Wednesday, 2 May 2012


I was helping someone with her synopsis recently. (Please don't be tempted to ask me to help you, by the way! This was a special situation. To you, I will merely say, "I wrote Write a Great Synopsis - BUY IT!" )

Anyways. During the conversation, this arose:

The writer: "The other main question you asked was is it a romance, sci-fi, thriller etc. Do books always have to be one or the other?"

My reply began, "Argh ..." I then answered briefly but promised to blog about it.

I wrote about this in Write to be Published. The bit about pigeon-holes? And reading in genre? And the stuff about markets? Well, if you haven't read WTBP and don't wish to burden me with the smidgenly royalty which would buy me a small fraction of a cup of coffee, let me explain. Though, *cough*, WTBP does it better.

No, books do not have to be firmly and wholly single-genre. There are, for example, historical romances. 
  • The reason why there are historical romances is that significant many people like historical novels AND romances. Therefore there is a sufficient market to be worth tapping.
  • There may be some people who like historical books and not romances, and vice versa; but, since there are enough people who like both, it doesn't mater that some are put off because they don't like romance, or historical.
  • Also, history can be rather romantic. When it's not being gruesome, as my historical fiction is.
So far, so good.

However, if you are planning on crossing genres, consider a few questions:
1. Are the lovers of one genre likely to want to read the other genre at the same time?
2. Is it possible that many lovers of one really don't like the other? Enough to be put off?
3. And, if so, are the dissenters likely to scupper the chances of your cross-genre book by simply not buying it?

In other words, by mixing your genres, will you reduce your market to the extent that it simply isn't viable for a publisher, a publisher who needs to cover costs and overheads? Are you making it harder for yourself, your publisher, and booksellers?

Crucially, are there any other books like it? There do need to be books like it. You see, it is unlikely that a bookseller will say to a customer, "Oh, if you liked ****, you will definitely love this book which is, ahem, completely not like it."

You must, as I have said so often that my tongue is wearing thin, read in your genre - and that means in your mixed-genre or sub-genre. If you are writing a sci-fi romantic mystery thriller, you should be reading them. If they don't exist, you won't be able to, of course, which is my point. If you haven't read any books remotely like yours, you have to ask yourself "WHY?" Could the answer be that not enough people want to read them? Or, at least (and this is enough), that publishers believe that not enough people want to read them?

Yes, yes, yes, innovation is wonderful and crucial and creative and fabulous. But someone has to invest in that, someone has to take a risk, and someone really has to love your book so much that its very wondrousness becomes its selling point. And frankly, it's statistically unlikely that your book is so wondrous that it transcends genres. And the unlikelihood means you're going to have to pitch it brilliantly and the book will have to live up to the pitch. Unlikely = high risk.

A book needs to fit somewhere. It needs, I'm terribly sorry to say, a pigeon-hole. I don't like that fact any more than you do, but it is the case for 99% of books. And the other 1% have their very own pigeon-hole of unpigeon-holedness..

Self-publishing is different because there are very low overheads and therefore the price can be set low and profit can still be reached. If you want to be published, you have to understand how costs work.

So, crossing genres, genres that are not generally crossed, is highly problematic. But there are three solutions.

1. Downplay one of the genres. And I don't mean hide the fact that it's there, I mean properly downplay it. So, it can be a sci-fi novel. And the fact that two of the characters fall in love becomes a heart-warming detail.

2. Assuming that you have found a few books that do cross the same genres, at least make your book fit that mini-genre. Think closely of the readers of those books and how you can tap into what they like. And mention it in your pitch.

3. Write the book so bloody brilliantly that no one gives a fig about genres.

That, as I've said, is a high-risk strategy, especially in view of the fact that most writers think they are better than they are.

Please, my lovelies, if you are writing genre fiction or a combined genre, write in one that exists. 



Stroppy Author said...

I have a problem with genre labels. For example, I've written a historical novel - that sounds straightforward, right? But that doesn't sound to me like a genre. The label 'historical' doesn't tell you what type of thing happens, it only tells you that whatever happens, it happens in the past.

A romance - fine, people will fall in love and perhaps have sex. A western - good; cowboys shoot each other, and probably kill hapless indigenous people we used to call Red Indians. Crime, thriller, horror - all good. I'm calling my historical novel a historical thriller. But I don't think that makes it cross-genre. There are genre labels that tell you the setting (historical, sci-fi) and those which tell you what type of action to expect. A sci-fi novel could be a terrifying dystopic nightmare or the Clangers.

So I suppose that gives me only a few cross-genre possibilities. Western romance? Comic thriller? Dystopian porn?

Rebecca Alexander said...

I've been wrestling with this, as my book is across two genres, but my agent has come up with a 'reading group' label that helped place my historical/contemporary but with a bit of 16th century sorcery thrown in novel. I asked more about this, and she recommended me to look at Emma Darwin's Mathematics of Love and Bernie McGill's The Butterfly Cabinet, books that are hard to pin down. I think your last point is the most important, the book has to be darn good.

catdownunder said...

