Is There Really No Such Genre As Humorous SF/Fantasy?

Today is not turning out to be a day to be happy. At best it’s turning out to be a day to think, and it’s not proving to be the sort of thinking that leads to outcomes I like.

Why?

Well I’ve got a simple ambition – simple to define that is, certainly not simple to achieve. I want to be a mainstream, published writer, with an agent, a publisher, and books in bookshops around the world. I don’t want writing to be my hobby. I’d like it to be my job.

I received two emails today, both very nice, both very polite, and both trying to be as constructive and helpful as possible.

The first was from a fan of Critical Miss urging me to forgot about mainstream publishing and instead self-publish.

The second was an agent who, in a very thoughtful, constructive and helpful email… turned me down. Mainly this was due to my writing not setting him on fire. That’s fine. Writing is, as he himself said, very subjective, and I think humour is doubly so. But he also said something else, that I’ve previously heard from other people, which (paraphrasing his words) is this:

As far as the mainstream book world is concerned there isn’t really such a thing as a market for, or genre of, humorous SF/Fantasy. There’s just a Terry Pratchett market, and that’s that.

I can believe this to be true, which is what makes it so doubly depressing. But it seems perverse. Terry Pratchett became the best selling UK author of the 1990s by writing humorous fantasy, and the conclusion that was drawn from this was that there is no market for humorous fantasy? That’s he so cornered the market that there’s no room for anyone else?

Trying to break into the fiction market is hard enough as it is. It’s not enough to be good, I know that. You have to be great, and even then you have to find people whose tastes are aligned precisely enough with yours that you’re their kind of great.

But if you’re writing for a genre that doesn’t exist, then what’s the point? You may as well give up and go home. Or in my case, leave home and go to work (a.k.a. the day job).

Three years back, I wrote a book, Game Night, which people loved. It wasn’t technically self-published, but it was self-marketed. It wasn’t in any bookshops save a handful of Waterstone’s, where it appeared due to the efforts of individual staff who were fans. It was about a subject perceived to be even more niche than humorous fantasy. You think humorous fantasy’s niche? This was humorous roleplaying game fantasy! There was no marketing budget. There were no PR people. Hell, there were no editors.

There was just me.

And yet it’s sold nearly two thousand copies, which I’m told is pretty good for books.

At 2008’s Eastercon I had two middle-aged, female, Terry Pratchett fans who’d never played a roleplaying game in their life buy the book. They loved it. One came back the next day to say: “I was awake half the night, and it’s all your fault, because I couldn’t put it down, because it’s brilliant!”

A few months later we went to the 2008 Discworld Convention, which is, as the name suggests, basically a Terry Pratchett fan convention. We sold 76 copies, which amounts to a little over one in ten of the people attending. I’ve since met many of those people again, and they’ve all told me how much they love the book.

I’ve got a page on my website listing literally dozens of seriously nice quotes about Game Night, many of whom compare it favourably to Terry Pratchett’s works.

Barely a month goes by without someone asking me when me next book will be out. Nagging even. (I mean that literally. For the record, the most recent time was at a party in Wincanton on Saturday 5th March, whose attendees included several Terry Pratchett fans. I’m not making this shit up.)

And each time I have to tell them sorry, don’t know, but it’s a long time away at best.

Which is what I find so frustrating. On one side I have a bunch of people who like what I’ve written thus far, and who not only want more but are getting annoyed at my failure to produce something. And on the other side I have a book industry that says there’s no market for what I write.

I should stress again that I have no bad feelings whatsoever towards the agent who said this. I respect him, and value the kindness that led him to send me a personal written rejection rather than a standard form reply. If I thought his words were falsehoods backed by poor judgement they would be easy to dismiss. It’s that I believe his words to be truths backed by hard-earned knowledge that’s made me so depressed.

It’s probably a little unprofessional to confess to being depressed on my blog (strictly speaking I’m pissed off and miserable rather than actually, clinically depressed) but I figure what’s a blog for if it’s not to be occasionally honest?

I’m not about to give up. There’s still more agents out there, and I’ll keep plugging away, although it worries me that if publishers really do all believe that there’s no market for humorous SF/fantasy, then any agent who might take me on is apparently, by definition, a fool who doesn’t understand the market.

