Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Keywords, caveats, and rough cactus affection

If you've been following me on Twitter this week, you'll have noticed that I'm a bit preoccupied with book categorisation. Which is why I'm asking people who actually buy books to tell me how they work out what a book is and if they're going to be interested in it or even offended by it.

You'd think it would be fairly simple to work out what kind of book you've written and which people are likely to read it. But the book world's not the tidy, controlled marketplace it used to be, when books knew their place on the shelves and librarians wore cardigans. The internet has brought us maximum choice and the ability to find what we want with ever more precise keywords, but with maximum anything comes a need to sort stuff out. And that's my challenge. It came about because of the way new categories spring up way ahead of anything BISAC (the book industry's categorisation standard) can get to grips with.

When you're marketing your own stuff you have to face keywords and meta tags sooner or later. Now, I already had problems working out whether GOING GREY was a techno-thriller, a military thriller, or military SF that wasn't really what I'd call military SF. (Blokes in armour, aliens, unfeasibly large weapons, and that kind of thing, of which I've penned my share.) I ended up taking a vote among my beta readers. Techno-thriller won, but this week I decided to switch the categories to SF/ Military and Thriller/Military after checking the titles I could actually see on Amazon in those sections.

Categories, though, are plain sailing compared to the keywords you also have to add to help readers find your book when they're browsing.

GOING GREY is about a lot of things – identity, friendships, corporations, soldiers, even strong female characters although it's primarily a book about maleness – but it's also about coming of age. Ian has to work out who he is and transition from an almost monastic life to something much more risky and unnerving in the adult world. So when colleagues were talking about "new adult" as a category, i.e. protagonists who are in their late teens or early 20s and starting out on their own for the first time, some of us thought that would fit our stories.

Unfortunately, we hadn't grasped that it had now evolved pretty rapidly into what I, being old and crotchety, call soft pr0n. One way or another, "new adult" had become a term in many readers' eyes for erotica. Now, GOING GREY is violent, full of bad language, and there's frequent blokeish obsessing about sizes of appendages and getting enough female attention, but it ain't erotic by any definition. The trouble is that "new adult" as a keyword can filter you out of some searches because of its erotica rating, which can cost sales. So I spent this morning revising the keywords into terms that were (I hope) accurate, valid for most search engines, and not accidentally misleading.

I admit being educated in a way I didn't want to be when I first looked at categories on Smashwords. (A sales channel I ended up deciding not to use.) I typed in some innocuous term like "marine" or "soldier" to see what suggestions the site threw up, and the more harmless words I added, the further I fell down a rabbit hole of erotic fiction. (Unfortunate choice of metaphor, I admit.) There were things I didn't even realise there was a market for, and that looked anatomically ill-advised to me. I gave up. I just wanted to find out how a nice girl like me could sell books full of blood, swearing, anxiety, betrayal, and willy jokes.

And that's another issue. I make a big point in the book section of this web site that I don't write YA books*. Most of my novels are M for Mature, and the ones that aren't are just as full of equally mature stuff but minus the cussing. But there are still people who might hand GOING GREY to little Johnnie because they've seen the name Karen Traviss on SW books, and that's all harmless, isn't it? I suspect Johnnie has heard a lot stronger language in the playground than in my dialogue, but I still worry about the delicate of sensibility passing out when they run into their first F bomb or colourful discussion about bodily functions. Should I stick a warning label on the cover? The consensus from an admittedly unscientifically small sample is that there was no point. Yeah, it's not like it makes much difference with games, after all.

Okay, there's a nails-looking bloke on the cover of GOING GREY, clutching a pistol and carrying a baton. He might or might not be turning into a leopard. However unusual the cover is, it still indicates an absence of unicorns or steamy sex. Caveat lector, as the Romans might have said, and those blokes knew what they were talking about.

(*If I did, I'd be much better off financially.)