Timothy & The Genre Police

[Scene: The former Bortsworth Tea Room which has recently been refurbished as the BEAN!BEAN!BOOM! Coffee Salon. Timothy the Talking Cat is putting the finishing touches to his latest masterpiece.]

[Barista] Here you go, your single-origin extra-froth lactose-free frappelatteccino with fish pellet sprinkles.

[Timothy] Than you my good sir, could you please decant it into this saucer?

[Barista] Of course! [pours the beverage onto an oversized dinner plate with ‘World’s Best Mom’ written on it. As he does so the barista notes Timothy’s paperwork scattered around the artfully distressed recycled timber table top] Ohh, are you a writer?

[Timothy] Not merely a writer. I am an editor, publisher and public intellectual. However, I find that at times I must ground myself within the literary arts to commune with my muse and once again connect with the deep springs of creativity.

[Barista] And you use crayon?

[Timothy] Black crayon for regular words, blue for hyperlinks and this bad boy [holds up a red crayon] for drawing squiggly lines under spelling mistakes.

[Barista] And the green crayon?

[Timothy] Level three headings in outline view: sans-serif italic pt 16 Green.

[Barista] Nice. Do you have many of those?

[Timothy] Mainly in space battles when explaining which missiles hit which ship.

[Barista] Science fiction?

[Timothy] Regency Romance.

[Barista] Austen?

[Timothy] Indeed. Steve Austin’s literary works are second only to his career as a surprisingly cheaply made 1970s cyborg superhero.

[Just then the front door of BEAN!BEAN!BOOM! busrts open and in strides a burly man in a law enforcement uniform and mirror shades.]

[Generic coffee shop customer] Scarper! It’s the genre police!

[Several over caffeinated writers who have been exploiting the free wi-fi slap their chrome books shut and make for the back exit. Only to be confronted by a second officer even bigger and burlier than the first.]

[Cop 1] Freeze you no-good hacks. We’ve got a call about serious genre infringement in this bordello of bad writing. I should drag all of you no good KU-junkies down to the holding cells until you confess your crimes but my partner doesn’t what me to get written up AGAIN for unnecessary brutality against the literary profession.

[Cop 2] Yeah. I hates the paperwork. [He picks a toothpick off the counter, chews it slightly and then grabs a few more and just crunches down on them, finally swallows them as a big splintery mass.]

[Cop 1] So if you all co-operate and turn over the miscreant we can be on our way and leave you to you…”activities”.

[As one, all of the writers in the coffee shop point at Timothy.]

[Timothy] Oh! The nerve of it! Just because I published that op-ed saying that ‘authors are lazy scum and frankly my publishing house would be better off without them’, is no reason for you all to betray me! What happened to reasoned debate and a frank but fair difference of opinion!

[Cop 1, striding over] Let’s have a look see, shall we? Hmm, space battles, stately homes, marriage proposals? Let me guess…Regency Romance/Space Opera?

[Timothy] Yes and that’s a perfectly valid sub-sub-sub-category. Look, here is my Amazon licence which authorises me to author in said sub-sub-sub-category.

[Cop 1] But what’s THIS? [Cop 1 holds up a frappelatteccino stained ruled A4 writing pad marked “Detective Bob interrogates his first witness in the drawing room.”

[Timothy] What about it? Detective Bob LIKES drawing when he investigates.

[Cop 1] But did you SIGNAL?

[Timothy] Signal?

[Cop 1] SIGGGGG- NALLLL

[Timothy] Signal what!

[Cop 1] Signal that you Regency Romance/Space Opera would make a sharp left turn into Regency Romance/Sci-Fi Cozy Mystery?

[Timothy] It was just one chapter!

[Cop 1 getting right in Timothy’s face and stabbing his big cop finger into the A4 writing pad] That. Only. Makes. It. Worse.

[Timothy] eeep.

[Cop 1 addressing the room] We live in chaotic times people. Lawless times. Good people want rules, order, predictability. You know what happens when they DON’T get predictability?

[Cop 2] Anarchy.

[Cop 1] That’s right. Anarchy. We have genre categories for a reason people. We have them so good hard working folk, who just want to consume hastily written fiction can FIND what they hanker for without any nasty surprises.

[Cop 2] Good folk, like my mom.

[Cop 1] That’s right, like his mom. We only ask ONE thing from you scum, you worthless monsters. We just ask ONE thing, that you SIGNAL YOUR GENRE and that once signalled you cleave strictly to the tropes of your genre never ONCE wavering from the correct path.

[Cop 2] Not asking a lot.