And if we get to this time next year with no progress made, then maybe I will look down the self-publishing route. But if I do, it will be with a heavy heart. I don’t want to be a salesman or a publicist or an editor. I just want to write. I’d like the prestige of being a “published” author, rather than the dubious honour of being part of a process that I once heard a big-name SF author describe as “evil”. I’d like to believe that I might one day be a guest at an SF convention, rather than just the bloke with a stall in the dealers room trying to sell his self-published “crap”.

And I fear that the day I go self-published is the day I give up on the dream of ever making a living at this. I’ve tried selling a book and it isn’t anything like as easy as people think. But maybe that’s an impossible dream anyway. Very few authors make a living writing, and in the “information wants to be free” Internet era I suspect that number will be even further reduced.

It’s not about the money. I’ll never earn as much as a writer as I currently earn as a programmer in the City. And it’s not just about wanting to do a job I enjoy – although that’s a big part of it. It’s about wanting to have time to write all the stories in my head. I bought myself a notebook recently and on the first page, wrote a list of all the novels I already have ideas for.

There’s eleven of them, eight of which are in a genre that apparently doesn’t exist. I’d like to arrange my life such that I might actually get to write them one day.

Here’s hoping.

41 comments to Is There Really No Such Genre As Humorous SF/Fantasy?

  • The sad thing is, you can’t actually take it the nice agents comments as correct. He may well be wrong there isn’t a market, which makes it really frustrating.

    There may not be a market because everyone believes there isn’t a market.

    That happens. What they really mean, is they don’t want to risk that market. Regrettably, still leaves you in the same boat!

    • Yeah, the problem is though that everything he’s saying makes sense.

      One of the things people say is that when looking for agents, find examples of authors you like who write in that genre and then find out who their agents are.

      Well there’s Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and…

      There really don’t seem to be many humorous SF/fantasy books getting published. Don’t know why. But that’s the truth.

      It’s either a market gap or a market reality and if it’s a market gap you wonder why no-one’s bothered to fill it.

      • Ian

        Publishers are, for the most part, sheep. So we get two thousand misery memoirs because someone took a risk on the first couple.

        It’s like the Italian film industry where you could make (usually unofficial) sequels to successful films, but not the original. Zombie 2, but not Zombie.

        Who is the agent for Harrison, Rankin, and (the late) Sheckley?

  • Well there’s a lot of arguments for and against self publishing I think. You could always look at it as a route to getting noticed as a ‘real’ author.
    Of course the publishing industry is currently going through the same stuff the music industry went through a few years back, with similar effects from where I’m looking (and I just read books).
    I do think a lot of people got burnt in the 80s when there was a big surge of humorous fantasy, most of which didn’t do so well.
    I dunno, all I can say is good luck really.

    • I don’t think you can see it as a route to getting noticed as a real author. There is a *lot* of prejudice against self-published writers. I wrote about this in a previous post (scroll down until you get to the separate “quote” panel:

      http://jonnynexus.com/2009/09/18/on-the-simularity-between-signing-queues-and-bus-queues/

      Basically, it’s a bit like becoming a porn star in the hope of using that to break into the mainstream film industry. Unless you’re very exceptional, it ain’t going to happen. Once you’ve crossed that line, you’re one of “them”.

      That’s perhaps a bit strong, but it really is a step you have to think very carefully about. And if you do make it, it’s got to be because it’s a route you’ve decided you want to go down.

  • Ian

    The majority of publisher-published books get zero marketing from the publisher outside being included in their catalogue! If you are really lucky, you might get the part-time help of an intern.

    The exceptions are when they’ve splashed a large amount on the advance, so it’s yet another reason to try to get as much as possible then.

    A reading of what’s published should show you that you don’t have to be great to get fiction published. You do have to be seen as sell-able though. So, with apologies if you already do this, concentrate your efforts on going ‘Look! My first book had 2,000 sales!’ rather than ‘Look! I can write humorous SF/Fantasy!’

    (Whose third party cookies do we have to enable before the CAPTCHA works?)

    • I do try to mention Game Night, but other people say that agents don’t give a damn what you’ve done before but are only bothered in the story you’ve submitted now.

