If you never ask, you’ll never know.
That’s where this started.
Sales of Rangers and the rest of the Sam & Sam collection have not been what I hoped they would be. I’ve been putting them in the right places, recently, though some of the higher-tier advertisers won’t accept my ads yet, and I have been selling, but it didn’t feel like I was meeting my benchmarks. I have a number of author groups I hang out in, and we spend a lot of time talking about the big three for packaging:
Your cover brings in readers, your blurb entices them to try the story, and your sample proves that you can tell a story they want to read. The first, biggest, and potentially most important gate is that cover.
I’ve posted the Rangers cover a few places before and had people ask for the name of the designer. I love the cover, and how well it captures the feel of the series and the peculiar person that Samantha is. She’s not flashy and pretty with thick flowy hair and a warrior stance. She’s a chick in jeans with a chainsaw.
(No, she’s never handled a chainsaw in the books, *actually*, but I’m looking for my first, earliest opportunity to fix that.)
The problem is that, even if the cover fits the book, it needs to fit the genre, too.
If the cover doesn’t communicate genre, it’s not going to attract readers who are interested in it – it’s going to attract readers who are looking for something else entirely. The same problem goes with where a book is shelved – if I don’t tell my readers what it is, accurately, the right readers and I are going to miss each other.
And I was pretty sure Sam & Sam were Urban Fantasy.
So I asked.
I posted the covers for the first four books and a brief description in one of my favorite writers’ groups, and an interesting conversation ensued about whether or not a book with that cover belongs in urban fantasy. Whether or not I even was urban fantasy. What those books said they were.
And, sitting and watching these well-informed, intellectual conversations, I realized that they weren’t going to help me at all.
Authors know that Urban Fantasy is a book set in the real, modern world, usually an urban (city) setting, with a paranormal twist, usually involving magic.
But what do readers think it is? That’s what actually matters.
So I asked.
And I got answers.
Answers that have clarified a lot of things, and made me very confused about some other things. I promised to talk about the results for my newsletter, and I did, but I want to use graphs. And talk a lot more. So I also promised that they could check here for the real download on my survey results. And my immense gratitude that they took the time to answer my questions.
I’ll go through them by question, from here, and talk about what I think I learned. Feel free to straighten me out in the comments if you think I’ve missed something important.
Question 1: You’re reading a book with a scene where a demon’s still-beating heart is tacked to the door with a knife, a pair of eyes are duct-taped to the window, a swordfight is going on as the two people involved use copious amounts of magic and all of this takes place in an abandoned warehouse in a large city. Is this:
A) Urban Fantasy
C) Dark Fantasy
I allowed them the freedom to choose all that applied. This is the compiled response:
First, for the person who said “ew”. I totally get that. I do. Please don’t read Sam & Sam. It kinda gets worse from there. Portal Jumpers is potentially still a really great fit for you.
So. I thought the answer here would be urban fantasy, shoo-in, with a perfectly reasonable case for dark fantasy, maybe fantasy, and perhaps ‘other’. I thought I would get a certain number of ‘horror’ responses, because it’s kind of graphic, but I’ve thought from the beginning with this series that it isn’t horror because it lacks dread anticipation – the style of suspense is just *wrong*. So, hooray, I actually agree with these results. Completely. The number of Urban Fantasy + Dark Fantasy responses was really encouraging. Others included Paranormal (totally agree) and this, which won the whole survey for me (I know I promised no wrong answers, but that doesn’t mean some can’t be more right than others): “That depends on what city. If it’s a city in this world, it’s Urban Fantasy. If it’s an imaginary world it’s fantasy.”
So, so far, so good. I agree that I’ve got my book on the right shelf calling it dark fantasy or urban fantasy. Yay!
Question 2: What genre is this cover?
B) Urban Fantasy
E) Zombie Apocalypse
F) Is this a trick question?
Again, pick as many as you like.
The results here were… troubling. Horror. YA. Zombies. Dystopian.
I’m really not anywhere near any of these.
The rate of people picking UF was low enough that I have concluded that I’m going to have to put re-covering the series on my list of things to do, because I’m not selling to the right people. I’m just not.
Loud and clear, I think, and I’ll try to learn from it.
I think that the woman on the cover is probably too young, the color scheme is wrong, and… I might have to give up the chainsaw.
