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.