Can I Write in Multiple Genres?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Yesterday on my blog, I talked about the importance of identifying a genre for your novel. Expanding on that topic, today I want to address one of the most common questions I receive: Can I write books in more than one genre?

Well, sure, write whatever you want!

Can I write books in multiple genres and expect to build a successful publishing career?

No, not if you’re just starting out. (Later… maybe.)

A lot of people have asked me this question, and they don’t understand my answer. Hey, they’re multi-talented and have lots of interests. They write historicals, suspense, and fantasy. Why wouldn’t I be ecstatic about an author who can do it all??

This is a marketing issue.

If you want to publish books, attract a loyal readership, and have long-term success as an author, then you’ll need to pick a genre, do that genre well, and keep doing it over and over. Simple as that. All the arguing in the world and all the talent in the world is not going to change this reality.

Be a specialist.

A publisher can’t afford to try and reach a whole new audience with every single book you write. As an author, neither can you (even if you’re self-publishing). If your first book is a historical romance and 25,000 people buy it and love it, you now have 25,000 historical romance readers eager for another book from you. If your second book is a contemporary suspense, you completely give up the audience you’ve already built (leaving them hanging, by the way) and you have to build a new audience from the ground up. How much sense does that make?

It’s not feasible, especially in today’s competitive market, to try and be a jack of all trades. You can’t reinvent the wheel every time out. Choose the one thing you enjoy most and do it the best you can.

I know, it’s frustrating to be “pigeonholed” into one genre. You feel like the marketplace wants to limit you. They’re holding you down, keeping you in a box. The world wants to put artificial constraints on the heights to which you can soar.

But I recommend you avoid thinking of it as pigeonholing. I doubt Jeremy Lin feels pigeonholed into “just basketball.” I don’t hear Stephen King bemoaning that no one wants to read an Amish romance from him. They’re not pigeonholed, they’re specialists.

Even if you’re thinking about variations of a genre (romantic suspense, romantic comedy, etc.) it’s best to keep your main goal in mind: sell books. What’s your best chance of selling the most books? How do you build yourself a loyal readership? Specialize. Create an expectation in the reader, then fulfill that expectation. If your first book is romantic suspense, plan on doing that at least a couple more times. Once you’ve begun to build an audience, you may be able to branch out in a slightly different but related genre. But it’s always a risk.

It’s a little different if you’re talking about writing both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to do this, understand that you’ll be working to build two different audiences simultaneously. This takes a TON of work. How much time, energy, and money do you have to devote to marketing your work? Most authors find it daunting to promote themselves in one category, let alone two. Make your decision with the full knowledge that you’ll be doing twice the promotional work if you’re publishing in two categories.

Writing in more than one genre or category means you’re also diluting your ability to focus. Are you able to study and improve the craft of fiction at the same time as learning the particulars of writing a great memoir? Few people are. So trying to do two things at once weakens not only your ability to market the best you can, but also to write the best you can.

So for the best chance of success, specialize. Pick a genre (of fiction) or a category (of non-fiction) and stick with it.

If you’re writing in several genres and you’re not published yet, be aware that the first book you sell and publish will determine the genre you’ll be working in for quite a while. Choose carefully!

As a writer, have you found it difficult to choose a single genre? As a reader, how would you react to your favorite authors suddenly putting out books that are completely different from what they wrote before?

 

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49 Comments

  • Joanne Sher says:

    It IS hard to pick genres, though I think I may have done that. AM wondering, though, how specific you have to be. I’m currently working on a biblical fiction. Does that tie me to biblical, or is historical fiction “close enough?” Thanks for this post!

  • ed cyzewski says:

    Great advice Rachelle. I would add that self-publishing can be quite tempting and writers could stretch themselves thin. As I’ve been trying to figure out the right mix of work, I’ve dabbled in self-publishing, but I think I’m better served at the moment by trying to make my top book ideas the best I can make them. I may change my mind at some point, but for now, what you see about focusing, practicing, and learning in order to specialize rings true.

