Ask the Agent: Writing in Multiple Genres

One of the most common questions I receive is: 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.

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

This is a marketing issue, first and foremost. 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 it 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.

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. 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 simply 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.

I recommend you avoid thinking of it as pigeonholing. I doubt Tiger Woods feels pigeonholed into “just golf.” 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 for awhile. Once you’ve proven yourself a success with your publisher, you may be given leeway to branch out. (Then again, you may not.)

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. Sure, there may be some crossover, but you can’t count on it.

How much time, energy, and money do you have to devote to marketing yourself? 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 dilutes not only your ability to market the best you can, but also to write the best you can.

So specialize. Pick a genre (of fiction) or a category (of non-fiction) and stick with it.

Of course, I expect you to bombard me in the comments with all the “exceptions” to this rule. Fire away, I’m ready.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent who uses the words “Christian literary agent” on her blog for practical reasons of website optimization.

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  • helenf

    >Here I come with the first exception.

    I think once published you need to specialise. However, before then I don’t think there’s any harm with dabbling in different genres, as you may think you’re a fantasy writer but then find you have a real voice for contemporary romance. I worked in publishing for a little bit (years ago now!) and we had one author desperately trying to break into romance, but didn’t succeed until she tried the publishing house with a historical instead.

  • Captain Hook

    >Do you have any idea how badly I did not want to hear this?

  • Joyce

    >Oh boy, Rachelle, I’m coming out of lurkdom for this one. My debut novel is scheduled to release this fall. It’s quirky, poignant, oddball yet bittersweet, and it is written in first person. My WIP is third-person with two POV’s. It’s still quirk but with this POV departure. Should I stay in first person or is it okay to go to third and still please all my multitudes of fans who are going to read book one and want more?

  • Cecelia

    >How do you feel about the genres being somewhat related? What about a romance author who wants to write women’s fiction? I’ve found that those two audiences overlap a great deal?

  • Julie Gillies

    >I agree with ‘helenf’. As a new (nonfiction) writer, I had passion but felt uncertain how to brand myself, and had no way to gauge where I might find success.

    Ecclesiastes tells us to “cast our bread upon the waters”, so there can be wisdom in initially trying different genres…for me it was different styles of nonfiction articles.

    After a year of submitting, I could look back and see which pieces were published.
    THEN I had my direction.

    However, I agree, Rachelle, that once you publish a book, cater to those readers. Unless you’re Mary DeMuth. LOL

  • Rachelle

    >Helenf and Julie Gillies,

    You're absolutely right, I don't disagree and this is not an exception, it's just one of the many details I didn't have room for in my post!

    Yes, you may write ten books in ten different genres before being published and nobody will care. (See opening question & answer in my post.) However, the one that gets published will determine your course for the next few books. That's why I encourage writers to choose a genre they enjoy.

  • Rachelle

    >Joyce, Cecilia and everyone else,
    I tried to write the post to give you enough reasoning behind the “don’t write multiple genres” guideline, so that you’d be able to answer your own detailed “what if” questions. I can’t answer them all because the more detailed they get, the more subjective and case-specific they become. I encourage you to look at the reason for the guideline in context of your own publishing goals and the feedback you’ve received from editors /agents /critique groups, and make your own decisions.

  • John UpChurch

    >I have to say that I was once a “I-can-do-all-genres” writers, but the more I’ve worked on novels, the more I find that I want to focus on a particular genre. Why? Because I love creating fantasy worlds that have biblical truth tucked away in the creases and folds. It’s fun. (Though I know I’ll have to find another agent besides one of my favorite bloggers. Any suggestions?).

    In any case, I do feel like my talents have come out more as I’ve been specializing on a genre that I’ve always enjoyed reading myself. Now, once I sell 10 million books or so :), I may think about some other things.

    Thanks for the post.

  • elaine @ peace for the journey

    >Great points, Rachelle. I like knowing what I’m going to “get” with an author and his/her words. I write non-fiction, and when I’ve thought of doing otherwise, I collapse in mental exhaustion.

    peace~elaine

  • Pam Halter

    >Rachelle said, “You need to specialize, because a publisher can’t afford to try and reach a whole new audience with every single book.”

