By P.D. Martin
When you talk to agents or publishers about switching genres it’s usually met with jaws dropping, heads shaking and anything from mild disapproval to screams of “No!”
So why is it that switching genres can produce such a strong reaction? You’d think you were announcing to your family that you were switching teams. (If you’re a Seinfeld fan you’ll be following my analogy, but if you’re a little lost, here’s the missing piece of the puzzle: the characters in Seinfeld used to talk about people “batting for the other team”, which meant they were gay rather than heterosexual. And, as you’ve probably guessed, switching teams means changing sexual orientation.) So….
Why does something as seemingly small and insignificant as switching genres produce a jaw-dropping reaction? I mean, it’s just a genre, right? A story is a story. Right? Well, it’s actually more complex than that.
At this point, I should come clean. I’m a chronic genre switcher. (Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at my published novels – on the surface I appear to be a mystery novelist firmly entrenched in the police procedural/forensic thriller zone.) However, I DO believe a story is a story and I often get story ideas for a range of genres. For example, before getting published I wrote two children’s fantasy novels (which remain unpublished). Then for my third book I was deciding between three different ideas, all in different genres! I had one crime fiction, one action/espionage thriller and one mainstream women’s fiction. In the end, as you may have guessed, I chose the crime fiction story and wrote what became my first published novel, Body Count.
But the other novels and ideas have stayed with me, as well as new ideas. Another example…I’m a bit of a closet vampire fiction fan (I know, big confession) and after I’d written three Sophie books I wanted to write a vampire fiction book. But my agent convinced me to stay focused on crime, and Sophie. Why upset the apple cart?
What about my first two children’s books? People often assume it would be easy to get them published now that I’m a published author. To a certain extent the first books an author writes tend to be learning experiences, a way for them to refine their craft. Having said that, I still believe in one of my children’s books; I believe the writing is good enough. Problem is, it’s a different genre. Publishers and agents think of an author’s name as a brand. Promote the brand and keep the brand ‘strong’ by ensuring the author’s name is synonymous with a certain type of book. ‘P.D. Martin’ is crime fiction/mysteries/thrillers. And obviously I wouldn’t want to bring out a children’s novel under the same name anyway because I definitely wouldn’t want 8-12 year olds who enjoyed my fantasy novels to pick up one of my crime books!
So why not publish under a different name? It’s all about time and focus. After all, if you go and write a romance novel or a children’s fantasy series, that’s going to take time away from the mysteries, right? Basically, your agent and publisher(s) try to convince you to focus on writing in your current genre and at least one book a year. It seems that’s the magical formula in publishing. Of course, genre hopping can be more easily done if you can write two books a year – then you’d still be bringing out one book a year in each series.
I’ve scrapped the children’s fantasy novels, at least for now. But I still want/wanted to do something different. After five Sophie novels and one ebook novella, I went back to my action thriller idea and I’ve just finished writing that book. While it is very different to my Sophie Anderson series, crime fiction and action thrillers aren’t SO different that my new one couldn’t be a ‘P.D. Martin book’. At least, I think it’s okay.
Of course, there are authors who have successfully crossed the divide. One that comes to mind is Nora Roberts. She started off with straight romance novels and then moved on to romantic suspense, writing as J.D. Robb. Although, interestingly, the books bear both of her names, with the byline “Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb”. I also noticed from Wikipedia that she’d always wanted to write romantic suspense but was persuaded by her agent to stay focused on romance until she built a following. In fact, it was over 10 years before she finally got her wish to write romantic suspense and it was partly in response to her prolific output.
Scottish author Val McDermid also has a series she writes under V.L. McDermid. However, the rationale is not genre-based because all her books are mysteries. Rather, her V.L. books feature a lesbian protagonist (batting for the other team), while her Val books are considered more ‘mainstream’.
Murderati’s own Tess Gerritsen is another example of an author who successfully switched genres. She started with romantic thrillers and then moved to medical thrillers, then crime thrillers. Interestingly, she HAS written all her novels using the same name and said when she changed from romantic thrillers to medical thrillers she considered releasing them under a different name but ultimately decided against it. Tess sees advantages and disadvantages. When she switched genres, she felt that she’d built up an audience and didn’t want to lose them. However, she says the romance novels continue to annoy her purist thriller readers. “But in the long run, I think it’s been good for sales,” Tess said.
Another author who’s shifted genres but all within the same ‘brand’/same name is Philippa Gregory. Probably most well known for historical fiction she’s also written thrillers and her Amazon bio describes her as the pioneer of “fictional biography”. The Other Boleyn Girl is a well-known example.