  • Certainly true in the traditional publishing realm, Rachelle. Publishers who make an investment in an author are taking a risk and need to be strategic. And the writer must cooperate with the program. But as I wrote in a recent post, the rules of “branding” have expanded in promising ways for the self-published author. In fact, a multi-genre publication strategy, done correctly, contributes to that ever elusive “platform” all publishers want you to build, and makes some added revenue as well.

    I have the quaint notion that writers are entitled to earn money from their writing.

    For example, I am self-publishing boxing stories. These do not harm my brand as a suspense author. I am self-publishing a backlist of historical romance. These do not harm my zombie legal thrillers.

    In fact, if I’m writing well (not an insignificant point for those looking at self-publishing), then any of these can cross-promote any of the others.

    Authors need to work strategically with their agents and publishers, and make sure they are all on the same page (starting with the page where you sign the contract!) But authors also should not be hesitant to write where their passion directs them, and find ways to get those stories to readers.

  • Nathan says:

    I know this. I know this. I know this but the pressure is so great. I think about how important this is almost every day, as I write. But to make money I also know I need to write what I can get published. I would write only general Christian fiction with a fantasy flare if publishers were interested in publishing such.

    You’ve definitely hit a topic that is close to my current challenges. So few doors are open in the genre that I love and with which I feel most comfortable.

    There is also the aspect of platform. I have opportunities to write to a certain crowds. When I submit books for publication, I have to give evidence that I have a platform in that genre. My platforms are not really in my genre of choice.

    I live a multifaceted life. I can easily write about those experiences. There are genres that are easiest for me to write and publish but don’t really represent my desired future in writing.

    Thanks for reinforcing what I know I need to do. It is a tough predicament.

  • Along with many other writers, I’ve done a little self-pub in mystery and paranormal/erotica, which I didn’t find diluted my category romance writing focus or my readership.

    Writing those things gave me a break from writing 20+ category novels, which I enjoy, but a writer’s imagination needs some stretch. We need to try new things. And I firmly believe that writing the mysteries allowed me to write better mystery/suspense subplots in my romances, and writing the romances allows me to work on relationships more in the mysteries, which are necessarily plot heavy.

    That said, I agree that a writer starting out should focus, regardless if they are trad or self-pub. I started out as a Blaze writer, and I wrote nothing but Blaze for several years (and I still write them, and plan to keep doing it), and I often tell new writers I mentor to do the same thing in their genre. But there is a point where we need to diversify and try new things. Not right at the start, granted, but the urge to reach out, invent, do something new, etc should never be discouraged by an agent or publisher, IMO. We have to write what we feel will benefit us most as writers, not just as brands.

    The other side of it, as James points out, is money. If you are making a decent living writing one thing, I think you are fortunate. But most writers need to branch out to find various income sources these days, and those branches can lead to more opportunities. So… I think you’re both right. ;)

    Sam

    • I totally agree with everything you’ve said, Sam, and I appreciate you sharing it. I know you mentioned this – but I just wanted to emphasize that I’m mostly talking to new writers here. As your experience confirms, I think it’s important to specialize when you’re starting out.

  • Nathan says:

    I read a lot of different genres. I would definitely be interested in a favorite author’s new genre attempt. There have been a few times when I’ve read such a change up and it was great. Other times I’ve not been impressed.

  • If you do choose to write in two, semi-related genres, do you recommend using a pen name or just going for it with your own, already established name?

  • What a great post and fabulous discussion so far. This seemed like a no-brainer to me before reading the comments. Branding is a topic that has come up often lately.

    What about pen names, Rachelle? My first book came out under my married name, but the second book coming out this fall is a secular children’s story, versus a Christian one, so I opted to use my first two initials and my maiden name. I didn’t want to blur my faith-filled journeys for kids brand with a secular story.

    Right now, anything I’m writing would be covered by the two names, but I see what you’re saying about having to build two audiences at once. Do you feel eventually one will have to win out over the other?

    Thanks for making me think on this again.

