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Jim Cox Report: November 2019

Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:

Once again it's November and on the 6th I will have reached the ripe old age of 77. I truly think that it is my being able to putter around in the office a few hours every day answering letters, responding to emails, talking to folks on the phone, and screening the newly arriving books for review assignments that keeps me in good health and having purpose in what (as was the case in my own grandparents day) would otherwise be just sitting around waiting for the day to end. But being the Editor-in-Chief of the Midwest Book Review (and with my daughter and her husband doing most of the daily grunt work of operating our little book review enterprise) there is never a lack of interesting (and useful) ways to occupy my time. Here is just such a case in point:

I was recently presented with an article by Peter Blaisdell on the challenges facing authors trying to position their work amidst the numerous subgenres in the fantasy literary category. To broaden the article's relevance, Peter also notes the challenges of a fragmented market that are faced by writers in other genres including romance and crime. I have his permission to share this inherently interesting article with you.


Peter Blaisdell

For better or worse, many fantasy readers’ book preferences are driven by what subgenre they believe a work belongs to, particularly for lesser-known authors. So, getting this assignment right helps effectively target and promote books. However, in fantasy, subgenres are at once numerous and ill-defined.

This makes it critical for writers to clearly signal what type of story they’ve written beyond simply assigning a work to this or that BISAC category (a standard book industry architecture for categorizing books down to the subgenre level) and hoping that readers and search engines suss out whether that category best fits a novel.

A particularly murky space in the fantasy universe is the confluence of ‘urban’, ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’, and ‘paranormal romance’ which often share a present-day setting - and a certain nonchalance among fans, reviewers and search algorithms in interchangeably applying these labels. Adding to the complexity, ‘low’ fantasy in which fantastical elements intrude into an otherwise realistic setting, can also be set in the present-day.

While it’s rather easy to differentiate some fantasy subgenres including high/epic fantasy, sword & sorcery (S&S), and gaslamp from stories set in the present-day (the castles and vaguely medieval clothing hint at high/epic or S&S; campy Victorian raiment indicates gaslamp), trying to fathom the subtleties distinguishing urban, contemporary, modern and paranormal romance fantasies can be problematic for both author, reader and search algorithms.

Making things marginally easier in this context, ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ can generally be considered synonyms. However, a lot of ‘urban’ fantasies may also occur in the present-day, even though technically, they just need to take place in a city - from any era. And then, there’s ‘paranormal romance’, a subgenre driven by passion. In fact, it sits at the junction between fantasy and straight-up romance, but may share a present-day setting with contemporary/modern and urban fantasies. All this is a recipe for reader confusion unless an author’s ‘brand’ of writing is well recognized.

Writers in the Wilderness

The risk of being categorized with books significantly different from an author’s intended subgenre is especially true for indie (and lessor known traditionally published) fantasy writers without an established brand to cue potential readers about where their novel fits in the fantasy firmament.

Lessor know authors will usually have few reviews for their books, increasing the chances that a work will be inappropriately aggregated until it’s sold well enough and been critiqued often enough so potential readers know what it is, or a platform’s search architecture has trained itself about where to correctly place the book. Meantime, a novel may find itself in strange company thanks to the imprecision of ‘sponsored products related to this title’ functionality.

However, so what if an opus is included in the wrong subgenre? Isn’t a little reader confusion potentially helpful to the neophyte author? In an era where ‘discoverability’ is a damnable challenge for lesser-known authors, being mistakenly associated with a popular subgenre certainly sounds like a recipe for broader reader awareness. And discovery by fair means or foul gains recognition…except being encountered by apposite readers is more likely to grow a reputation.

In an era of hyperbolic book critiques, it’s best for authorial reputation if readers understand which subgenre a given work belongs to; readers will be more prone to writing supportive reviews. And while some readers might be pleasantly surprised that they’ve stumbled on a novel, more are likely to be irritated and vent with a bad review if they’ve mistakenly purchased a book outside of their favorite subgenre - just look at Goodreads’ reviewers savaging some poor story for all the wrongs, real and imagined, that life has inflicted on that reviewer. Worse, folks that really would be interested in a new work won’t spot it if it’s lumped in with stuff they don’t read.

The Paranormal Romance Problem

Given the prevalence of paranormal romantic fantasy, authors writing other types of fantasy set in the present day may be liable to misclassification as paranormal romance - even if their work doesn’t contain motifs from this subgenre and wasn’t intended for this audience. Though certainly not all paranormal romantic fantasy is set in the present-day, a lot is. And setting is a hallmark distinguishing fantasy subgenres from one another, so, at the risk of being provocative, paranormal romance has almost become the default category for modern fantasy unless a given
work clearly signals that it doesn’t belong to this subgenre.

Conspicuous ardor is another key characteristic of paranormal romance. If a novel combines enchantment and even a trace of romantic frisson, it may resemble paranormal romance to the cursory inspection. And not only humans are confused; algorithms on platforms selling books may also display that work alongside paranormal romance stuff.

