An article discussing the effect writing in multiple genres has on one's success.
Originally posted in "For Authors Newsletter (January 21, 2015)"
WRITING IN MULTIPLE GENRES
A little over a week ago, I set up a poll called "Writing in Multiple Genres: Good or Bad?" , designed to help answer one of the most enduring questions authors face. It seems that opinions on the matter can very greatly, from thinking it doesn't matter at all to the polar opposite view where it's incredibly detrimental to an author's chances of success. Here's what the voters on Writing.Com thought of the question:
That's a pretty overwhelming majority of respondents who feel that writing in multiple genres has a net positive result. It should be noted, though, that of the 30 respondents to the poll as of the writing of this article, 23 of the "multiple genres has a likely positive effect" votes were from self-admitted multi-genre readers and/or writers themselves. (It would have been 24 if I could have voted in my own poll! ) So is there any truth to the data, or is it just our wishful thinking? Here's what some actual people from the world of publishing have to say on the matter:
"It’s simply not feasible, especially in today’s competitive market, to try and be a jack of all trades. You can’t reinvent the wheel every time out. Choose the one thing you enjoy most and do it the best you can."
-- Rachelle Gardner (literary agent)
"When you are beginning as a writer, by all means, explore a few genres. Find out what seems the most fun to write, the best fit for your writing skills, what you are passionate about. Then focus. If you write a young adult contemporary and then the next book you pitch to us is for an adult, dark literary thriller, you are going to get an eyebrow raise."
-- Kristin Nelson (literary agent)
"The short answer is that it depends on which expectations you want to set and what your goals are. The longer answer is that Sean and I argued vehemently for writing across as many genres as you want under your own name, and that Dave disagreed with us."
-- Johnny, Sean, and Dave (hosts of The Self-Publishing Podcast)
"It’s important to identify your target audience for each genre. You need to define who they are, and learn about what they care about, what their challenges are, and how you can serve them. If you write for multiple genres, the audience for each will be very different—and you need to understand those differences."
-- Stephanie Chandler (author, bookstore owner)
"If you want to write different genres, use a pseudonym … stick to one name, one genre, because you’re building your brand, and brand building is a function of clarity – clearly communicating what you do, and what your product is."
-- Russell Blake (author)
"[My fans are] like, 'You know I’m not a big romance fan so just let me know when you’re going to write another paranormal or fantasy book and I’ll buy it.' And I was really kind of disappointed because I thought it was me they were following really like, 'it’s her voice.' So at first nobody followed me over so I kind of started from scratch with the romance but then when I started getting attraction in the romance and they started seeing my name and some good reviews I then had several of my YA readers go, 'You know what? I don’t normally read romance but I’m going to read it because it’s you and because I’m hearing good things.' So I did eventually get some crossover readers but there was definitely resistance there. And as far as the romance readers crossing over into the fantasy stuff, no it just doesn't happen."
-- Elle Casey (author)
"Will someone who loves your mysteries also enjoy your YA paranormal romance? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s assume you have a few faithful readers who will try anything you write, or who just happen to enjoy both of those genres. We’ll say, thanks to the success of your earlier works, you have 3,000 readers who bought and adored the novels in the first genre you tried. You’re hopping over to a new genre, and only 10% are willing to buy the new book. That doesn’t sound like many, but 300 book sales in the first few days of a release will get you onto some category Top 100 charts on Amazon, where your book has a chance of being seen by new readers, readers who adore that particular genre. They may not recognize your name, but if you have a good cover, blurb, and sample, they may give you a shot. And if they see that you’ve written another series that has garnered lots of positive reviews, that could be enough to sway them to try this new novel. From there… well, one never knows when a book given a head start like that can take off and sell well."
-- Lindsay Buroker (author)
If anything, this relatively small sample size and the poll data prove that there are vastly differing views on whether or not writing in multiple genres can help or hurt a writer's chances of success. Of the quotes above, though, consider that two of the most vehement detractors from the idea of writing in multiple genres were literary agents, whose job it is to essentially sell a writer to publishers. Could they be warning against multiple genres because it makes their job more difficult? Similarly, the most optimistic advocates for multiple genres were authors who write in multiple genres themselves (and have seen some success as the result).
Is it possible that the answer to this question is completely arbitrary?
I think it more likely that the answer to this question is not necessarily black and white, because it's a matter of circumstances and - at least in part - the fickle nature of an audience. The only absolute we know is that there are writers who have succeeded (and failed) with both a single genre (and multi-genre) approach. After researching this topic, I would offer the following insights about succeeding by writing in multiple genres:
Finding success by writing in multiple genres is a matter of commitment. Whether that's commitment to maintaining different personas for each pseudonym you use for each different genre, or commitment to cross-promoting and making sure your audience is aware of and willing to try your work in other arenas all published under the same name, it's a lot harder to keep multiple plates spinning instead of just one... but it can definitely be done if you concentrate and commit to keeping them all going at once.
The degree of difficulty increases the farther apart the genres are. If you write fantasy and YA science fiction, that's no so much of a stretch that you'll be shedding "crossover" readers in nearly as great numbers as if you write, say, YA science fiction and Regency romance. If your different genres include some of the same elements, it will be considerably smoother sailing than if you're trying to write in two genres that are so disparate you only have a handful of readers willing to explore both types of stories. J.K. Rowling went from children's fantasy to adult crime novels and decided to use a pseudonym to avoid confusion. Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, uses his name name for all his work even though Steelheart is in the YA section and The Way of Kings is in the regular sci-fi/fantasy section.
There's a difference between tonal genres and content genres, and the latter is much harder to crossover. Content genres are those where the genre conventions are related to setting, story elements, or character archetypes: westerns, fantasy, science fiction, war, mystery, etc. These are genres whose readers come to expect to find certain familiar tropes in the books they read. Tonal genres, on the other hand, are ones where those specific tropes and conventions don't matter as much as the atmosphere or emotions the story creates: horror/thriller, romance, etc. It's easier to crossover and write multiple genres if you stay under the general umbrella of horror, for example, than it is to write in multiple genres where each one has a set of character, story, and setting conventions that don't overlap. Stephen King has made a remarkable career for himself being labeled as a horror writer, even though - depending on the story - his work contains could be classified as fantasy, science fiction, drama, paranomal, etc. And yet they reside in the same section of the bookstore because the overall tone and identity of his work is horror.
I originally asked myself this question because I'm someone who likes to write in multiple genres. Anyone who's rummaged around in my port can attest to the fact that I write a lot of different kinds of things. I suppose I wanted to try and find legitimacy to my theory hope that all the naysayers were just being negative or narrow-minded when they say you shouldn't write in multiple genres. I'm beginning to realize, though, that it's just as narrow-minded to foolishly think there isn't a cost associated with spreading yourself thin across multiple genres. There is a cost to be paid for writing in multiple genres, and based on what it seems like most moderates are saying, is the cost of your time and energy to maintain a presence in each genre you've chosen to pursue. For some people, the freedom to write in multiple genres is worth that added cost. For others, it might be too high a price to pay when they can be content writing in one primary genre.
I'm still not sure what kind of writer I am, but at least this project has helped open my eyes to the realities of what's ahead, whichever genre(s) I eventually want to define myself with.