  • I’ve wondered about this before. I write women’s fiction with romantic elements, which is nice because I do like a good romance story, and can incorporate that love with the deeper issues I can explore in women’s fiction.

    Thanks for the detailed explanation, Rachelle! I always value your advice.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I SO want to read Stephen King’s Amish romance.

  • A friend sent me this super interesting article the other day in PW and it sort of relates to this.

    The author of the article is a librarian and she talks about recommending books. According to her, genre or topic isn’t necessarily a good way to recommend a book.

    She said there are four doorways into fiction. Story, character, setting, prose. Obviously, we should aspire to nail all four. But in almost every book, one of these doorways is bigger than the other three.

    As readers, we gravitate to these doorways. You have some readers who LOVE page-turners – well, story is their doorway. You have some readers who fall in love with a character – well, character is their doorway of choice. You have some readers who love feeling as if they are there, in the book – setting. And you have readers who read because the writing is so captivating – prose.

    The author of this article says it’s best to identify which doorway readers are looking for and base recommendations from there.

    I’m wondering if this applies to branding too… Maybe more important than genre is figuring out which doorway our audience is looking for and which doorway we naturally gravitate toward, and making sure our books offer that doorway for our readers.

    Just a different spin on the whole branding issue.

    Regardless, I don’t see myself leaving contemporary romance anytime soon. Me loves it!

    • Thought-provoking information, Katie. Thank you.

    • That’s a fantastic way to think about pleasing the readers we do have. My only published book is a contemporary with a twist of intrigue. That gives me a lot of leeway in what I write next. I just have to stay current and focus on some kind of mysterious circumstance. ;)

      My critique partner just saw the proposal I’m sending to Wendy soon and she said it fits exactly with my style from the last book. Felt great to hear that!

      I agree, going off later postings, that Sir James Scott Bell can write anything because he writes so well. :)

  • Stephanie says:

    This is a tough one for me, because while I write women’s fiction, I also have a deep love for all things YA and would love to some day publish under that genre. Is that an impossible dream, what with the growth YA has seen in the past few years and the fact that more adult readers are picking up YA books?

  • Yes, but…
    Yes, but…
    Yes, but…
    Aw shucks.
    Okay.

  • Donna says:

    I relate so much to the points you’ve made here. Interesting, I’ve never thought of myself as a specialist – just writing what I love. But I guess when so much time, energy, and heart goes into researching to write what you love, the result over time is a specialist. Thanks for this encouragement!

  • Being a specialist makes sense. It’s key to establishing a brand. So I understand why, once I am published, I need to stay with a particular genre, at least for a long while. As you said, there is a ready-made audience for the second book, and I’ve been in that eager audience who was then disappointed by an artist (writer, musician or director)who, after initial success, went a completely different direction.

    As a yet unpublished author, the question that came up for me while I read your blog was: can I write more than one genre now and see which one sells? It seemed at the end of your post, you indicated that this would be okay as long as I’m ready to continue to write in the genre that sold. Am I understanding you correctly?

  • My worst suspicions are now confirmed! Grin.

  • Stephen says:

    I think Sir James Scott Bell (surely he’s been knighted by now) is onto something with the “if I’m writing well” qualifier. In my experience as editor, the writer who truly can write well in multiple genres is a rare beast, indeed. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just that the number of writers who think they write well in multiple genres far exceeds the number of writers who actually can.

    That’s not to say it isn’t a great exercise, though. As long as you aren’t neglecting the genre where you’re finding success*, go ahead and test the water in a new genre. Choose something you love and go for it. At worst, you’ll learn a few things about storytelling and who you are as a writer. At best, you’ll discover a new direction that can extend or expand your writing career – if not today, then someday.

    *Good luck with this. I’m pretty sure we still only have 24 hours in a day.

  • Dale Rogers says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Rachelle. I have
    a better understanding of the subject now.

