Writer, Boxed

Writer, BoxedI have a confession. When it comes to art or entertainment, I don’t like categories.

It wouldn’t occur to me to put the books, music, or art that I like into any category more specific than “stuff I like.” But I realize most of the world doesn’t think that way.

And the publishing business definitely doesn’t think that way.

So today I’d like to share some thoughts about how fiction is categorized, raise some concerns about the obstacles that these categories (or genres, in publishing parlance) can present, and explore how to make these categories work in your favor.

Why genre matters

Whether you’re pursuing conventional publication, or looking into self-publishing, you need to be aware of genre – and its importance to you as a writer. To an agent or editor, identifying your book’s genre helps them determine if and how they can sell your book.

Please notice the “if” in the previous sentence. If what you’ve written is difficult or impossible for agents or editors to categorize, you’re going to have a really, REALLY hard time getting them to go to bat for your book. Similarly, if what you’ve written falls into a genre that the agent doesn’t represent, or one that the editor doesn’t want or need in her catalog, then you’re in a “do not pass go, do not collect $200″ scenario.

Don’t freak out about this; just do your homework. It’s not hard to figure out which genres specific agents represent, and paying attention to what kind of books the various publishing houses specialize in is good basic intel for an aspiring writer to collect.

On the upside, clearly identifying your genre can help agents and editors, by giving them a vision of how your book can be sold and marketed. (If “sold and marketed” seems backwards to you, I’m referring to selling the book to a publishing house, and then marketing it to readers upon publication.)

Clearly identifying your genre can help agents and editors, by giving them a vision of how your book can be sold and marketed. 

If you’re self-publishing, genre is still important, but for different reasons. While you won’t have to deal with the “gatekeeper” function that agents and editors serve in conventional publishing, you’ve still got to put real thought into how to market your book. Amazon only offers you a limited number of keyword “tags” to apply to your book, and those tags are very important in making your book visible to the right readers.

Most successful self-published authors do a fair amount of experimenting and strategizing when it comes to tagging their books, aware that it can make a big difference in their sales. Although Amazon’s tags are not limited to just popularly accepted literary genres, their function is still the same: to identify what kind of book you’ve written for somebody who has not yet read it.

Why genre can be a problem

Okay, those are some reasons why genre is important. But genre can also be an enormous pain in the ass. Here are four reasons why:

1. Genres are anything BUT universal.
Read some literary blogs, and you’ll see an amazing variety of genres discussed. You’ve got chick-lit, thriller, fantasy, coming-of-age, post-apocalyptic, romance, dystopian, young adult, new adult (which makes me wonder, is there an old adult genre?), science fiction, paranormal, mystery, women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, sparkly teen vampire, left-handed-people-with-freckles fiction, and God knows what else. If you are so inclined, you can slice and segment books into a seemingly infinite number of genres, getting more and more specific as you go. And maybe that’s helpful for an agent pitching a book to an editor.

But here’s a question: Where are all these genres when you walk into a bookstore or library? My local Barnes & Noble only has Literature & Fiction, Mystery, Romance, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. No dystopian. No women’s fiction. No sparkly vampire. And my local library only offers one additional option: Western.

2. Genres can be deceptive.
To make matters worse, many books don’t seem to be shelved accurately – at least to my tiny mind. Want to read the latest hilarious parody of South Florida weirdness by Carl Hiaasen? It won’t be under humor. And I doubt you’ll find a “hilarious parody of South Florida weirdness” section in your bookstore. No, you’ll find Carl’s latest book shelved in the Mystery section. Why? Because the very first book or two that he sold were mysteries. But the last dozen or so, not so much. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Strip Tease, which was made into a movie starring Demi Moore. Where’s the mystery in that movie (beyond wondering whether her boobs were real)?

Where are all these genres when you walk into a bookstore or library? My local Barnes & Noble only has Literature & Fiction, Mystery, Romance, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. No dystopian. No women’s fiction. No sparkly vampire. 

Ditto for the later works of Elmore Leonard. If you’ve seen the movie Get Shorty (based on his novel by the same name), maybe you can tell me what the mystery is, other than how Travolta gets his hair to look so good. But like Hiaasen, Leonard’s first books were mysteries. So that’s where the rest of his books have been shelved, decades after he quit writing straight mystery.