I guess these genre-switchers are good news for me…especially given the book I’ve just started working on is best described as a “mainstream women’s fiction”. I know, something different again! (Please don’t shake your head at me.)
Unfortunately my agent passed away late last year and I’m currently on the hunt for a new agent. This means I don’t have anyone to berate me for switching genres or to warn me against it. A new found freedom? But will querying with an action thriller and a work in progress of a women’s fiction make it harder for me to find a new agent? Only time will tell. And maybe I should be on the lookout for an agent who’s also open to children’s fantasy – just to really get their jaws dropping and heads shaking. Come on, people…I’m switching genres, not teams
So do you like your authors to keep their genres straight up? And the writers out there…are you closet genre-switchers like me?
I hear this a lot too. I think it's nonsense for publishers and agents to be so rigid about what you write. It's not like a writer is Coca-Cola and she can't start producing bottled water….
Creativity and business – should they be lovers? They might work better as friends. I write mysteries but I've also written a children's novel and I'm about to start something I can't even describe yet. I feel totally stubborn about it: write what you want. Branding writers is an amazing tool, but we're still writers and we don't fit into boxes all the time. Besides, branding can lead to stagnation – for readers as well, because readers like new things just as much as writers do.
I understand the business side. When you tackle a new genre you ARE starting over, building a new name for yourself with a bunch of new readers, but so what? You did it once, you should be able to do it again, and if you can't, then you'll evolve.
Great questions and a lot of issues to take on here in your post.
I agree with the concept of branding; if you want to write in a different genre then you create a new pen name to differentiate the work. As I understand it, Nora Roberts did this at first, then the publishers added 'the writing as' later to capitalize on the popularity of the Roberts name. Nora also purposely chose Robb so her new books would be shelved close to the Roberts in the fiction section.
A ton of writers do this, and do it successfully. For me the bigger question I get from your post is why you would let an agent or editor limit what you want to write?
Assuming, you’re committed to an editor/house by contract to do a novel a year in your series. Great. You’re obligated to do that. But, can you write more than one novel a year? If so, offer the different genre novel to that editor first, if he/she passes on it, shop it around. Even if you are operating under a pen name for the second novel, your cover letter will tell the editor you are shopping to who you are and your publishing history, success, etc. Sell under the second pen name then you’ve launched a second career. All the big and medium size presses pass on this new M/S? Okay, self-publish it, see how it does. What have you got to lose?
As for getting another agent. Why would you hire someone (someone who works for you) to come in and tell you what you can and can not write? That seems crazy to me.
I don’t mean to spark controversy here, but it seems to me writers should write what they want to write, keep everyone who would seek to limit them out of their offices. They should sell directly to editors and if they don’t get picked up, self-publish the thing and see how it does.
Sorry for the long reply, and thanks for the opportunity for a great conversation
The librarian in me likes it when authors switch names with genres — it's tidier and easier to convince the cataloguers that authors can be placed on different shelves. The majority of our patrons seem to like that, too.
As a reader, I don't care if authors switch genres — it's the voice I follow, and the voice comes through, regardless.
As a (yet unpublished) writer, I love the idea of genre freedom. I'm still trying to find my place—I tend to move from caper crime fiction to psychological horror (short stories), to fantasy caper crime fiction—but maybe I don't have one . . . Maybe I have several?
From a reader's POV:I prefer authors to keep their genres separate. If it's just a switch between police procedurals to forensic mysteries to thrillers/suspense by all means keep the same name but when you venture off into something totally different, change the name. Some readers don't pay attention to little details like the back blurb or genre labels. If they love your work, they see your books they just buy it. It's when they read it they get upset when they learn that it isn't what they thought it would be. Like you said, there's advantages and disadvantages to using the same name across the board or starting over with a new name. It's just easier to keep everything separate I think.
I don't have a preference of an author keeping the established name or to start a new one. What does irritate me is not knowing that an author I enjoy is writing under a different name — and agents should make a note that going under a different name could also potentially lose readers as well. As mentioned previously, I follow the story teller. I'll read the other ventures if it strikes a chord. Sometimes it doesn't: Nora Roberts did a trilogy involving vampires that I just can't read though I made the attempt. I don't like that subject/sub-genre. I hold CJ Sansom in highest esteem with his Tudor books but I'm not interested in the subject of his stand alone.
Re: Nora Roberts/JD Robb. Yes, it was not initially broadcast that JD Robb was Roberts. I have the first book from when it first came out. Now, of course, it can't be avoided.
