What’s in a Genre?

complete collection of John Grisham fiction an...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s in a genre, or even better, what IS a genre? Simply put, a genre is a “category” such as sci-fi, mystery, romance, paranormal, and fantasy to name a few. (You can find  a much longer list here – http://www.bubblecow.net/a-list-of-book-genres). However, just because every book written will be crammed into a genre, it doesn’t mean the author is a genre writer. Literary fiction is generally considered non-genre writing, while the usual suspects (some of which I listed earlier) are considered “genre books”.

Confused yet?

So what is the point of genre? Logically, it’s to help a reader find a book they’d like. If you like mysteries, you want to check the Mystery shelf in your book store. If you like chick-lit, you want to hit up the chick-lit section, etc. etc. But, genre is more than just a helpful category, it is also a calling card.

Take a look at these authors below and see if you can match them with their genre:

  • Stephen King                    Sci-fi
  • John Grisham                   Comedy
  • James Patterson              Non-Fiction
  • Anne Rice                         Christian Fiction
  • Neil Gaiman                      Children’s
  • JK Rowling                       Black Comedy

How did you do? Were you able to line them up? Hint – I already did it for you. Stephen King’s time traveling sci-fi book 11-22-63 is a departure from his usual horror novels, while Skipping Christmas is far from John Grisham’s normal thrillers, and of course JK Rowling is breaking away from her young adult wizarding series with her forthcoming black comedy.

So what happens when an author writes outside their genre? That depends on many things, such as how established the author is, how far removed the new genre is from their old one and even whether the resulting book is any good. Some fans will follow an author into the adventure of a different genre, while other fans are left feeling betrayed and angry because they didn’t get exactly what they expected.

But wait, isn’t that the point of genre classification in the first place?

Yes, it is, but some readers have a habit of snatching up the newest book by their favorite author (or any author) without actually reading the description.  Why? Because they expect certain things about the book to tell them what they’re going to find inside, and one of those things is the author.

For instance, I long ago made the mistake of uploading an old children’s book I’d written to Smashwords as an example of formatting ebooks with images in them. It’s not an amazing work by any means, but it did the job. I was able to show people what an ebook with colored pictures looked like and it even got some pretty decent reviews. Fast forward two years. Despite changing the author name on the book, and attempting to move it from one author to another on Smashwords (I am going to try again soon), I’ve gotten several reviews on my short vampire stories on Barnes and Noble complaining because, unlike the other, it is “not a children’s story”.  Yes, the description clearly states that it is not a children’s story, but readers have downloaded it anyway and been disappointed, and those disappointed readers left a one star review, and enough one star reviews will drop the overall ranking. And when the overall ranking drops, your target audience, who has clicked over to check out your work, will just as quickly click away because the book/story only has one or tow stars over all and…  It turns into a quagmire.

But what if you want to write in a different genre?

You can do that. Lots of authors have done it successfully, but many use a key tool – a pen name. Sure,it’s okay, and might even be a good idea, to tell your fans “Hey, this is really me!”, but a pen name helps to keep your readers from being confused about what to expect. If you use a pen name be sure to make a SEPARATE account on Smashwords/Amazon/B&N/etcf or EACH pen name, otherwise the meta data will still list your primary author name as the publisher as you’ll be right back where you started.

How do you feel about genre? Do you think it’s a handy “tool” for quickly finding books or authors you might like, or do you think the literary world has let the tail “wag the dog” so that genre writing has become a trap?

7 thoughts on “What’s in a Genre?

  1. Lauralynn Elliott May 2, 2012 / 2:17 am

    I’m reading 11/22/63 and haven’t really thought of it as sci-fi. LOL. Not sure WHAT I would call it. Except wonderful. 🙂

    I actually wrote out of genre in my last book, but horror isn’t that far away from paranormal romance. So I used the same pen name. However I’m slowly working on a Christian romance and I’m definitely using a different name for that, maybe even my real name. 😉 I think it depends a lot on how different the genre is as to whether or not one should change pen names.

    I actually like when an author writes out of genre because my reading tastes are so eclectic. A perfect example of an author who wrote in many genres is Michael Crichton.

  2. Tess Harding May 2, 2012 / 10:24 am

    Really timely post, Joleene. I’m just about to bring out a book in a different genre under a different pen name and had thought I could use my same Smashwords/Amazon account etc but simply publish under the new name. I’m assuming with separate accounts I then go and get separate checks and payments etc. Not a big deal, I guess – and assuming I sell anything in the new genre 🙂


  3. Linda B. Myers May 2, 2012 / 4:51 pm

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. I have written general fiction … my Fun House Chronicles was listed as such in the ebookstores. Nobody found it there (outside the promotions that I did for it). So I moved it to a more genre-ish category from the Kindle Direct Publishing list just to experiment. It is doing better now. My advice to gen fiction authors – like it or not – would be to find a genre from each ebookstore list for your baby … something as close as possible. I moved mine from general fiction to ‘family relationships.’ That only describes one dimension of the book, but it is selling better.

  4. Miranda Syn May 3, 2012 / 3:18 am

    You can change your Smashwords account into a “Publisher” account, which allows you to create multiple pen names. Know, however, that they will be linked, as they fall under the same “publisher” name, so if you don’t want anyone to know you’re both Author A and Author B, it’s better to do multiple accounts as per the advice of Smashwords.

    To learn more, log into Smashwords and go to the Account tab. Scroll down a bit and you’ll see “Publisher or Agent Status.” Click the links there to check.

  5. williamkendall1 May 4, 2012 / 4:03 pm

    I write primarily in the espionage thriller genre myself, and collaboratively in erotic fiction, but I’ve got a couple of ideas here and there for one-off sort of books to write myself that would be of very different genres.

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