Genre is a tricky thing to define. It’s important, in that it helps manage reader expectations and provides a useful shorthand for marketing and organising books, but sometimes it feels like it exerts too much control over the book world.
Books that straddle genres can be hard to market. If they’re not just rejected on that basis, they might get shoehorned into a genre where they don’t quite fit, or they might even be edited to better fit a more marketable category. But, when a book does fit into a broad category, it may struggle to stand out – Catch 22. New categories and sub-categories are constantly being invented in an effort to simultaneously group and differentiate titles.
It’s such an influential part of publishing, that most authors follow the advice to only write in one genre. To brand themselves and their books with a narrow focus.
This, of course, all pertains primarily to traditional publishing. Indie authors have more flexibility, but most will play the genre game anyway because it’s usually in their interest to do so. They are, after all, trying to sell books in the same market.
Stick to what you’re good at?
Confining authors to a single genre, even if that genre is broad, seems quite tragic to me. How many readers would claim they only read and enjoy one genre? Why would we expect writers to be any different?
Why is it so difficult to believe that a gritty crime writer would also enjoy writing a sci-fi comedy, for instance? Or maybe it’s not about inspiration and motivation, but rather an assumption that writers must specialise if they want to be any good.
There’s ample evidence that authors who don’t confine themselves to one genre struggle to build an audience, which is perfectly logical from a marketing standpoint. But, I think, over time, we’ve projected this marketing issue onto the craft of writing and given it more power than we should have.
That’s just my opinion, of course, and it doesn’t change the fact that trying to publish in multiple genres is a risky move. But, maybe there are some compromises to be found if you want to give your creativity free reign.
Here are my top 5 tips for making it work for you…
1. What you write vs what you publish
I come back to this idea a lot in conversations about genre, own voices, representation and appropriation. When someone says you can’t write something (a character identity, a story that’s not yours to tell, a genre that you’re not established in) what they actually mean is that you can’t (or shouldn’t) publish that thing. You can write whatever the hell you like – issues only arise when you seek an audience because then other people become involved in and affected by your choices.
The simplest solution to “you can only write in one genre” stifling your creativity is to write in other genres without the expectation of publishing that piece either soon, or at all.
A lot of writers hate the idea of wasting time on an idea they can’t publish, and in that case, it’s perhaps better to consider those pieces as part of a long-term strategy. There’s nothing wrong with shelving partially written or completed pieces that don’t fit your core genre while you establish yourself. Branching out later is much easier and safer than scattering your efforts from the start.
2. A second pen name
Many authors do manage to successfully write and publish in two genres, differentiating their works with the use of separate pen names, which might just be variants of their name.
You could do this having already established yourself in one genre, or you could do it from the outset if you know it’s something you want to do.
This approach is limited to two, maybe three genres. There are only so many pen names you can write under before you start diluting your time and attention so much that all the negative implications of writing in multiple genres begin to apply anyway.
3. Different format, different audience… different genre?
Different formats often reach different audiences anyway, so you might as well use that opportunity to experiment with different genres too.
If you write novels, it might not be in your best interest to detour from your core genre to publish a novel in a different genre. But, what about short stories? They wouldn’t distract or derail your core work and branding.
There are expanding opportunities in novella and novelette writing these days, offering authors more viable formats in which to tell stories. Perfect creative outlets for the genre-stifled author.
This can be expanded to different platforms. You could be a traditionally published Horror novelist, a self-published author of romance novellas on Kindle Unlimited, and share your serialised YA dystopian saga on Wattpad and hit three mutually exclusive audiences.
4. Be a blender
You might not want to write in different genres so much as you want to combine them. If you can create stories that marry your passions into something new but consistent, you could be onto a winning strategy. That could be your brand.
The emerging genre of Paranormal Women’s Fiction (which has some identity issues, but that’s a different discussion), has come from trend-setting authors marrying the cosy mystery genre with urban fantasy. The result is something more speculative than the first but softer than the second. It might have been “unmarketable” at first, but now it’s a hot trend.
Like I said at the start, genre is hard to define. So, carve out your own niche.
5. You can always become a ghost
You might wrinkle your nose at the idea of ghostwriting. The idea of having your work out there with someone else’s name on the cover might never be for you, and that’s okay.
But look at it another way – you could get paid to stretch your writing muscles in any genre you fancy, while your own brand stays genre pure and easily marketable. If you’re itching to do something different, it could be worth a look.
This has been on my mind a lot recently because I’ve been trying to decide what to do with a romance piece I wrote during lock down.
It has always been my intention to group my speculative fiction under “Chrissey Harrison” and use “C J Harrison” as my alternate pen name for pieces that don’t fit into my core brand. Right now, I’m still establishing my core genre, so I’m shelving longer pieces that don’t fit for future use. But my lockdown piece, Cat Message, feels time sensitive because it’s relevant to current events. It’s a novelette (about 15k), so I’m less worried about advancing that plan to branch out.
I’d love to hear your stories about juggling multiple genres. What choices have you made or planned to make? What advice would you give other authors?