How to write a best-seller in a fringe genre

I fielded a question from a reader the other day about genre: “Why do some books do extremely well (like this Hunger Games series)… that are in a genre that doesn’t usually go “mainstream”?”

Good question. There’s been a lot of Hunger Games buzz this week. I think that something which sells well, and for long enough, will re-define mainstream.  Take vampire novels. We all know what vampires are… don’t we? Bram Stoker defined the genre for the western world over a century ago. The dark, evil guy that shatters the norms of social etiquette and has to be knocked off by the vengeful vampire hunters. A twentieth century cliché, nicely lampooned since by Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes

Suddenly Anne Rice comes up with something utterly different – the vampire romance with sensitive, new age and caring vampires. Well, multi-dimensional characters anyway. It shouldn’t have worked But it did, and she re-defined the genre along the way. (‘Come back Vlad, all is forgiven…). Enter Stephanie ‘Twilight’ Meyer, of whom Rice had this to say.

I got an object lesson in just how far SNAVS (sensitive new-age vampires) had been mainstreamed a couple of years back when I was invited to a Random House publisher party. A fun event. I got talking to various members of the editorial team and found out that just about all of them were reading recreationally – guess what. Let’s just say novels that were was sensitive, new age, and with bite…

What’s more, as far as I am aware, New Zealand’s richest author (a former lawyer) writes in that genre – she’s been on the New York Times best-seller lists.

Joanne Rowling’s another good example of mainstreaming something that started off as fringe. Who, in a million years, would ever have thought that a mashup between quintessentially English boarding school stories and all the old cliches of wand-and-spell magic would transform kids’ literature for the twenty-first century?

So how does a fringe genre suddenly go from zero to hero? What makes a sub-genre suddenly something that everybody wants – and, more to the point, how can you do it yourself? Good question. Publishers have been trying to second-guess it. So have authors.

Social trend is a curious beast. There are reasons why the reading public suddenly latch on to a book, and  it’s not that we don’t know the mechanisms. The problem is controlling the details and trying to anticipate the next trend. Sometimes it works. Luck often plays a part in the specifics. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan read Tom Clancy’s Hunt For Red October, which was then a fringe novel in a fringe genre, published by a small house. A few words of endorsement from the President – and pow. Clancy became a New York Times best seller. But it wasn’t just Reagan’s comment; that was simply the catalyst. At that time, with the Cold War entering its last dangerous spasm, and with ‘high tech’ a buzzword, America and the reading public were well primed for a thriller built around both ideas. Overnight, the techno-thriller emerged as a mainstream genre.

Today we’re captivated by vampires, by post-apocalyptic horror stories – by Hunger Games and Battle Royale, both of which explore the way survival instincts overcome the veneer of civilisation, presented as post-apocalyptic reality entertainment. Unfortunately fought out via teenagers; but maybe that’s part of the secret. Who would have thought an updated, dumbed-down version of Sir William Golding’s Lord of the Flies might be the Next Big Thing? Not me. And yet in hindsight, it’s obvious; the theme plays to the deepest fears of our society – the war between civilisation and beast.

So are there techniques for actively working up a best seller? Making a great e-book of it? Getting your stuff out there? Sure, and I’m going to explore those on this blog over the next few weeks. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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10 comments on “How to write a best-seller in a fringe genre

  1. Hey, when you figure out the right formula I’d like to jump on that bandwagon myself, lol… that’s part of the charm of reading and writing, not knowing what strikes a chord. I’m not a fan of vampire books at all and don’t get it, especially Twilight, but my kids love the crap out of that and Harry Potter, and so do many adults I know.

    Recently, I had someone ask what I did for a living. When I said I was a horror author they said, ‘Cool! Like Twilight?’

    Armand Rosamilia

  2. karmicangel says:

    The link to Anne Rice’s comments on Stephanie Meyers is the best, and I think she’s fine to say all that except that she wrote ‘Angel Time,’ which… well, let’s just say Meyers gives more depth to Edward than I think Rice does to her Angel. And I am a HUGE Anne Rice fan. But just to give you a laugh, I pinned this a little while ago on Pinterest, and it underlines Rice’s point.
    If the HTML doesn’t work, here is the link: http://pinterest.com/pin/105975397451693876/

    Source: Uploaded by user via Angela on Pinterest

  3. Not really concerned with block-buster or best-seller or genre or fringe genre or opinion either when it comes down to it. I just write.

  4. I can ‘feel it in the water’ this will be a great series. Looking forward to the next. Susan

    • Thanks. I’m posting a couple of times a week at the moment with 60-second writing tips and also an ongoing ‘how to’, A-Z series on writing…hope they’re handy & enjoyable (I enjoy writing them!).

  5. Ensis says:

    I don’t like Rice or Meyer. My favorite Vampire story is Let Me In by Lindqvist because I find it more believable that being a vampire would be a pain in the ass and quite disgusting. For that reason, it was more believable to me.
    The only other vampire novel I like is Dracula; if I pick up a book and see the words, “vampire,” “werewolf,” or “rebellion” on a dust jacket, I do as Snoop Dog would and ‘drop it like it’s hot.’

    • I read Dracula and enjoyed it. I think vampires have been re-invented for current society and, like you, I don ‘t think the sensitive new age form is so compelling as a literary device.

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