To be clear, paranormal romance is a perfectly respectable space within the broader fantasy genre. In fact, depending on whose numbers one believes, paranormal romance is either the most popular or a close second to high/epic fantasy. And it’s easy to understand paranormal’s popularity given its blend of romance and fantasy tropes. The protagonists have magical powers or are otherwise special in an otherworldly sort of way and romance with various erotic shadings is central to plot and characterization. This legitimately appeals to readers who may feel a lack of sensuality, magic or, in fact, anything special in their quotidian existence. Really, what’s not to like about escaping to a story populated by sexy vampires lusting after hunky werewolves amidst darkened landscapes with the occasional citizen of Faerie thrown in for good measure?

However, paranormal romance’s appeal represents a challenge for fantasy authors using a modern, perhaps urban, setting for their novels, but who don’t otherwise adhere slavishly to paranormal romance’s strictures. In this case, getting lumped in with paranormal romance isn’t necessarily desirable because: 1) readers who don’t want paranormal romance will skip the book; 2) readers who do want paranormal romance will feel deceived if they buy a book and don’t get their preferred story type. So it behooves fantasy writers to be as clear as possible about what they are…and what they are not.

Or should they?

Blending Genres

While sticking like glue to a subgenre’s parameters may boost sales by catering to readers’ expectations, it can also result in formulaic writing.

Fantasy seems particularly afflicted with paint-by-the-numbers novels, some procreating themselves into lengthy series. This is OK as long as it leaves oxygen in the room for authors combining elements of several subgenres into a cool synthesis of plotlines, characters, and themes - agnostic to their subgenre of origin. Or tossing all the standard categories into the garbage and writing a sui generis work. It’s a fantasy after all!

For example, suppose a modern fantasy contains a smidgen of romance - possibly a French kiss? At what point does it become paranormal romance? And what happens when the author is bold (or pretentious) and address societal themes? Does that push a work into the realm of literary fantasy? And does a propulsive plot bully the novel’s fantasy elements aside and elbow it into the action & adventure category?

Complications like these highlight why some writers don’t stray far from one particular category, especially if they’re successful in that space. For those that do blend elements of multiple subgenres (let alone genres), recognize that making it appealing to potential readers and minimizing uncertainty about what they’re buying may be more challenging than for a single-genre work.

So What to Do? Or How Many Fantasy Subgenres Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

For authors selling enough books so that readers know their work, great! Half the marketing battle is won. For the rest, calling out the subgenre that best houses a work helps sales.

Authors may rightly protest that their tome is ‘special’ and not as easily categorized as all those other pedestrian novels that can be straightforwardly dropped into some convenient box. Of course, every novel is unique! However, every work (even yours) fits better into some boxes than others. Granted that mash-ups are harder to categorize than single genre books, but judicious assignment of genre - even if it’s a bit of a force fit - improves the odds that a mash-up finds an audience.

Below is an admittedly non-exhaustive list of tactics to consider in this effort.

1. Decide what subgenre a given work best approximates. The Book Industry Study Group’s BISAC list is one starting point and on-line sales platforms seem to take their cue from this scheme’s sixteen - and counting - categories of fantasy. For subgenre blends, assign the most apt two categories.

2. Closely related to the item above, for on-line sales platforms, select keywords that are aligned with subgenre(s). For example, don’t reference ‘urban’ or ‘city’, if an urban setting is only marginally relevant to a story or risk being categorized as urban fantasy. To some extent, the platform’s search algorithms will arrange novels for reasons beyond the ken of mortals, but nudge the automated logic in the right direction by aligning keywords with what an intended audience is likely to search for.

3. Ensure that the cover, back-jacket blurb, press-releases, and ad copy clearly describe what a book is about and - maybe - note the subgenre. Hopefully, this precision tips off readers and reviewers about the intended audience. Certainly, some readers/reviewers read from all parts of the fantasy universe, but given the disparate nature of this type of literature, authors can at least cue their audience about what which part of that universe they’re from.

4. Associate ads on platforms such as Amazon with authors that match a work’s subgenre. Nothing confuses potential readers more than miss-aligning a work with unrelated books even if they’re best sellers.

Now here are reviews of other new books with particular relevance and interest for authors and publishers:

The Writing/Publishing Shelf

Rut-Busting Book for Authors
Nancy Christie
Mill City Press
9781545673386, $14.99, PB, 256pp,

Synopsis: A successful writer, speaker and blogger, Nancy Christie wrote "Rut-Busting Book for Authors" specifically for the benefit of anyone who is thinking about writing a book but can't seem to get started, or having got started is unsure of their next move.

"Rut-Busting Book for Authors" will prove to be of practical value for anyone who is unsure how to get started -- or keep going; who are wondering what publishing option to choose: traditional, hybrid or indie?; Are confused about how best to market their book and reach their readers?

"Rut-Busting Book for Authors" presents useful 'real world' advice from more than 60 authors and industry experts including: literary agents and attorneys, publishers and publicists, book editors and book reviewers.