3. Genres can kill your book if it doesn’t fit nicely into one.
Here’s where we get to the part where I’ve got some real skin in the game. Prior to writing what became my debut novel, I wrote a mafia comedy that I felt was very much in the vein of Leonard or Hiaasen, or of movies like Analyze This, Get Shorty, or Mickey Blue Eyes – all comedies that played up the funny side of organized crime.

The book had a lot of Leonard-inspired wise-cracking dialog between low-level gangsters, and a significant portion of my book was set in Florida, the state to which both Hiaasen and I are native. I had thought long and hard about my market, and had pitched the book as one that would appeal to readers of Hiaasen and Leonard. Given their cross-over success with books that became movies, I figured this would be very appealing to the publishing houses that my big-name agent was targeting.

No such luck.

The book got a fair amount of positive feedback from editors. Some even loved it. But nobody would buy it – mostly because they didn’t know where they could shelve it. There was nowhere near enough crime in the book to qualify as a mystery. And nobody was kidding themselves that this was literary fiction. Bottom line, they didn’t know how to package it in a way that they thought would generate enough sales to be willing to bid on my book. Particularly with me being an unknown author, they weren’t willing to risk publishing a book they couldn’t easily categorize.

I recognized my mistakes belatedly. First, I hadn’t realized that Hiaasen and Leonard were still shelved in the Mystery section. That’s my bad – I didn’t do my homework. I had focused on the tone of their books, not where they were shelved. Second, I was thinking more about movies than books. Although mafia comedy is a popular genre for film, it hasn’t really carved out a space in the literary marketplace. The other movie my book was most similar to was My Cousin Vinny. But where in the bookstore or library is the ethnic fish-out-of-water comedy section?

Oops. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

4. Genres put you in a box.
Western society has fallen into a strange kind of prejudice. We tend to believe that a person who is really good at one thing can’t be really good at another thing. And maybe that’s true of some people. Our first reaction is often cynicism when we see a movie star trying his hand at fronting a rock band. Or a pop star trying to be an actor. Or when a romance novelist tries to write a thriller, a children’s author writes a detective novel, and so on. Some of that cynicism is well-earned. I doubt that many of us have invested in a complete collection of the musical works of Bruce Willis. And Patricia Cornwell proved pretty decisively that she should not try to write comedy with the mind-bogglingly awful Isle of Dogs.

Western society has fallen into a strange kind of prejudice. We tend to believe that a person who is really good at one thing can’t be really good at another thing. 

But what about the ones who CAN pull it off? Janet Evanovich went from writing romance to the tremendously successful Stephanie Plum series of comedic crime novels (shelved in the Mystery section, for those who are curious). Kay Hooper went from romance to gripping suspense novels, some with a supernatural twist. (Some of these are still shelved in the Romance section of my local B&N, despite their murderous content.)

Have you ever seen the delightful movie The Princess Bride? Or watched Marathon Man, the white-knuckle thriller about a Nazi war criminal that starred a young Dustin Hoffman? It may surprise you to learn that both of these were based on novels by the same author, William Goldman. He also wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men.

Wow – talk about an unboxed writer. I love Goldman’s writing, and am so glad that it has found its audience(s). But I submit that he’d have a harder time in this micro-categorizing day and age.

The pen-name solution

An increasingly common tactic when an author writes something in a different genre than their previously published work is to adopt a pen name. On one hand, this can be empowering, giving the writer a clean slate, particularly if their previous books have not sold well. But it also helps them keep from shocking or disappointing the readers of their previous books, who are likely expecting the next book from their favorite authors to be similar to their previous work.

I ended up taking this approach with my second book, because it was such a departure from my debut. I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think the audiences for the two books are likely not very similar, and in particular I was concerned that the amount of profanity in my second book would not go over well with fans of the first (see my exploration of how readers react to profanity in this WU post). On the other hand it’s a little frustrating to have to hide my own name from something I’ve written. I mean, William Goldman didn’t have to do that. (I hasten to add that I don’t kid myself that I’m a writer of William Goldman’s caliber – no way, no how. But it’s something to aspire to.)

