“I wanna write a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

This is what a friend of mine told me over margaritas and chips. She had a wonderful nonfiction hit the stands, which did quite well and made her editor all googly-like. Her editor was so pleased that she asked what was next. My friend gushed to her editor, “I’m working on this fabulous novel!”

Crickets.

The editor was about as excited as finding a pregnant lemur in her purse. My friend was confused. “It’s a new book, so what’s the problem?”

I fought the urge to whack her over the head with the salt shaker. “Have you learned nothing?? The problem is that you and your publisher have worked mongo hours to promote and market your book. They have spent countless hours winning over media, hounding newspapers and magazines in the single-minded effort to increase your platform and your brand. And now you’re dumping all that to start over from scratch?” I then offered that she might want to have someone else start her car for the next few months, as editors can be an unforgiving lot.

Here’s the deal with genre-hopping and the risks you’re taking with your career.

Path of Least Resistance

The first thing you look at is what you believe can sell first. So you take the path of least resistance in order achieve your goal more quickly. For example, I have a series that’s been in my head for years. I wrote the first one eons ago (Donovan’s Paradigm). I adore those two crazy kids and their constant duel over who’s crazier, the doc who uses alternative medicine in her practice, or the doc who doesn’t. I love them so much that I have two more books outlined for them.

However, as much as I love them, I know that the fun little romantic comedy I’m noodling with is far more commercial and marketable. So I’m taking the path of least resistance by going with what I believe has a better chance of selling. However, what are the consequences if I take the hypothetical success I’ve now established with the romantic comedy and move back to my Donovan series?

Establishing Yourself – Being the Expert

Readers who would enjoy the fun romantic comedy (titled The Publisher, aptly enough) have an expectation that I’ll continue writhing romantic comedies, which the Donovan series is not.

In a word, I’d be confusing my audience…and possibly losing readers because I’ve already established myself as a writer of romantic comedy. My hypothetical agent and editor would be very displeased with me because Im a resident “expert” in all things romantic comedy-ish. When we think of John Grisham, we know he’s the established Great Yoda of legal thrillers.

You know that saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It’s a reference to someone who is competent with many skills but is not necessarily outstanding in any one. There are places where I see the benefit – for example, the beagle can make a mean margarita, but she’s branching out into making a very respectable chocolate martini. And her nachos aren’t too bad, either. In publishing, “Jack of all trades, master of none” is enough to make me ask the beagle for an engine grease mojito with a chaser of Drano.

Establish an Audience – Predictability

Now that I’ve established myself as an author of romantic comedy, my hypothetical editor will work to establish my audience, and all that publicity is going toward keeping me established as a writer of romantic comedy so that readers will eagerly await my next book. However, if I decide to write about the metaphysical philosophies of Zeus, my hypothetical audience will abandon me faster that the beagle polishing off a box of Twinkies.

The offshoot of this genre hop is that I’ve destroyed all sense of predictability. Romantic comedy to Zeus? I’ve lost my credibility and predictability. My hypothetical publisher knows this and probably will drop me faster than I can say, “where’s my advance?” because they will have to establish me all over again to gain a readership.

Buh Bye, Audience

So let’s say I have my initial book and Zeus. Not only did I lose my first hypothetical agent because she wouldn’t rep the Zeus book, but I had to get a new agent to sell the book, which means I have a new editor as well. The worst part is that I’ve likely lost my hypothetical audience because  readers who loved my romantic comedy had zero interest in reading about the metaphysical philosophies of Zeus.  So I’ve said buh bye to my core audience and must start over from scratch (and pissing off my first hypothetical agent and original hypothetical editor). Oh, the hard work I’m facing.

Sleep is Overrated

Now that I have to go after a whole new audience, I have double the workload, which means I have to dilute my focus on multiple fronts – my romantic comedy audience and my Zeus audience. It’s like the strategy of war. If you have your troops too thinly spread, it’s easier for the enemy to punch through. Meanwhile, your own forces take bigger hits because they don’t have enough concentrated power to repel attacks.

Can I do justice to my audience of readers who lapped my romantic comedy, and then leap over to my Zeus audience? There is no crossover audience, so I’m saying goodbye to sleep and any semblance of a personal life in order to pay homage to two very demanding mistresses. And it also means that I’m irritating both editors because they know I can only give partial attention, and not my whole attention.

Taking Care

It’s easy to see how much thought and care you need to put into your literary career. The path of least resistance can come back to bite your tushy if you your debut book isn’t a genre you want to stick with. It’s not a matter of, “Oh well, I’ll make my mark with this book, then write what I really want to.” That thinking can see you starting all over…a daunting task, considering how hard you worked with your first book.

My recommendation is to make your mark first and write in your particular genre. Get established. Once you have a strong readership, then see whether you can make a leap over to another genre. If you do decide to genre hop, then go in with your eyes wide open. You may lose your agent and your editor, and it may take a long time to find your footing, and your audience. But if you’re well known for your fantasy and have many books under your belt, you just may be able to make the leap to YA. Or Zeus.

