Sugar Pyramids in Sugar Sand—You Know You Want It!
Last time in Neptune’s Sandbox I—The Sand You Want we talked about the desire to write beyond the bounds of one genre. Today we are going to cover why that might not be a good idea. There are benefits to being boxed—benefits industry professionals know very well. Let’s take a look at the benefits of the genre box and the career costs of stepping outside it.
You may still choose to cavort from one genre to the next—but make that an informed decision. Information permits preparation, strategy, and maybe even success if you are savvy.
Monsters of the Outer Dark
Do You Need an Agent? Determining the Scope They Represent
Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy publishers will sometimes consider your work if you don’t have an agent. But genres vary—YA publishers won’t consider you if you don’t have an agent. Being boxed is straightforward—multi-genre authors need to do more research.
Agents are also boxed—and they like it that way. Compatibility is important. Each agent is different—you’ll want to make sure they’ll represent everything you’re planning on or you’ll need different agents for different projects.
What Your Publisher Publishes
This is boxed too. Not all houses publish all things. If your publisher doesn’t publish the genre of your new book then you may need to get a different publisher for it. This is time consuming—and your first publisher would probably prefer that you were sinking all your time into things they’d want to publish.
Most fantasy publishers also do Sci-Fi, but not all YA publishers do adult genre fiction and vice versa. I’ll need to consider this when looking for a publisher.
Shelving—Books Boxed Together
This isn’t a question of boxed sets—although those are nice. If you aren’t boxed in one genre as a writer then you have deep concerns.
Will my books still be shelved in the same part of the bookstore or library?
This matters if you want readers. If they can’t casually find you it’s a rare reader that will hunt you down.
Everything I’ve ever read from Sarah has always been on the YA rack—but since I don’t see a new title from her I’m going to go comb the entire bookstore in case she somehow got mis-shelved.
Yeah, that doesn’t happen. If you’re going through a traditional publisher to get your books in physical bookstores you want them to be shelved together.
I do have shelving concerns—if I go the adult route, my Sci-Fi and Fantasy should get shelved together. But if I go YA, then that adult Urban Fantasy book I’m planning 5 years out will be in a different part of the bookstore.
Books are shelved by genre for a reason—for that matter, writers get boxed by genre for a reason—reader convenience. Being boxed is ultimately a thing of reader taste.
You will (hopefully) have readers—their taste in books matters. You want your subsequent books to appeal to the taste of the same readers your initial book attracted. You do want to grow that base with future books—you don’t want to shrink it. Consider your own habits as a reader. When an author you liked started writing things that didn’t appeal to you—even if they were objectively well written—you stopped reading those books. Worse, you viewed that author’s future cover copy with a more judgmental eye, and if they persisted in their folly of cooking up unsavory flavors you might stop even bothering to contemplate purchase at all.
So you need to know your readers. Too big a genre jump and you’ll lose them. Mystery to Western, or Romance to Thriller and you’ve probably just alienated your following. I’m angry when an author I used to like is now sinking their time into something I don’t. They are denying me the books they otherwise could have written.
Will Your Readers Follow You?
This can be fairly nuanced—why are your readers going to read your books? How different will your books really be? Your choice for your first book might be critical, setting your readers up to expect the genre scope you’ll be covering in your career. But a book without a clear niche can sell poorly, especially for a new author, so this will take thought.
Some genres and even sub-genres are more cross permeable than others. For example, many people refer to Sci-Fi & Fantasy in the same breath—but publishing thinks of them separately. There is a lot of reader cross-over within them, but some sub-genres are favored by a devoted readership that hardly strays. For example—those who geek out about Hard Sci-Fi and love nit-picking the science probably won’t read your Urban Fantasy about elves. They probably even look down on Space Opera, which is next door to Hard Sci-Fi in genre terms.
But someone who likes Space Opera might find chewy books about elves in New York appealing—even though, superficially, one might assume that Urban Fantasy, being Fantasy, was further away. In fact, the Space Opera fan might also enjoy the scope and detail of Epic Fantasy.
It helps to think about this in terms of venn-diagrams. Which circles overlap, and how permeable are they? Are those walls welcoming or exclusionary?
What you don’t want to do is write a book at the overlap of two exclusionary genres—where, rather than appealing to both, you’ll only appeal to the few readers who are nerds about both. Your Hard Sci-Fi/Economics story that heavily features the math in currency exchange rates between nations will grab avid Sci-Fi reading economists—but how many of those are there?
