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.


Case Study: Target Audience and Promo Suggestions

In this post, I’m going to illustrate how I profile a Right Reader, based on a writing sample and a questionnaire.

The Author:

Linda Cassidy Lewis, novelist who runs “Out of My Mind,” a blog about writing, self-publishing, and whatever else she wants.  Her bio:

“Linda Cassidy Lewis was born and raised in Indiana and now lives with her husband in California where she writes versions of the stories she only held in her head during the years their four sons were growing up. She blogs about her writing experience—typos and all. The Brevity of Roses is her debut novel.”


The Excerpt and Questionnaire Answers:

Linda had self published her first novel, The Brevity of Roses, when I met her, and she’s working on more projects in a similar vein.  I agreed to analyze her Right Reader, based on her excerpt, and her answers to my prelim questions.  Here’s what she responded…

1.  What genre, and perhaps subgenre, do you feel your novel fits?  (If you don’t feel there’s just one, mention two that it might fit into.)

Women’s Fiction/love story with a literary bent.

2. Who do you see as a similar author?  Who is writing in a similar voice, or a similar subject matter? (Ideally in the same genre.) One of my critique partners says Nicholas Sparks, but I don’t know because I’ve never read a Sparks novel. My favorite author is Anne Tyler.

3a.What theme do you address in the novel?  Is it a theme you like to revisit in your work?

I addressed specifically how grief individually affects us and allied with that is the theme of letting go of the past. 

3b.  Is it a theme you like to revisit in your work?

The first part, probably not; the second part, probably.

4. What do you feel makes your work unique in your genre?  Is it your characters?  Setting?  Subject matter?

It’s unusual to have a male protagonist in Women’s Fiction, and also somewhat unusual to have three POV characters.

5. If you were pitching this to an editor, what would be your “hook”?

Oh boy, not my strong suit. I guess I’d say it’s a story, told through three viewpoints, of how one man’s search for love forced him to find himself.

6. How old is your protagonist?  Where does the story take place? Is setting important?

He’s 30 at the beginning and 40 at the end.   Mainly, in two fictional California towns.  Yes, the settings are important because of symbolism. For example, Jalal’s home is on the coast, literally perched on the edge of the ocean—a wealth of symbolism—and is often fogged in. Also, in the majority of the book, it has a struggling garden. All those elements are reflective of his emotional state.

7. What would you say is the major source of conflict in the book?

Fear, in general. Specifically, the inability to let go of the past, fueled by an underlying lack of self-worth.

8. Who do you think this book would appeal to, and why?  Who do you currently see as its “Right Reader”?

Women, aged 30-55, who enjoy the escape of reading, but don’t mind thinking a bit while doing it.

9. (This was specific to her, but applies to anyone who has an active blog.)  You’ve got a blog that deals with self publishing and writing topics, as well as promoting your novel and author brand.  Who do you feel is the readership for your blog?

Since I started my blog long before I made the decision to self-publish, it only recently reflects that. My blog has always been a sort of journal of my life as a writer. Other writers have always made up the majority of my readers.

The Profile:

Here’s the capsule profile I sent back:

“Women aged 30-55 in urban/multi-cultural suburban regions.  Reads Anne Tyler, Wally Lamb, Alice Hoffman, Amy Tan… possibly Audrey Niffenegger.  Likes Ellen Degeneres show, Oprah (when it was still on), maybe TV series like Brothers & Sisters, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee.   Probably married, still in touch with family – perhaps siblings, aging parents.  Has kids. College degree.  Probably has a job, inside or outside of the home…not hideously busy, but juggling.  Sees reading as a comfort & a treat; definitely reads voraciously. Owns an e-reader and impulse buys based on friend’s recommendations and interesting samples. “

What if you don’t feel any connection with the profile?

She shared with me that she wasn’t familiar with a lot of my references, and as a result might have felt a disconnect from her audience.  This shouldn’t be the case.  Your Right Reader should be someone you’d feel comfortable hanging out with, not a stranger you’re trying to capture!

After that exchange, I made sure to tie in authors that Linda was familiar with.  From there, she can hopefully see the connective tissue between what I feel her Right Reader likes, and what her Hedgehog or Unique Thing is.  In this case, it’s a mainstream women’s fiction with a male protagonist of a different cultural background, on a journey of personal discovery that involves a clash with family.  Everything I’ve entered in the profile includes elements of that in one way or another.

If you can recognize what makes your work special, and look why your Right Reader might be drawn to it (and what you both might have in common as a result) then you can see how the profile works.  That’s why I usually picture my best friend.  We don’t like all the same things, but I know what reading she likes; I know what books to recommend, know what movie tastes we share, etc.

The fact that I’ve commented that the Right Reader owns an e-reader is basic, by the way — if you’re selling an e-book, yes, you could sell to people who read on their computers, but it’s a minority and you want to target someone who is actively, hungrily searching for your book — not someone who could read your book, given the right incentive.

What if the profile’s wrong?

