Thinking About Writing in Multiple Genres? Here’s What You Need to Know

by | Nov 11, 2015

There has been a persistent sentiment over the years among agents and publishers in the traditional publishing world: stick to one genre.

“You need to specialize, because a publisher can’t afford to try and reach a whole new audience with every single book. As an author, neither can you.”

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

But does that advice still apply in today’s publishing world?

And more to the point, does that advice apply if you’re choosing to self-publish?

Traditional vs. Self-Published Authors: Does it Make a Difference?

On the surface, self-publishing seems like a good solution for those authors prone to genre-hopping.

Without an agent or publisher, you’re free to write anything you want–and not be pigeon-holed into one specific genre.

Prior to the more mainstream self-publishing options currently available for authors, the direction your writing took was often dictated (at least in part) by the marketing departments of publishers.

And publishing in several genres via the traditional route, often meant publishing with more than one publisher.

So, is “Indie” the way to go if you want to write in multiple genres?

Well, yes and no.

Sure, you’re able to write whatever moves you, but self-publishing only guarantees you have the opportunity to write and publish your work–NOT that it gets noticed or read.

Regardless of whether you decide to self-publish or traditionally publish, you need a way to consistently and efficiently get your work in front of the right eyeballs (a.k.a. your writer platform), if you want your books to sell.

The question then is: how does writing in multiple genres affect your ability to build your author brand, engage your readers and grow your writing career?

Feature Download: Download a free worksheet to help you decide if writing in multiple genres is the right path for you (click here to download).

Multiple Genres and Your Author Brand

What makes perfect sense from a marketing “ease of sale” perspective, gets a little muddied when trying to apply it to more artistic endeavours.

Case in point:

Staying within genre boundaries is just smart marketing.

You don’t bring much of your readership with you when you cross from one genre to another, and most authors see lower sales figures when publishing outside of their best-know specialty.

The problem, however, is that “specialization” (or sticking to one genre or category) can really be a creative style-cramper.

If you balk at the idea of “branding” yourself or your work, writing specifically for a well-defined, well-targeted group of readers, or employing other strategies to reach, connect and engage with an audience, you’re not alone.

Many authors hold the mistaken belief that the selling experience must be an aggressive, mercantile and sordid affair that strips their writing of any real meaning and reduces it to a “product” rather than the imaginative, well-crafted work that it is.

And a brand is the fake front that you hide behind to do so.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Branding isn’t nearly as corporate or commercial as it’s believed to be.

It’s your style, your unique voice, and the combination of recurrent themes, character types, settings, and ideas that make up the familiar elements characteristic to your writing.

Branding is not simply:

  • your website colours or logo design
  • the genre or genres you write in
  • the size of your social media following
  • the magnetism of your sales copy
  • your book cover design
  • your pen name
  • your pithy tagline
  • or the message you share

It is also much less about genre, and much more about what readers come to expect in your books.

It’s everything you do, and the way that you do it–as well as how it’s perceived and interpreted by your audience.

“The key for me is that, when I seek a book by an author, I want that book to be a book nobody but that author could’ve written. That, for me, is what voice—and “branding”—is all about.”

– Chuck Wendig, Author

So don’t confuse brand with genre, selling out, or a professionally designed logo.

And be carefully not to snub your nose at being “typecast” as a particular genre author. This only happens when someone is so consistently good at (or so strongly identified with) one thing, that they typify the attributes of that specialty.

Is that really something you want to resist?

Ideally, the “wise” course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first.

Then branch out (if you wish) after you’ve gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizeable following around that genre.

But ultimately, your goal is to link your name to an organic and dynamic brand that’s based on you and arouses a positive, emotional experience for your targeted readership–regardless of genre.

By doing so, you can tie a common thread between all genres you choose to explore.

Audience Expectations: What Do Your Readers Want?

Will readers follow the writing or will they follow the genre?

The irony here is that the loyal, rabid fan base that will follow an author down any creative path is most often developed through a deep understanding of their needs, wants and desires.

And that’s extremely difficult to get right with one audience, let alone across multiple.

Readers need to trust that you can provide the experience they’re seeking.