  • Interesting and well-timed post, Rachelle. I had to “discover” my niche the hard way – by writing several different stories to completion and being honest with myself about which “came easier.” Although I have a deep-seated passion for historical not (not just romance/fiction), I am realizing (through reviews, feedback, etc.) that my writing style lends itself more to contemporary stories. Go figure.

    SO… I’ll READ historical and WRITE contemporary – although I’m also learning that I have to read contemporary too in order to stay in the game. Argh.

    Sometimes I think my brain is going to explode.

    Becky

    • Joan Wylder says:

      You’ve made an intriguing point, Becky. Your interests are in one genre but your writing strengths are in another. Why do you think it was easier to write contemporary rather than historical? Was it the language of the time do you think?

      • Hi Joan,

        I’m not sure exactly, but I believe that a lot has to do with my age and life experience. When I was younger, I STARTED writing historical fiction all the time but when I’d get to the meat of things, I couldn’t put myself right in the middle of it to save my life (or the life of my heroine!). When I recently began writing contemporary fiction, I found that my personal experiences became like a giant file cabinet of resources for my writing and that it was just easier to write the meat of a story having experienced things first-hand or second- or third-hand between me, my family and friends. I suppose it’s the old adage: Write what you know.

        Thanks for the question – I’ve had to really think about it.

  • Some branded authors write dozens of books in the same genre and the later ones are boring because they’ve already done it all in earlier books. But I guess they’re afraid to change brands or do anything creative when they have a stable of people who buy their books. I wonder if an author whose books in one genre didn’t sell well would have a better chance of getting future books published in another genre.

  • Really interesting post. Do you think the authors that write in lots of genres, like Jane Yolen, built their name in one genre first and then moved on to others? I had an agent tell me that she liked my hf picture book, but it would be a hard first sale. She suggested I try writing some lighter stuff first and put the hf on the back shelf until I have developed a name for myself.

  • With regards to your first published book being the one that brands you: Jay Asher wrote comedic boy books but never sold them. His first book to sell, sold for a quarter of a million dollars and it was a dark YA–TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY. He didn’t come out with another book for several years and his second book is co-authored. I don’t know this, but I’ve wondered if selling that dark book first, and for so much money, didn’t set him up for writing books he didn’t really love.

  • Nichole Osborn says:

    As an unpublished, wanna be, I find it hard to stick with one genre. I have a non fiction, a childrens’series,a fantacy, and a historical fiction series that I’m working on…How do I choose?

  • Elissa says:

    I can’t get the idea of a Stephen King Amish romance out of my head… nobody, but nobody, would expect that one to have a “happily ever after” ending.

  • Ann Bracken says:

    This makes complete sense to me. I’ve had to become a specialist in my day-job career, so doing so in writing logically follows. Although, just like my job, once I’ve mastered that, there’s nothing that stops me from learning/trying something new.

  • I find myself drawn to combining serious historical fiction with strong romance and mystical elements. I realize that this may not be a commercially viable mix. I could probably find happiness writing work that is more clearly centered on one of those elements, say historical fiction with romance. The problem is that I don’t know in which genre I could build a loyal following. Is it realistic to believe that the response and feedback to a book with mixed genres can point the way to where your greatest strength lies?

  • This is excellent advice! Thank you so much. What advice would you have for someone who is concentrating on one genre but happens to have one book written in a different genre? Should they not query it and let their future agent handle submissions?

  • Mrs.Jones says:

    What about writing in the same genre, but writing some YA, adult and/or childrens books?

  • Zach says:

    I have to say that I wholly disagree with you Rachelle. Writing in multiple genres isn’t difficult at all. In fact, it can be incredibly easy and is usually much more captivating of a read than a single genre story. I’m a senior in high school currently writing a multigenre short story for a class that teaches you how to write in multiple genres. Contrary to what Rachelle said, you don’t need to be a specialist to write a multigenre piece. As for marketing issues, what’s so wrong with marketing your work as “Multigenre.” I for one would be very attracted to the idea of a multigenre, full-length novel. So to whoever initially asked this question and to any of you out there wondering if you should write a multigenre piece, I say go for it!

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