Why Genre Blends “Don’t Sell”

I’ve been reading a lot about “genre-blending” lately.

Agents & editors have often shied away from things that can’t be cleanly categorized, simply because it’s “hard to sell.”

Many authors say they don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  Their work is complex, layered, and incorporates elements from lots of different genres.

In a world where you no longer need to worry about where a bookstore clerk is going to shelve your novel (because, alas, physical bookstores seem to be going the way of the dodo) why worry about what “genre” your book should be categorized as?

Broccoli brownies.  That’s why.

When I want a brownie, I want something luscious, decadent, and dessert-y.  I want something that tastes so criminally delicious that I wonder if I’m going to be arrested for consuming it.

Now, if someone handed me what I’ve lamely pictured here — well, at best I’m pulling away in revulsion.  At worst, I’m gonna slap that someone stupid.

“But it’s good for you!” the person might say defensively.  “Broccoli is a superfood!”

I don’t care if it’s going to make me five foot ten and give me the ability to fly.

I wanted a brownie, damn it.  My mouth was set for a brownie.

This is not what I had in mind.

It’s about expectations.

Granted, I’m a bit obsessed with chocolate.  But I’m fairly obsessed with fiction, too.

When I’m tired and I want a light beach read, I get irritated when I see a candy-colored cover slapped on a “message” novel — where the author has a Big Point to make, and they want to prove that a light beach read can be highbrow.

When I want a steamy, fun romance, I get annoyed when I have to wade through a bunch of action and mystery, and the hero and heroine are barely in the same room for two-thirds of the book.

I want what I expected… and they go putting something extra, something they think will be spectacular.  And it just doesn’t work.

Genre blends are difficult to write.

Some people might say that I’m too narrow a reader — their audience, certainly, would be more open minded.

The thing is, when cross-genre work is done well, I’m all over it, a very loyal reader.  Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is a mash up of classic noir mystery, mainstream suspense thriller in a home base of urban fantasy.  J.D. Robb’s In Death series is a police procedural with plenty of steamy romance and futuristic sci-fi thrown in.  And Marian Keyes can write books about death, cancer, domestic abuse, and addiction, and still be the queen of Chick Lit.  I love every single one of these authors’ work.

That said — they are doing it well.  Incredibly well. Even then, their series have gained momentum over time.

Genre blends are difficult to sell.

Granted, these are all traditionally published authors, with big New York distribution machines behind them.  Still, they targeted the most likely audience for each.

Dresden Files novels are marketed as Sci-fi/Fantasy — targeted at the burgeoning Urban Fantasy market.

In Death, despite being set in the future with neat stuff like flying cars, is marketed as mystery/thriller.  Since the author is also Nora Roberts, goddess of romance writing, they also market it as romance, focusing on the continuing love story of the heroine and her husband.  Of course, technically, it isn’t a romance — often, there’s no conflict as far as their love for each other (although sometimes there is, as a subplot.)  But the real reason you read them is for the procedural: solving the crime.

If it was Joe Schmonsky instead of Nora Roberts, ten bucks says it would never be marketed as “romance.”

Marian Keyes is still pushed as a beach read.  Re-hab has never been as funny as it is in Rachel’s Holiday.  And while the horror of domestic violence in This Charming Man is truly harrowing, I still laugh with Lola, whose escape to the Irish countryside turns into a “tranny ley line” misadventure.

She’s always marketed as Chick Lit.  Hell.. she invented it.

Nurture your art.  Handle your business.

I will always say swing for the fences.  Want to make a genre mash-up?  Feel like creating a romantic comedy of manners set in a dystopian Poughkeepsie?  Knock yourself out.

Just do it well.

And when you market it — pick a genre as your home base, one whose expectations make them the most likely to be open to your story.  Don’t try to be all things to all people.  You’ve only got so many resources.  Narrow your scope.

A final food analogy.

I have made the most crazy sugar-free black bean chocolate cupcakes.   They are surprisingly good.  My husband, discerning foodie that he is, didn’t know what they were when he ate one.

He liked them. And ate quite a few, even after I told him.

If you’re going to genre blend, this is what you’re going for.  Fulfill expectations, throw in something even more unexpected… but make it seamless.

