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Breaking out of the Genre Pigeonhole: Tips From a Romance-Turned-Mainstream Novelist

Under the pen name Anna Schmidt, Jo Schmidt has written over thirty novels that have collectively sold over half a million copies. She is also the author of Parkinson’s Disease for Dummies and several books on eldercare published by AARP. Her latest novel, The Winterkeeper (March 2019) is her first literary fiction release. A former marketing and communications professional for two international corporations who has also taught at the college level and run a Mom-and-Pop adult daycare business with her husband, Jo is now retired and focused only on writing. She splits her time between Wisconsin and Florida.

Breaking out of the Genre Pigeonhole: Tips From a Romance-Turned-Mainstream Novelist

When the love of my life died seven years ago, it was like losing half of myself. Aside from the deep emotional toll grief takes, it brought professional challenges. As a career romance author, writing love stories suddenly became downright painful.

For years I had been contemplating breaking away from the genre fiction mold I’d been embedded in for decades, but now, moving away from romance fiction felt vital. I no longer wanted to write ‘happily-ever-after’ stories. I wanted to write ‘what-happens-next’ stories. I was fascinated with telling the story of a marriage after the honeymoon—years, even decades after. I now knew that story—the laughter and the tears of that story.

Many writers, myself included, start their careers with a singular quest: to get published. It follows the outline of the “if a tree falls in the woods” adage: You can work day and night on a manuscript, but if it never reaches readers, did it ever really get written?

If you’re lucky, you might get published. You may even have a bit of success, as I did. And I learned an important lesson: With success comes restrictions. I had sold over 500,000 copies of my romance works. How hard could it be to pivot away from romance, to be able to tell the more complex stories I wanted to tell?

The answer: Hard. Very, very hard. In the end, publishing is a business. Turning out romance novels for the legion of readers is big business. Having worked in the corporate world for two international companies, I understand that bottom-line philosophy. I don’t have to like it; I just understand it. And the bottom line was that these publishers needed me to keep writing the stories that would feed the appetite of genre readers and drive consistent, predictable sales.

So when it was time for a change—or at least a shift—my agent pitched my new novel concept to a number of publishers…and I got some of the nicest rejection letters I’ve ever received in all my years doing this writing thing. They liked the story, the writing, the characters. But they couldn’t see a viable route to cash in.

Luckily, my skin was thick, and I learned a lot. If you find yourself in a similar position, hoping to reinvent yourself as a writer and storyteller, here’s what you can do:

Center yourself on your purpose. Publishers will still want to be in the driver’s seat. But you know your capabilities as a writer, and you know where you want to go with your career. So first, center yourself on your purpose—the story you want to tell—and build your confidence up around it. If you don’t honor your story with your best attempt at getting it published, no matter what happens, you’ll regret it.

Write the book regardless of the outcome. You may have gotten used to selling each new book idea on a pitch or proposal. That will probably not work when you’re trying to break out of a genre, so consider whether you’re willing to write despite this before diving in headlong. And if you do, commit wholeheartedly to this journey. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Embrace this change of course as a new beginning. Depending on how long you’ve been in your pigeonhole, you may not be able to build on your existing career or platform, which means you may be starting over. My name carries some weight with readers of romance fiction, but would those readers follow me to something new and different? Even my work in the inspirational market—stories that were closer to the ‘big book’ novel I wanted to write—is still not necessarily close enough to catch on with my existing followers. Rather than looking at this challenge as a setbook, embrace it for the new beginning that it is, and recognize that although you may need to build up a new audience and reputation, what you’ve built to date demonstrates your capabilities.

Open your mind to the empowerment of self-publishing. If you have been traditionally published for years, self-publishing can be an eye-opening and daunting experience. After all, I was used to the publisher handling things like editing and marketing and such. In self-publishing the key word is SELF—you do everything or else you hire people to do things like editing, marketing, uploading, cover design, etc. The learning curve is steep. It took me several months—and failed attempts—to conquer it. But conquer it, I did. And you can, too. It is empowering.

The Winterkeeper—the novel I wanted to write—released this April. I published it
myself, through Amazon’s KDP program. Just as I published The Winterkeeper, I was finishing revisions on the final story of my romance series, Harvey Girls and Cowboys, and found myself wanting to tell the heroines of those novels who were bent on finding romance: “Honey, you are not getting this. Love is so much more (and so much more work) than romance! Real love is a lot more fun and challenging and even more mind-boggling than anyone can expect.”

And that’s when I realized I don’t have to choose—if I have a story to tell, there are paths for telling it. It’s my story—and my career.

Readers, have you ever changed paths? What challenges did that change bring your way? How did you overcome them? We’d love to hear your stories.