Of course I could be wrong.  This is more an art form than a hard science, and I’m no guru. But I do feel that this is no more complicated than Psych 101… or perhaps matchmaking. 🙂  At any rate, you’ve got the basics, and you’ll be able to dial in the rest as you get more reader input in the form of fan letters or blog comments — which, with any luck, you’ll get more of as you use the profile. 🙂

But what do you do with it?

Now that I’ve drawn the profile, what the heck do you do with it?

Next blog:  Recommended “Next 10” Promo Steps based on the Right Reader Profile.  I’m going to use Linda’s case study one more time, to show you what I’d do as a publicist for this profile and project.

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How to Profile Your Target Audience, Part 2: Hedgehog Hunting

A lot of people seemed to respond to my initial post on how to profile your target audience, so today we’re going to continue in that vein.

Missing: One Hedgehog.

The stumbling block seemed to largely be figuring out what’s special about your story, or what I call your Hedgehog.

I remember working with an author who, when I asked “what’s special about your story? What makes it unique?” then answered:

“It’s a category romance. How unique does it need to be?”

Make no mistake: she loved category romance, and it wasn’t an intentional insult. In fact, if anything, it was a recognition of the sort of mental trap writing genre fiction can do for promotion.

You think “hell, I write Regency Romance/cozy mystery/vampire urban fiction.  I love my stories, but there are a billion of them out there.  I’m just going to put it out there, hope readers realize that they love my voice, and tell their friends.”

It’s more than your voice.

Yes, your voice is going to set you apart. But it can’t be the only thing.

Let’s look at the current everybody’s-writing-one genre: vampire fiction.

You’ve got your Twilight, your True Blood, your J.R. Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood.  Hot and sparkling and the whole damned gamut.  All of them deal with the same thing: vampires.  But you’ll notice each of them have their own signature.

Twilight is young adult, to start.  Then again, so is P.C. Cast’s House of Night series.  Different settings: different mythologies.  Definitely a different feel and different treatment.

Charlaine Harris has written a series of vampire mysteries, basically.  J.R. Ward has written an urban fantasy romance series with plenty o’ steam and a wild mix of aristocracy and ghetto fabulousness.  (If you read her, give me a “true dat!”)

My point is:  there is always something different. It’s never just “voice.”

Start with your genre/sub-genre.

What story are you writing?  If you were only allowed to shelve it in one section of a bookstore, where do you think it would most likely sell?

This will at least give you an idea of what you’re differentiating from, and where your Right Reader most often hangs out.  Granted, your Right Reader probably wanders around a bookstore or browses through online store categories, but there’s one place that’s going to be a comfort read.  You want your book to live there.

Also, you want to be able to use the shorthand of genre to describe what you’ve written, then add your twist.  “I’ve written an Urban Fantasy about demons (the genre/subgenre), where a spunky secretary discovers she’s just signed on to help her boss kill thirteen people to get back his soul (the hook/differentiator.)”

Don’t worry — we’ll talk about hooks, twists and differentiators in a second.

What book or series is it most similar to?

Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, do not tell me “it’s different than everything.” (If you are Chuck Palahniuk… well, then. Do whatever the hell you want, obviously. <g>)

If you’re writing genre fiction, you’ve got certain conventions that you have to maintain simply to provide the reader with a satisfactory experience.  When I read a romance, I want a happy ending, damn it.  When I read a mystery, I want a corpse, not a misunderstanding.

I don’t care how brilliant a writer someone is, if she sets me up and then plays me, that book’s hitting the wall, then the donation box.

Once you know who you’re similar to as far as voice and subject matter, you’ve again got a frame of reference.

One of these things is not like the others…

I’d say, read a lot of things in your genre/subgenre.  Especially look at the bestsellers… they’re there for a reason, and odds are good your Right Reader has read them.

What are the conventions and stereotypes of the genre?

Vampires — blood sucking, sexy sophisticates,  sleep-all-day-party-all-night.  Dracula.

Fantasy — sword & sorcery, wizards, powerful person somehow in disguise, band of companions, quest.

Cozy mystery — small towns, amateur sleuth, gossipy communities, kitschy gimmick

Now look at what you’re doing.  You’re going to want similarities — again, don’t want to completely spin out of genre orbit — but you’re looking for what makes you different.

Let’s take my original one:  category romance.  You’re writing not only for a fairly standard genre, but you’re writing for a very narrow niche where there are strict interpretations.  You may not even think you need to come up with an angle — the books sell themselves.

They might — but they don’t sell you.  And the most important reason for finding your Right Reader, and emphasizing your differences?

To get them to notice your writing.  And, you know, want more of it.

So you look at what’s standard, what’s expected.  Let’s say you’re writing for a “hot” series line.  Looking it over, you see lots of Alpha males, high-powered professions perhaps, or conversely heroic ones (firefighter, Navy seal, etc.)  You see sassy women.  Since heat is a key, the scenarios tend towards couples thrown together, or agreeing to brief flings only to discover they’re stuck for whatever reason for an entire novel.

Ideally, you’re going to twist one element. You’re going to take one stereotypical standard, and tweak it so the reader is surprised… and intrigued.

Most important: focus on what you love. Why you wrote the story.

If you’re writing more of a conventional story, don’t despair.  Instead, pour even more love into what you originally wrote the story about.