P.D., with your search for a new agent, you have the opportunity to set the guidelines you want to abide by, I'm thinking. Taking it to the extreme, what does the publishing world want: a different agent for the different names of one person? Bah.
Yup, right now I'm working on the space opera/vampire/zombie/werewolf/crime/revenge/pulp thriller that's been percolating in the back of my head for years. I have no idea if it'll even find a print publisher; I'm toying with the idea of serializing it for e-books. Haven't decided on using a pseudonym yet.
When the discussion arises as to whose career I most envy, I always say Dan Simmons. He's written great horror, amazingly great sci-fi, and a few really kick ass hard-boiled crime novels–and they let him keep his own name. His "brand" is "great writer."
As a writer, I'm pretty well locked into crime, though I do toy with the idea of a Western some day. (Of course, I consider Westerns to be ur-noir, so maybe that's not a change after all.)
As a reader, I have no issues with a favorite writer switching, though I'll admit I used to, and will still probably need a strong recommendation from someone I trust before I make the move. I've become more open-minded since I started writing seriously.
As for the publishers who don;t want a writer to change, it's because they're basically risk-averse and in over their heads. No one really knows what will sell until it does. Once they find something they think is safe, they'll ride it as far as it will go until either the writer or the public is sick of it, or the writer dies. Too many promising writers become formulaic, and I attribute it to publishers reining in their impulses to try something new, even within their chosen genre.
Your post had me remembering the time my mother accidentally gave me Judy Blume's Wifey. If we have any success, our names do become shorthand for a certain "type" of book.
I'm of two minds here.As a writer, I think the author's name is her brand and should be used on all of her work.
On the other hand, as a reader I've been stung a few times by picking up a different kind of book than I expected from that author and was therefore disappointed.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I can't. The only time it annoys me is if I expect something and get something else. If the cover/plot summary makes it clear I'm picking up a romance instead of the author's usual sci fi, I have only myself to blame if I don't like it.
Thought-provoking post! And something I definitely have an opinion about.
I, too, have lots of ideas in multiple genres. I had always wanted to write a supernatural thriller–in fact, the idea for the Seven Deadly Sins series (of which there are two books published) came to me before I sold my first romantic thriller. But when I sold, I put it on the back burner and wrote 12 of the same genre.
I had wanted to publish all my books under my own name. When I sold the SINS books, no one suggested I get a pen name. I wish I had. The books would have done better because they would have been marketed to appeal to the target audience. My readers–my romantic thriller/mystery readers–did not move over to my paranormals. I learned, with MY readers, half will read anything I write, the other half don't like woo-woo, and I the books weren't published to appeal to their target audience. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a pen name. SO, long story short …
I went back to romantic thrillers (As a caveat, I never wanted to write more than one paranormal a year. That I had 16 months between romantic thrillers was not my choice.) (Another piece of advice: trust your instincts. I wanted one paranormal a year. My publisher wanted more.)
I write heavy on the suspense, so as long as I'm in the same general genre (suspense) I can keep my name. Romantic thrillers, crime thrillers, whatever, as long as it's focused on a crime and has an investigation and psychological or high-stakes suspense and a mystery, I'm good. But if I put in demons or witches? Not so good.
I loved writing something different. I needed to because I was getting burned out. And now that I'm writing the Lucy Kincaid series I can explore a long-term relationship and not have everything wrapped up at the end of the book. There's romance, but it's a sub-plot, and I can take my time with it.
I think SOME authors can write multiple genres with one name and be successful. Other's can't. But there's definitely not one-size-fits-all in anything related to publishing. For ME, if I wrote something totally different (yes, it would still be suspense because I don't think I can write anything else) I would take a pen name. If I wrote a YA fantasy series (yes, I have an idea …) I would do it under a pen name. If I wrote a YA mystery series, I'd probably keep it under my name. But I wouldn't be opposed to a pen name, I'd just weigh the pros and cons.
Hi P.D. Great post — questions about genre have been an increasing interest to me of late. My daughter writes YA fiction ( she recently signed with Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Agency) and my interest in YA fiction has increased for obvious reasons. I have noticed an increasing trend ( or maybe it's just my increasing interest) of established crime/thriller authors writing YA books: Patterson’s Maximum Ride series (not a fan); Ridley Pearson’s excellent Kingdom Keepers series; Kathy Reichs’ new Virals series; Cussler’s The Adventures of Hotsy Totsy series; James Rollins who not only writes the Jake Ransom series but under James Clemens he has his fantasy Banned and the Banished series and Brett has HERE COMES MR. TROUBLE coming out. That’s only the ones I can think of atm. I’m not sure what is driving this trend, I hope it is because the authors are genuinely interested in the genre. I found VIRALS to be a fun read because Reichs is spinning the series off her adult books. Her main protag is Tory Brennan, Temperance Brennan’s niece.
