Magical Realism, Visionary, Paranormal…? EM Havens and Evie Woolmore in conversation

This week EM Havens, author of Dark Night of the Soul, and allonymbooks’ own Evie Woolmore discuss the challenges of labelling their books as magical realist or visionary or fantasy or….

Evie Woolmore: When I read your blogpost the other day about the success of Dark Night of the Soul (DNOTS) after its release, I was amused to read the statistics you gave us from the Kindle rankings – #1 in Metaphysical/Visionary; #1 in Fantasy Super Hero; #1 in Dark Fantasy; #1 in Visionary Fantasy; #23 in Fantasy. Brilliant to have done so well so quickly, but what a range of genres to sit across! How do you see the advantages and pitfalls in labelling your work by genre?

EM Havens: Thanks, Evie! Yes, I am brilliant…and humble. (That’s a joke. My husband said people don’t always get my sense of humor so I thought I should say.) But, let’s just get all the cards on the table. Those numbers are from my free promo days with Amazon KDP Select. They correspond to how many free books I gave away not actual sales. I did put a lot of time and energy into promoting the giveaway, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a fun little contest I have with myself to see how high I can get in the overall free books when I run a promo. I actually made it to the front page (#19 overall) with one of my other books. THAT was exciting.

 I also don’t have complete control over my genres. Amazon chose a couple of those for me. I think the benefit is that more people might accidentally stumble on to the book. I worry, though, that not only will readers be disappointed the story doesn’t fit their expectations of the genre, but  also that the broad spectrum will confuse people enough to forgo purchasing. It’s really a conundrum. I generally have a hard time pegging the genre down myself, so it’s kind of fitting. 
EW: It is a conundrum, I agree! I understand exactly what your concerns are about reader expectations, but I also wonder whether readers of quite broadly defined genres like magical realism, fantasy and so on, will be generally more open to variations in those genres? Are they generally imaginative readers less bothered (and more inspired!) by innovation than someone reading a very specific (and perhaps formulaic) type of paranormal romance? What’s your sense from the contact you have with your readers?
EMH: I think fantasy/scifi readers are more open. Not because they are fantasy/scifi readers, but because the genre appeals to their reading habits. I have to laugh every time the hard core Historical/Contemporary Romance readers in my writing group try their hands at critiquing a scifi novel. “I don’t get it.”, “I don’t understand.”, “You need to tell me more about where this takes place.”, and the list goes on of complaints in reading the first paragraph. Where as, I’m perfectly fine with being in the dark for several chapters, and I actually LIKE that! Not to say I don’t occasionally enjoy a straight forward Romance, but to each their own.
 The comment I’ve been getting most about DNOTS is: “This is not what I expected. I’m so glad I gave it a chance!”  Most readers have taken that chance on it because they enjoyed another of my works. They say it’s unlike anything they’ve ever read and find it hard to categorize, but the overall response is positive. 
EW: That’s a really interesting point about ‘being in the dark for several chapters’. I know what you mean and I enjoy it too. That’s where readers who do prefer historical novels struggle with MR I think, because they like to get their bearings early on. Authenticity is important in that sort of novel, but magical or alternative realism really challenges that idea. How can the reader know what authenticity they are seeking, when we are creating a new/alternative/magical world for them? It just doesn’t exist in the same way.
So the question all that leaves me asking myself is, what sort of problems am I creating for the reader by writing historical magical realist fiction?!!  Am I giving with one hand and taking away with the other?! I suspect that’s one of the reasons that publishing house marketing teams struggled to know how to pitch my books, because they demand contradictory things of the reader: a desire for authenticity and a suspension of belief.
So when you’re thinking about new books to write, are you able to harness that idea that readers think ‘This is not what I expected’? Does it help you be creative?
EMH: OH! Most definitely! Sometimes, if I get stuck on a plot line, I’ll brainstorm and try to think of the thing that will be least expected. I think you know what part of Dark Night of the Soul I did that on. LOL! But hey, it packs a punch I think. Readers have loved that part. I’ve also written a steampunk romance called Fate War: Alliance. The comment of, “This is not what I expected” showed up there too (in a good way!). I like romance, but I get tired of the same plot told a million different ways. I could almost tell you the page number in which the first kiss would be, or the first misunderstanding. When I wrote Fate War, I wanted it to be different, more real in how the characters interacted. People don’t just change overnight. I think that threw a lot of romance readers because they were expecting the same old, same old. But in the end, they really liked it. That may be crux of everything I write. I don’t want readers to guess what comes next, because that’s the kind of book I want to read too! I’m definitely putting the same touches in upcoming novels.
EW: A recent review of my novel Rising Up posed the question “is it right to use magical realism in this way when the subject matter [the Holocaust] is so dramatic?” In a blog a couple of weeks ago I explored the idea that by calling it magical realism we are acknowledging the relationship and the juxtaposition between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’. Dark Night of the Soul considers the spiritual consequences of suicide and features a character whose death is a direct result of an ongoing war, so what are your views on that balance between the ‘magical’ and the ‘real’?
EMH: I think magical realism does what any good science fiction or fantasy does. Juxtaposing magic, fantasy, the future or other worlds with what we know, is like shining light through a prism.  It allows us to to look at things from another angle, through a different lens and bypass our preconceptions and imagine a rainbow of different possibilities from what our finite experiences permit. That being said, I actually believe in the supernatural and that it plays a part in shaping the “real”. I don’t think the two can be separated. But I’m sure that’s another question for another day!
EW: I really like that idea of shining a light through a prism, showing things at another angle. In my blog for the Magical Realism Blog Hop in July I described it as “part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.” I think these sorts of metaphors help readers understand what to expect, and how magical realism (or alternative realism as I considered in the Blog Hop) might differ from fantasy or other paranormal fiction.
We could go on all day, couldn’t we? It’s such a fascinating topic, and I am really delighted to have had the chance to chat about it with you, EM. I can’t recommend DNOTS highly enough to anyone who hasn’t read it, so do visit EM Havens’ website and find out more about her and her books. Thanks EM, stop by again soon!