If you choose to experiment with different genres, be certain it is worth the risk of disappointing the readers you already have.

Not all will be flexible and forgiving.

Creative Expression vs. Building a Career

“The making of art and the selling of it are two entirely distinct enterprises.”

– Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers

Most authors struggle with the amount of weight they should (or want to) give to the two major aspects of their writing career: art vs. business.

Being a writer–or any artist–means that you experiment and stretch yourself beyond your previous works, creating something unexpected.

Writing in more than one genre:

  • requires different strengths and allows you to push your limits and abilities–learn, test, experiment, polish.
  • lets authors explore their wide interests without limitation.
  • allows new writers to explore genres before determining the right “fit” for their style, voice and passions.
  • is often not a conscious decision–many writers are compelled to follow the Muse.

The flip-side to this, is that although some people can write well in more than one genre, few can excel in one, let alone many.

“…an author has to know his natural limitations, and not allow his creative wanderlust (or his ego) to take him places he is ill-equipped to go.”

Gar Anthony Haywood, Author

A writer also has a need (and a responsibility) to capture the attention of the people that deserve to experience their work.

If your writing isn’t all about you–if it’s about an awakening in the reader–you have to think about not only what you like to write, but how to market and sell those books in a way that best serves your audience.

Every author’s goals and objectives will be different. Each author must determine for themselves the emphasis they wish to place on the art of writing vs. the business of writing.

And make no mistake. There will be consequences to your choices.

Every decision you make from what to write and how often to release, to cover design and sales copy, all have an impact on potential sales.

Writing in multiple genres equals more work (and often) less income. It’s hard to build traction in one genre, let alone several.

Switching or jumping genres leads to building multiple smaller audiences instead of steadily building a larger, more engaged fan base.

Momentum is your friend, and like it or not, sticking to one genre and writing books in a series (and releasing them back-to-back) is more lucrative, and builds a readership faster, than diversifying.

Look at your goals and objectives for your writing career and determine the outcomes you hope to achieve.

Your contentment with the results of your choice to write (or not to write) in multiple genres will be contingent upon the weight you place on the two ends of the art/business spectrum.

The Bottom Line?

There is no general rule that will fit all authors, other than this:

“Be undeniably good.”

– Steven Martin, Actor and Comedian

If you choose to diversify early, follow your Muse and write primarily for yourself, you may have to accept that the road to fame and fortune (if that’s your desire) will likely be longer and steeper than your specialized counterparts.

If your focus is on serving your audience, defining a brand that makes you instantly recognizable, and cornering the market on a specific genre, just know that you may have to sacrifice some creative freedom to get there.

In every case, you’ll have to be undeniably good to cross the finish line.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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35 Comments

  1. Ernesto San Giacomo

    I write in multiple genres in a special manner. I’m editing my first novel in the fantasy genre. However, when I want to expand my horizons, I get into short stories. The shorts are mostly dystopian, but I also delve into comedy and sci-fi, horror, and drama.
    My blog is about my writing journey, my pets and hobbies.

    Reply
    • Greta Jourdane

      Hi Ernesto,

      I write personal development, short stories children’s stories, romance. I am very open to different genre’s as I can’t eat chips for dinner night after night lol! same genre writing stifles my writing spirit. I find it interesting to hear how different authors overcome the pen name issue. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  2. Jean Lamb

    This why God invented pen names. I plan to use a different one for my western saga series (yet to be written) about the fun little town of Sabado, Kansas over a period of 60 years in 12 different volumes. Ok, it’s a bit like Hays, but you can drink the water without wincing. However, I am using the same name for both romance, fantasy romance, fantasy, and SF. Perhaps that’s a mistake…

    Reply
    • G K Jourdane

      I have heard many differing stories on using pen names. What if you had to do a book signing under another name, how do you not show your face. If people never actually see the author who wrote the book, then there is no connection. Im puzzled about all of this, I don’t know how it is suppose to work.

      Reply
      • C. S. Lakin

        Well, few authors do book signings anymore. I suppose famous authors might, and if they do a book signing, they’ll just show up. A lot of famous authors use a pen name for other genres, but their fans all know who they are. I doubt anyone would really mind or care to learn their favorite author is also another “famous” author.