Another YA genre issue concerns authors who write the same series that include both YA and Adult books. I’ve read most of Christopher Golden’s Buffy books. Yes, I am a hard core BtVS fan, known as a Bronzer, but like most Bronzers it’s the writers who are the stars as opposed to the actors ( well okay Alyson Hannigan ). Along with most of the Mutant Enemy writers Golden would drop into the Bronze forum and chat. I asked him if bookstores ever misshelved his adult BtVS books in the YA section. He said it happened all the time and drove him crazy, worse, a lot of libraries did it too. Shelving an adult BtVS book in the YA section would be like putting the Rizzoli & Isles series there.
Keishon has a good point about readers not reading the blurbs or genres labels. There are number of 1 and 2 star reviews of YA books by some of the authors above because the reader didn’t pay attention to the fact the book was YA or middler and not adult.
I have no problem with authors writing multiple genres under the same name, but then I know what I am getting when I pick up the book. However, because an author’s name is a brand, writing under a different name for each genre makes sense. As a reader, I also don’t have any problem with authors just switching genres, in fact I would cheer them on, as they are following their muse. One caveat, if you switch to a genre I don’t like, even if I love your writing, I will not be following you there.
I solved this problem by switching genres within each book.
I'm writing all over the place now and haven't decided if I'm going to use different names. To me, the fundamental truth is to write what I want. I can deal with the marketing later.
Actually my post tomorrow will look at creativity and some of the myths we overlay upon it.
Seems several of us 'Rati are on the same wavelength.
I was going to say what Louise said, so I'll just say — what Louise said.
Glad you're here. Happy Sunday!
I've for as long as I can remember been happy to read a wide range of genres. Thinking back to my first chapter books I do have a strong preference for an element of mystery though.
I had to laugh reading Alex's comment. I just read her book, 'The Shifters' this weekend and was struck by what a strong voice she carries across any of the books she writes…especially when creating mood. I thought if's not so much Alex writing to different genres, it's more as though her voice is so much herself that it becomes it's on Sokoloff genre.
So yes, I'll follow writers across genres. For me my faith is rewarded by how well they can create a story that meets whatever fickle reader need I have at the time.
Robert B Parker wrote westerns, YA, and standalones, as well as three different crime series – male PI, female PI and small town police chief. For some reason I liked the standalones, the westerns, the male PI and the small town police chief, but wasn't so keen on the female PI. (Maybe that had something to do with it being in first person, and having met the author, I kept hearing his voice behind that of the main character.)
Iain Banks writes mainstream and sci-fi by simply adding an 'M' into the middle of his name – great indication for readers. Stuart MacBride did the same thing for his terrific foray into sci-fi with HALFHEAD by adding a 'B' between first and last names. I think this is all that's needed. Or, you could simply read the jacket copy. I read certain authors where I like one of their series, but am not so keen on another. I check which is which and shop accordingly.
Personally, I would love to slide outside my current genre, but there are only so many hours in the day ;-]
Personally I like it when authors switch it up. I typically read mystery/suspense thrillers but sometimes its nice to read something different. I am more likely to pick up another genre if it's by and authore I already like.
Allison I really liked the first 2 Seven Deadly Sins books!
Great to see everyone's responses. I'm about to rush out the door to take my daughter to swimming 🙂 but will be back to reply some more – mind you, if you're in North America no doubt you'll be in bed by then!
Zoe F – funny you mention Coca Cola. I think lots of agents and publishers would love to treat an author just like Coke! But it's certainly not ideal from a creative POV.
David – my problem is I can't write more than one novel a year. Maybe when my 4yro is 14, but not at the moment! And yes, in many ways agents do limit us to a certain extent because they do have to think about the business perspective. I understand it, even though it is frustrating at times.
Sarah W – very interesting to hear your different perspectives under your different 'hats'.
Keishon – yes, I think keeping separate pen names for different genres is 'cleaner' and clearer. People know what to expect then. But when you have novelists with a great following (like Nora Roberts and Tess Gerritsen) it's good to capitalise on that too.
PK – yes, I think a good story teller is a good story teller. And I think you're right about publicising that an author has a new pen name is a good idea to keep existing readers in the loop.
