I recently wrote a post (on my very occasional blog) about the way theme gives depth to one’s reading experience regardless of how a novel is otherwise categorized. There are themes inherent in each category, of course, but in the better books there is something more, something that lends resonance.

Let’s take for example Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. On one level, like all thrillers, this is the story of individuals overcoming great odds. On another level, however, lies the theme of the dangers of genetic engineering. The expected theme, when executed with some degree of originality, keeps us rooting for the protagonist. The greater theme engages us more deeply in the material by asking ourselves how we may be complicit in the real-life underpinnings of these fictional events.

Such are the considerations I give to my work when I’m wearing my author’s hat. But, interestingly, theme also plays a part when making publishing decisions.

For Verbitrage’s first product, I had to decide between two novels that I’d already written. The first, Cadaver Blues, had the advantage of having been exposed serially to tens of thousands of people on The Nervous Breakdown. The second, Primacy, had been read only by my agent and a handful of (rejecting) editors.

I thought of potential book publicity, which essentially breaks down into two kinds of coverage: reviews and non-reviews. There are more reviews in the blogosphere than ever before, but fewer in mainstream media. Reviews are nice, but it’s the other stuff — the feature stories and their ilk — that are most likely to break out a book.

To analyze the prospects, I had to divorce myself from what I liked (or didn’t like) about each novel and dig into the threads that ran through them.

Cadaver Blues is a relatively conventional mystery. Beyond the search-for-truth aspect of all mysteries, it had a couple of themes. One was the theme of prejudice, which I discussed briefly in the aforementioned blog post. The other (which I didn’t mention in the blog) was the theme of debt settlement, people losing their houses to the bank, etc.

These themes seem au courant in some ways, but the former wasn’t going to sell books. And who would be most attracted to the latter? Well, forgive me, but I concluded that it was folks who would be least likely to have the disposable income to buy my book right now.

When I analyzed Primacy, however, I saw a different story. Here was a thriller with an off-the-book-page hook: animal rights — something about which there is a passionate following. Animal rights people have a point of view that they’d like to have heard by the broader world or, at least, confirmed by others. In support of that point of view, they belong to groups and they express their interest in myriad other ways. In short, they provide a potentially vast, vocal and well-off crossover audience for the novel.

Just this month two non-book events may have inadvertently helped me prime this pump. First was the release of the new Planet of the Apes movie, which shot to No. 1 at the box office. Second, just last week an op-ed in the New York Times revealed that there are coming hearings in Congress on potential legislation to ban laboratory testing of great apes.

The odds that anyone will draw a line directly from these events to my novel are, of course, slim. But they raise awareness in the ether, and that’s something that I might benefit from when my publicists pitch to journalists and bloggers or when I run ads on the internet promoting the work with an animal-rights-related tease.

Of course, despite having thought this through with great care, my roll of the dice could come up snake eyes. The early trade reviews, however, have been encouraging.

Kirkus, with its usual cynicism, threw in a snide remark about “overwrought philosophical dialogues,” but that was almost a parenthesis in a sentence that directly touched upon the novel’s theme. (Full sentence: “Depending on where the reader falls regarding the novel’s overwrought philosophical dialogues on the nature of sentience, a talking chimp could seem like either a novelty act or the most profound challenge to human supremacy and self-regard ever.”) Furthermore, the review goes on to praise my writing (“deft, fluent”) and to call the book “good, boisterous fun” and an “entertaining thriller that’s more fun than a barrel of overgrown monkeys.”

The point is that the reviewer saw the overarching theme, and so did Publishers Weekly, which hit the thematic nail on its head when it concluded: “Those with an interest in animal rights will be particularly enthralled.”

Find me an animal lover. I already did the rest.

Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 21: Nine Lies Your Publisher Told You

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 23: Editing and Its Discontents

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Buy Primacy from Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Visit the Verbitrage website.

Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

5 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 22: Marketing ‘Theme’ in Fiction”

  1. Tom Hansen says:

    Interesting. I’m wondering how deliberately you chose/decided on the theme of animal rights, how you politically presented that theme, and if you feel that it may possibly limit the exposure the novel gets. You will certainly strike a chord with animal enthusiasts, but beyond that…? Animal enthusiasts tend to be very liberal. I get that a good majority of book readers are exactly that…I’m just curious. When working thru the disconnected uprisings that become the global revolt that forms the backstory of my forthcoming novel I had to examine how these uprisings began: should I make them leftist (the poor rising up against the man) which would eliminate any appeal the book might have to more conservative readers, or should I make it for example right-wing gun nuts rising up against big government? Which would eliminate another good section of potential audience. In the end it was easy for me; I eliminated the political aspect as much as possible and focused on the human ‘reasons’ behind the revolts, which conveniently falls in line with my personal political beliefs and also gives the novel appeal to readers of both leanings. It’s a delicate process. You look at a movie like Taxi Driver, and the argument could be made that Travis Bickle would fit right in with the Tea Party and yet a lot of very liberal movie fans love that character.

  2. J.E. Fishman says:

    Personally, I would not — and did not — make a storytelling decision based upon marketing considerations, other than trying to produce the best, most meaningful reading experience that I could provide. I don’t think a writer should attempt to create based upon what he or she thinks will sell. Once it’s done, however, you can step back and ask yourself what you have to market. That’s what I did here.

    As for how the issues are presented “politically,” the book is not a political statement. Every reader has to judge for him- or herself how the characters’ various points of view affect them.

    • Tom Hansen says:

      True. And I think refraining from making a political statement was a wise choice. It’s just something I’m seeing more and more of, and personally I feel as fiction writers we should stay out of making political statements, even subtly, with our stories.

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