When I was supposedly studying a subject they called "School Librarianship A" - which was mostly about children's literature (and gave me the excuse to read a lot) we talked about "genres" and one of the students asked the lecturer, "Well what about Tin-Tin? Is Tin-Tin a comic or an adventure or funny or what?"
But I understand what you are getting at - the book has to fit somewhere.

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - I don't think there's a problem. "Historical" or "sci-fi" would seem to me to be the main genre label, but then you can have another word(s) to say what sort of historical/sci-fi it is = sub-genre. So historical thriller isn't a crossed genre, but a sub-genre, or a more closely described genre than merely historical. The problems occur when you genuinely try to cross genres in new ways and eliminate audiences. I do think that much as we might dislike labels, it's the natural human condition to look for patterns and to need to know where to find things, especially in the VAST ocean of books out there.

rebecca - any way that neatly describes a book so that people know what sort of thing they are being asked to look at is good!

JO said...

This is a tough one - I don't like the limitations of working within genres, but accept it's something that we have to do if a publisher is likely to be tempted.

But - at what stage in the writing should we be narrow down genre? At the earliest idea stage - as that frames the way we think about the first draft. When we face that first edit, and try to reshape the initial ugly words into something more coherent? Or towards the end, when we are tweaking with marketing in mind?

Graeme K Talboys said...

The problem with settling for something that already exists is that you lose the opportunity to (a) expand into new areas and (b) reap the benefits of being a pioneer. Sadly, the publishing world has become exceedingly conservative. Back in the days before the X-Files, I was trying to sell a novel in which a security service agent came across evidence of aliens. Couldn't sell it. I was told it was well-written but that nobody would be interested ina kind of spy-sci-fi. Of course, after the X-Files I was dismissed as writing something that was a rip-off. Personally, I would advise people to write the book they want to write using the most appropriate genre/genres to tell the story and worry about pigeon-holing afterwards.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Graeme
I disagree, actually. Writing a book that happens to fit a genre doesn't mean not being able to experiment and be bold. I have broken rules in several of my books and regard myself as being bold and always wanting to be different. Occasionally, I have written a book that is deliberately not bold, but those have been least satisfying and least successful.

Also, the reasons given for a rejection are often neat ways of saying, "We just didn't love it enough / it didn't quite fit out list." I don't mean to dismiss you by saying that - I'm just saying that as a general point. It's one of the reasons why agents and publishers usually don't give reasons - it's too subjective, and easier to give a seemingly-objective reason. I could tell you my own stories of such rejections, believe me, but I understand them better now. My book just wasn't good enough or wasn't "right" in some way that I couldn't see.

Evelyn said...

I realise that I have not been reading in the genres - speculative/sci-fi/psychic thriller in which I am writing, and have no titles that I could hold up as similar to my own work.
I've been reading "important" books, hoping to improve my writing skills and to discover the treasures within literary works.
I think you may have liberated me from a very, very long run of unsatisfying reads!

Mary Hoffman said...

I think Stroppy should write Dystopian Porn! She'd do it very well.

But in general I agree. Occasionally someone like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett comes along and invents what seems a new genre - Comedy + SF or Comedy + Fantasy.

But in general you can always take a genre and try to push its limits a bit.

Lynn Price said...

Excellent post, Crabbity One. On occasion, I run into authors who refuse to categorize their books, saying they refuse to be pigeon-holed. I admire their adherence to principal, but it could bite them on the bum because publishers have to fit their author's books into a genre/sub-genre for the simple reason that store buyers will shy away from order the book.

When our sales guys go into bookstores to show off the new catalog, store managers/buyers always ask for a comparison to something already on the shelves. They're looking for a companion to what's already out there, or something that elevates the genre. And they have to be able to shelve it somewhere. Vague is not anyone's friend in this business.

Kirsty said...

Hi Nicola,

Thanks for this post ;o)

I've been looking and it seems every online bookshop seems to set their own and sometimes categorise books quite differently and in more than one genre.
Just wondering though is there a 'definitive list' of genres anywhere - one that you might recommend? If it's mentioned somewhere in Write to be Published then I will be reading it fully soon.


(Also do you have the option to e-mail subscribe to posts and/or comments - I can't seem to find that).

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Kirsty, no there isn't and never could be a definitive "list", because it is all much more fluid than that. This is an art, not a science. It's a human instinct of "that reminds me of" and "that makes me feel like", a subconscious need for pattern-recognising. And the way online bookshops categorise things isn't the same - they do it based on lots of things, including the tags that the author or publisher used during setup! They use algorithms, which are obviously more scientific but often LESS helpful! It really really is a matter of knowing your book and knowing what's out there.