    That is the most clear reason I’ve seen. THANK YOU!!

    Joyce, I think you’re fine switching from first person to third person because you’re still in the same genre.

  • Janna Qualman

    >Very helpful post – thank you!

  • lynnrush

    >Specialize. I like that idea.

    I’m unpubbed but penning my sixth…all the same genre. I couldn’t imagine jumping into another one. Everything I’ve learned I’ve applied to the genre in which I write, to change now would really mess me up.

    Now, should I obtain the status level of James Patterson or something (HA!)…well, that’s a different story. HE can get away with it. **smile**

    Great post today, Rachelle.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Agatha Christie is an example of how broad our writing can be and still be specialized. We know what to expect from her books, but she is all over the place with POV (even making the narrator the killer in one) and the stories are different.

    It’s one thing to be sold on the concept (which I am) and another to do it (which I have not). To my credit, I have noticed a common thread in what I like to write—a girl finds a mother through an online dating service, a teenager takes a beating while presenting the gospel, a man buys his wife, a woman tries to blackmail a man into marriage. In my writing, someone always tries to accomplish his or her goals through a highly unusual means. It’s just too bad it doesn’t fall in line with the genre boundaries.

  • Anonymous

    >Makes sense but like actors, you’re in danger of being typecast.

    What about writers like Janet Evanovich who spent years in obscurity as a romance novelist and only broke out when she switched to mysteries?

    Now her new books/series? have a paranormal element–she may gain new fans this way, but it’s not for me. Still I say, if you can do it all well, why not?

  • Kim Kasch

    >Oh, how I hope to have this problem-getting published in too many genres.

    Would this apply to writing through the ages?

    And what about writing in one genre and using a pen name for the other? Or would agents/editors think of that as a waste of their time?

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >I enjoy everyone’s comments.

  • Krista Phillips

    >At the risk of sounding like I’m a brown noser, I totally agree! I think there are always exceptions to the rule but specializing not only helps prevent audience confusion (have you ever picked up a book by a romance writer and there was NO romance? Ugh! Irritating!), but it also helps improve our writing in our genre of choice.

    I write contemporary romance. My books may have a bit of suspense to them to add flair, they definately have a glob of humor to add laughter, but they are still contemporary romance. It’s the common thread that I want to ‘promise’ to my writers.

  • Bryan

    >Rachelle,
    Thank you for all of the free advice. It is so helpful. I am really new at writing and know I am going to sound ignorant with this question. But, I was just wondering if you could give a list of genres that are acceptable for today’s market. It seems like my book ideas have a similar tone but not quite sure they are all the same genre. I guess I am just risking looking dumb to see where I might fit into the market if I were to try to get published. Thanks.

  • Kristina

    >I agree with your post, Rachelle. However, I do think there’s nothing wrong with switching genres if you find the genre you’re being published in isn’t working for you (a la Janet Evanovich or Tess Gerritson). In fact, that’s what I’m trying to do right now :) Still, it’s like starting from scratch!

  • Karen Witemeyer

    >I have stopped reading authors because they switched genres and mourned the loss. I have also known of successful authors who used a pen name for the books they write in a different genre.

    The trick is, can you write fast enough and well enough to sustain two or more different lines. If you need to put out at least a book a year to keep your readers interested, that means two books a year if you are writing in different genres.

    Jayne Ann Krentz does this amazingly well. I only read her historicals (published under the name Amanda Quick), but she also writes contemporary under Jayne Ann Krentz and has even started writing paranormals under Jayne Castle. I don’t know how she does it.

    As Rachelle said, you have to think not only about what you like to write, but about how to sell those books and market yourself to a publisher who needs to know they can count on you to keep your audience happy and keep them reading and buying your books.

    I’m fortunate. I was born with a specialized brain. All I have ever read is historical romance. All I’ve ever wanted to write is historical romance. I have a very cozy pigeon hole. I’ve put up curtains and everything. (Smile)

  • Chatty Kelly

    >I love your website optimization. I gotta get me some of that. LOL.

    I think the chances that someone will achieve greatness in more than one genre is slim too. When Michael Jordan took up baseball, well…let’s just say he went back to basketball. Changes are if you are great at something – it is the one thing. So sticking with it is a great plan.

