Genres, author focus, and reader expectations
Today’s article is as much a bleg for information and comment from our readers as it is my own perspective. I hope we can get a discussion going that will benefit all of us, and possibly those outside our immediate circle as well.
If one writes in a particular genre, one is often “typecast” as “a science fiction author”, or “a fantasy author”, or “a romance author”, or whatever. This can lead to complications when a writer wants to broaden his/her horizons and publish in other genres. If one’s readership has been painstakingly built up in a particular genre, will they follow you to another, and buy your books in that one too? In my experience, if they like your writing because of your style/quirks/weirdness/whatever, they will; but if they’re genre-based readers who happen to like your work as representative of what they expect in that genre, not so much. Other writers have reported a wide range of experiences when confronting that reality. What have you found, both as a writer and as a reader?
For myself, switching genres has become a very important creative tool. I know every writer is different in how they approach their work. In my case, my muse/creative spirit/whatever can get very frustrated at times, and simply “lock up”. I find myself unable to come up with anything worthwhile. At times like that, I find it very handy to have another book on the back burner, in a completely different genre, that I can pick up and noodle at while my muse gets her ruffled feathers smoothed down and back into place. I’ve now written in four genres over the past five years – science fiction, fantasy, Western and non-fiction memoir – plus a fifth, several decades ago and now long out of print.
(That creative frustration is how a number of my books have begun. “War To The Knife” was my first “pantser” effort, because I’d locked up on the third volume of the Maxwell Saga, “Adapt and Overcome“, and couldn’t see a way forward. In sheer frustration, I sat down one morning and started writing the first thing that came into my head. Thirty days later, I’d completed the first volume of the Laredo War trilogy (the third and final volume of which is currently being written). That was, of course, also military science fiction, the same genre as that in which I got my start: but I built on that, and expanded my horizons. My first Western, “Brings The Lightning“, came about in a similar fashion, and I’m now working on the third book in that Ames Archives series.)
Others write in multiple genres, not out of creative frustration, but because they have so much creative instinct that it’s hard for them to confine it within the walls of just one or two genres. Our own Sarah Hoyt is a good example of this. I have no idea how many genres she’s graced with her presence, but I’m sure it’s well over half a dozen by now. I don’t even know how, precisely, to categorize some of her output. For example, her recent collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson, “Uncharted” (for which they’ve just won a Dragon Award – congratulations!), incorporates elements of history, fantasy, romance, horror and thriller, and probably a few others I haven’t thought of. How does she do it? I don’t know… but I enjoyed the result! (The three “whiskey zombies” were a great touch. I’ve never heard of alcohol as a factor in such things, but at least they were in high spirits, so to speak.)
I’ve been a little surprised by how possessive of their favorite writers some fans can become. After I began to branch out from “pure” military science fiction, I actually received complaints from some readers, demanding to know when I was going to “stop wasting my time” on other genres and get back to delivering more of their favorite stuff. I tried to be as polite as possible in replying, because I did (and do) value their support; but why shouldn’t I try to spread my wings as an author, and try to succeed in more than one genre? To me, that makes writing more interesting… but clearly, some readers differ. As Brian Niemeier said in another context:
The author as brand is dead. Kindle whales–the voracious readers you need to drive your sales–aren’t primarily loyal to a publisher, or even an author. Instead, they constantly binge on books in their favorite genre. If your next book isn’t there waiting to sate readers’ hunger when they finish your last one, they won’t hesitate to move on to titles by other authors that will scratch their genre itch.
If one wants to write in multiple genres, one probably won’t be able to take such readers along for the ride. Hopefully, they’ll still be waiting when one gets back to their genre with another book, further down the line – but I suppose that can’t be guaranteed.
I know we’ve discussed the subject before, but the market changes, and so do our perspectives and experiences: so, let’s throw open the field to renewed discussion. Writers – do you write cross-genre or in multiple genres? If so, how have your experiences differed from mine? Readers, do you read widely, or in a few chosen genres only? What are your expectations of your favorite authors? Will you follow them if they publish something in a genre you don’t normally read, or will you prefer to take a pass and wait for them to get back to where you’re waiting for them?
I think the discussion might be helpful to all of us. Over to you!