Friday, May 20, 2011

Genre and Soy Sauce -- Finding What You Want

On the Golden Age Mysteries group on Yahoo a week or two ago, people were talking about the definition of the cozy mystery. It has become a hard genre to define, because there are so many different expectations, and because the definition has definitely changed over the years.

I think a part of the problem is that it's a flavor, not a genre. That flavor can be in stories of any kind, even if it is most commonly used in certain ways these days. Defining the mystery and all it's sub-genres today seem to me a lot like defining food.

So I give you soy sauce:

I tend to buy a lot of different kinds of soy sauce. If I go to my local Meijer store, it will be shelved in one place: the foreign foods section. There I'll find the major American brands, and maybe one or two specialty versions. LaChoy or Kikkoman, light or dark. If I'm really lucky, they may carry something like "Golden Mountain" or a mushroom soy, but usually not. Sometimes, if they have some fancy organic healthy variety, it might be shelved in the health food section, but that's the only exception.

Frankly, if I want something other than Kikkoman (not a paid endorsement) I go to an Asian grocery. There are lots of little stores around town, like say, Kim's, which is a Korean grocery, and you'll find a couple of dozen varieties (including Kikkoman). They don't have an organic section, so if they were to carry some tree-hugging "green" brand of special organic soy, it would likely be in with the other soy sauce.

But if I'm feeling serious about my soy sauce, I skip Kim's and Thai Bihn, and I head over to Oriental Mart.

Oriental Mart is the Meijers of Asian food in our area. They have EVERYTHING. And finding soy sauce at Oriental Mart is an adventure. (But what an adventure!)

They don't have a soy sauce shelf. Their store is organized by nationality: They have a Japanese aisle, and a Korean aisle, and a Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian section, and Chinese, and Indian and even a tiny Caribbean section. You will find soy sauce in each of these sections, all different, no overlap between them. And each section will have dozens of varieties too. You will find multiple brands of specialty soys, like Kecap Manis -- the syrup-like sweet soy sauce from Southeast Asia.

Genres can be like condiments.

I wonder... is the coziness of a cozy mystery really it's defining thing - like soy sauce itself? Or is it like the nationality of a soy sauce? Sure, for the general public, you might shelve them altogether like Meijers does. But does the aficionado think of them more like Oriental Mart?

Some people feel that a cozy MUST have a g-rating, and be set in a small town, and reflect a certain old-fashioned small town values. At times, when I hear what such people exclude from the genre, I wonder if their cozies shouldn't be better shelved with the Christian fiction.

Some, on the other hand, consider the romantic angle to be most important, and when I see what they consider to be a "real cozy" I wonder if it belongs with romantic suspense.

Some consider the key element to be the humor. They see more hard-boiled crime comedies of Donald Westlake and Carl Hiassen, and big city thinking detectives like Nero Wolfe, as cozy.

Then there are the mysteries with a special interest hook -- cat mysteries, dog mysteries, cooking or knitting mysteries. It used to be that these hooks were just a quirk of the old fashioned "amateur sleuth" or even suspense story. But now they are beginning to feel like a genre in themselves.

The great thing about the internet is that we can put books on multiple shelves.

Even if a book doesn't really belong on the Romance shelves, for instance, it's still going to get mentioned in Romance circles if the book really does suit that audience. It's going to end up on Listopia lists, and mentioned on blogs. Christians will recommend suitable books to each other, no matter what the genre, or if the book is intentionally Christian or not.

My concern, though, is not really where we shelve it, but how do we deal with the fact that it means something so very different to different people?

For instance, as a non-conservative non-Christian writing clean fiction that takes place in an old-fashioned small town, I feel comfortable calling The Man Who Did Too Much a cozy. It really should suit everyone in the genre. And yet, in critique I have been firmly informed, when a dossier mentions that the heroine is a registered Democrat who has never missed a vote in 22 years (public record info which would be included), that it is highly inappropriate information for a cozy. Too controversial.

No, I have no intention of removing it, that would be silly and self-defeating. My heroine is the child of old hippies. She's a woman who recommends Pulp Fiction as the best movie to improve the moral character of teens. Seriously, being registered as a Democrat is NOT the most controversial thing in the story. But it disturbs me that it comes up as a genre consideration.

It also disturbs me that a little more than ten years ago, I stopped buying cozies myself. At that time the genre narrowed, and I was having a hard time finding the kind of story I was looking for. I have come across a lot of others who did the same. Most complain that the genre went cutesy. I'm not sure that's exactly it. I think that it just got hooked on hooks. The bookselling industry doesn't give enough time for a long series to develop a following any more, so you need a hook to get started, and that narrows the kinds of stories which get told.

And maybe that's why we have heavily romance, or heavily small town, or special interest mysteries leading the pack, as almost genres of their own. They're just easier to sell in the brick and mortar bookstores.

The other stuff is still kind of there. Sometimes it overlaps with one of the sub-groups, and sometimes it's just a hard to find small press offering. And with the advent of ebooks, those other areas have more of a shot. You no longer have such a short shelf life where you have to grab an existing audience and hook it hard.

And with indie publishing -- where a book doesn't have to support the infrastructure of a publishing company -- backlists and weird stuff can come back out of trunks and dawers, giving us even more choice. It isn't about what is available any more, it's about how your readers find you. Which brings me back to soy sauce.

At Oriental Mart, finding what you want can be a challenge, because you need to know the nationality of the product, yo may need to know the language too. But if you do know the right words, you can find it.

And that's how you find things in the modern internet world too. Google and Amazon's search algorithms use a lot of data, but it all comes down to words: genre, description, what we say about books on blogs and in reviews and in discussion. All that goes into the algorithms to help search engine customers find exactly what they want.

What we call our books, how we describe them when we talk about them out there on the interwebs, what other people call them, becomes a part of our branding and identity. It's how we are found. Which makes it important.

But unlike a grocery store, there isn't a manager making decisions. Items aren't going to be put on shelves because someone decided to put them there -- they're going to migrate there based on user behavior. Genre is going to evolve, and it may evolve rapidly. I have the feeling that the cozy is going to see a blossoming. It's going to once again be a robust genre full of variety -- but it may not be called by a single name.

Each element -- small town, romance, puzzle, cleverness, fun characters, light touch, clean language, no violence, etc -- those will each have a shelf, which will overlap with all the other shelves. You won't miss out because you went to the wrong one. You'll even find non-mysteries among them, because Amazon knows that mystery readers happen to also have a high affinity for this other story.

I'm looking forward to what is coming.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm looking forward to it, too. I think "tagging" (which is what Amazon calls it, and what I think you're talking about at the end of your post) will definitely be a tool for someone to find exactly the type of book they want to find. Now if a person is particularly unadventurous, this could mean a diet of one *particular* kind of book (I know kids who ONLY want books with talking animals with forest settings who go on epic adventures...). For others, maybe they're wanting to try out something specific but unusual--which might be hard to track down on a bookstore shelf, but easy with computer algorithms and tagging (urban, elderly vampire who lives in a coastal city, etc, etc.)

I think publishing is market driven, for obvious reasons. I *think* the new ebook publishing will prove the same--but with a different type of market and probably wider range.

The Daring Novelist said...

Tagging is one small part of what I was talking about -- a small visible thing, like a point on the tip of the iceberg.

I have a post coming up about search engine algorithms and how they are COMPLETELY changing the marketing model from anything we recognize. It's all natural and passive -- well, sort of passive.