    I’d be thrilled to be great at just one!

  • Jessica

    >Huh. I’m actually okay, I guess, ’cause I’m all about romance. LOL So that’s what I pretty much write. However, I was targeting category, but someday want to do single title. This is not a departure of genre, is it? And yet, they would probably reach some different audiences. What do you think about moving from category to single title?
    I guess you don’t have to answer that, actually, because I’m guess it would be like switching genres. Hmmm.

  • Yvonne

    >This makes lots of sense!

    Now I just need to make my “pigeon hole” comfortable, so I will feel at home. I suppose once I’m rich and famous, I can write my memoirs, but for now I’ll stick to historical fiction.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for this.

  • Lady Glamis

    >Great advice, Rachelle! Thank you. I’ve often wondered how important it is to to stick to one genre.

    I plan to stick with “suspense” – but the suspense will vary. I’m thinking voice is the most important think in that variance.

  • T. Anne

    >Rachelle,
    I completely agree with you! I wish I could follow that advice but I’m addicted to both literary fiction and women’s fiction. I think the later is a palate cleanse. I enjoy them both so much I alternate between novels.

    I did think recently, I would choose a pen name for both. Keeping those two worlds apart seems the only realistic option. Who knows, maybe lightening will strike twice.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >I love suspense. And my second wip is suspense. But I am really passionate about my first manuscript. It won’t let go of me.

  • Susan Helene Gottfried

    >This would probably warrant another entire post, Rachelle, but one reason I’m GLAD I’m currently not traditionally published (so to speak; we really need a better term!) is that I am seeing, over and over again, authors crossing from urban fantasy and/or romance into YA. It’s a trend, one that I’d rather not be shoved into by an agent or editor, and I strongly suspect that with my voice and youthful sensibilities, I’d be pushed in that direction.

    Got any insight into this recent phenomenon?

  • Dara

    >I write historicals, one ranging from a historical romance, to the other just being plain historical (romance is a subplot, but not the main drive of the story).

    Now this may be a fairly silly question, but would historical romance and just historical be considered the same genre since they are relatively similar?

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Great questions. I am eager to hear Rachelle’s responses.

  • Anonymous

    >Romance – a story about two people falling in love

    Historical Romance – a story about two people falling in love, sometime in the past

    Historical – any story that takes place in the past

  • Anonymous

    >This makes perfect sense from an agenting and publishing ease-of-sale perspective but I think it’s artistically ridiculous.

    Most of my favorite authors write in a slew of different genres. Mark Helprin, Michael Chabon, Fredrick Beuchner, Walt Wangerin, Anne Rice, Stephen King, even Cormac MacCarthy.

    I trust them and buy their books, not because I like the genre they write in, but because I love their writing and the way they tell stories. I’d even go so far to say that writers that stick to a particular genre generally become progressively worse as artists than those that do otherwise. I can think of very few genre authors that I have much respect for as writers, although I’ll readily admit that they are very successful and good business people.

    Take the movie industry for instance, if an actor/director spends too much time in one genre, they get typecast and it’s often the kiss of death for their artistic career. Variety is of the utmost importance.

    I wonder if the disregard that agents and publishing houses have for this kind of thought isn’t part of why their industry is in such poor shape.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I know of few good artists who don’t specialize. Some painters go as far as to paint the same object for several years. Frederic Remington was both a painter and a sculptor, but he specialized in images of the American West. Actors are unable to specialize very much. Time marches on. You can’t be a child star forever. The directors who receive the greatest name recognition are often the one who focus their work. That focus may not always match the arbitrary genre’s we have defined, but they have focused their work on something that we can clearly see in every film they direct.

  • Yvonne

    >I just got my March issue of The Writer. There’s an article about switching genres. I noticed that in all the examples that they mention, the author only moved from YA to Adult fiction or vice versa. They also mention that it can result in failure. So, all in all, I think the article backed you up, Rachelle, not proving to me that changing genres is a desirable thing.