13 Responses to “I wanna write a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    This is for those who keep asking why the heck Rowling changed agents for her new book…because she changed genres. It’s not rocket science if you understand the industry.

  2. www.donnaandthedogs.com says:

    This post is about a topic I’m struggling with right now. I blog about dogs and dog related topics, and I’m trying to build a platform to market my (dog related) memoir one day. But in the meantime, I’m working on my first novel, which I think will be a lot more salable…the path of least resistance as you put it.

    The novel also centers around a dog, but it is suspense, and not AT ALL like the topics I blog about or wrote about in my memoir – and I also have ideas for other novels when this one is complete, which will probably not include any dogs in them at all. In a situation like mine, would you suggest using a pen-name for the fiction?

  3. MK says:

    “This is for those who keep asking why the heck Rowling changed agents for her new book…because she changed genres. It’s not rocket science if you understand the industry.”

    Somehow I doubt that Rowling’s agent droped her because she changed genres. Or that any agent would have trouble selling a book of hers, even in a genre that they don’t represent. The only conceivable way the change in genres is related to that in agents is if Rowling herself felt her former agent would not be suitable to represent her new book, because of their lack of expierience in the genre. Or she may well have changed agents for some unrelated reason.

    I do wish people stopped referencing Rowling when talking about the publishing industry. She is in a pretty unique position, or at least one that only a handful of other authors share. She is the exception, not the rule.

  4. Bill Webb says:

    Lynn, we discuss this a lot and the common thouth process is to use different names for each genre. I’m actually thinking this over because I too have non-fiction that I think people would actually want to buy and fiction that is my love that I’ll probably sell two copies – if I can get Mom to pick up one copy. I understand that theses are two different sales but the question is this:

    If William D. Webb, Jr writes 101 Ways to Lose Money in the Market as a guide to investing. And let’s say it sells – I know that’s a stretch. Will that help me at all when I try to sell The Protectors, a science fiction romance with alien evil Beagles written by Dudley Williams, my other name?

    If so how would one do that? Will the scif fi agent care about the non-fiction book?

    Thoughts?

  5. Great post. What do you say to a writer whose first book is autobiographical to establish their expertise in a genre they hope to write fiction in? Should they forgo the fiction and keep writing about the same topic? (Richard Marcinko comes to mind)

  6. Those of you who are going to write in two genres using a nom de plume still have the same outcome: you have to establish yourself in a whole new genre, so you’ll still have double the work of finding your audience.

    It doesn’t matter to me if I have Author Jane who writes a fabulous nonfiction and she tells me she’s going to write a novel about talking bellybuttons under an assumed name, I’m still going to be bummed because all the hard work we put into her nonfiction will be for naught. Equally depressed will be Jane’s agent, who may not rep fiction, or like the bellybutton novel and decline to rep her for that book.

    Michael: Your idea could work out just fine, but you have to consider your audience. Are readers of nonfiction going to follow you to your fiction, even though it’s in the same general topic?

    There are no magic answers, only important considerations. You want to take thoughtful steps in order to advance your literary career in a positive direction.

  7. I would just like to say that I would be SO EXCITED if I found a pregnant lemur in my purse. Way more interesting than loose change and old receipts.

  8. Thank you for the quick and thoughtful reply.

  9. Yes, but one needs to worry about those lemurs…they are so cranky when they have a bun in the oven.

  10. tbrosz says:

    So next time anyone complains that we’re up to our eyebrows in sequels, now we know why.

  11. John Allan says:

    I think the problem is more with sub-genres than genres. John Grisham, mentioned in the blog, is a prime example: I have read all of his legal thrillers, but the odd time he has strayed – such as with Bleachers – I haven’t bought the book. Stephen Leather has written a diverse range of thrillers, together with a series centred on one character, and I have bought all of them; but his foray into the supernatural looks less certain.

    And is commercial fiction seen as a genre in its own right?

  12. And is commercial fiction seen as a genre in its own right?

    It depends on who you talk to. Editors talk about sub-genre more than the bookstores do, and tend to lump all fiction together, depending on the size of the store.

    What my post was trying to get across is that the author who has cut his teeth on, say, Fantasy, then decides to write legal thrillers is going to have to re-establish himself all over again, which will drive his agent and editor buggy with frustration. Lots of effort goes into branding an author, and if they decide to abandon it, then they risk to their career.

  13. John Allan says:

    Thanks for the prompt reply, Lynn. My apologies for my tardiness but I haven’t been to the page for a week.

    Yes, I appreciate the problem when an author decides to take a leap of genre faith, particularly with a gap as wide as that between something like Fantasy and the legal thriller.

    My novel is still in the submission stage and targeted at the paperback mass market. I view it as a thriller, but with humorous dialogue and narrative throughout, it might be better described as a lighthearted thriller. As I couldn’t, off the top of my head, think of similar novels – although there has been a movie in the same vein – I could see it fitting in to a standalone Commercial Fiction genre.

    That said, I have recently identified other books that would seem to fall into the same category and are described simply as thrillers. So, it looks, to me, as though I am safe going with the thriller genre.

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