Author as genre?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses the challenges of marketing across genres.

As I put the finishing touches to my new novel, The Salt Factory, and draw together the marketing plan to accompany its launch, I find myself facing once again that eternal dilemma: which categories to use on Amazon.

Fiction. Yes.

Now what?

In an interview with Diva magazine in 2011, author Sarah Winman was told by the interviewer that she was being described on the magazine’s cover as the new Sarah Waters. Winman’s reply? “Poor Sarah!…We’re very different. I don’t think I’ve earned the stripes to even be compared to her, quite frankly.” Winman’s modesty perhaps misses the point: when a generic label fails to be useful or available, an author name often stands in its stead. Yet which Waters was Winman to become? The “historical” novelist, the “gay” advocate, or the “supernatural thriller” writer, to name but three.

This is a tool that print publishers have used for years, describing an author as ‘the new’ somebody else. If you liked this, you’ll like that. It’s a testament to the old-water-in-new-bottles scenario that many feel print publishing has become over-reliant on, but it is also a mark of how little genuine development there has been that no one has yet come up with an innovative way for authors to market themselves differently.

I have blogged before about how rejections of my books by print publishers have generally concerned their perceived difficulty in finding a marketing pigeonhole for my type of novels. But if someone had actually asked me, I would have told them that if they liked Erin Morgenstern and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, then they would like my novels too. It’s a difficult thing to admit that one’s novel is bouncing off other people’s walls, when one of the things I know sets my books apart is the sheer originality of the ideas. But I can say with certainty that if you loved the imaginative possibilities of The Night Circus then you’ll love those same qualities in Equilibrium and The Salt Factory. If you think Zafón has captured the magical, mystical possibilities of Barcelona beautifully then you’ll find my evocations of the slip in time between contemporary and wartime Warsaw in Rising Up to be equally vivid and engaging.

I can say these things not because I copied what those writers did, because I didn’t. But  what I do have in common with them is a desire and an interest in using fiction to bend reality just a little bit to see what might be just beyond the boundaries of perception. I am nodding when I read them, out of admiration as a reader and out of understanding as a writer. You might no more describe Zafón or Morgenstern as science fiction or fantasy as you would an Evie Woolmore novel, but what are the alternatives? Indeed Amazon categorises The Night Circus as contemporary fantasy. But that category is so big that it also includes Ben Aaronovitch’s magic crime procedurals and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as various vampire and imagined worlds novels.