If they want a brownie, make it a delicious brownie first… because if it isn’t, they won’t care what else is involved.

Your “receptive” readers will see what you’re capable of.  The good news: they don’t just eat brownies every day — or read just one genre.  Neither do their friends.  So your “core” readers will share the amazing thing they’ve just discovered with every reader they know.

That’s how you capture the other markets.


22 Replies to “Why Genre Blends “Don’t Sell””

  1. This can be a murky topic. You are a good de-murkifier. Do you make these genre/focus decisions before you even start writing a novel, or do you start the novel and see which way it goes and then edit it to fit a specific genre? And have you ever had bourbon brownies? They’ll make you want to put on a spiffy hat and watch some horses race.
    Good to see you back.

    1. I like that. I want to be a good “de-murkifier.”

      I tend to start the novel, then see where it best fits. But I always try to define genre before it goes to my agent or out to editors.

      And no, haven’t had bourbon brownies! I like the taste of wine in things, but generally haven’t been a fan of hard liquor desserts (rumballs, things of that nature.) Will need to check it out. 🙂

  2. You helped me on this topic a few weeks ago. Since then, my co-author and I have rewritten our hook and query letter and are off to query fabulous agents. The post today gives me more food for thought, and also makes me crave a brownie. Damn it!

    Thanks again!

    1. LOL! Brownies are insidious. Deliciously, deliciously insidious. 😉

      Glad to hear you’ve re-written your hook & query letter. Definitely let me know what happens! Maybe on the Facebook page? I think I’m going to encourage people to post more there — good stuff, and test stuff, like pitches. *Mulling it over* 😀 At the very least, please email me!

  3. I’ve recently written about this topic, as well. It’s interesting to see what so many different writers have to say about the same topic. I agree with you that if you blend genre, you must do it well. The writers you mention are some of my favorites, too, along with Charlaine Harris. As for me, just writing well in one genre is a challenge enough!

    1. Yours was the last blog post I read before settling on this topic! Great post, btw!

      I haven’t read enough Charlaine Harris… I think she’s interesting, but I couldn’t quite get hooked. I think it’ll take another try. Sometimes series hit me like that.

      And yeah, I’m with you. Writing well in any genre, and in one genre, is a killer. But they never said it’d be easy, they said it’d be worth it, right? 😀

  4. Loving your new moniker, De-murkifier. 🙂 This has long been a worrisome topic for me. Always fear I don’t have enough of the truely fantastic for dyed-in-the-wool fantasy readers, and too much for alt history and historical fiction readers. So thanks for the ‘swing for the fences’ advice at the end. You make a lot of sense when you say that, for marketing purposes, you have to just plunk yourself on the home base genre with the readers most likely to be open to your work, and for me that has to be Historical Fantasy.

    I was looking on the cover and in the front pages of Mists of Avalon, wondering what genre it is/was marketed under, but all I found was Legendary Character/Celtic Myth. Legendary or Mythic wouldn’t be a bad genre name for what I do, if only one of those was widely recognized I’d be all set. 🙂

    Keep on de-murkifying, Cathy!

    1. Your home base is fantasy, I think, even if there aren’t a lot of the fantasy trappings — they’re the ones that will be the most open to it. Historical fantasy is right on the money.

      When I’m stumped re: what a popular book is being marketed as, I look on Amazon. Scroll down past the book info, and you can see “bestseller in…” and then it lists the categories. Mists of Avalon is under SciFi Fantasy/Fantasy, and then Arthurian fantasy. So yeah, there are niches out there that will be perfect for you!

    1. The kick in the pants: today I found out my novel is TOO cross genre for traditional publishing. Ten publishers liked it. They just don’t know how to sell it.

      Love me some irony. 🙂

      1. And yet you know somewhere there’s a Right Reader sitting on an old pier over a lake dangling her feet in the water and wondering ‘how come nobody ever writes…..’ and it’s just your kind of mixed genre book she’s wistfully hoping for. A star-crossed reader/author romance is just so sad.

        1. That’s sweet. But don’t worry — am not abandoning Right Reader! I’m just going to go NON-traditional… targeting a boutique publisher as we speak. 🙂

          I love this novel with a passion that defies reason. No way this one goes back in a drawer. 😉

  5. Not to go all transcendental on you but:

    Do you expect your books to read in genres because they are already classified in genres?