[Cop 1] Not asking a lot at all. You just need to have your cover CORRECT and your tropes IN LINE and we’ll leave you alone. But if you don’t…

[Cop 2]…if you don’t….

[Cop 1]…oh boy, if you DON’T then…

[Timothy] THEN WHAT! WHAT WILL YOU DO! I’M TOO FELINE TO GO TO PRISON AND BE ADOPTED AS A PRISON CAT AND CHARM THE WARDEN AND HELP THE INMATES RECONNECT WITH THEIR SENSITIVE SIDE ENABLING THEM TO LIVE PRODUCTIVE LIVES AFTER THEY GET PAROLE!

[Cop 1] Then we will WRITE VERY MEAN THINGS ABOUT YOU ON OUR DEPARTMENT FACEBOOK PAGE!

[Timothy] NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!

[Cop 1] I knew you’d hate that.

[Timothy] What? No, I was just reading a line of dialogue from when Detective Bob interrogates Chiseled McEdifice.

[Cop 1] Wait? Are you the cat who writes Chiseled McEdifice?

[Timothy beam proudly] The one and only.

[Cop 2] He’s our favourite!

[Cop 1] In that case we’ll let you go with a warning.

[Just then the actual Bortsworth Police arrive and arrest Cop 1 and Cop 2 for unnecessary boot kicking of a front door]

16 thoughts on “Timothy & The Genre Police

      1. Ah, I hadn’t seen that, but then “Make your cover like all the other books in the genre and if you must emulate a traditional publisher, emulate Baen” is sadly standard self-published writer advice that I’ve seen a billion times before.

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      2. Those Baen covers were one of the two reasons I hadn’t read Lois Bujold until 5-6 years ago. I hope they signal something to potential buyers because the ones I own are just embarrassing. (The other reason was that I didn’t like one of her early stories in Analog [?] in the eighties. I’ve never claimed to be very bright.)

        Although it was the non-Baen The Curse of Chalion where I finally broke down and read one of her books.

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  1. That’s really funny. 99% of SFF is suspense fiction and the majority of them have romance sub-plots, so pretty much all against the genre police all the time. And that’s not even counting Holodeck stories.

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  2. A couple of years ago, someone on File 770 or here linked to a parody cover generator which created Baen lookalikes. It was brilliant, and I was sadly unable to find the link to it now.

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  3. I am so thankful that our intrepid hero Trigger only stays within a single genre. But I have heard, from sources I trust (should there be a “TM” on thta) that there MAY be excursions into metamorphic rock happening. And I am not sure how I stand on that possible genre slip.

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  4. The cover thing is funny because the majority of covers don’t use art or even simple graphic images often. They’re a background color and then print of author name and title, especially if they are bestsellers. They can of course “signal” type of story from the type of background color and the style of font of the print — a jagged gothic typefont can signal horror or a black background with gold and red print usually signals high action suspense. But they don’t specifically tell you the type of story and they certainly don’t signal the sub-category.

    In suspense, they are more likely to use a bit of graphics but, except for occasional trends that crop up, they usually keep it subtly to the background — ominous landscapes and figures in silhouette have always been the favorites. The “cozy” mysteries in the category market get a bit more art treatment some of the time, though that’s often indistinguishable from straight contemporary stories. They did, though, in the early 1990s go about putting images of skulls in the corners on covers for awhile with the category mysteries, like a coffee cup with a ghostly skull image on it and that sort of thing.

    Category western and romance do use cover art, though it’s actually used less on westerns, especially if they are hc, usually going again for just a light signal on background color and font, like brown with old timey lettering. If they do art, it’s often dusty looking landscapes. Romance actually backed off on art from the old mass market paperback “bodice ripper” days. There’s still a fair amount of that and category contemporary will often use the standard couple images, but they started using silhouettes and half body-parts with dark graphics in the oughts and now the cover art varies a lot more, including romances with no cover art. It still remains limited to people or lacey objects, though, when they use it, for the most part.

    It’s only really SFFH that has the long tradition of cover art for its books because SFF art is part of the whole geekdom community/market, from the magazine and games tradition (where Baen draws its retro-eighties style.) And even there, again, science fiction is likely to not use as much of it, and lean heavily on standard planet and spaceship landscapes or desolate landscapes for post-apocalyptic fiction when they do. Horror can have very lurid images when it wants, but horror has been mainly launched in general fiction and as such, covers for horror that involve only light graphics or a few claw marks in the font or nothing much at all are not uncommon.

