Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Do you know who said: "I've always acted alone like the cowboy . . . the cowboy entering the village or city alone on his horse . . . He acts, that's all."

John Wayne? Ronald Reagan? Alan Ladd?

Nope. Henry Kissinger made this remark to the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, during a 1972 interview, although her style more closely resembled an interrogation, which often prompted intriguing answers.

Nevertheless, Kissinger's remark, in his own way, perpetuated the myth of the lone cowboy as the reality of the west.

Much of the perception of the American West was shaped by stories that presented a mostly romanticized view, pitting cowboys against Indians, and lawmen against outlaws. Even though most writers today offer more compelling and realistic views of the Old West, it's difficult to breakdown the barriers of perception.

Novelist Jory Sherman, the Western Writers of America's 2013 recipient of the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature, contends that "As long as they label our books westerns" publishers are "locking us into a sub-genre that does not appeal to wider markets."

He believes such stories should be called American novels, and many labeled as mainstream.

"We are the only country in the world that has a West. The western is our Native American literature. We have an exclusive on the West and it’s the richest part of American history. And, the books should not be confined to a certain locale or time period."

Using Jory Sherman's comments as a benchmark, several authors and author-publishers were asked to respond to three questions:

  • How limiting is the Western classification in attracting new readers to the genre?
  • How much merit is there to changing, or re-defining, the name of the genre and would it make a difference in attracting new readers?
  • Would expanding the appeal of the Western involve more than changing the genre classification?


Rebecca J. Vickery, Author & Publisher, Western Trail Blazer

In the minds of most new readers, if you say Western they think only of gunfights, Indian wars, or trail drives. 

This in itself is pretty limiting as to which new readers would be attracted.

And in using the same style covers and the same style blurbs, how are new readers to know that these Westerns are exciting, well told, and worth their time?

Parents, many teachers, and politicians often discourage young people from reading Westerns because the stories contain guns and violence, can be racist toward Native Americans and blacks, are often a bit religious, and most contain some lessons on morality.

At Western Trail Blazer, we've had some success in attracting new readers by adding sub-genres to the classification of Western - Western Romance, Paranormal Western, Contemporary Western, Historical Western, Western Adventure, Traditional Western, etc.

But as a publisher, when we upload books, the classification choices are limited and we are often stuck with Western as the only choice, which fits.

Changing the name of the genre Western as a whole might help, but readers might also feel misled, or that it was another publishing marketing trick, and it could backfire.  My recommendations to expand the appeal of the Western to new readers are fairly simple:

·       Be honest with the readers about what they are getting by using sub-genre classifications and tags when possible
·       Make the covers and blurbs stylish and as true to the story as possible
·       Offer blogs, discussions, and interviews which will be interesting and draw from outside your normal followers
·       Use social networks to make "virtual" friends who often will become customers
·       Cross-promote with other Western authors, publishers, and organizations for the good of the entire genre
·       Don't be such a "traditionalist" that you can't see the merit in the Western sub-genres which are actually drawing in new readers.

Nik Morton, Author / Editor

One part of me abhors labels. It's as if authors have to be pigeonholed. That's why some resort to pen names. Some publishers don't want their crime authors to be seen to write westerns etc.

The publishers and critics are to blame, I suspect: western literature isn't - literature, that is, in their view.

Yet labels do appeal to readers who want that type of book. If a reader lives by the credo 'I don't read westerns', simply removing the label isn't going to win him over, unless he's particularly dense, as the blurb alone will tell him what the story is about.

Although I write westerns, they're aimed at any reader, not only a western aficionado; a very few of my readers who haven't read a western before have been pleasantly surprised. So what am I saying? Would those readers have picked up my western if it had been labelled differently? I don't think so - the blurb tells them it's a western, and they don't read westerns...

It's not the classification; it's the public perception of the genre that needs work. There are plenty of readers out there who don't read crime, or sci-fi, or mysteries, or romance. They have set ideas, set perspectives, and it's difficult to shake them.