  • Alexandra

    >Wow, so true. I’m a historical fiction person. The hero and heroine always fall in love, but the story is more about an issue the heroine has to get through, etc., or just the heroine’s journey to a certain point. For that reason I shied away from “historical romance”…

    But yeah, the other day I was working on my WIP’s plot. It was originally a contemporary fiction. But something just didn’t flow, didn’t seem right. So I switched all of it over to historical, and suddenly it all fell together. Pretty neat. Historical’s my groove, and I’m totally ok with that.

  • Rachelle

    >*Snark Alert*

    To everyone who gave examples of authors who write in more than one genre:

    Hello… they are all bestselling authors!

    Notice I said in my post, ahem, “Once you’ve proven yourself a success with your publisher, you may be given leeway to branch out.”

    Since Stephen King and Michael Chabon don’t read my blog, I’m trying to give advice to the newer writers who actually DO read it. Hence, those examples don’t apply and only serve to blur the focus of the aspiring author.

    And about authors going from adult fiction to YA: Yes, huge trend. Why? Sales! When authors have established an adult following, it’s a relatively easy transition to YA. The same people are buying the books… either to read themselves, or for their kids.

    All of you who love playing devil’s advocate, keep it coming. You keep me constantly amused. :-)

  • Captain Hook

    >Why can’t someone just use different publishers for different genres? Like if they wrote MG and erotica, it’s highly unlikely that the same publisher would even consider publishing them.

  • Susan Helene Gottfried

    >I’m thinking of a few authors who AREN’T best-selling authors, though, Rachelle. I don’t want to name them here without their permission ’cause that feels like talking behind their backs, but I’ve got a few in mind.

  • Anonymous

    >Hey Rachelle, I’m always a big fan of comments or posts that feature the flag, “Snark Alert” and once again your wisdom doesn’t disappoint. But this comment isn’t so much a snark as a simple reality check, no?

    For all the unpublished authors who see this post as a poke in the eye with a No. 2 pencil, I suggest removing that pencil (gently, of course), putting graphite to paper and getting back to writing what you love to write, whatever that is.

    When you’re ready to pursue publishing one of your works, take time to consider what it might be like writing a few more books in the same genre, in case your first one is as brilliant as you hesitantly (or boldly) claim it is.

    Note: Writing in the same genre is not the same thing as writing a series or a bunch of sequels. If that’s your thing, and that’s the sort of contract you sign – great! Enjoy telling those stories. But staying in the same genre doesn’t have to be as limiting as some of you might be thinking. Consider, for example, relatively new author Tosca Lee. Both her published works fall into that “speculative” genre, but they couldn’t be more different (Demon: A Memoir and Havah, for those of you unfamiliar with her work).

    Okay, so what happens when you sell a bunch of books? Now that you’re a bestseller and have marketing clout, you might be tempted to leap into another of your favorite genres. If you have that inclination and are the sort of author whose name publishing employees invoke in their blessing every time they enjoy a paid lunch…and you’re content with the royalty stream from your previous bestsellers, go for it.

    Just don’t be surprised if readers respond with a collective “huh”?

    Yes, there are a few writers whose pens dance with equal grace in multiple genres, but even they see lower sales figures when publishing outside of their best-known speciality.

    If you get a publishing deal, celebrate! Enjoy writing the contracted books and do your best to make the second and third ones better than the first (please), while keeping your core audience in mind. Then, between paying gigs, go ahead and write that vampire fantasy romance suspense chick-lit young adult novel you’ve always dreamed of writing. Seek a publishing deal for this if you want, but don’t think of yourself as a failure if you don’t get one. Remember why you’re here – it’s not just for the deal, it’s about the writing.

    That’s my seven cents. (I intended to offer only my two cents, but I overspent. I sure hope I signed up for overdraft protection.)

  • Anita Mae Draper

    >Gee Rachelle, I wish you’d written this last week when our group blog discussed the very same topic. Your para on focus (near the end) was just the kind of advice I would have liked to pass on… actually, the whole post!

    But since everything is in His time, I know I needed to hear it most of all. Thank you.

  • Rachelle

    >Oh yeah, one more thing: These are simply guidelines, rules of thumb, MY opinion, interesting things to ponder as you construct your publishing career. There are always plenty of exceptions to every rule. The advice is free here, perhaps worth every penny you paid for it. Take it or leave it! Gather all the information and opinions you want, then make your own decision. And if you’re able to become an “exception,” more power to you!