      They say that your query letter should lead with the details of the current story you’re pitching, and if you put anything down before that then you’re just an amateur who’s wasting their time.

      I would have thought that Game Night’s success (small in numbers, but I’d like to think big in quality of response) would have counted for something. But it doesn’t seem to.

      As regards the CAPTCHA, I have no idea how it works. It’s just some WordPress plug-in I got from the WordPress site. But frankly, I was getting such a volume of spam when I installed it that I didn’t care how it worked! Sorry.

      • Ian

        What is going through the mind of the reader at the agents is ‘Can we make money off this and any subsequent books?’ He may well be right that he doesn’t know how he could sell it for enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

        Akismet doesn’t work for you?

        • I haven’t tried it. If it’s the one I thinking of (a non-CAPTCHA solution) it seemed a bit too much like magic, with a risk that genuine people might be locked out due to false positives.

  • Becky Ottery

    I’m fairly sure, on the basis of things like Jasper Fforde, that there are people out there selling humourous fiction that can be classed as ‘alternate reality’ – I just don’t know if any of them are spaceships and robots sci-fi type stuff. I think there’s a lot more than Terry out there in that field, Charlie Stross, Fforde, Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams is dead but left an indelible mark on the genre, Robert Rankin is still churning out barking mad stuff, there seems to be a steampunk scifi genre developing that really doesn’t take itself at all seriously (e.g. Toby Frost and such things as Space Captain Smith, The God-Emperor of Didcot, Wrath of the Lemmingmen)

    In short, I think there are publishers out there who’d publish your stuff. You’ve probably done the research, but Myrmidon Books, Hodder & Stoughton, Baen Books possibly?

    • I have been thinking along those lines. The problem is that the novel I’m currently hawking around has a pretty complicated time-travel plot. While you could try and market it as a non-SF story (ala the Time Traveler’s Wife) I fear the plot might be too complicated for those not raised on a diet of Doctor Who.

      And most of the other ideas I have really are rooted in SF and fantasy.

      If I’m going to go down a non-genre / straight humour route, I probably need to abandon all the ideas I currently have and think of new ones.

      And the thing is: I *like* fantasy and SF. 🙁

  • Bobby

    There is definitely humorous fantasy (& SF) being written and sold, but it’s not being sold as humorous fantasy, generally being sold as fantasy, and happening to be funny.

    • Becky

      This, many times over. Drop the focus on ‘humorous’ perhaps? In case you’re getting rejections because it’s suggesting ‘Bored of the Rings, not very good novel trying to be funny’ as opposed to a good story which makes you laugh?

      Also, is the time travel plot complicated for a good reason? could it be simplified in the interests of making it a more commercially viable product?

      Failing all that, is it perhaps time to be focussing on writing novel 3, since once you’re a hugely successful hit, your unpublished back catalogue becomes hugely more desireable…

      • Okay, this is a reply to both Bobby and Becky…

        I think that might be a damn, damn, good idea, and thank you for pointing something out that I might just be too close to the coal-face to have pointed out.

        In a sense, it is an SF novel that just happens to be funny. It has a full, complete plot (rather a nice one I think) and you’re right, where you do have funny stuff like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, it goes on the shelves in the SF/Fastasy section, not in a separate humour section.

        So I will excise the word “humour” from my standard query letter forthwith!

        Thanks!

      • As regards the complexity of the time travel plot, it’s probably not actually that complicated. And is in there for a good reason. There might be some more minor scenes that have little mini time-travel happenings that might be more complex.

        We’ll have to see what people think, I guess.

  • # As far as the mainstream book world is concerned there
    # isn’t really such a thing as a market for, or genre of,
    # humorous SF/Fantasy. There’s just a Terry Pratchett market,
    # and that’s that.

    You should know by now that the people who say these things are just idiots. People who define markets by what is currently the case go out of business. A famous instance being IBM, who allowed microsoft to eat their lunch because they couldn’t accept that computing was about to change.

    Equally, I remember a time when Young Adult fiction was dead, and anyone would have told you that you couldn’t sell novels to young people. They were all watching TV and playing computer games, and that was that. Of course, nowadays people will say that you can’t really sell to anyone but young adults, they’re the only people with time to read!

