The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Tropes DAMMIT!

So What the Hell? Who cares about all this shit?

I was asked this the other day in reference to why I have been focusing on genre tropes for the last several weeks.

Here’s an example of why genre and trope matters.

I was recently approached by a person who wrote a book.

This person’s friends told him that his book was great, that he should publish it. Keep in mind that none of these people had ever written a book before, had ever studied craft before, and had no idea about marketing, or any of that other publishing business stuff. This writer then paid A LOT of money to a “publishing company” to publish a print run of his book, and make an ebook. A LOT of money.

The writer came to me because no one was buying the book, no one. It wasn’t selling on Amazon, indie bookstores declined to sell it even after the writer stopped by to coax them to carry it, B&N wouldn’t carry it. There were zero purchases on Smashwords. And this writer didn’t understand what the problem was. He believed that this thing should be flying out of bookstores and funding his retirement based on his friends’ opinions and the work that the “publishing company” did.

I took a deep breath, and looked at the book. I asked the writer some questions. I looked at the book. I took another deep breath and got a cup of coffee and did my best to explain.

Here’s the deal.

This writer is passionate about history and wrote his book based on a historical reference. He believed the book to be historical fiction. Fiction is the key word for this writer, and it was the only thing he considered when categorizing his book. In this writer’s mind, books are either fiction or non-fiction, and since there is an historical reference in the story, it must be historical fiction. He spent money marketing this thing as historical fiction. He spent time. He worked hard at selling his book, which he believed to be historical fiction.

Except it isn’t.

Historical fiction is a genre where the setting is the most important literary element, so the time period must be accurate and authentic. The plot revolves around some factual historic event, or the plot is fictitious but revolves around an historical time. Readers expect something like the oversimplified explanation above when they buy historical fiction.

This book is speculative fiction.

What’s the problem with speculative fiction?


The problem is that the author is peddling his book as historical fiction, and any historical fiction reader browsing the back cover would know immediately that the book is not historical fiction. Historical fiction doesn’t have time travel, dream sequences, and is not alternate history. Speculative fiction is all well and good in and of itself, but this particular reader is looking for historical fiction. The reader puts the book down. No sale.

Booksellers won’t carry the book because they know that genre matters. Trope matters. The reader expects what they expect. If the bookseller were to put the book in the historical fiction section, it won’t sell because the reader is expecting historical fiction, but the book is not historical fiction. If the bookseller were to put the book in the speculative fiction section it wouldn’t sell, because it is packaged as historical fiction and the reader will pass it by because the reader is looking for speculative fiction and this book is disguised as historical fiction. No sale.

Because readers buy books based on expected tropes, the book must be inclusive of the trope. The bookseller has to know where to put it on the shelf. The marketing person has to know which readers to entice. If the book doesn’t fit the category the reader is interested in, then the reader won’t buy. No sale. It is that simple.

Granted, there are crossover books and there are also books the defy trope. This book is not that, and so the author is left with several boxes of books which are both unmarketable and unsaleable. All because he didn’t understand trope.

So that is why trope matters, dammit! The book has to go someplace on a shelf to be found by a reader looking for that kind of book.

That is what the business of publishing is all about.

So learn your tropes, people. Learn your tropes.

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