        Reply
        • Greta Jourdane

          Yes I guess that sounds feasible. I will just go ahead and write under my name and not worry too much about it. To be honest I don’t think anyone really cares anymore these days, its a case of anything goes isn’t it. Writing under different pen names would be a pain.

          Reply
  3. Rachel

    I am enrolled in culinary arts school, so my writing project would be a website about recipes and techniques involved with cooking. I also plan on self-publishing e cookbooks on Kindle.

    To me, success would be earning at least $25,000 or $30,000 a year doing so out in the small rural community where I live. I really don’t want to move to New York City. $30,000 here is worth more than $50,000 in NY due to low cost of living expenses.

    In addition to chef’s school 15 hours a week, I also have been learning about affiliate marketing, and other forms of raising revenue through a blog. So I have some idea about what I’m getting into. Although he doesn’t write about cooking, Steve Scott is one of my role models. (And no, he’s not paying me to say that.)

    When it comes to poetry and fiction, I will consider myself a success to publish 3-5 short stories in little magazines and maybe 1 or 2 poems as well. And write dozens of each simply to please myself. I may also look into privately printing a chapbook (25 copies) that I can sell or give away to the few people who still read poetry.

    Different genres, different goals. Btw, if I set up a website for myself as a creative writer, it will be on wordpress or blogger. The cooking website will be self-hosted.

    Reply
  4. G K Jourdane

    Genre Quandary.

    I have been in this genre quandary for quite some time. I am a short story writer, and I do plan on writing in varying genre’s. I can’t think of anything more limiting than staying stuck inside a box of any kind. I have branded my name as an author, although, having done this, I have yet to see whether or not it will truly be successful. Its early days yet, but Im taking this very gently, so perhaps keeping that in mind one may be able to do this quite successfully, I hope so. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      What’s your objective or “end game” for your writing career, G.K.? What are your goals for this year, two years from now, and maybe five years from now?

      What does a successful writing career look like for you?

      Once you’ve determined where you want to be (both short term and longer term), it’s not only easier to craft a plan that’ll get you there, but you’ll be able to tell if you’ve achieved what you set out to do.

      Reply
      • G K Jourdane

        Hi Kimberly,

        At the end of the day, Im hoping for success. Things change constantly, what was considered the “correct way” of doing something, can suddenly become ” “incorrect,” as we trial and error. I think its learning from what doesn’t work mainly. Like most writers, my aim is for success and a career in writing five years from now. My platform is building steadily which will take time of course. Ive learned that being an author is not something we can hurry.

        Reply
  5. E. Grant Goodbody

    On the matter of writing for multiple genres.

    I have recently completed 90,000 words for the first book in a planned series.
    My protagonist has multiple antagonists “Politician, Journalist, Ex-wife, Lawyer” perhaps the murderers row of antagonists. I looked up the Yankees Murderers Row of 1927 and found there were six members, so if I had to add two more – then, jealous partner and union boss. To add some credibility to that list, my protagonist is a professional sports franchise owner.

    My profession is digital marketing consulting in the video gaming market, including gaming hardware peripherals. I must post with a pseudonym for the time being. I was amused by an interview Barry Eisler had on his website. He said he never knew anybody who put their profession on hold to write a book. I have. Whether or not it was a good idea remains to be seen.

    Given the freedoms and flexibility under the self-publishing business model, what would be the pitfalls of packaging a novel for multiple genres. Same story with different: covers, titles, opening chapter, order of chapters. You see, in my story I have parallel themes running through the same plot, set in 2030. The themes, I believe, will appeal to different genres and still be motivating because of their connection to the same plot. I watched every episode of Mad Men, but might have been semi-conscious when Peggy was with her boyfriend or family.

    I wouldn’t attempt this without being upfront about it. My purpose is to be entertaining and thought-provoking to the largest audience I can attract – simple as that.

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      I can’t really speak to the pitfalls (or legalities) of packaging and selling the same novel in multiple genres from a publishing perspective, but from a marketing and promotional perspective, I wouldn’t advise it.