Zafón himself considered this issue in a Q&A about the creation of The Shadow of the Wind, where he says “it is a story that is made of many stories; it’s a story that combines humour, it combines mystery, it combines a love story, it combines historical fiction – it combines many different genres, to create a new one, a new genre, a hybrid that does all those things as well.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t give that genre a name.

Perhaps there is something in reversing the process and  ruling genres out, rather than in. In what seemed at first a daring idea, I began to consider whether putting my novels in the Historical Fiction category really was the best thing to do. Certainly they all have historical settings, but then I began to wonder what sets one historical novel apart from another. And what do they all have in common? Historical authenticity seems an essential quality in a historical novel, and the recent trend towards the novelisation of historical figures (such as Hilary Mantel’s trilogy) is one of many narrow trends within a genre that might otherwise be seen as relatively homogenous. Authenticity is certainly important to me, and I do a lot of research to make sure that settings are accurate, but am I contributing something new to the genre of historical fiction? No, probably not. Because what I am contributing is nothing to do with the historical aspect. And so, by way of an experiment, I am relocating my novels from historical fiction to historical fantasy, because I am, like Zafón and Morgenstern and Aaronovitch and Attwood, trying to say something new in fantasy.

I should like one day not to be the new Sarah Waters or the new Erin Morgenstern or even a other-gendered reincarnation of Zafón, but to be the only Evie Woolmore. My books are recognisably a genre in themselves, historical fiction infused with an otherworldly setting, worlds where the boundaries are blurred and things are not quite what they seem. But for now, my readers will be able to find my books under the big and welcoming umbrella of fantasy, where minds are open to distinctive voices saying interesting things.

A loss of independence? Goodreads by Amazon

Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise by the announcement that Goodreads is being taken over by Amazon, and generally there seems to be concern about Amazon taking over the world of online bookselling. The Authors’ Guild’s observation that it is a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” has not found complete agreement, but this blog is, unsurprisingly, more concerned with how the change is going to affect indie authors.

As many readers of this blog may have discovered for themselves, Amazon has an erratic and somewhat ruthless approach to the way reviews are posted for indie books. That this scrutiny was probably triggered by the fake reviews scandal last year shows that this is not a situation unique to indie authors, but it does seem that reviews of indie-authored books are scrutinised much more closely than those from print publishers. Certainly anecdotal evidence gathered at allonymbooks indicates that indie authors do find reviews of their books just disappearing.

From an indie point of view, Goodreads represented a safe haven, as it were, where there were strong forum communities supporting and interested in indie books. Being reader-driven it was perceived as free-standing of commercial interest from any individual bookseller, providing as it did links to B&N and other retailers as well as Amazon for book purchases, and it has done well in the past to promote a sense that reading, the enjoyment of books, and the sharing of reading experiences are its paramount goals. One presumes that those other retailer links will go in due course, as Amazon is hardly likely to want that option available. And so, one fears, might the perception of that not only is the site free-standing, but also that its aim is to share the enjoyment of books. It would be very sad if it became a marketplace, where the loudest shouters win the customers, for Goodreads has up to now managed to keep that small community/big community Continue reading

Equilibrium by Evie Woolmore: Review by the Historical Novel Society

allonymbooks is delighted to announce that Evie Woolmore‘s historical magical realist novel Equilibrium has just been reviewed in the Indie section of the Historical Novel Society:

“Equilibrium” is an evocative tale of two sisters – Epiphany and Martha – who are mediums performing on stage in London in the early 1900s. Lady Adelia Lyward sees the performance and wants Epiphany to give her a private reading in order to learn the truth about her brother’s death – not knowing that the sisters have a previous connection to her household: Martha was a housemaid to the Lyward’s two years previous. She had a child by Adelia’s husband, Lord Rafe Lyward, left the household in disgrace, gave her child away and attempted suicide. She knows there’s more to the Lyward household than meets the eye.