    I remember being told that Linux was a hacker’s toy, and that major companies would never chose to use it over ‘industrial class’ products like Irix or HP-UX (all of which are gone the way of the dodo now, I think).

    It’s always hard to get published, I’m just trying to place short stories, and to be honest it’s so hard, and takes so much time, that I really question I should be spending my time doing it. Still, if you want to get anywhere you just have to push, and push, and push, and hopefully you eventually will.

    From what I’ve seen of industry in general, people don’t actually know their own market. This is amazing, because they have more information than ever about what’s selling etc, etc, etc, but still, they seem unable to make any accurate predictions about what will and won’t sell, and it seems to be a lottery. However, they tend to *believe* they know.

    Never listen to these people, they have years of experience in their industry, but still don’t know what they are talking about.

    Colum

    • Thanks, that’s all good points. Very good points.

      Although I should stress again that while publishers might be at fault here, you can’t blame agents. There’s no point them taking on stories that they know publishers (whether for good reasons or bad) won’t take on.

      I’ll keep trying!

  • Bobby

    Having read Becky’s words, I have to agree. I have far more enjoyed books that are written to be ‘X, and funny’, then written to be ‘funny, and X’.

  • Becky’s idea is good. Remember, there are no good horror films because good horror films get called psychological thrillers 🙂

    It’s a bit like the reverse of that argument – it just happens to be funny, it doesn’t have to be its defining moniker. Like it.

  • There are more comments on the LiveJournal version of this post:

    http://syndicated.livejournal.com/jonnynexusfeed/37933.html

  • Joe Murphy

    I totally sympathise. I really do.

    But why is your goal _to be published by people who don’t want to hear from you_? That’s just a killer.

    If your goal is _to pay some or all of the bills through writing_, how about ebooks? I genuinely don’t think any of the big publishers have much of an understanding of how to market works like yours, to an audience like yours. Like everyone else says above, they know what they know and don’t look much further.

    • Sorry, late reply.

      Self-publishing is a possibility, if nothing comes of it. But having tried marketing a novel (Game Night) I can say that it really isn’t a fun process. I want to be a writer not a salesman.

  • GameDaddy

    Like they say at Nike… Just do it!

    There’s no good reason to be depressed about writing. When Ray Bradbury started, there was no market for Science Fiction… at all. Just a few periodicals like Amazing Stories (First published in 1926) Astounding Stories (First Published in 1930), Tales of Wonder (In the UK… 1937). From these three, an explosion… and by 1950 a whole new genre of literature that captured the imagination of a generation. Keep it simple, Have fun, enjoy the ride, and just keep holding up your banner for the fans, naysayers, and stuffy agents alike to marvel at. P.S. find an agent that likes Humorous SF.

  • Maintane

    Jonny, You are a very good writer, I genuinely think you can make it if you keep plugging at it. Now I’m nothing but a SF/RPG Fan, but heres my thoughts:

    1.Ever thought about dropping the Name? I’m assuming “Jonny Nexus” is a pseudonym, perhaps that can be turning people/publishers off

    2. Get an online column: you’ve had one before in an honest to god Paper Magazine, I’m sure you can get a humor strip on something like The Escapist. Do you play video games? either way I think its something that you could definitely do that will raise awareness of you and your writings.

    3. Publish online. There is amazing things going on with E-publishing right now. Is Game Night on the Kindle or I bookstores? I’d buy it in a flash if on the Kindle.

    4. Pratchett. I feel like an absolute asshole for saying but, the man has a terminal disease. When he passes his fanbase are going to look for something to fill that void. Their will we a demand for Pratchett style books, believe me.

    Look your a cool guy, you helped me out about 7 odd years ago (I was travelling to London and you pointed me toward Leisure Games were I was able to buy up big time) so I’m returning the favor. I just bought Game Night off Amazon UK.

    Good luck man!

    • Okay, lots of good points…

      1) Haven’t thought about dropping the name, no. I’d be losing a lot of recognition and loyalty I’ve built up over 13 years, and I happen to think it’s quite a cool, distinctive name for what I do. And people like it. But now that you’ve suggested this, it has occurred to me that I could try sending pitches in under my real name, and see if I have more luck there…

      2) The problem is that it’s all time. Time I spend writing columns isn’t time I spend writing novels. Also, I’m not really into video games, which is a shame, as that does cut off a few avenues. Also, I suspect it’s not that easy to get a column in a magazine.