All we writers can do is strive to produce a quality product that can stand up against any other genre in storytelling, style, appeal and narrative flow. Word of mouth can sometimes help. Occasionally, a book becomes a breakout novel - it transcends its genre. If it happens to be a western, then maybe that will help others too.

Cheryl Pierson, Author,  & Publisher, Prairie Rose Publications 

What an interesting perspective from one of the masters! I never thought about it this way until Jory put it in these particular words.

American Novels—what an all-encompassing term that does justice to our writing about OUR COUNTRY!

When you think about it, novels that take place in other parts of our country aren't labeled as such.

What WOULD you call a story that takes place in the 1800's in Boston, New York or Philadelphia? A "patriotic" novel? An "Eastern"? What about a novel that takes place in the 1800s in New Orleans?

These are all "American" novels, and so should the story of the western history of our country be called, as well!

Johnny D. Boggs, Author

The perception can be limiting. For most people, and quite a few publishers, Western brings to mind Louis L'Amour, Matt Dillon and Randolph Scott. If you write those kinds of stories, great. It depends on how you want to market yourself.

You can say, 'I write Westerns,' or 'I write historical novels set in the American West.' When I'm introduced as an historical novelist, the reaction can range from 'Cool' to 'Boooring.' Yet when someone introduces me as a 'Western' writer, the most common reaction I get is eyes-open-wildly-curious-WOW!

So there is immediate name recognition there. Like Jory Sherman says, 'We are the only country that has a West,' and people everywhere know what the West is."
An attempt was made several years ago to use the word Americana. It went nowhere. They have tried Novels of the West, which did a little better.

But you have to be careful about changing a brand, a known commodity. If nobody knows what the label means, you're doomed to obscurity and remainders.

Good or bad, people know what Western generally means. I think the best thing writers can do is write the best story they can, be it contemporary, historical, frontier, literary, mystery, young adult, romance, horror, crossover, whatever.

I was just talking to a couple of editors and an agent—none who represent me —while in New York recently about that very thing. Bottom line seemed to be you have to write something that will appeal to mass audiences, particularly female, and definitely not just the older male Western reader.

You have to have great blurbs from powerful people on the cover. You have to have a publisher that will release it in hardback and do some promotion for it. And you have to have a tremendous amount of luck and timing. None of which comes easy.

But there is a tremendous amount of popularity and sales in Western nonfiction, which seems to be intriguing publishers in Western fiction. Best-selling nonfiction writer Jeff Guinn (Go Down Together, The Last Gunfight, Manson) has signed a three-book deal with Putnam for Western fiction. I'll be interested to see how those novels will be marketed. But if they do well, the exposure should be good for all of us.

Robert Vaughn, Author

During an interview for this blog's StoryTeller's 7, novelist Robert Vaughn addressed this same topic:

Jory Sherman once wrote a brilliant piece about the Western, and how it is the true American art form, a morality play of good verses evil. 

And, and there is nothing I could say that could possibly add a thing to that.

I know this: The Western is Americana, but it is certainly not limited to Americans. 

I met fans of the genre when I was in Germany, I know there are fans in Great Britain, and I have sold them in England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Japan, so they are there too.

I think a lot of readers, who haven’t read Westerns, may not understand the scope and richness of the stories.

Some may remember the “B” Western Saturday Matinees and equate them with Western novels.

But anyone who has read Frederic Faust (who wrote as Max Brand, and was killed in Italy during WWII) Owen Wister, Louis L’Amour, or Jory Sherman, knows that a well-written Western can have the depth and richness equal to any work of literature.


  1. Excellent article, Tom. Thank you.

  2. Good stuff as usual, Tom. But where do we go from here? What can Western Fictioneers do about it?

  3. Tom, this is just fascinating. I'm so glad you got blogger to cooperate with you and managed to get it posted, because I wouldn't have wanted to miss it. So many great comments on this topic, and I'm glad you seized on what Jory said and made us all think about it.

    I have been so, so fortunate to have Western Trail Blazer as my publisher for all my western novels and several short stories! Rebecca does a great job of getting our books out there to be seen by as many as possible, and that's one of the keys, I think. Also, we have to just turn a deaf ear when others say "the western is dead"--it never will die; it might go through some downturns, but truly, what other period in American history is as limitless and exciting as that of the western novel--in any of its various forms?