I can work with that.
Once more, thank you.
Question 3: Which of the following TV shows would you consider ‘Urban Fantasy’?
D) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
E) True Blood
Here, I knew there would be some gaps, because not everyone has watched every show, or even heard of them, but I used TV instead of books because it gives me a better shot at finding stuff people know well enough to have an opinion.
First, let me walk through why I picked these.
The ringer is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has literally every core element of popular Urban Fantasy, including featured but not central romance plotlines, a kick-butt heroine, the elder mentor, the grimoires, magic, vampires, angst, and a dark cityscape setting. And almost everyone has heard of it. I can’t come up with any reason to argue against Buffy being UF.
The next one on the list is Supernatural. There’s a case to be made that Supernatural is horror. I don’t agree with it, but I could see why you would ‘shelve’ it there, rather than UF. It’s also often quite rural. Other than that, this is my second-strongest case for UF. Magic, paranormal, adventuring, hero’s quests… On and on. Also very popular and well-recognized.
Grimm. I don’t watch Grimm. I started and it never hooked me. I consider it a little-brother to Supernatural, with a lot of the same mythological elements, the hero’s quest discovering the mythology of the world… Again, rural, and this time the world is a bit further away from ‘real’. Just a little, but it’s there. If you wanted to call it ‘mythological fiction’ rather than ‘urban’, I could see my way to agreeing that you have a valid perspective.
Charmed. The big sister of grimoire witches. Just about every mythology ever showed up at some point, the same kick-butt feminine leads. I figured that the only big miss on this one was that it’s been off the air for… kind of a long time, now. And the cityscape wasn’t quite so ‘urban’ as consistently as Buffy.
True Blood. This is the first one on the list that I might not have picked, because I think the romantic plotlines dominate the story more than a classic UF. I will admit, though, that I’ve never watched an episode – I’m going off of press and raves. I don’t know who the hero is – human or vampire. I just know that if you asked me, cold, what type of story it is, I’d call it paranormal romance.
Arrow. Another very-close-to-the-line pick. I was hoping to find that my core group of shows popped up everywhere, and that True Blood, Arrow, and Medium would show up in smaller subsets. I would say, ‘aha!’ and explain that they do have UF elements, but they’re missing core pieces. True Blood would be the central plotline outside of a romance, and Arrow is magic. I only made it about a season, but Arrow is, at its roots, a superhero plot. Can Superhero be UF? Fascinating question. Absolutely fascinating. My results didn’t help answer that question at all, I’m afraid.
Medium. This was my biggest stretch. Partially because Medium doesn’t look like an Urban Fantasy. The cinematography is well-lit, open and airy, even if it is urban. (Going solely on ads, here. Mea culpa.) It’s also a procedural, rather than an adventure. That matters. It’s also the weakest match to my core audience. I figured, of all of the shows I referenced, this would be the one that was least-often recognized, and you can’t categorize a show you don’t know. Here, at least, I think I was right. For what reason? Dunno.
The part of the results that were most mind-boggling to me weren’t the final distribution. It actually looks about right. The core 4 are best represented with Buffy winning, and the other three tail off in exactly the distribution I’d have expected. What was unexpected was how they came in.
I had three people pick six of seven. A bunch at five. I had a few pick three or four. Almost everyone else picked two or one, and the twos didn’t come in patterns. They were random. (Except Medium.)
Grimm, Supernatural, and True Blood.
Grimm and Buffy.
Supernatural, Buffy, and Arrow.
Supernatural, Buffy, and Medium.
And it goes on.
Going through it all once more, I think that I do find the trend I expected – that the young lead discovering and adventuring through a mysterious magical world full of supernatural conflict is the core of what readers see is UF – but there were a lot of combinations I didn’t understand.
Was it because I watch more TV than is good for me? That could be. It’s hard to know, given that I didn’t ask which ones they’d *seen* before I asked which ones they’d categorize, but I thought that that was overly-complex. Still think I was right, there.
That’s what I got.
Really sitting with the data in front of me and pulling it apart to write this, I think I’m reassured more than I’m troubled.
Rangers needs a new cover. Darn.
But the genre is what I thought it was. The tropes of adventuring and discovery of the paranormal resonate. And readers care enough to show up and tell me about it, when I ask.