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Monday, December 06, 2010

Surviving by Writing Multiple Sub-Genres

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

I've attended all the writing workshops and endured the lectures about developing an author brand and sticking with it. Yes, I see the value in doing this. When readers hear your name, it's a wonderful idea that they have a particular thought or idea in mind of who you are. J.K. Rowling brings to mind Harry Potter books. Nora Roberts makes one think of contemporary romance. Stephen King screams horror. Stephanie Meyer provokes images of vampires. 

Then there are the arguments that an author's readers need to know what to expect from their books. To keep from confusing readers' expectations, some publishers insist on an author writing under various pen names for different subgenres. Nora Roberts also writes as J.D. Robb for her mysteries. Jayne Ann Krentz writes contemporary romance, and as Amanda Quick she writes historical romance. This is the traditional method of managing authors who write multiple subgenres. 
Are these methods antiquated with all the multi-faceted changes taking place in the publishing industry? 
Consider this, Nora Roberts has become so huge and popular that some of her J.D. Robb books are also being promoted as Nora Roberts books. What's the point in having both names? I'm not convinced there ever was one, or maybe there was when she first started out a couple of decades ago, but now it no longer matters. When people go to an author's website, the biggest promotional item for authors these days, readers learn all the pen names they write under. As soon as you land on Jayne Ann Krentz website, you see, "Jayne Ann Krentz is Amanda Quick is Jayne Castle." It's called cross-platforming, and with today's technology, cross-promotion, cross-platforming, cross-publication, and joining all the social media networks--are all methods of building an author's platform and identity--and they are all expected. 
Therefore, it is MY humble opinion that crossing subgenres that actually compliment each other may be a benefit to an author's career and platform. For instance, if an author writes romance and mysteries, it will not be a huge leap to write romantic suspense. An historical author who writes medieval romances may not lose readers if she writes Victorian romances, because historical readers often read more than one time period, even if they like one era best. Amish readers may also like Mennonite and Quaker novels. Granted, an author wouldn't want to write Christian fiction and paranormal. I'm referring to subgenres that compliment each other and where readers are most likely to cross over.

Are readers confused by multiple subgenres written by one author? I'm not, are you? When I pick up a Liz Curtis Higgs' novel, judging by the package, the cover, and the back cover copy, I know whether it is one of her historical fiction novels set in Scotland or the Bad Girls of the Bible series. They are completely different, but written by the same author, and I am never confused. It wouldn't upset me to pick up a Robin Lee Hatcher book that is a contemporary or a different novel by the same author that was set in WWII. Have you?

There is a tiny candle burning inside of me that rebels at the thought of only writing in one subgenre and as I'm seeing the face of the publishing industry forever changing, I'm wondering if my instincts are correct in this--or perhaps it's the Holy Spirit leading me on my author journey? Authors are in the business of surviving and/or thriving at their craft. The bottom line is sales, or we don't get to keep writing for publication. 
With so many publishers merging and buying up all the mid-sized publishers, mom and pop bookstores going out of business, mega-chain bookstores limiting their physical locations to well-populated areas, and online book sales surpassing hardcover book sales, publishing contracts with authors are changing. New authors aren't getting their debut novels published unless they can demonstrate an online presence and a platform that will promote sales. Some publishers won't even offer a contract to a published author unless they can demonstrate previous sales of 20,000 or more per book. Authors are having to hire their own publicists or do the promotional work themselves in addition to writing. The days of writing and letting the publisher's publicist come up with creative ideas and campaigns to promote an author's book are long gone. 
In short, the midlist authors are shrinking to an hour-glass image. Those that are on top with the best sales and rankings are thriving and get the free publicity from their publishers, because publishers can only afford to invest where profits are a sure thing. Other midlist authors are sliding down the tightening belt around the middle to one or two available publishers or to small local publishers with fewer distribution strategies and print-runs. This also means smaller advances, lower royalty percentage rates. 
For these midlist authors, those who want to do more than merely survive, may have to consider writing multiple subgenres to increase their platform and income level. Some supplement their income from speaking engagements and workshops, but midlist authors aren't able to command huge fees so the supplement is often inconsistent, varied, and is never a guarantee. It's the same with articles and short stories, but these are usually one-time payments and a higher quantity is necessary to make a dent in the bills that need to be paid. 

Writing for various subgenres in a book platform can continue bringing in royalty sales--especially e-books which have no limit on shelf life space. Different publishers have different reading audiences and marketing and sales platforms and distributions. An author will find a group of readers writing for one publisher that may be different writing for another publisher, but that author may gather loyal readers that will follow that author through the author's website, blog, and social media platforms regardless of where the author goes for publication. This is author platform--a bit of stability--in a publishing industry where things are so volatile.

If you still want to write under two different pen names, consider the fact that you will have to pay the costs of additional marketing online features and promotional items such as bookmarks, post cards, business cards, magnets, book plates, ads, graphic design, branding, website, etc. 

If you would like more information on writing for multiple subgenres, here is a great article entitled, Genre-Hopping Your Way Out of the Midlist

Please share your thoughts.


Hi, Jennifer. I'm with you on this one.

Funny thing, but two agents I spoke with wanted me to use a pen name but an editor I asked advised me to write everything under one name.

Everything in publishing is changing these days, including (apparently) the expectation that writers focus on only one sub-genre.

Janalyn, Thanks for your input. It's hard to know which direction some things are going, but one thing is for sure, publishing, staying published, and making a living at it seems to be getting harder and harder.

This is fascinating (and encouraging!) to me - and makes perfect sense. I'm not published (yet!) but I'm hoping that my first book doesn't "force" me to become a formula/subgenre stuck writer. Thanks!

Joanne, I'm glad this post was encouraging. I agree. If business isn't as usual, then we authors have to change our mindset and be open-minded to charting new territories in spite of what we have been "conditioned" to believe.