    In our new publishing ventures, we Livia and I aim to promote westerns in a different way. In PRAIRIE ROSE PUBLICATIONS, we hope to encourage more women authors to not only write western romance, but to branch out and try pure westerns, as well. Our other imprint, PAINTED PONY BOOKS, is for anyone who might want to submit stories for middle grades, YA, or "New Adult"--ages 18-24, a new genre that has just lately come upon the writing scene. In this way, we're hoping to encourage more authors to write westerns for young people, therefore encouraging more western books to be available for young readers.

    Thanks so much for a wonderful, informative, and thoughtful post, Tom.


  4. Richard, Chuck, glad you liked it. As far as where do we go from here, good question. I think Rebecca provided an important point when she pointed out that distributors often lock publishers into classifications. So, it would seem that an change-improvement-would have to involve cooperate at several levels. If that's even possible.

  5. Cheryl, everyone seems to have their own perspective. And, as you mention, Rebecca does a good job with distribution, especially utilizing sub-genres, which can help readers in the selection process.

  6. Very interesting post, Tom. Good to have those different voices.

  7. Yes, Keith, I enjoyed the different takes on the issue.

  8. Great article! Spot on about the American West. No one has this and Europeans are crazy for it. It is also something I have been pondering as I work on my first book, which in my head is one of a series of three. My goal is get the story and characters that have been simmering in my head since the 6th Grade, out there in a way that will go over well and sell.

    Has anyone ever considered that part of the problem is the audience. I suspect a majority of the western readers are older people who are very set in their ways and dying off.

    There's got to be a bridge to attract the younger generation, who have so much technology at their fingertips, they need to find the adrenaline rush that a well written gunfight or sex scene would give them. I was hoping there would be a resurgence of interest in westerns when The Justified tv show came out. The character is so reminiscent of the old time gunfighter in the beginning and the constant talk of the draw down, as well as a later episode where there was a soon to be dead guy practicing his draw.

    Apparently young people didn't pick up on that, and with the few western movies that are being made, the primary older audience cans it before they give it a chance.

    I do think the issues pointed out with the publishers, covers, marketing, labels, does have a lot to do with it. But also, a good story is a good story, and that is the bottom line. Look at all the movies made from books that are not mainstream fodder.

    I certainly don't have the answer, but the marketing aspect, second to the fact that one is promoting a great story, is the biggest issue.

    Maybe take a hard look at the audience of readers out there and work on finding out what attracts them and use it. If it means more modern covers, more modern language, whatever, do it.

    Ater reading some of the five star review Western books from Amazon, I feel much better about my own writing. I didn't like some of these five star books. Awkard language of the day which didn't read smoothly and not much character development. Good story lines though, story lines that had they been beefed up with some good character development would have really made them that much better.

    There does seems a division in the readers and followers of westerns. Those who want completely historically correct, and those who want a believable good story. That could be a small part of the problem.

    Very thought provoking blog.

  9. Thanks, Tom. Great post. Interested to see Jory Sherman's comment re "American novels." I used "an American novel" as a sub-title on my 1st novel, a story revolving around small town football in the heartland [GAME]. Don't know if that's the reason, but it consistently sells more than my "historical western" and my "mystery."

  10. I am a fairly new author, having 3 western short stories published in anthologies in the last 2 years and a novella this past February. I am a traditionalist having been introduced at a very young age to the genre, both movies and books, by my Dad.
    I just have one question. Why do we have to sub-genre the western to find readers? The readers are out there. Just in the short time, I've been published, I have found readers who had never read westerns before, read mine, became fans, and are now reading other authors.
    I don't have a problem with promoting the genre. It now comes with the territory. If I hadn't stuck it under their nose , they may not have read it and become a fan.
    You're finding it on the big and small screen, too. Now, it seems, you can make a show that takes place in a western state, put a western hat on the characters and call it a modern western. Really? Longmire is no more a western than Walker, Texas Ranger or Brokeback Mountain. I cringe when they call Brokeback Mountain a western. And it's a far cry from what I call a western, AMC's Hell On Wheels.
    But, that's just one new author's opinion, who is forever a traditionalist.