"Rut-Busting Book for Authors" provides information on the three stages involved in writing, publishing and marketing a book: The Process--what it takes to turn your book idea into a publishable manuscript; The Publication--what publishing methods are available; The Promotion--what strategies will work best for you to create a "book buzz".

If you want to write, publish and market a book, "Rut-Busting Book for Authors" effectively showcases the process from concept to completion!

It should be noted that the Midwest Book Review is one of the resources listed in Book Review Listings on page 203.

Critique: Thoroughly 'user friendly' in organization and presentation, "Rut-Busting Book for Authors" offers a wealth of throughly practical information, insights, advice, and specific things to do that will be of immediate benefit to anyone seeking to write, get published, and/or marketing their book regardless of its genre or subject matter. While unreservedly and especially recommended for community, college, and university library Writing/Publishing instructional reference collections, it should be noted for the personal reading lists of aspiring authors that "Rut-Busting Book for Authors" is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $3.99).

The Great First Impression Book Proposal
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Modern History Press
c/o Loving Healing Press
5145 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor, MI 48105
9781615994816, $8.95, PB, 54pp,

Synopsis: Carolyn Howard-Johnson, has been a UCLA Extension Writers' Program instructor for nearly a decade. In "The Great First Impression Book Proposal: Everything You Need to Know About Selling Your Book to an Agent or Publisher in Thirty Minutes or Less" she draws upon her decades of experience and expertise to helps authors successfully execute the task they most love to hate -- writing a book proposal. In this 54 page booklet Carolyn has taken the guessing out of the book proposal process with a thoroughly 'user friendly' and effective step-by-step instructional guide and manual.

Critique: The creation of an effective book proposal cannot be overemphasized as a basic skill set for all aspiring authors seeking publication of their work -- and Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a time-tested expert on the subject. Every aspiring (and even seasoned) author needs to obtain and carefully read "The Great First Impression Book Proposal" -- and every Creative Writing class should list "The Great First Impression Book Proposal" on their supplemental studies reading lists. It should be noted for personal reading lists that "The Great First Impression Book Proposal" is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $2.99).

Books: The Making of Everything
Derek Miller
Cavendish Square
243 5th Avenue, Suite 136, New York, NY 10016
9781502647030, $24.21, Library Binding, 24pp,

Written specifically for children ages for children ages 5-8, and part of a six title series published by Cavendish Square, "Books: The Making of Everything" begins showcasing how books are made beginning with a massive roll of paper. Through high-interest photographs and easy-to-follow text, this little volume expertly explores for children just how these rolls of paper are cut, glued, and bound together. Along the way, young readers are introduced to key vocabulary and science concepts. This is the ideal gift for any author or publisher wanting to explain to their children, grand children, (or in my case, great grandchildren!) just how books are made!

Finally, "The Midwest Book Review Postage Stamp Hall Of Fame & Appreciation" is a monthly roster of well-wishers and supporters. These are the generous folk who decided to say 'thank you' and 'support the cause' that is the Midwest Book Review by donating to our postage stamp fund this past month:

Joy Smith
Bruce Perrin
Cami Murdock Jensen
Rozsa Gaston -- "Anne and Louis"
Carolyne Wilhelm -- "STEM Shorts"
Charlsie Russell -- "Requited Harvest"
Beatrice De Soprontu -- "Vices/Virtues"
Norman A. Whaler -- "A Christmas Carol"
Elissa Grodin - "A Handful of Worldliness"
Brit Lunden -- "The Devil and Dayna Dalton"
Sherene Rutherford -- "A Journey for Perlene"
Deborah Jean Miller -- "The Essence of Shade"
David Steinman -- "Money, Blood & Conscience"
Dianne Ebertt Beeaff -- "A Grand Madness, U2 Twenty Years After"
Artisan North America
Daid Smitherman -- Rand-Smith, LLC
Jordan Novak -- Royal Fireworks Publishing
Ellie Godwin -- Concierge Marketing Inc.
Elizabeth Waldman Frazier -- Waldmania!
Barbara C. Wall -- The Barrett Company, LLC

In lieu of (or in addition to!) postage stamp donations, we also accept PayPal gifts of support to our postage stamp fund for what we try to accomplish in behalf of the small press community. Simply log onto your PayPal account and direct your kindness (in any amount and at your discretion) to the Midwest Book Review at:

SupportMBR [at]

(The @ is replaced by "[at]" in the above email address, in an attempt to avoid email-harvesting spambots.)

If you have postage stamps to donate, or if you have a book you'd like considered for review, then send those postage stamps (always appreciated, never required), or a published copy of that book (no galleys, uncorrected proofs, or Advance Reading Copies), accompanied by a cover letter and some form of publicity release to my attention at the address below.

All of the previous issues of the "Jim Cox Report" are archived on the Midwest Book Review website at If you'd like to receive the "Jim Cox Report" directly (and for free), just send me an email asking to be signed up for it.

So until next time -- goodbye, good luck, and good reading!

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI, 53575

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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