      What’s the saying? “If you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one…”

      Reply
      • E. Grant Goodbody

        Thanks for the candid advice Kim.

        Here is an article by Chet Williamson about marketing his multi-genre book “Second Chance”

        http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nookpress-blog/guest-post-chet-williamson-on-his-books-second-chance/

        The following para from his article closely matches what I think on the matter:

        “Writing a novel that crosses genres is a risk, but one well worth taking. When I read a book, I like to be surprised. I don’t want to read the same genre formula that I’ve read a hundred times before. And, I’ve discovered, those are the kind of books I like to write as well. If I had stayed purely a horror writer or thriller writer, I might have more of a presence in those particular genres, and I’d certainly have more individual titles to market, since it’s much easier to write pure genre fiction than it is to create something different. But if I did that, I think I’d be shortchanging not only my readers, but myself as well. Selling lots of books is fine, but what’s more important is writing books that you can be proud of, that take readers somewhere they haven’t been before, places to which they didn’t even know they wanted to go until they arrive.”

        I have 100K+ names in my video gaming blog. I want to market to Madden NFL and World of Warcraft players. I believe my novel serves both genres; however, my A/B testing shows a dramatic difference on how to appeal to these groups with marketing materials. Consider selling game controller devices to these two groups. The manufacturer puts different decal stickers on the devices and packages them uniquely.

        I realize implementing a multiple book package strategy for a single novel is diverging from common publishing practices, but, would I be doing anything immoral or unethical to serve both genres (or more) with different packaging? The initial feedback from my lawyer is full speed ahead, as long as there is no deception. BTW, I asked if he thought the 2014 book with Tom Clancy’s name was a marketing deception. “Only if you count those who thought they were buying a book authored by Tom Clancy.” I thought that a rather astute answer.

        I understand that building a following is important. Consider though, my presence will be more appreciated at Gaming Expos than Book Expos. That is, if I ever get the manuscript through editing.

        Reply
        • Kimberley Grabas

          It’s a very interesting question, for sure, and I for one would love to hear the results should you pursue this “experiment”, Grant. :)

          Again, avoiding the ethical and publishing ramifications and only speaking from a marketing perspective, I still think it may not be your best option.

          The fact that you’ve found such divergent marketing preferences in these two groups (Madden NFL and World of Warcraft players), suggests to me that savvy packaging and promotional adjustments alone, may not be enough to satisfy your readers.

          Because it’s more than just your readers’ attention that you’re trying to get–the story has to be at least as compelling as your marketing.

          And while it’s certainly possible that one novel could meet the needs and desires of these two distinct audiences, I’m not sure how likely it is.

          Get it through the editing stage, Grant, so that we can find out. ;)

          Reply
  6. Rachel

    I have a question. What if you want to publish marketable stuff–practical blog post, articles, copywriting, etc. but you also want to publish stuff that doesn’t make money such as poetry and/or literary fiction? The latter would be simply for the pleasure of it.

    I guess there are 3 alternatives. Write the marketable stuff to earn a livelihood and
    1. Write the poetry, fiction privately without worrying about publishing.
    2. Send the literary stuff off to small publishing houses and concentrate on indie publishing the other stuff–using a pseudonym for the literary stuff.
    3. Print the poetry and fiction for a small circle of fans on the local or regional level while using the internet for your bread and butter gigs.

    Does anyone else have suggestions?

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      There’s really no right or wrong way to pursue your writing career, Rachel, as long as the actions you take (and the strategies you put in place) are in line with your objectives.

      Reply
  7. John Maberry

    For some reason unknown to me now, I recall that decades ago it was not uncommon for a number of writers penned both science fiction and mysteries. The only obvious similarity is that they were both then pulp genres. My focus today is on getting out some speculative fiction but I also plan on doing some mystery writing. Actually I have a number of other genres in mind as well but time to develop them might be more than I care to spend as will hit 70 in a couple years. But I already have pen names in mind. :-)

    Reply
  8. Michael N. Marcus

    I write mostly nonfiction, but small experiments with fiction and poetry have improved my nonfiction. Try writing something you think you can’t write, or hate to write.

