Genre-bending

Here is a terrific questions from sboman:

I wanted to ask your opinion about a subject my LJ friends have brought up. You are the perfect person to answer. It was about writing in different genres and whether you think that hurts you with followers wanting more of the same or has helped reach new readers or whether you haven’t noticed anything at all.

Some of us have been given the impression by industry professionals that you need to brand yourself – find a schtick and stick with it. How do you feel? Have you thought of the risks in switching genres or do you think there’s no risk at all? Any publishing people try to give you their input on the direction they would like to see your writing take?

Thank you for asking. This question goes to the heart of the tension between art and the marketplace.

In an ideal world, we would write the stories in our hearts and they would connect with readers and there would be peace in the land and health insurance for all. We aren’t quite there yet.

If you want your writing income to pay your bills, then you need to understand the perspective of the sales and marketing departments of your publishers, and you really need to respect how hard their job is. (If you want to make a living from your writing, be sure to read my post about the cold financial realities of being an author.)

Let’s imagine you’ve written a blockbuster YA novel, kind of edgy, kind of fresh. The readers loved it. Bookstores are eager for your next piece. So you turn to your heart and you say, “Heart? It’s time to write another book. What edgy, fresh YA topic are we going to explore now?” And your heart says, “I’m not in the mood for YA right now, but I have a great historical fiction idea.” So you follow your heart and write for a couple of years and turn in the historical novel and what is going to be the reaction at your publishing house?

In all likelihood, there will be a deafening silence. Later there will be meetings and emails (that you will never see) in which people ask if you, the Author, have lost your mind. And there is a better than average chance that your book will be turned down. If they publish it, do not expect a ton of marketing money to be lavished on it.

Because selling books is hard. Very, very hard, and the profit margin is so slim, there is no room for error. I know some readers squirm when I bring up “profit margin” but the reality is that this is a business and without the profit margin, we’d just be photocopying our stories and giving them to friends for the holidays.

A sales rep has one minute – tops – to present your book to the buyer at the store. The bookseller has less than a minute to explain your book to a potential customer. If that customer loved your first book, they will eagerly reach for the new one. They might love it, too, but if it’s a radical departure in genre or tone from your first book, they will scratch their head. Or – worst case – they could throw the book at the wall in anger because you disappointed them. And they’ll never trust you again, and won’t buy any more of your books.

End of career.

Does this mean you are doomed to write one kind of book only? Of course not! But if you want to write in different genres, be aware that it is going to take your career a lot longer to get rolling, and yes, you will meet with resistance from your publishers because by asking them to embrace all of the facets of your writing career, you are asking the impossible.

Please note: I write in different genres. From July of 2008 to July of 2009, I am publishing six books in five genres:

July 2008 Independent Dames – non-fiction picture book about history
Oct 2008 Chains – middle grade historical fiction
March 2009 Wintergirls – edgy YA fiction
April 2009 – Vet Volunteers books 8 & 9 — reissues of a series that I wrote for a different publisher a while back – genre: series realistic fiction young readers
July 2009 – The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher – picture book (fun, not facts!)

How am I able to do this without driving my publishers crazy?

I work with different publishers.

Viking/Puffin is my YA home. They have done a terrific job establishing my presence as a YA author. Simon & Schuster is where my books based in history are published, and I’ve done a couple of fun picture books with them, too. I think it’s safe to say that my books have a consistent “brand” within each house, and that seems to be working.

It is interesting to note that the two streams of my writing: historical and YA, don’t necessarily feed off each other. I’ve met countless people who have read my YAs and Fever 1793 (my first historical) and never made the connection that the same author wrote all those books. Even though I use the same name.

So, to answer your questions:
1. It is certainly easier to stick with one kind of book.
2. There are risks involved in genre-switching. Your publisher could refuse the second kind of book, the sales reps and book sellers will be confused about how to promote your work, it will be harder for your career to gain traction.
3. You need to write the story in your heart. If you want to switch genres, go ahead. It worked for me…. though I admit, I think it has taken longer for my career to get rolling because of it.

Any questions, gentle readers? Thoughts?

26 Replies to “Genre-bending”

  1. I have been selling mysteries and thrillers steadily since 1997.

    The two times I wrote something else, it didn’t sell. Although it could be a coincidence. One was chick lit written after the peak had passed. And one book did not fit in any genre at all, really.

  2. Thanks for this–it’s an issue I’ve been thinking about a bit myself lately!

    What’s your take on writers using different names for different genres?

    (Over on another list this has come up a few times, with quite a few writers saying they feel the need to use different names when they use different types of books so readers know what they’re getting, though it seems to me the packaging takes care of that to a large extent …)

  3. Yep, bottom line, it’s a business. You make some excellent points. The other thing newer authors don’t think about sometimes are the readers! I get asked all the time in my notes from readers, what other books have you written? Since it’s my first novel, there aren’t any others, but because I went right to work on a second book and it’s coming out a year from the first one, I can at least say, watch for my next one Jan. 2009!

    I’m trying to build my YA career with S&S, and will continue to write books that I think my readers (and editor!) will like. But I also wrote a fun MG this year, and so we are shopping that around. Ideally, I’d love to be like you – one house for the YAs and one house for the MGs. We’ll see…

  4. I agree. I love reading your industry related posts. Sticking to one genre really worries me… how does one decide which direction to go (especially if there are many interests)?