  • Amber Lynn Argyle

    >Ah, but when we’re rich and famous, we can write whatever we want. ;)

  • Cathy in AK

    >I’d read an Amish romance by Stephen King, but not alone at night, just in case : )

  • Jill Corcoran

    >Excellent post, Rachelle.
    I wrote a post on branding for writers and it kicked up a firestorm of comments on my blog, on facebook and on Verla Kay’s blueboards.

    I believe that many writers are multi-talented and can write in a variety of genres. Yet, there is a strong school of thought that advises writers to BRAND themselves, to establish a writing persona. In short, writers provide readers with ‘expected’ material, and in turn, readers keep coming back for more. Conclusion: Branding leads to loyal readers which leads to stronger sales.

  • Rachelle

    >Dang, I was doing such a good job of talking about BRANDING without ever mentioning the word.

  • Jill Corcoran

    >lol:)
    Rachelle, I blew your cover.
    For me, you can take the girl out of Biz School and put her in the middle of 1,000 children’s writers at an SCBWI conference, but you can’t take the MBA out of the girl.

  • J. Louise Larson

    >Helpful comment, thanks. I am finishing my first novel after having a non-fiction book published in 2006 with FabJob Publishing.

    I have dabbled experimentally (unpublished) in a number of genres and come to the conclusion that I am best served sticking to what I write the best and read the most – literary fiction – even though something else would be easier/quicker.

  • Andrew

    >The way I see it, we’re storytellers, and the tales we animate are the ones that animate us. When we do our best work, we don’t write genre.

    We are genre.

  • Yvonne

    >What is your thoughts on writing various types of articles for magazines (while working on a novel in your own genre)?

    I like to write poetry and short fiction and parenting articles, but I don’t think I’ll ever make a book out of them.

  • Leslie Oden

    >Rachelle, I've recently become a reader of "Rants & Ramblings". Just wanted to say it's incredibly practical and helpful, and I'm learning so much. Thank you!

  • Megan

    >should i dare utter the name….Nora Roberts?!
    Romance & Crime! couldn't be more different.

    however i see your point and i think that its a different story if you've published stacks of books versus just starting out

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Nora Roberts uses a pen name for her mystery/suspense.

  • Cathy

    >Rachelle,

    I get the branding idea. Could you please clear up how specific this should be?

    I write about financial topics in nonfiction. I’m writing a romance mystery with a financial angle and I’d ultimately like to do John Grisham-like work (what is his genre?) with that same angle.

    Does this make up a brand or are the gentler mysteries not similar enough to the Grisham stuff(maybe his are thrillers?)

  • Rachelle

    >Cathy, your question seems a bit too specific and unique for me to adequately answer here.

    My thoughts: Your non-fiction and fiction aren’t going to be related. Until you are a huge name in “finance,” i.e. Suze Orman, no one is going to read your fiction because of the finance angle. In fact, people tend to hate finances to much that I’d bet if you were upfront about a “financial angle” it would scare a lot of fiction readers away.

    Seems to me you are doing two totally different things: being a financial expert, and being a novelist. Each will take a lot of work and time, and each will be its own brand. The brands will only crossover from nonfiction to fiction if and when you have a strong following as a nonfiction financial writer.

  • evilphilip

    >I really enjoyed your article. I’m one of those people who agree with your idea of branding and building your profile as an author of a specific genre.

    Having that fan base is very important and writing what you know your fan base will buy is one way to keep that electricity turned on for another month.

    I would love to be known for my genre. If I ever get branded as the guy who writes those Science Fiction Westerns — I’ll have it tattooed on my body.

  • epicflounder

    >Is a romance ANY novel where romance is the main plot, or does romance imply a certain format? Is there such a thing as a coming of age genre?

  • Karen Jordan

    >I've been wondering why I seem to be bouncing off the walls with my writing projects. Now I know why! Thanks for the input.

  • http://www.amberlashell.com/ Amber LaShell

    I have a quick question for anyone that wants to answer. What if you usually write Paranormal Romance, but have a contemporary Romance story aching to get out? They are both romance, only one features a more fantasy feel than the other… Should I just stick to the fantasy side, or is it okay because underneath it all they are all just romance?

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