“Equilibrium” starts slowly, but the mystery surrounding Adelia’s brother’s death is skillfully revealed. I would like to have seen the historical elements of the story more strongly developed and expanded – not just the social changes in England during this period but also a clearer picture of the experiences Adelia’s brother had during the Boer War. But the story is rich in complex characters just the same, and the character of Epiphany gives the story a calm and delicate reality as the plot unfolds. I recommend “Equilibrium” to readers who enjoy historical fiction with spiritualist influences.

Equilibrium is available for Kindle from Amazon UK or US

Setting Standards: Is it time for a UK Indie Book prize?

With all due respect to the rest of the world, the UK has a very reasonable tradition of literary prizes, both large and small, from the Booker Prize to the monthly competitions in Writing Magazine. But during a recent surf through the entry guidelines for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), it became apparent how very large the gulf is that separates print from indie publishing when it comes to prizes.

Those guidelines make it very clear that in order to be submitted for consideration in the prize:

All entries must be made by an established publishing house. Self-published books are not eligible for the Prize. ‘Established’ is here defined as a house which publishes a list of titles by a range of authors with ISBNs, sells them in pounds sterling, and distributes its books nationally through recognised booksellers and online retailers. For the avoidance of doubt, ‘established publishing house’ does not include print-on-demand services or publishers which publish titles via a commercial arrangement through which they are paid by the author.

It’s a shame that a prize which has prided itself historically on promoting what it perceived as a minority in the author community has decided to marginalize part of that self-same Continue reading

Never judge a book… by a cover you can’t remember?

What was the last book you read on your Kindle? And the one before that?

Now, without looking at either your Kindle or Amazon, what do you remember about the covers? Did you even look at the cover again once you’d downloaded it?

On a train the other day, two friends were overheard discussing what they had read during Christmas. One could not remember the title or the author of one particular novel, though they gave a very compelling description of it which made both the other friend and this eavesdropper want to read it.

“Are you sure you can’t remember what it’s called?” the friend asked. “Tell me what the cover looks like and then I can look on the tables at Waterstones.”

“Oh,” replied the reader. “I don’t think I even saw the cover. I downloaded it to my Kindle.”

Those advising indie authors in the blogosphere frequently stress the importance of ‘professionally designed’ covers in marketing a book, suggesting indie authors compare theirs with those of high-selling print-published books in their genre, and there are both awards for good covers in the online indie community. Yet while it is very common that as readers we use the way a book looks to assess its genre, content, style and potential for quality, the conversation above implies that while this Continue reading

Pricing: less of a luxury, more of a chocolate bar

The most difficult step for allonymbooks in the process of independently publishing our novels has not been the writing, the editing, nor even going up to Kindle-reading strangers on the Tube and telling them about allonymbooks. It has been choosing the price at which to sell the novels.

Pricing of e-books is frequently in the news, from the lawsuit against Apple and leading publishers for colluding over prices, to the consequences of the RandomHouse/Penguin merger. There has been much speculation about what effect these factors might have on the market, and much continued grumbling among the readership about pricing of e-books in relation to their printed counterparts. As Waterstones are going to discover now they have engaged in the Kindle market, the business model is not only different, it has also been blown open by the wealth of independently published material now in circulation.

So here are some questions to consider. And probably precious few answers.

How much is too much?

An e-book is generally expected to cost less than its printed counterpart because it doesn’t require the physical resources of printing, distribution and retail handling, but the index of prices for print-published e-books has been broad and highly erratic. Some of that is caused by the pricing algorithms used by Amazon and Barnes and Noble, as articulately explained by Alex Marshall in a piece for Bloomberg. Some of that is also caused by print publishers themselves, who are clearly extremely uncertain about how much to discount the print price by. They can choose to fix the Amazon e-book price in a way that they cannot control the retailer print price, but it is frequently observed that Kindle versions of print-published books are often surprisingly expensive.

So what figure seems reasonable to pay? Let’s consider Hilary Mantel’s latest Booker Prize winning novel, Bringing Up the Bodies. On Amazon (UK) it is currently priced as follows: Print List Price £20.00; Kindle e-book price £9.99. The print list price is presumably based on the standard retail price of the hardback. £9.99 seems reasonable in relation to that, until you read on and discover that Amazon are selling the hardback for £8.86, and the paperback at a pre-order price of £6.89.  £9.99 for the e-book now looks very expensive, a price Continue reading