The Problem with Marketing Categories: Trilogy style

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

(This started out as a review of Fire by Kristin Cashore, but has turned into more of a review of the marketing of the novel. Cultural studies alert.  Also, mini-SPOILER alert for Graceling and Fire.)

First of all, for those of you who have read Graceling by Kristin Cashore, let’s get one thing straight.  Fire is not a sequel to Graceling.  Not even close.  If you have the expectation of opening this book and revisiting Katsa, Po or any of the other characters you grew to love in Graceling, you are going to be disappointed.  Those folks looking for some sequel-like action might consider jumping straight to Bitterblue, which is closer to a sequel, but which incorporates sly allusions to Fire.  Unlike most sequels, Bitterblue is told from an entirely different perspective and instead of the quest of Graceling or the war-time setting of Fire, Bitterblue is about trauma and recovery.  These three books do not fit the standard trilogy mold.

I have heard some people talk about Fire as a prequel to Graceling, and in some ways, I can understand that argument.  The plot of Fire occurs years before the plot of Graceling, it explains the origins of the major villain in Graceling, King Leck, and encompasses some of the same themes, substituting monsters for Gracelings. However, Fire takes place in a completely different part of the realm from Graceling in a place called “The Dells,” where no one has ever heard of the 7 Kingdoms.  The story of Fire, Archer and the civil war in the Dells has very little to do with the events that will unfold in Graceling and Leck has only a cursory involvement in those wars, really only playing a major role in Fire’s storyline towards the end of the novel.  In reality, Bitterblue is best taken as a blending of the first two books, taking motifs and plot points from both novels and combining them in a unique way to form a more complex third novel.

But here is the problem: it is really hard for a publisher to market a story, “by the same author, about the same high fantasy world, but with very little overlap in between.”  Dial Books, Cashore’s publisher, has subtitled this book, “A Companion to Graceling,” which ties the two books together without promising you any kind of sequel material.  To make things simpler, Amazon.com lists the book as Fire (Graceling), just as it does Bitterblue (Graceling).

Goodreads, the popular book sharing social network platform, has started to tie all the various YA and adult series together with a similar parenthetical note.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is labeled (Harry Potter #4).  The Goodreads system seems to allow for various kinds of complexities in world building, labeling a book like Kill Order by James Dashner as (Maze Runner 0.5); the system has labeled Fire as (Graceling Realm 2), which accurately implies that the book takes place in the same fictional world as Graceling.  The #2 denotes that Fire is the second book to be written by Cashore about this realm.  However, unlike other prequels, Goodreads does not place the title in a linear timeline.

To compare, let’s look at Robert Jordan’s epic series The Wheel of Time.  Jordan published A New Spring in 2004, 14 years after he published the first book in the series, 1 year after the 10th book in the series was published in 2003. However, the events in A New Spring take place approximately 30 years before the events of The Eye of the World, the first book in the series (Wheel of Time #1).   Goodreads lists A New Spring as (Wheel of Time #0), which places it accurately within the fictional timeline, but not the published book timeline.  It is interesting that the labels for this epic series focuses on the fictional timeline, whereas the labels for Cashore’s novels focus on the publication series.

It is a testament to the way that contemporary publishing functions, that Dial would have an investment in placing the title Graceling on the front cover of Cashore’s next book.  This placement allows them to take advantage of Cashore’s name, her previous best-seller status, and her cultural capital with readers who read and enjoyed her books (of which there are many). Had this book taken place in a completely different fictional world, it is likely that Dial would have subtitled Cashore’s name, declaring her “the award winning author of Graceling.” Or they would have declared the book, “a new book from the author of the best-selling novel Graceling.” Cashore’s name works like a trademark, reassuring potential buyers/readers that this book must be good, because it is written by someone who previously wrote a good, best-selling novel.