If you wrote a story because you love the idea of a wounded hero, perhaps a veteran returned from the war who falls in love with his at-home nurse… you go with that.  Yes, it’s a familiar trope.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful, and shouldn’t be emphasized. And that’s definitely what you want your Right Reader to appreciate.  So how better to connect with him or her than to put that out front?

Hopefully, in all these questions, your Hedgehog is going to amble out and say hello.

Trust that there’s something unique in your work.  If you don’t believe it, no one else will.

In the next post in this series…

The final part of the series, next week, will show you some ways to piggyback on greatness when it comes to profiling your target audience.

If you found this helpful, please re-tweet on Twitter, or “like” on Facebook (you can even use the handy-dandy little boxes, below, where it says “share the knowledge!”)


How To Profile Your Target Audience, Part 1

How to Profile Your Target Audience.Jim Butcher is the kick-ass, brilliant author of the Urban Fantasy mystery series The Dresden Files.  He’s got a number of unique qualities in his writing (as well as a plotting acumen that I frankly bow at the altar of) but I’d say his Hedgehog (or unique “thing”) is his world-building, and his “Buffy Noir” voice, as well as the twist of  a supernatural flatfoot roaming the streets of Chicago like it was its own character.

So who might like this?


I’d guess his Right Reader is male, probably between late twenties and early fifties, who likes Star Wars, D&D, Magic: the Gathering.

His Right Reader watches comic book movies like Thor and Green Lantern; he also likes The Adjustment Bureau and Inception.  Watches SyFy channel, probably stuff like CSI or Criminal Minds.  Probably reads a lot of blogs and is very tech-savvy.  Quite possibly plays World of Warcraft and owns several gaming platforms.

Now notice:  I largely don’t fit this profile, and I am a huge Jim Butcher fan.  I am a walking infomercial for the Dresden File series.

So why do I draw the profile this way?

Because these are people who are most likely to connect to it just from hearing about it.  They’ll read the back cover blurb, they’ll see the storyline, they’ll read the first page or two.  They’ll be in that section of the bookstore.  Or they’ll be lurking on the sites that might discuss it.

Also: they are the most likely to be very vocal about their enjoyment.  Furthermore, their network is most likely to be receptive to hearing about it.

I spread the word, too, but my network isn’t primarily paranormal/urban fiction, so the odds of it spreading are half of what his Right Reader would be.

How did I do that?

1. Start with gender.

Romance skews heavily female.  Sci-fi/fantasy written by men still skews male, even if fiction readers in general favor women.  With stuff like legal drama or police procedurals, it’ll depend on some other factors, like what gender your protagonist is.

Odds are good you’re writing for your own gender, and odds are equally good your publisher thinks the same way.  If you’re a woman and they’re asking you to change to initials, odds are good they’re trying to attract male readers, btw… they know women will find you anyway, and men might be more put off by “Jane Writer” than “J.B. Writer.”

2.  Look at age range.

Jim Butcher’s main character is in his thirties… young thirties, at that.  I’d use that as an initial, and then expand the range to about a twenty-five year spread.

I don’t worry too much about age, but it helps to round out your profile.  (I find I picture my Right Reader at about my age, or the age of my character.)

3.  Look at what makes the story special.

Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is a flatfoot Wizard who solves crimes and saves the world with a tongue in cheek elan.  That said, he also uses lots of Star Wars references, plays Dungeons & Dragons-styled games with his friends, and basically lives like a poor college student.  He’s funny as hell. All these details flavor his character and separate it from other Urban Fiction Noir out there.

4.  Look at who would most appreciate what makes the story special.

Star Wars fans, obviously.  People who go to the ComicCon.  D&D enthusiasts.  The short-lived show based on the series was on SyFy, so that was a slam-dunk.

I guessed on the TV shows, but there is a strong mystery element, as well as humor, in the series… and you get involved with the characters’ personal lives, as well.  That’s where Criminal Minds and CSI tie in: the Dresden series isn’t a light, cozy mystery, or a romance where the mystery element is almost secondary.

(For those cozy sort of stories, I imagine you’d see more fans of Castle or Bones.  This isn’t knocking them — it’s just that the forensic “look, a dismembered arm” factor is downplayed in those, and the humor and romance is turned up.)

5.  Picture someone you could imagine hanging out with.

This is crucial. If you don’t actually like your Right Reader, or don’t see anything in common with her… you’ve got the Wrong Reader.

This is an art more than a science. There’s no real penalty if you get it wrong, other than missed sales. (Which, admittedly, is painful enough.)

Most writers I know sort of flounder with their promotion, going for every audience possible, like shooting buckshot and seeing what falls.  Of course, sometimes they’re simply shooting in an empty field, and sometimes they don’t have a lot of money for ammo, but they try their damnedest.

(I need new, non-violent metaphors!)

In the next post in this series…

I’ll give you some hints and cheats on fleshing out your Right Reader profile.

If you found this helpful, please re-tweet on Twitter, or “like” on Facebook (you can even use the handy-dandy little boxes, below, where it says “share the knowledge!”)