      3) I am going to do a relaunch of Game Night at some nearish point, and it will then (hopefully) be on the Kindle. I definitely want it there.

      4) Well taste aside, I don’t think that’s a valid point. Terry’s writing one book a year; his fans buy more than one book a year. So there should already be a “void” in terms of supply and demand.

      And thanks for buying Game Night. Hope you like it!

      • Becky

        For heaven’s sake, don’t submit pitches as Jonny Nexus! Pen names go on the cover, not on your contract! That would be a second flag to a hypothetical ‘sceptical-me-as-agent’ that what I had in front of me was trying to be kooky, off beat, and in-joke ridden, probably to disguise the fact that it was somewhere between ‘ok’ and ‘not very good’. Because if it was good, and he beieved in it, he’d be selling the story under his real name, and on the strength of the story, not the flashy chrome of ‘humour’.

        • Well I should clarify that I submit pitches under my real name (so as to look like a proper, professional person) but I say that I write under the pseudonym Jonny Nexus, in the bio section of my query letter (the bit that says what I’ve previously done).

          The thought I had above was that I could take out *all* references to Jonny Nexus. The problem with that is that I then have to present myself as someone who’s done absolutely nothing writing wise and has zero online presence. (i.e. I can’t mention Game Night, can’t mention the other stuff I’ve got coming out in the future, etc.).

          It’s a bit of a dilemma.

  • Joe Murphy

    Game Night is totally the sort of thing I’d read on my phone but wouldn’t buy physically. I *might* buy it physically as a present, but only might.

    • Hi Joe,

      Out of curiosity:

      1) When you say you would read it on your phone but not buy it physically, are you meaning that you would *buy* it for your phone, or that you would only read it if it were free?

      2) Either way, is the above sentiment something you feel about books in general, or is it something unique to Game Night?

  • Joe Murphy

    I might read it if it were free. But if I bought it I’d definitely read it. I hope that sounds completely self-evident, but still, I’ve read more RPG PDFs that I’ve deliberately bought than the ones I get in the recent charity bundles.

    Game Night is the sort of fiction I like to read on my phone. Something diverting I can dip into, rather than sit and deliberately _pay attention to_ for hours at a time. That, together with some short comics, short stories and various things I save for later on my browser, say. 300-2000 interesting words to gulp.

    And free first chapters rock.

  • I really enjoyed reading Kil’n People, the humour baked into it surprised and impressed me. I think Bobby & Becky’s idea is sound.
    I think the attitudes towards self-publishing will change in the near future, and perhaps an ‘indie’ scene of meta e-publishers will arise who essentially do the same job as regular publishers, but just online and with better rates.
    Would you be able to send me a list of traders who attend games shows and stock your book? We are running a 2 day wargames show this year in Scarborough with a world record bid for biggest historical battle, with next years larger show including other aspects of the hobby, I’d love to see your work on a stall at our show.

    • Sorry for the late reply. I was away at Conpulsion and didn’t have a chance to reply before I left.

      I don’t know offhand which traders might stock Game Night. We supplied a load of books to Esdevium (a distributor) and they then sent them to traders.

      But if you send me some details (to jonny (at) jonny nexus dot com) I might be able to sort something out, if only a few copies for competition prizes and so on.

  • Maintane

    You make some good points, but I disagree with you on the “column eats writing time” argument. Even if its not a regular gig, i don’t think it would be a bad thing if you got into the gaming/nerdy humor” online journalism scene. Yes it eats writing time, but ultimately, what I thought the point here is you want to be able to quit your computer job and become a paid, professional writer. If you write these books, but can’t get them published your still stuck working as a programmer. Doing a bit of online journalism here and there is good publicity. Not being into the computer game scene shouldn’t be too much of a hinderance. The Escapist publish roleplaying related articles. As do sites like Cracked. Many of the authors who I’ve become fans over the last few years (John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow and David Wong to name but three) started in exactly the same position as you. These guy grew their readership through online articles and their blogs. You’ve already got the former, why not the latter? I’d argue that the majority of game night sales (discounting face to face sales from cons) were from people who knew you from Critical Miss. Thats how I knew you and why I added your blog to my favorites bar. Thats how you started your audience, and thats how you can grow it. Were not talking academic dissertations here, were talking 750-1500 word humor pieces (like the ones you did for free for Critical Miss). I think a bit of time invested in some humor articles will pay off in Game Night sales.
    Don’t completely dismiss the idea man, I think it can definitely be tool that will help you break into the professional market.