  11. Glad to see the discussion has sparked some strong opinions.

    -Donna, you make a good point about the audience, but it's our job (writers and publishers) to market our wares to readers, otherwise our books are nothing more than products on a supermarket shelf. The real question is how best to reach those readers who have never discovered Western literature.

    -Phil, I remember seeing "An American Novel" on your cover. Since it out-sells your Western and Mystery, is the reason the subhead, or reader taste? But the answer, I think, represents a pretty involved statistical challenge.

    -Larry, sub-genres, at least in my opinion, represent an additional marketing device to hopefully broaden the appeal of a title. Maybe someone who wasn't interested in the "Western," per se, might be attracted to a "Western Romance" or a "Western Mystery," for example. But, you hit on the real hands-on strategy position what you've written "under their nose..." Up-close-and-personal marketing often does wonders.

  12. I'm in agreement with Boggs. When I tell people I'm a writer, they always ask what kind of books. Although I've written a popular novelization of the Constitutional Convention and a contemporary thriller, I always answer that I write Westerns. That always gets a reaction. There is brand recognition. In the past when I said historical novels,the conversation went off in another direction. The reaction to saying Westerns is not always positive, but it keeps the talk centered on my books. All of us Western writers probably ought to quit agonizing over the genre popularity and just ride for the brand.

  13. James- Brand recognition, when you come down to it, is what we're all striving for--even thought the reaction to writing a "Western" isn't always positive. At least readers know what they're getting.

  14. I'm always interested in perspectives in marketing. I asked my 13-year-old grandson if he liked Westerns and he said no almost automatically. I asked if he liked adventure stories--he said yes. I asked if he liked books with fighting--he said yes. I asked if he liked books where the hero and heroine fall in love--he said only if it's not gooshy. Yes, he did like Cowboys and Aliens, and he also liked the new Lone Ranger movie. The four grandsons all love Blazing Saddles and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Still, they don't seek out Westerns. Maybe it's a matter of making Westerns "cool" enough for a teen or tween to admit they like them, and to seek them out.

  15. Jacquie, good point. "Cool" could be the issue in some cases. But I enjoyed your informal poll with your teen-age grandson. Kids apparently don't consider Westerns adventures.

  16. The labeling has nothing to do with it. It has to do with understanding why people like the genre, and looking for pockets of people that like things that are similar, and connecting with them. The music business does a pretty good job with this - perhaps we need Pandora for books.

    For example, there are about 8 million people in the US that have a carry permit. There's a cultural link between the cowboy strolling around with a sixgun on his hip, and modern day armed citizens. Read the book "Gun Guys" by Dan Baum. Even though he's an outsider to the gun culture, he captures the essence of what "gun people" are all about better than anyone that's ever tried before.

    A great example: SF author Larry Correia (Monster Hunter series) is a "gun guy". There are people that don't read SF, who are gun people, who read his books because they are getting discussed outside the insular circle of SF readers and authors.

    Here's a thought -- invite Larry, and/or some other authors whose fans are potential western readers - to join the Wolf Creek universe and contribute chapters. That might provide some crossover traffic from people who are most likely to appreciate what you do now.

  17. The cowboy western has been pretty well defined by Hollywood, and I wouldn't change that. I've come to think of it as a sub-genre of a much larger genre, "frontier fiction," which covers any story that takes place in the American (and Canadian) West.

  18. Such an interesting blog and discussion. Honestly, I never though about westerns in a different light. What really got my attention was the term "American" stories. I really connected with that. Every country has a western, as in border, but the west means something different to us here in America. It's a big ol' chunk of our identity and our history. Now that you've put this intriguing dilemma before us, what would you want to call these stories that take place west of the Appalacians? This will be very interesting.

  19. Interesting post and discussion, folks. I am proud to say that I write Westerns and like Mr. James D. Best said, I ride for the brand.