    I think this is a convention of 20th century publishing that we will leave behind, just as we have (mostly) left behind the old idea of “High” and “Low” art.

    Judging by my grandkids (7 and 4 yrs) mash-ups are fine with them. The older boy is having me help him write a story about a Robot and a Wizard who have to save the world by becoming Native Americans. The younger one is always asking questions like “G’Ma, a Ninja can marry a princess if he wants to, can’t he?”

    As always, and as you have pointed out, story is the key. A strongly told, compelling story is a joy to read, no matter what the genre.

    1. I think that readers could give a hoot what “genre” a book is placed in, honestly. The trick is how they find it. Of course, WOM (word of mouth) is king, and in a lot of ways, the only “promotion” that matters. But it’s got to originate somewhere. That “somewhere” is usually either booksellers, book reviewers, or voracious readers whose auto-buys are done and who are looking for something new… usually based on either the first two I mentioned, or Amazon recommends. Or they start searching randomly in a bookstore or on Amazon. If they are, they are probably going to be looking near where the books they like are. They might look on the “new release” tables. They might search “if you liked this author, you might like” online.

      But if you don’t have a toe-hold in some kind of “category” then you won’t have any idea how to market your book. It shouldn’t affect how you write your story, but it sure as hell will affect how you sell it.

  6. Was this just a crazy coincidence that you happened to schedule this post for today of all days? 🙂

    I’ve had my share of confusion with cross-genre dressing. My first book was chick lit (came out the time chick lit leapt from a tall building to its death, as you well know), but had a teeny tiny paranormal element to it. So of course, my publisher, jumping on the paranormal bandwagon marketed and placed it as a paranormal romance. So, for paranormal fans, there wasn’t enough paranormal. Romance fans were stymied by the first person/no hero POV and unconventional love story. On top of that, they gave the cover a completely literary feel. It was like trying to create a clothing style with a cowboy/goth/Hawaiian luau look. It just didn’t work on so many levels.

    I’m thinking the key for me is to stick to one genre at least for a while. 🙂

    1. I know, right? 😉

      A pity, since I loved Venus Envy… but now that you break it down like that, I can see that you were swimming upstream on the marketing. I hit that with my erotica series… too much story, apparently, for true erotica fans, way too much sex for more purist romance fans.

      I’m working to make sure my next novel hits the sweet spot for one genre (urban fantasy) while possibly incorporating the other (romance), but the bottom line is, it must ring true for one. Otherwise… hello, limbo!

  7. coming in late… but this is a real problem for me! My current work that I am trying to find an agent for is a contemporary fantasy with a strong romantic element (shapeshifters – would say paranormal romance but that seems to be a losing category now that it is so flooded)… you always hear ‘write the book you would want to read’ but then you end up with something that they can’t categorize easily and don’t want… so what can you do? I know nothing about the boutique publishers you mention, did that work? I’ve started another ms as I try to market this one, but realize that this next one had better be ‘pigeonholeable’ or it won’t sell, even to the agent!

    And even if I ‘blend’ – that chocolate-brocoli brownie is hilarious! (just give me that brownie!)

    1. Dina, it sounds like you’ve got a paranormal romance, so it’s not so much that you’ve got a blend as you’ve got a book that’s in a glutted market. Nothing wrong with that! And yeah, they do seem to give contradictory advice: “write the book of your heart! But no, we won’t sell it.” I think that their intention is if you write the book you want to read, you’ll do the best job. From there, I think that your best shot is to show them how to market it: let them know what it’s similar to, what other audience might enjoy it and why.

      I did wind up selling to a boutique publisher, Entangled Publishing, for that Urban Fantasy. Comes out in October, woot! I’m not worried about “pigeonholing” but I am concerned that the reading experience is satisfactory for at least one core genre audience (in this case, urban fantasy.) Otherwise… well, broccoli brownie. 🙂

      1. congrats on finding your UF a home! and I like your idea of making sure that the reading experience is satisfactory for at least one group – and that’s the one you can pitch it for 😉


  8. The broccoli brownie is a great (and funny) metaphor. My story has romance in it, but not enough to actually clog the main plot (thriller story).

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