    • Hi there,

      Firstly, thank you for all the thoughts. I’m taking it all on board. But can I concentrate on one thing that you said, as I think it’s crucial to this entire discussion.

      This:

      “I’d argue that the majority of game night sales (discounting face to face sales from cons) were from people who knew you from Critical Miss.”

      Now I’m honestly not attempting to be rude here, but why, and on what basis, would you argue that? I say that because an argument should be based upon some kind of evidence, even if only anecdotal, and the thing is – the anecdotal evidence I have, strongly suggests your assertion to be false.

      I should stress that this is something I’ve found both a surprise and a disappointment.

      I originally wrote Game Night with a strong intention to create a novel that would appeal to Critical Miss readers. I wanted it to be very similar to the little “storyettes” with which I used to spice up articles. Its original working title/description/mission statement was: “Critical Miss: The Novel”. The idea was that the readers of Critical Miss would provide a strong initial market for Game Night.

      But that doesn’t appear to have been how it panned out.

      I don’t have any hard data on how many of the people who’ve read Game Night came to it via Critical Miss. But what I do have is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence based on the quite large number of people who’ve contacted me (in person, via email, on the blog, or by Twitter and Facebook) to say how much they’ve enjoyed Game Night.

      Very, very few of them mention Critical Miss, even when asked how they first heard about me or it. (And I do often ask directly if they’ve ever read Critical Miss).

      When the book first came out, I used to track its Amazon rankings quite closely. I would see distinct sales spikes when favourible reviews came out.

      But when I emailed the 3000 people on my Critical Miss mailing list about Game Night (which I think I did four times over two years – when it first came out, when it was nominated for an ENNie, when I released Saving Stone, and when it started being serialised on ENWorld), there was pretty much no real response in terms of sales on any of those four occasions.

      I had an interesting exchange over the weekend with a very, nice guy (should stress that!) who I’d met at the convention about five years ago.

      It went something like (as best as I can recall, not trying to exaggerate):

      Him: You are a brilliant writer! Everyone! This guy is brilliant. Critical Miss is awesome!

      Me: Have you read my book, Game Night?

      Him: No. You emailed me about it but I never bought it.

      So I’ve come to the conclusion that Game Night and Critical Miss somehow manage to be two largely separate fan bases for me, with some cross-over, but not anything like as much as you’d think.

      And that’s for a novel that was Critical Miss: The Novel!

      It genuinely is a puzzle to me. But it influences the degree to which I think doing a gaming column would help me in the future.

  • Chris Sham

    At a guess, we Crit Missers might be more into non-fiction than fiction? I certainly am.

    Any idea what portion of GN readers are also roleplayers? Perhaps there’s some participatory vs. non-participatory entertainment wossname at play.

    Still, I have been meaning to read GN for years, honest.

    • Yeah, I think it could be a non-fiction versus fiction thing, perhaps combined with people thinking of me as a non-fiction writer and not being able to visualise me as a fiction writer.

      I don’t have hard figures, but I think that while most Game Night readers are roleplayers a very large minority (a third, if I was guessing) aren’t. We’ve sold a lot of copies to Terry Pratchett fans at the Discworld convention, the vast majority of whom had never played a roleplaying game in their life, but who loved it regardless.

    • P.S. No problem with GN. Hope when you do get into it, the wait proves to have been worthwhile! 🙂

  • Maintane

    Well Okay then, I stand very much corrected. I guess I’d just assumed that was where your readership came from…So where do you think you could pull some data as to how/where people came across your work?

    • No problem! Like I said, it was something that I found quite surprising.

      It’s a tricky one. I could ask around on this blog and twitter and Facebook, but the problem with that is that this isn’t necessary a representative of the readers/buyers as a whole.