In contrast, Anne McCaffrey’s genetically engineered dragons on a lost space colony world did very well. Epic Fantasy and Space Opera have almost the same appeal (other than the fact that no one wants to admit to reading something called Space “Opera”). Publishers should really just re-label it “Space Epic”—sales would increase.
Your Publishing Pace
The speed you publish is more important in today’s world than ever. Self-publishing authors are blazing through writing books at an astonishing pace. If your variable genres means you’re making some of your readers wait for you to return to the genre they like, then the longer you take, the more it irks them.
You might also get yourself into the “multiple series” predicament—where even if readers like both of the series you’re writing, they feel like they’re always waiting for one or the other—and both are slower to arrive than the next volume from that author who keeps churning out books in the same series. You need to keep your readers interested and satiated (or at least not bored and hungry).
Diluting Your Visibility
You want Amazon to know which readers will like your books. If Amazon has an easier time knowing what you are, the electronic bookstore giant will drive more people to your page through recommendations. You can mess up those algorithms when you publish in different genres. Some authors have gone so far as to use different pen-names for different genres because of this. But pseudonyms can prevent your readers from learning about your other titles. Even if they loved one series, they may be completely unaware you have another. Writing under multiple aliases also exacerbates the problem with your pace of book release—making it look like you are slow rather than prolific.
So let’s assume you publish everything under one name. When someone goes to your Amazon page, you want them to see other books they like down in the recommended books—this tells them they are in the right place. Hopefully some of those books are your other titles and upon seeing them they’ll want to snatch up everything you’ve written. This is diluted if everything is muddled. If half of your titles are unappealing, they may wonder if they’ll even like the first book they were contemplating.
Confusing potential readers and diluting your appeal impacts conversion—you sell less books. This impacts your rankings, and decreases best seller trajectory.
Generally speaking, it’s harder to make a living writing if you publish in multiple genres—even close genres. Are there ways around it? Of course—as a starry eyed young reader I read everything by Anne McCaffery at a voracious pace. I wasn’t alone—she made a best-seller level career of hybrid Space Opera/Epic Fantasy.
So it is possible to do. But a writing career is hard, even if you aren’t taking on added difficulty. Publishers know this—they are trying to help you make wise choices for your career—because they want you to have the best career possible—that’s where their profit comes from.
Boxed or Unboxed—Your Educated Choice
So, knowing that you can make a more educated career decision—do you still want the big box, or do you want to leverage a more targeted box? It’s perfectly okay to choose what your publisher’s wisdom knows to be the easier path. As a writer you are basically running your own small business. If making smart business decisions is what allows you to keep doing what you love and thrive, then sleep well. Being wildly impulsive generally does not make for a stable income. However, by choosing one genre from all the others, you may get away with being more impulsive within that genre than your peers who chose the multi-genre path. Those writers will need to think every move through to compensate for their grand hubris.
If you still want a box that grabs sand outside your genre then you’ll have to be smart about it.
Career Battle Plan—Your Nuanced Strategy
You should have already started musing on how you can mitigate the risks of a multi-genre career. Your choice has made your life tougher, your pocket leaner, and your chances of long-term publication lower. This is a big risk for you. It is a bigger risk, in terms of the raw capital invested, for the publisher. Of course, failure will be more devastating for you as an individual—but a publisher only has limited slots to fill and limited money to allocate. Theirs is a business of risk reduction. Your editor builds their success directly off the performance of their “stable” of authors. Your choices impact your editor’s career and your publisher’s bottom line.
You will need to craft a killer plan, hone it to a razor’s edge. Think of all the objections and have your rebuttals and solutions prepped to go. Approach the conversation with your editor professionally. Remember, this isn’t about winning an argument—this is about your livelihood and their massive investment.
You need sound principals and the follow-through to make them work. Market research, well-reasoned logic, and an unflinching analysis of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are only the beginning. You need to know what you’ll do if parts of your plan don’t work out. Think about what a loss is, and where the cut points are where you will change your strategy. If your out-of-genre book fails, what will you do? You are a professional—the tough choices are where you show it.
Today we discussed the costs of stepping outside your genre. In my next article, Neptune’s Sandbox III—Opening Move (Your First Book) I’m going to talk about how you position your first book when you are planning a career that steps out of bounds.
Remember, whether you write in one genre or many, the most important thing is to love the sand you choose.