Ultimately, I just didn’t feel my second book would be considered an appropriate follow-up to my first, and my first one was definitely more in the style of what I most want to continue to write. So I’m hanging on to my own name for future books in a similar style, and may use my pen name for other less serious work. We shall see…

Making genre work for you

I hope that all of you will take a hard look at your own work, and think about where it fits into the currently accepted genres. Particularly if it’s your first, please give this real thought. Think about authors whose work you consider similar, and/or whose readers you think would also like your own work. But once you’ve done that, don’t repeat my mistake. Get thee to a bookstore, and see where their books are actually shelved. Then ask yourself whether your books would belong on those same shelves.

Once you’ve identified your book’s genre, learn the rules. Most genres have some well-established conventions in terms of word-count, language, acceptable levels of violence and sex, and so on.

Once you’ve identified your book’s genre, learn the rules. 

If the thought of this makes you bristle, please know that I’m not trying to get you to stifle your creativity by conforming to some rigid but arbitrary conventions. But particularly as a debut author, I think you’ll find that the easier you make it for an agent or editor to package your work – even if it’s in their own minds – the better luck you’ll have getting them interested. And if you’re self-publishing, the better awareness you have of the conventions for writing, packaging and selling books similar to your own, the better numbers you’ll see in your KDP sales reports.

Like I said, I don’t like to think in categories, so the concept of genre can still be pretty annoying to me. But I’ve learned to take it seriously, and I intend to leverage what I’ve learned to help me become more successful as an author. I hope this post can help you do the same.

How about you?

Got any genre-related war stories or battle scars? Some supporting or conflicting thoughts about what they are and/or why they matter? I’d love to hear your input, so please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Nice overview, Keith. “Writer, Boxed” is a perfect title. This reminds me of what Joyce Carol Oates said regarding the horror genre vs literary genre. “…I have reprinted Lovecraft tales in anthologies of ‘literary’ stories in the hope of breaking down the artificial barriers and unfortunate prejudices between genres.”

    I wish more agents, publishers, and marketing gurus had some of Oates’ perspective as I’m sure it would be good for readers to step out of the box too.

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    • says

      Thanks for sharing Oates’ viewpoint, Paula – I’d add a big “amen” to her sentiments.

      That said, I have to be realistic about how the game is currently being played; that’s why I devoted an entire post to something that I basically dislike. (Wow, if I keep this up, I may do an entire post about Clive Cussler. Oh, the humanity!)

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  2. says

    I have some genuine genre concerns, but I am comforted that my big picture genre is epic historical fantasy. Although I don’t have many actual “fantastic” elements, and one might better call it alt-historical, I remain confident that the overall feel will best appeal to readers who love traditional epic fantasy.

    I think I’ve gained the most trust in this conclusion by taking a look at my beta-readers. Gauging with whom it best resonates, and taking a look at what they best love to read. A simple stalking… I mean, ‘interested perusal’ of their Goodreads and Facebook profiles can offer a lot of insight.

    Thanks for the helpful analysis, Keith, and best of luck to you in your genre hopping!

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    • says

      Thanks, Vaughn. Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good grasp, but I’d still recommend that you check your local bookstores and library, to see where your book might ultimately live. As I noted, my local B&N lumps Sci-Fi and Fantasy together into one section, where you’ll find everything from Asimov’s I, Robot to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings; from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones to Hugh Howey’s Wool. It might be interesting to see where your favorite alt-history books are shelved.

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  3. says

    No war stories or battle scars as a children’s writer … but I’ll share a little story. My kids used to think Ms. Frizzle was real because the books were shelved in the nonfiction area. So at a very young age they learned not to believe everything they read in print.

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    • says

      LOL – thanks for sharing that, Vijaya.

      Now that you mention it, there have been times that I’ve doubted that this guy Lemony Snicket really is who he says he is…

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  4. says

    Keith-

    It’s a vexing subject, genre, especially for those authors who don’t fit neatly into one. At my agency we have a lot of experience with that. “What genre is this?” A frequent question around here, but we have some answers.

    First, genre is a retail convenience. Putting books in categories helps consumers find what they like. But what if your work stretches, blends or defies categories? What are you supposed to do?

    Putting your book in a category doesn’t define it or (I hope) change what you wrote. What it does do is give your book a launching pad, a place where it can begin to find its audience.

    Put differently, a genre label only locates you where *most* of your potential readers might be found.

    Second, not fitting in can be a strength. Two of our biggest clients started out doing something almost no one else at the time was doing. Today, Anne Perry is synonymous with historical mysteries. Jim Butcher is the granddaddy of urban fantasy.

