Is the ‘local book’ label useful?

I searched on the bookshop shelf in a nearby market town but my books were not there. I asked at the counter. ‘Oh, they’re in the ‘local’ section,’ I was told, ‘in the back room’. What could I say? True, my books are set in a recogniseable area, and local people who read them are pleased to find places that they know. But all the fictional characters are exactly that, fictional, and these characters and their stories are actually more important that the ‘localness’. So why are the books ‘condemned’ to the ‘local’ shelves, alongside histories of hematite and Herdwicks?

This could be another example of the tyranny of genre. We are obliged to allocate a genre, that is a label, to our books so that the booksellers know where to put them on the shelf. And as a consequence of being labelled as ‘local’ – by others, not by me – I find myself explaining to someone in Ambleside that the books may be set on the west coast of Cumbria, about an hour away from Ambleside by road, but they can be – and are- read with pleasure by people on the other side of the Atlantic, not the other side of the county. One of the beauties of historical fiction is that – compared with contemporary fiction – it doesn’t date. There may not be a sell-by date, but there appears to be a ‘sell-within’ limitation, and I’m wondering how to get around it. I would so love to see my novels on a bookshop shelf in Leeds, or Newcastle, or even London, but the chances of that appear to be slim to none.

If I were a commercial publisher, I would find editors of the national media book sections who would commission a review, but as a self-published author the review route seems to be blocked. Do nationally recognised reviewers ever get to see, never mind read, self-published fiction, or do they, like the publishers, restrict themselves to reading that which has been already ‘filtered’ by other colleagues in the book trade? Is it worth sending off expensive parcels of books in the hope of a response? There may be a ‘slush pile’ for reviewers as well as for publishers, and I have no particular desire to end up on it. Is there anyone out there, I wonder, who would be willing to take a chance on reading a trilogy by a self-published author with pretty good sales, about an independent woman struggling to survive and maintain her integrity and independence against serious challenges in the early twentieth century?

Let’s say the trilogy is set in ‘The North’, that foreign land known only to pioneers who venture as far as the M6 and keep going past Birmingham or even Manchester. Is there such a genre as ‘northern fiction’? I’d be OK with that: there is something about this half of the country that feels and looks different than the more manicured south. But when ‘local fiction’ comes to mean ‘readable only by those within a thirty mile radius of where I live’ I get a bit fed up.

That’s the end of today’s moan. I resolve to be more positive in future.

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