The back of the hardcover book jacket even has a picture of the Graceling cover printed in full color.  Below a blurb about Fire, summarizing the plight of the main character, the book jacket is emblazoned with the title in full caps: “GRACELING.”  Below the title, the book jacket then lists with bullet points a number of awards that book has won to date.  “Shortlisted for the William C. Morris Debut Award, SLJ Best book of the Year, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Finalist for the Andre Norton Award.”  Interestingly, the ad for Graceling plays up how many awards the book has won rather than bragging about how many copies it sold.  There is no mention of any bestseller list, nor any mention of the more explicitly YA awards that the novel won.  According to the book description on Amazon, Graceling won, “Winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature, winner of the SIBA Book Award/YA, Indies Choice Book Award Honor Book, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2008 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, 2008 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Amazon.com’s Best Books of 2008, 2008 Booklist Editors’ Choice, Booklist’s 2008 Top Ten First Novels for Youth, 2009 Amelia Bloomer List, BCCB 2009 Blue Ribbon List.”  The awards listed here are far more explicit in the fact that this is a YA novel then the ones listed on the back cover of Fire.  In fact, Amazon puts the awards with “children’s literature,” or “YA” first, so a (non-industry) reader will assume that the rest of the awards in the list without the same designation are also for excellence in these fields.

Why market the books differently on the book jacket versus online?  It is possible that Dial is reaching for a wider audience for Fire by failing to mention explicitly on the physical version that this is a YA novel.  In a bookstore display, the bright red cover and bow and arrow on the front are likely to draw attention from browsers looking for a good summer read. Likewise, the pull quotes on the back of the jacket liken the book to Twilight, a book originally intended for YA readers that has reached a much larger, mostly female audience.  The awards and quotes on the ad from Junot Diaz, the New York Times and Tamora Pierce lend an air of high quality to Graceling, and thus the subtitle “A Companion to Graceling” implies a far more sophisticated relationship between that book and the one in the browser’s hand, moer then merely a sequel.  This is not yet another damn trilogy of YA trash, the book cover seems to declare.

However, when it comes to online browsing, Amazon and Goodreads make the link to Graceling and YA status more explicit.  Fire comes up as a “Customers Also Bought” recommendation when searching for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergent by Veronica Roth and Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (all dystopian series novels with strong, female protagonists).  In web browsing, it is the tie to the original, popular book, the fact that it is YA and the fact that it is part of a series that makes Fire more marketable.  Many of the comments and reviews note that Fire is related to, but not the sequel of Graceling and warns fans away if they are looking for a continuation of the plot that the word ‘sequel’ promises.  Obviously, this is a common concern and a common confusion, as reviewers on Goodreads note their disappointment or surprise at the change in locale and characters from the first in the “series.”

YA novels are becoming hugely popular, and in the wake of the Harry Potter and Twilight film franchises, we are likely to see more YA series mined for film rights.  I find I am growing weary of the parenthetical notes that tell me the book I am interested is just the first in a series of books to come: I have so little time to read fiction that I fear being drawn into series that can’t hold my interest past the first novel (see my post about Insurgent below.)  In many cases, I feel the author has been pressured into writing a sequel or a trilogy by their agent or publisher, because that is what the kids seem to be buying these days, and publishers sure know how to market a boxed set of good teen books.  It gladdens my heart a little to see an author responding to that kind of pressure with a second novel that breaks the mold.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall.  

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Marketing Categories: Trilogy style

  1. Very interesting post!

    It seems to me that Cashore seems to be following the fantasy-world model established by authors like Terry Pratchett, who has 30+ books set in his fictional universe Discworld, with a whole host of (related and non-related) character-clusters and story arcs. Some of the volumes in the mini-story-arcs may be considered sequels/mini-series (the Witch books, the Watch books, the Wizard books, the Tiffany Aching books, the Death books, to name a few) within the larger Discworld series, but in terms of publication and loose timeline, they’re part of a greater Discworld arc, rather than a set of individually separated series. Not to mention, characters from, say, mini-series A, often make fleeting appearances in mini-series B or C — this helps establish the larger universe which all of them inhabit, albeit in different towns, cities, or kingdoms.

    (Spolier alert ahead!)

    Similarly, the events of _Fire_ are set in a different kingdom and happen a couple of decades earlier than _Bitterblue_, but characters from the former make guest appearances, as it were, in the latter. Cashore has created a pretty fantastic, complex universe, and a way to look at her works in terms of world-building and ordering of books, etc. may be not just through the lens of YA fantasy (or US YA fantasy specifically), but of fantasy as a broader genre of writing.

  2. Pingback: Trauma and Recovery: A Fantasy about Recovery and Reconciliation « Kid Lit at UF

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