t do both literary fiction and genre fiction.

Writing ‘literary fiction’ or poetry is not a profitable venture. I still believe it to be worth doing. Genre fiction is fun to read, though. Nobody ever accused James Kelman of being ‘fun’.

About the author

Nick Brooks was born and lives in Glasgow. He studied art when he left school, made stain glass windows, poured chemicals down toilets, signed on the dole and played in a band. Later, he got a degree and then a PhD, which just goes to show you. Since then, he’s been a community worker, tutor and lecturer. He also coaches strength training.

He has published three novels: My Name Is Denise Forrester (2005); The Good Death (2007, both Weidenfeld & Nicolson), and Indecent Acts (2014, Freight), and a collection of erotic haiku, Sexy Haiku (2016, Freight). The latter is currently going through an update and will shortly be available as Why Don’t You Write Me A Love Poem?

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