28 June 2010

What’s your genre?

by J. I. Kendall

   It’s a problem, don’t you think? When you’ve written your story and you know it’s a keeper, and the publisher, or the agent, or the indie bookseller asks, “What’s your genre?” And you have to scratch your head before you’re forced to answer, “Well...it’s sort of a crossover.”

    No one wants to hear that.

    They want to know there’s a snug little nook for your story in one of the classic categories: mystery, romance, historical fiction...whatever. An obvious slot for it on a bookshelf, in a magazine, or in an anthology. And most of the time, let’s face it, there isn’t.

    You may have written a semi-true account of a semi-romantic character who has to deal with some sort of “issue” that might involve a murder. And this character most certainly has some sexual or at least kissy-face type involvement with someone. How do you categorize your work? And why would you want to? Don’t you want readers of general fiction to find it and read it?

    I’ve thought this way, having created a new genre that’s a hybrid of existing ones. But it’s a problem, my problem.

    Literary agents say they don’t know how to market literary works muddied by blurry genres, and publishers say they don’t know how to sell them. These are valid objections, showstoppers really. Publishing is a business after all, and the products that writers produce have to compete in the marketplace. So even though we might want to think of our work as art, it gets treated more like a commodity in the marketplace. Like coffee, for example. Your mug can contain a cappuccino, a latte, or an espresso, but coffee beans are still the “sellable type” that is the common ingredient. Stories need to have a sellable type that is familiar, known and loved, by readers of that type.

    Remember that anyone who publishes your work probably has more at stake than you do, financially at least. So pick a genre, declare it, and write to it. You can still include the semi-romantic character in the semi-true account. But don’t get carried away by your own confusion. If you know you’re writing a mystery, you must follow the mystery “formula”. Same for a romance. Write to the formula. There’s a lot of freedom in writing to a formula. Your readers will know where you’re headed and will go along with you willingly, and eagerly if your story is compelling.

    If you stick to the formula, your readers will stick with your story.

    And the people who you partner with in getting your story to the market, will understand the product, know how to sell it, and give those longed-for readers the chance to discover your work.

J.I. Kendall worked for many years in the IT industry. She has combined her experience as a professional writer and human resources manager, to write Outsourced, and Make Believe, the first 2 books in The Greater-Than-Riches mystery series. You can read excerpts at http://greater-than-riches-mysteries.blogspot.com/


  1. I hate coloring inside the line, but have to agree that it's a business and publishers want to know where your book fits.

    That being said, there are a lot of e-publishers who are willing to look outside the envelope. And there are readers who like things a little mixed up. I thought I was writing a mystery, but it turned into a romance. I still wish someone had created the label 'romantic mystery' instead of 'romantic suspense' because those bring different reader expectations.

  2. You bring up such an interesting topic! Crossing genres is definitely frowned on by lots of publishers and agents, because as you say, it's so much easier to sell something that has a specific name - it's a mystery, or a thriller, or a romance, etc....

    That said, though, the richest novels I've read have had elements of more than one genre in them. I think that "thinking outside the box" leads to better fiction, but when every dollar matters, it's hard to be persuasive about that...

  3. J.I. Kendall6/28/2010 10:05 AM

    Thanks for the comments, Terry and Margot. I like this quote "I don't mean that literary fiction is better than genre fiction, On the contrary; novels can perform two functions and most perform only one."- Mark Haddon

    But they can perform two, or more.... So why not enrich them by corssing gentres?

    I agree that e-publishing has loosened the boundaries, but still wonder if what I write will sell if I mess up the genres. Nonetheless, we have to write for ourselves first and foremost, don't we?

  4. Maybe genre crossing should be viewed much the same way fusion cuisine has treated by the food industry. Crossing over might simply need to be it's own genre, possibly very popular on the West Coast. We love fusion cuisine...

  5. J.I. Kendall6/28/2010 12:54 PM

    Fusion - what a good idea. A taste of this with a hint of flavor of that.

    A lot of the "genre" restrictions have come from bookshelves in bricks and mortar stores, I think. So once you no longer have to have a slot for the book, you don't need the strict classification. I wonder though if a majority of the shrinking number of readers will read fiction in a genre-less (or x-genre) world. That's why I've taken a stand on my own writing and chosen a genre - even though the fit isn't exact and some of the "fusion" shows. Some readers have noticed the "literary" aspect of the work. Others have noted that it's a "morality play". But still, it's a "mystery".

  6. Do you think that is because it is difficult to shelf books that cross over?

  7. J.I. Kendall6/28/2010 1:57 PM

    I do. And that makes them difficult for a publisher/distributor to sell to a bookseller who already has countless books with obvious genres vying for the space on his shelves. Maybe it's also hard to get reviewers.

    Anyone have a different thought about why genres have been so restricted?

  8. Not only to be placed on the shelves, but just so it doesn't get incredibly convoluted. Almost every story can be a crossover when it comes to genre's, but it always does have one main theme that makes it the genre that it is. If we were to designate five different genre's to one story, it would be chaos! :)

  9. That's a good point Morgan, main genre matters. So, we can do all the crossing over that we want as long as we make it easy for book distributors by identifying the niche where it has the greatest appeal.