    Great stories can create genres or sub-genres. This happens all the time. Mystic River and Twilight are two novels that also made new story patterns successful. When a new form of story works it works because the author has written a great story.

    (Didn’t care for Twilight? Quite a few readers did and it’s useful to to examine why. Take a look also at the breakdown here on WU that I co-wrote with Lisa Cron of what made Fifty Shades of Grey popular.)

    http://writerunboxed.com/2013/08/06/fifty-lessons-from-fifty-shades-of-grey-part-i/

    Keith, you raise the issue of doing your research and learning genre rules. I am all for satisfying readers’ expectations *when it serves your story*. Just ignoring genre rules is careless but breaking them can be done if it serves you, if done deliberately and with panache. I’m especially in favor of subverting character stereotypes, worn story tropes and default genre vocabulary.

    Genre doesn’t need to be a box or a headache. It can be a help, and also a challenge to liberate oneself as a storyteller.

    Make genre work for you–just as you say, Keith. Nice post. Thanks.

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    • says

      Thanks, Donald – THIS is a great aspiration:

      “Genre doesn’t need to be a box or a headache. It can be a help, and also a challenge to liberate oneself as a storyteller.”

      That’s how I’m trying to treat it these days, but you put it more clearly and succinctly than I’ve heard it described previously. Nice!

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  5. says

    This is a great summary on why it’s important. I have found that my writing tends towards fictionalized superheroes, which means it’s either sci-fi or fantasy. I’ve been trying to stick to the sci-fi side (powers and gadgets are scientifically explainable) of it, but there might not be any point if most superhero fiction is listed under fantasy in general, especially if they ever appear in graphic novel format.

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    • says

      Heather, the world definitely loves superheroes, so I bet you’re in good shape. You may want to do some recon at various bookstores and libraries, to see how other “superfiction” (hey, now that’s a cool name for a genre, eh?) is shelved. Good luck!

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  6. says

    Oh, I absolutely have genre-boxing issues. After writing my first novel, which could only be made to fit into the broad category of “women’s fiction,” I intentionally wrote my second to be a contemporary romance, with the idea that it would be easier to market if it fit neatly within a well-defined genre. Except I didn’t quite make it. The heroes aren’t tall, handsome, or troubled. They’re not even alphas. All of the main characters – including the late 30s heroine – are a little immature. The dialogue is more funny than sexy. In fact, even the sex scenes are funny. It turns out that what I really wrote was a romantic comedy that happens to have a lot of graphic sex in it. Not quite to genre after all (sigh). But you know what? I love that freaking book! I still crack up when I read it, and if the fact that it isn’t quite a traditional romance makes it harder to market, so be it. It’s a problem, to be sure, one that might mean my work will never find its audience. But I just wouldn’t have had any fun writing it any other way. And to me, that would have made it not worth doing.

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    • says

      Lori, that sounds like a great read to me!

      One thing I’ve been surprised by is how hard it is to sell humorous fiction. It’s odd – we love funny movies, but a funny novel is hard to pitch for some reason. Good luck with it, and congrats on having told a story that you loved – I believe that love will show through to the reader.

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  7. says

    One of my favorite topics. I’ve been writing mystery and suspense, but recently decide to write a book that is not quite post-apocalyptic, because there really is no apocalypse, just the collapse of the U.S. economy and the ensuing fallout. And it’s not quite dystopian because it could happen tomorrow and there’s no nasty government in place. So it’s a bit in between (though I could drop a nuke and call it post-apocalyptic). Since I am unpublished, I understand the risk. I just may end up with traditionally published mysteries and self-pubbed End of America novels. But at least we have that option now. Most of us aren’t desperate for the huge advance payout (I hope), so this new era offers us a wonderful opportunity to experiment. We really can find our nich audience of 2000 readers. That would be 1999 more than I have now. Thanks for the great post!

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  8. says

    I enjoyed reading your post, Keith. Thank you!

    Being aware of the genre I fall under has not only helped me brand myself, it has also helped me during revision. I like to write with no audience in mind, but revision is another matter. At that stage, it’s all about addressing the question, “Can I sell this?” and the process doesn’t end until the answer is yes. That process leads inevitably to genre, because determining who this will be sold to means answering the related question, “Who?”

    There’s always going to be those who read outside of genre, and its great to have universal appeal, but failing to define your audience is like batting a ball into outer space and hoping it will land on the moon. (Sometimes, it does! Sometimes.)