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      Agreed Michael. There can certainly be an advantage for learning and developing skills from different genres and topic areas, as each require different strengths. Plus, experimenting and pushing your boundaries is important for growth.

      I think the issue arises when an author’s chosen path is incongruent with the destination they are hoping to reach.

      Reply
  9. C. S. Lakin

    Thanks for the great info. I am the perfect example of an author who struggled with writing in multiple genres. Through the years I received a lot of criticism from agents and others who told me I was stupid and inexperienced (one agent called me that from a podium during a talk when I asked a question) to write the books I loved regardless of the impact on my career.

    I’ve written strongly in about six genres. I have nine traditionally published novels and about seven self-published ones. I can honestly say yes, it’s been a huge challenge to grow a readership, and with my latest Western romance series, I chose to use a pen name and create a whole new platform for Charlene Whitman. Those books have sold very well, and if I had used my real name, I doubt they would have. I learned through RWA that many romance writers have three or more pen names within the genre (one for each subgenre they write in).

    Sure, it’s way more work to create multiple identities and platforms, but it’s a good idea to do (if you don’t go mad). If I had it to do over, honestly, I would have used a different pen name for each genre. I’m about to write a dark noir comedy, something very different, but I think it will be a huge seller, so yes, I’m creating another pen name. It’s what I have to do.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      Yes C.S., pen names do seem to be the “workaround” for managing multiple audiences and brands.

      Kudos to you for being able to manage several, and do it well.

      Can you determine how much of your readership follows you from one genre to another? Are you truly starting from scratch each time, or do you have some superfans who will read anything–and everything–that you write?

      Reply
      • C. S. Lakin

        Those are great questions. I don’t know how many of my fans follow me around, but a lot do. It’s been great to hear from fans who, say, never read fantasy, but loved my psychological mysteries and took a dive. One said he’s now a converted fantasy fan because of reading my Gates of Heaven series. I know many of my fans are aware of my pen name and read my Westerns. I really wonder how much any of that matters. I mean, to the fan. Do they care if I have some pen names? I doubt it.

        But I do think it’s good to separate genres that way so as not to confuse the general audience searching for novels to read. Now that it’s so easy to throw a website/blog up with a premade template, I imagine an author could maintain and promote numerous pen names and books and social media sites without too much headache.

        For my new novel (the dark comedy), I won’t do any of that. I think the concept is so strong and hilarious, it will sell well just flooding social media with it. Another experiment for me, so I’ll see next year how it does!

        Reply
        • Kimberley Grabas

          Super fans–those who will read everything you write, regardless of genre–are the best indicator that you’ve crossed the “undeniably good” threshold. :)

          If you’ve built a community with a significant number of these readers, you’ll never be starting completely from scratch, no matter how many genres you take on.

          And I agree with your take on pen names, C.S. I’m not convinced that pen names work–or matter to readers–in any consequential way (except in extreme examples like an author who writes both children’s books AND erotica). In our tech-filled world, the anonymity of a pen name is a bit of an illusion.

          By building an author brand and platform around YOU (not a particular genre), it makes it easier (and natural) to segment your content and promotional strategies to attract multiple audiences.

          This may be an easier pill to swallow than maintaining and promoting numerous sites (in fact, I think a few authors may have fainted at the mere suggestion ;) ).

          You can use *relatively* simple technology (more fainting?) to help you segment your audience into groups, instead of creating multiple sites, pen names, Twitter handles and such.

          Reply
  10. Mike Perry

    I am afraid I gave up reading this.

    Making each sentence a new paragraph was simply too tiring.

    Paragraphs should break when subjects change.

    Paragraphs should not break with each period.

    Not doing that forces readers to determine when a new subject begins.

    That makes the reading much more tiring.

    Reply
    • C. S. Lakin

      I hear you Mike! I’ve been coached by the top bloggers when I’ve submitted guest posts that they want it this way. Short little bits for people on the run. If you go to my blog, Live Write Thrive, you’ll see how I don’t follow that. I believe most readers want meat, not tidbits. But I’m sure the stats will prove me wrong.