    It’s really only fantasy fiction where the cover art roams wild and free. Even there, you can find fantasy covers that don’t use art, such as some historical fantasy or sometimes fantasy published in general fiction. Or they may use very simple graphic images, like Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. But in the majority, fantasy fiction will use some sort of broad art, from landscapes and castles to silhouetted figures to battle scenes because people like the images as added value. It was something of a shock for electronic self-pub authors to find out that people actually wanted them to still have some sort of cover treatment thumbnail for e-books, especially if they were doing fantasy.

    The main thing with covers, though, is not blending in with a type of cover look — it’s standing out from the rest of the covers. So cover art effects go through trends — one person uses the skull image to stand out and then other art directors start using it for mysteries, then it dies out again because there are too many skull images for that to attract attention. Hooded figures against a straight, often pale background became a thing with The Innocent Mage cover for a bit in the oughts in fantasy. They go through periods with lots of metallic foil and textures, die cut-outs, using pastel background colors, geometric shapes for SF, etc. And sometimes they go back to the old trends. You don’t necessarily want to signal here is a standard genre cover treatment — you want your cover to stand out among a line of other books in the genre. (Or have your book next to one that stands out.) Going against current cover trends is more likely to attract attention. And self-pubs have a shorter production window, so they don’t have to guess what the cover trends are going to be six-seven months from now; they can get it right out.

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  5. Yep, for all we dislike Correia’s anti-equality politics, he did hit the bestseller lists with Monster Hunters, which he can then use to market other works. So it’s important that his name be in fairly large print on the cover, depending on the design, (it will be in smaller print when there is more art involved for the cover treatment because there’s not as much room.) The title also usually is done in large print, but when books are in a series, publishers may make the series name in the bigger print and the individual volume title in smaller print or the individual title in the large print and the series name in smaller print, depending on what they think is most important to attract fans’ attention for that particular series. (And again, big cover art on a cover means less room for bigger print.)

    The bigger the author gets in sales, the larger the author’s name tends to be on cover treatments, to attract fans’ attention. Big bestsellers usually have their author name the same size or in larger print than the book title, though it can vary again depending on what style they’re using for the overall cover. Big print is more useful for attracting attention on hardcovers whereas mass market paperback covers, being smaller, are often using art or graphics to attract the eye, but if you have a low art hardcover or trade paperback, you may have a similar or the same treatment for the mm paperback. Cover treatments also vary by country, depending on their publishers’ assessment about what their readers may be more drawn to.

    The straight color background, large print, with a small graphic image in the middle has been very popular for many fantasy covers for a number of years, especially in Britain. You’ll notice it doesn’t particularly signal fantasy novel, though it also doesn’t signal that it’s not. It could also be a historical novel, a suspense thriller and possibly a SF or fantasy thriller involving archaeology, ancient cultures, and aliens or hideous monsters, etc. It could be a horror novel in that neighborhood. The title doesn’t really make it clearer, but the series title, in small print, along with the title and graphic combined, leans towards historical fiction or historical, post-apoc futuristic or pre-industrial sec world fantasy fiction. It’s a very typical SFFH cover and really typical for suspense thrillers. In the category SFF shelves, it can stand out because it may be plainer among the lusher art covers around it with the stark black background. But if you get a lot of them doing that, with black backgrounds (and that look was particularly popular in fantasy in the early teens,) then it will stand out less.

    But once you’ve started on a particular cover look for a series, you usually want to stick with it to keep a brand look for the series to help fans find them, even if cover trends change as the series progresses. If a series succeeds and stays in print, however, the publisher (or self-pub author,) may then reissue the series’ backlist and new volume in a whole new cover look. That’s why you can choose from like sixteen different cover styles for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. And if the cover treatments for a series have been different in different territories/countries (which is how you may get varied cover styles for the same series,) but then releases of the new titles in the series are later coordinated between publishers in multiple countries, they may switch all the editions to one look, usually of the home country publisher, for consistency and making it easier for global fans to find the books.

    Publishers may also do the variant covers thing and issue a work with two different covers for a launch. But that is fairly expensive so they don’t do it that often. DAW did do it in the U.S. for The Name of the Wind though. They may also correct a look they don’t think is working. The first hardcover U.S. version of A Game of Thrones was a shorter sized silver hardcover with large print and only a tiny graphic. They got complaints. So for A Clash of Kings, they did an art image but framed it in a rectangle in the middle with large print top and bottom and went back to standard hardcover size, and they did the same for reissues and paperbacks of A Game of Thrones with it. So that was the new look for awhile, but of course Song has also had lots of changing cover treatments over twenty-two years.

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