    Amber

  5. I do something similar

    My Native contemporary fiction is at Harper, my funny picture books with Dutton, and my YA fantasies with Candlewick. That said, I think that writing across genres makes me a better writer–period–and that strengthens the body of work as a whole. Great topic! Thanks, Laurie!

  6. I see someone else has already asked this question but…..is this why authors write under another name? If I remember correctly Stephen King did that. I know years ago women would do this so their work would get published as it was considered too accomplished for a woman to write under her own name or write at all for that matter. I think Jane Austen blazed the trail on that one.

  7. Great post. I like your approach. As for taking longer for your career to get going, yes, but now you have a much wider audience and so many more possibilities.

    Sometimes the marketplace really does dictate. John Grisham keeps trying to write stories that aren’t legal thrillers. Yes, they’re still best-sellers but his fans sure do seem to complain a lot whenever he “steps out of line.”

  8. So insightful, thanks. After doing only picture books for a decade, my first YA came out this year, which was the story in my heart. Well, my evil, twisted heart, but still…

  9. Thanks Laurie, exactly what I was looking for.

    From a reader’s perspective (me) I have to say I was way surprised to find out the person who had written Speak wrote Fever 1793. I had to actually put the two books next to each other and make sure.

    What didn’t make me walk away was that I knew you were a strong writer already, having read Speak, so I trusted your other books (luckily in genres I also like) would be the same. And I was right.

    And to all who read this: CHAINS is an incredible book and a must read – I think it’s Laurie’s best book yet, and that’s saying a lot. Buy it, read it, love it!

  10. Interesting post. Dana Stabenow, author of two fairly successful mystery series and so far two standalone thrillers (and a few SF/F books that are no longer in print), has been saying she would like to publish a history novel, but her publishers wouldn’t buy it and would rather she stick with mysteries and thrillers.

    As a reader, I’ve never really stuck to any one genre. I’ll read them all and will follow authors I like to wherever they’re shelved or what they choose to write about. This also reminds me of Bujold’s speech in which she discuss three different definitions of genre (among other things, including a new Miles Vorkosigan books).

  11. This was a really interesting post to read.

    I tend to follow authors around from genre to genre, and try out things I mightn’t normally because of who’s writing it, and it impresses the hell out of me to see good writers being able to handle not just one, but two or more ‘types’ of fiction. 🙂

  12. As a reader, I’m also a follower of authors…if I see something I like, I will seek out other books by the same author. That’s why, for example, I went looking for Fever 1793 after reading Speak.

    Thanks for the perspective. 🙂

  13. I do have a question:

    Do you go through an agent for both publishers? The same agent? When pitching differently genred stories to an agent, will they facilitate dealing with two different publishers for one client?

    1. Hi Afraclose,

      I just thought I’d jump in here and let you know that an agent is more than happy to work with multiple publishers for the same client. Usually an agent takes on an author with the intent of building their entire writing career — so if an author that usually writes YAs comes to them with a picture book, they’d shop that as well (as long, of course, as they felt it was market ready.)

      Hope that helps!

  14. Timely post for me, Laurie. I’ve thought about branding before and wondered about you, and the likes of Cynthia Leitich-Smith and Kate DiCamillo. What’s their brand, I asked myself, those genre-hopping phenoms? I answered myself with one word: literary.

    As an author who sold her historical novel but can’t imagine (at least yet) ever writing another one, I’m so glad to know it’s at least possible to satisfy your heart and make a bit of cash to go with it.

    Thanks…

  15. Genre Bending

    I’m hoping to be able to hop genres. First, I have to get a book published but then . . .

    Thanks for this post – it gives us hope.

  16. Genre Bending

    I’m hoping to get a ya novel published and then hoping to get mg novel published. Since others who posted here have done it, I see it’s possible. Thanks for spreading the hope.

  17. Writing for children would be so much simpler if we took the lead from authors like Mercer Mayer and Bruce Coville, right? Grin.

    I like the way you have managed your “genre-bending” talents by working with different publishers. After I read your post, I decided to categorize the manuscripts I’ve been working on. What a surprise! All four of my middle-grade novels are fantasy, four of the five picture books are humorous, and both young adult novels are dark and suspenseful. I had no idea there was a little common ground within the genres. I feel a little less scattered now.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It gives me something to work toward,

    Kimberly Lynn

  18. It’s funny; I remember reading the Vet Volunteer books when I was very little and them being my favorite books at the time. A couple years later I read Fever 1793, and THAT became my favorite book. About two years later I read Speak, and that became, and still is my favorite book. I didn’t realize that you were the author of all of them until about a year ago when I started actually paying attention to author names along with the title.

    I think it’s more of your writing than the genre that pulled me into each of them. I’m fourteen now, by the way 🙂

  19. Very helpful post!

    As a visual artist, I’m all over the place. So, it’s not surprising that after my first book came out (a multicultural PB based on a folktale), I’m itching to do other types of books. Thanks so much for your insights, Laurie. It’s great to know that I won’t need to create a pseudonym every time I switch genres. 😉

    Edna

  20. I stand corrected in regard to Bruce Coville. I had no idea he wrote picture books and young adult! Cheers to his “genre-bending” talents, too.

    Great post!

    Kimberly Lynn

  21. Wintergirls

    Interesting post. 🙂 I’m anxiously awaiting your next YA fiction book Wintergirls (YA’s my favorite genre). Can you tell us what it’s about without spilling the beans on any top-super-secret details? ‘Tis killing me. ;]

Comments are closed.