      The blogs I subscribe to have long posts and long paragraphs. I like a lot of deep, rich content.

      Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      Sorry to hear that the formatting was a problem for you Mike. :(

      Reply
      • Iola

        Conversely, I was able to read right to the end with ease because there were no long paragraphs to strain my eyes.

        Reply
      • S

        Because this is my field (semantics and technical writing, both of which I teach at different universities), I can say this: having the same length of paragraph throughout creates a white-noise effect.

        Such an online message becomes tiresome to read and makes the reader start to scan because there’s no plateau to rest on (such as a header, bullets, or a meatier paragraph). But if you keep to five lines or under per paragraph, while varying structure, you’ll appeal to a lot of people who might otherwise be scanning.

        Sorry for the unasked for advice, but I thought I’d share a little something I know about in my nerdy world of rhetoric (with a heavy emphasis on online communications). ;o)

        -S.

        Reply
        • Joel Friedlander

          Actually, Susan, I found your comment very helpful. And while keeping paragraphs short is generally a good idea for online readers, varying the paragraph length should provide enough variation to keep the reader going. Please comment any time on things you see being discussed here, thanks.

          Reply
  11. David Penny

    Fantastic overview, Kimberley – sums up the pitfalls as well as advantages of total creative freedom. As Indies grow in confidence and marketing power these are exactly the kind of factors we need to consider. It’s all very well being “creative” because we can – but that comes with the responsibility to accept this might make us less saleable.

    It’s important for writers to decide what is more important to them. It may be that creative freedom is the main driver in their writing, in which case they can follow their muse in whatever direction attracts them. However, if the main factor is to be commercial, to make money, to build a loyal readership, then another more consistent direction might be better.

    A lot to digest and think about in your post. Thanks. I think.

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      Ha ha! Yes David, sometimes the truth isn’t necessarily all that fun to hear, but you’ve summarized things perfectly.

      Authors can choose their path, but they just need to be aware of how that choice affects their writing career moving forward.

      Reply
  12. Ernie Zelinski

    I agree that “There is no general rule that will fit all authors, other than this: ‘Be undeniably good.’ ”

    This I am pretty sure about: I am very good at writing and marketing books such as my “The Joy of Not Working” and “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”, which between the two have sold over 550,000 copies. I am pretty sure about this because as Jack Canfield said, “Results don’t lie.”

    What’s more, I am pretty sure that I can be “undeniably good” at writing and marketing in other genres such as parables and children’s books. Of course, I have to prove this with results such as having 100,000 copies sold in any print edition, which I will eventually. At the same time, I definitely know that I would be a total failure at writing fiction, particularly science fiction and erotica.

    The problem with most authors is that they will be in total denial that they are not “undeniably good” in whatever genre they choose to write in. I first learned about this phenomenon in an article titled “Incompetent People Really Have No Clue; Studies Find That They’re Blind to Their Own Failings and Others’ Skills”.

    More recently, Robert J. Ringer (whose three self-published blockbuster bestselling books sold well over 10 million copies in the 1970’s and 1980’s) wrote about this same phenomenon. It can be further expressed as “Why the incompetent stay incompetent — They can’s see their deficiencies.” In Ringer’s blog post he simply called this “Blissful Incompetence.”

    http://robertringer.com/blissful-incompetence/

    For the record, long before this phenomenon was cited in research, it was observed by this well-known British philosopher, mathematician, social critic, and writer:

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.”
    — Bertrand Russell

    In short, most writers will not be able to assess whether they are “undeniably good” at writing in any particular genre simply because they don’t have adequate “critical” thinking skills. Furthermore, a lot of writers won’t be able to their market books properly because they don’t have adequate “creative” thinking skills. One more greatly missing skill in today’s world is “common sense”, which is the most important thinking skill of all.

    Reply
    • Kimberley Grabas

      You make a good point, Ernie. It’s hard to make that call yourself.

      It seems though that “great art” isn’t judged so by the creator, but by those that experience it.

      So our goal can be to be undeniably good, but we’ll have to wait for results (like you’ve earned) before we can determine if we’ve achieved that goal.

      Reply

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