    So, although I like to borrow elements from all sorts of genres, my goal, overall, is for the one I’ve branded myself under to stand out and make that principal audience happy. Is there erotica? Mystery? Paranormal? Suspense? Horror? Sure. But these are muted shades of paint, brief brush strokes on the fantasy canvas I’m presenting. Ironically, though, I find begin a writer boxed has given me greater freedom, because I’ve got a strong framework, one which allows me to explore other avenues of expression I wouldn’t otherwise dare.

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    • says

      Great thoughts, Graeme – thanks for chiming in. In particular I’m intrigued by your final statement:

      “Ironically, though, I find being a writer boxed has given me greater freedom, because I’ve got a strong framework, one which allows me to explore other avenues of expression I wouldn’t otherwise dare.”

      I’ve been experimenting a lot with structure in my WIP, and I’m having a similar experience: by trying to adhere to a specific structure, it’s opening up new ways of thinking for me.

      I’ve seen analogous things in my life as a musician. Sometimes changing or reducing the components of my drum kit causes me to approach it with fresh eyes and ears, often prompting me to play things I would have never thought of without having imposed that change or restriction.

      Fascinating stuff!

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  9. says

    Accidentally marketing to the wrong age group and audience can be devastating for sales and reviews, as I learned when I self-published my first book.

    I wrote a book featuring teenagers acting like teenagers–whiny, insensitive, selfish, and clueless. Since my protagonists were teenagers, I naturally thought the novel’s genre should be YA Contemporary. The thing is, though, teenagers hate reading about real teenagers. They like reading about idealized teenagers–characters who are brave, good, noble, long-suffering…you get the idea. I hadn’t written a book for teenagers. I had written a book for mature adults about teenagers.

    But the cover, description, and Amazon keywords for this novel made it look like a YA romance. The adolescents and twenty-somethings who bought and read it hated it. They said it was boring and the spoiled heroine was super annoying. Much older beta readers who would never have bought it because of the way it was marketed–my parents’ friends, my father-in-law, aunts twice removed–loved it. They said they couldn’t put it down, and they thought it was hilarious because they all had a daughter or niece who acted exactly like the heroine.

    The genre you choose for your book determines more than where the bookstores shelve it. After a glance at the cover, the title, and the description, potential readers are already mentally writing the story they think will be inside. The genre sets up expectations for what they’ll feel and experience as they read it. If you set up false expectations, they’ll be disappointed and potentially angry.

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    • says

      Tamara, sounds like you learned some powerful lessons – thanks for sharing a real-world example of how a writer’s misunderstanding of genre can have serious consequences. But the cool thing is how much this has apparently heightened your awareness of how the game is played.

      Your final paragraph really nails the importance of the expectations you set for your readers, and what happens when you don’t meet them. Great insights!

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  10. says

    I am definetly having genre woes with my latest project. Lots of agents read and praised it, but basically said “the MC is 22, what am I supposed to do with this?”

    Fortunately, because it’s contemporary and there is a strong romantic element, my current agent thought it could work in New Adult (I had been pitching it as that to a few agents, but the speculative and mystery elements confused things.) She’s helped me play up the romance. Now I’m just hoping editors won’t be too scared off by the other components. Fingers crossed :-)

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  11. says

    1. Where were you twelve years ago BEFORE I started writing my transgenre’d novels? Such good information here.

    2. I am oddly fascinated by fake breasts so I would have wondered the same about Demi. My husband isn’t sure what to make of my fascination.

    3. I totally want a pen name. I think I’ll go with “Demi Moore.”

    Fab post . . . and such helpful information.
    Thanks, Keith.

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  12. says

    Thanks Keith for a useful and timely post. I’ve just had first novel published as a Thriller and it is very obviously about horses. It has a sequel, in the pipe-line, but I may have a problem.

    Next novel being edited has no horses, although it is a mystery or thriller. Still in ‘Mystery’ section but it is a cyber-crime with strong fantasy links. And my short stories are all SF/fantasy but ready for the world unlike novel No 2.

    Who am I? What am I? Boxed?

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  13. says

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Keith! I hadn’t realized how much of a problem this might be for me until recently. I had always hoped (rather naively) that if a book was good enough, it wouldn’t matter what genre! But you make excellent points about how the publishing business views it.

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