Popular Marketing Mistakes: Cannibalism
1. The Sadness — It is too Much!
When my first book, The Inferior, came squalling into the light back in 2007 it received absolutely wonderful reviews.
“Read this and remember why Science Fiction lit your fire in the first place!”
“An exhilarating read, highly recommended and an incredible first novel in what is going to end up an incredible career.”
It made several “Best of the Year” lists. Foreign editors snapped up the rights. An agent in Hollywood got excited about the idea of a movie. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for a start, nobody bought it.
By nobody, I don’t just mean sweaty little nerds like myself with fistfuls of notes or book vouchers. No, the shops didn’t want to buy it either. They failed to stock it, or did so in small quantities. They were right too, because the few copies that made it into stores gathered dust or wept quietly in the back of warehouses.
After “Best of the Year” lists, The Inferior began turning up in other places, such as “most underrated book” lists and — now that I have two novels in print — “most underrated series.” That’s a gentle way of saying “loserville.”
Yes, this depressed me and I whined to whoever would listen until I bored my friends to sleep with it. I didn’t understand back then that both myself and my publishers had made some interesting mistakes in our marketing of the book.
2. The Cannibal Conundrum
When a publisher buys a manuscript, they are often looking for something “fresh”.
What is your Unique Selling Point (USP)? they ask. What makes this work different to all the others fighting for shelf space out there?
In my case, the answer was “cannibalism.” I had done something interesting, I believed. I had made cannibals sympathetic, lovable even.
I had created a dystopia so vile that even Sauron wouldn’t want to live there, and in the midst of it, a heroic people who made the best of it. They survived by hunting the intelligent creatures that shared the world with them and by wasting nothing — not even the flesh of their own loved ones.
The publishers agreed with me and pushed the cannibalism element strongly on book covers and in marketing materials etc. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. A Quote
I Google my name now and again, usually in a desperate hope that people will suddenly start buying copies of my books.
A few have, as witnessed by the quote I came across on October 29th:
I am always on the lookout for books I think my son would like to read, Sci Fi is his thing and so I bought these thinking they might be a goer. They are about cannibals, and nano technology and nano-enhanced agents, and love, and courage. All sounds great except the cannibal part.
That final sentence says it all, really. “All sounds great except the cannibal part.” I have come across this sentiment so many times since the release of my book, but never understood how damaging it was. Cannibalism might have been my USP. It might have been a great trick I managed to pull, but nobody realizes that until after they have read the book.
Things that might interest them before reading include: the idea of a small tribe fighting desperately for survival against an intriguing array of monsters; the mystery of the world itself; action and romance and even terror. But instead, the buyers look at the back of my book and all they think is… “ick!” This goes double in the Young Adult sector of the market where a great many books are bought by grown ups for loved ones they think need to be protected from such concepts. “Ick!”
4. Lessons Learned
Now, of course, nobody really knows what makes a hit and nobody can say for sure if the “ick” factor played a major part in my downfall. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that the way to an agent’s heart — USPs — is not the best approach for winning over the majority of the reading public who just want to disappear into a great story. That’s what I originally set out to write, believe it or not, but readers will never discover that for themselves if they can’t get past a certain word on the back cover.
Anyway, see what the lack of fuss is about for yourselves. Sample chapters are here for Kindle, Nook (or other ePub readers), PDFs.
I swear it won’t encourage you to cook your neighbors. Much.
Great post. And I’m truly sorry you had to live through this. I recently had (and am still having) the opposite experience in one respect: my agent, after reading the last manuscript I sent him, asked me point blank what books it is most similar to. His exact wording was, “What titles does this sit next to on the shelf?” It took me six months to deliver an answer; time will tell if it’s a good one.
Thanks, Mark. Best of luck with your own adventure!
Huh, Amazon informs me I bought the first one back in March. The fact that I haven’t read it yet shouldn’t alarm you–I have literally thousands of books in my library waiting to be read, probably after I retire I expect.
The “bargain” hardcover price is less than the Kindle price, at the moment.
I will admit, the cannibalism isn’t something I would want described in gory detail, but I expect there probably isn’t too much of that in these books? And really, what are zombie stories except tales of near- or real-cannibalism, depending on your POV?
Many years ago, I was reading Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game”, and had to quit reading right before the woman in the story had to “deglove” her hand, because just thinking about it made me feel woozy.
I finally returned to the book to finish it maybe six months to a year later, and the descriptions weren’t nearly as bad as I had expected, thankfully.
In fact, as I think on it more, zombie stories are even more disturbing for at least two reasons.
One, the zombies themselves are usually putrid and rotting.
Two, zombies usually start eating their victims while they’re still alive, which is usually not true with cannibals.
Thanks a lot for getting it, awsnyde! I promise it’s not particularly gross 🙂
I agree that zombies *should* be more disturbing, but they have become too ubiquitous for that now.
Perhaps The Inferior will be the Lud-in-the-Mist of cannibalism novels, still popping back into print a century hence with effusive forewords by the luminaries of future generations.
Thanks, Sarah, that must be it 😉
Well I squick easily, but I loved both books, and I wish you’d get a move on with the third!
The ability to squick is not to be underestimated 😉
Muchas gracias, Sheila!
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