More to come later…
It's true that a good storyteller is a good storyteller. Way back when, (Internet time) you could do a search and come up with all kinds of random story posts that were a lot like blog entries. I found that if I typed an odd topic into the search box, I would often get the URL for a short story written by someone I'd never heard of, usually unpublished. Some of them were really fun, and I read tons of them until Google got its annoyingly good logarithm going. I discovered these stories by accident while searching for the old Flying Toasters screensaver. I clicked the URL and got a short story by the same name. Of course now I can't find the story again, not even on the Internet Archives: Way Back Machine: http://www.archive.org/web/web.php Google's logarithm has become too "good" for me by narrowing its focus based on my selections. I want breadth back in my life!
Oh, and it isn't that I want to find short stories anymore, because I find full-length books more satisfying thanks to Talking Books and new Sz Meds that help my focus. I think people publish these on blogs now or in e-books . . . dunno.
Erin: Thanks — I really loved writing them! I hope to finish the series, I even have a way to re-brand it. I just have to be able to suffer with that Carnal Sin cover which is soooooo not me or my book that it makes me ill to look at it. I already have the premise of MORTAL SIN where Anthony and Skye take front and center stage, and Rafe and Moira are secondary, because Anthony gets touched by the demon Wrath and his already volatile temper explodes. And so far, everyone touched by a demon has died …
Allison I just got goosebumps reading about Mortal Sin!
Authors should not have to switch pen names when they cross genres. Sometimes I've read new genres simply because an author I liked wrote in one.
Something I really do NOT like: when the cover says "So and So writing as So and So." I say: pick one and go with it! 🙂
Back again…daughter's swimming and gymnastics are done, and she's in bed! I think I should write a blog on the juggling act, but it's probably all been said before 🙂
JD "right now I'm working on the space opera/vampire/zombie/werewolf/crime/revenge/pulp thriller". Wow. This amazing genre-bender description even had me wondering if you were serious. You are serious, right?
Dana – love this in your post: "No one really knows what will sell until it does." Ain't that the truth!
Louise, I think that sums it up. It is easier for people who like a particular writer writing a particular genre to know what they're getting and paying for.
Allison – great to get some advice from the frontlines of a prolific author like yourself 🙂 I know what you mean about the woo woo. While it's amazing how many mystery lovers also love paranormal, there are lots of die hards who don't like any crossover at all!
Dudley – some great examples of writers crossing in YA there. It certainly does seem to be becoming increasingly popular. I think with some of the action stuff, it's about honing in on one large segment of that author's audience – young males. And also so true about not following an author across genres if it's not your thing.
More soon – it's great this post has opened up such a meaty discussion!
Me again…still catching up!
Pari – write what you want. It's such a basic premise, yet sometimes it's easy to overlook. Or if you're like me, you WANT to write lots of different stuff and it can be hard to decide which one next.
Catherine – interesting point about voice. I often think it's not JUST the author's voice but how the author's voice merges with their characters. So the "voice" will often be different across genres, assuming the main protagonists are different people. Of course, I'm talking about writing in first person point of view or 3rd person POV. Omniscient creates much more room for the author's voice. And what a compliment to Alex…the Sokolof genre!
And on Alex…Alex, you make it sound so simple."I solved this problem by switching genres within each book." Voila. What a great strategy, even if it wasn't a strategy as such!
Zoe – I hear you about only so many hours in the day. And I think adding the middle initial like the examples you gave is a great way to have a difference without a completely separate pen name. Mmm…Phillipa D Martin. That works! What would yours be? Zoe xxx Sharp.
Reine – Google's algorithm too good? I bet they never hear that! It needs to be these days with the amount of stuff 'out there'. Very interesting about your early searches though.
MBD – that's so great that you've gone with your favourite authors into new genres. Another interesting take on this topic.
And I'm finally up to date…except for Allison and Erin talking about Mortal Sin – but that's more a 'talk amongst yourself, people' moment. Although I do agree that it sounds like a book I'd pick up too!
Thanks again everyone for the great discussion and I'll check back in later if there are any more thoughts. Sorry I was slow off the mark today/yesterday/tomorrow with responses. It's one of the problems with the time difference. I'm going to bed while you guys are reading and posting and by the time I'm replying, you're logged out and/or in bed. I'll try and sort out a better timing going forward.
That's why I stay up so late. Oh okay . . . it's quiet, and I'm up writing. As much as we love our children, Steve and I are glad they are grow. Well . . . most of them are.
PD you expanded what I realise makes Alex's voice so strong across whatever genre she is in, it's the emotional depth that she brings to the characters that links to create a rich mood. Or at least that's what I get when I read her work.
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