Sunday, 25 November 2012

Why fiction genres are a Bad Thing

Publishers and bookshop owners love genres

It makes their life so much easier, not just to know which shelf to put a book on, but also how to market it. Enjoyed last year's big steampunk hit? Then (handing over shiny new book) you'll love this steampunk novel that's just come out.

Newbie writers are told that to have a hope of securing an agent and a publisher, their novel must fit neatly inside a genre. Some genres, like Young Adult, have very restrictive rules. Apparently, teenagers can only relate to heroes their own age or a little older (luckily no one told me this when I was that age). But the 'rules' change. Sometimes a surprise hit makes publishers accept a new genre. Since Fifty Shades, we all know about Mommy Porn, God help us. Now Thursdays in the Park has sprung back to digital life and topped the charts after a lacklustre print launch a few years ago, we must expect an avalanche of Gran Lit. Because when publishers are not busy curating content, such a vital part of their jobs, they are pouncing on whatever seems likely to be the next big money-spinner.

I got to thinking about this while trying to decide what categories to put Ice Diaries into when loading it to Amazon's KDP.  Two years ago, you were allowed five. Now it's two, and for anyone whose novels cross genres this makes for hard choices. Fiction...that was easy. Now, Action & Adventure, Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, or Science Fiction? Darned if I know. 

I recently started reading Divergent, because the sample looked promising. About 15% into the book it occurred to me, this is Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games, and I bet that's how the book was sold to a publisher, too. This thought was so off-putting I stopped reading.

Rigid genres are a bad thing, as bad as narrowly specifying ages on children's books. Readers don't really care about genres, even if they think they do. What readers want is an absorbing story that will take them away from their lives for a brief spell and preferably leave them with something to think about afterwards. That's all. 

Suppose publishers published only the best books, regardless of all other considerations? They'll never try it, but if they did, it just might be the answer to their current self-inflicted woes.


  1. Thanks, Elizabeth. Any advance on absolutely?

  2. Stimulating thoughts as always!

    From a reader's perspective, and we are the customers in this universe, a writer's voice is often the dominant influence.

    Some authors have a writing style that just draws me in and can even set me on fire. It has something to do with choice of words, I like a lyrical style. It also involves pacing, I like plenty of action to keep the pages turning. Characterisation is also vital, I have to develop feelings for the characters and their situations.

    When all of these facets click and the story crystallises for me, then I have found an author that I will follow wherever he/she leads, crossing genres without a thought. These authors write the best books.

    I think I'm agreeing with you Lexi! LOL

    If there is any champagne left I will join the toast to 'Ice Diaries'
    Thanks for another stunning read!

  3. Ah, thanks, Q. I think publishers like to keep authors writing in the same genre, unless they are superstars like JKR. Indies can please themselves.

    Have some virtual champagne :o)

  4. Well said, Lexi.
    I suppose its the age-old need to categorise, and in the case of books, to make 'searching' easier. Fine, I guess, if its bricks and mortar stores with limited space but harder online, I think.

    And as you say, the definitions are becoming blurred as the output crosses lines.

    All I know is that I write fantasy and historical fiction and and the novels 'rank' when judged on the tags 'historical fantasy' for the first and 'biographical fiction' for the latter. Odd.

  5. I agree with you and I have the same headache... strange to reduce the categories when cross referencing would be a handy tool, I think... I also agree re YA. As a teenager, I wanted to read books about people who were the age I wished I was, ie, older than me.

    Clearly I'm just mad.

    Actually, no... I knew that.

    Cheers anyway and good luck with the new book.


  6. Mesmered, I hate pigeon holes with a passion. Let pigeons roam free, is what I say.

    You're right, MTM - if I were Amazon I'd allow three. I remember when I was a young teenager reading a book with a twenty-six year old heroine, and thinking her quite ancient. Still enjoyed the book, though.

  7. My Difficult Second Novel falls into a completely different genre to Looking for Buttons, to the extent that I'll have to use a different psuedonym when (if) it gets to the publishing stage. It seems a little daft but I think I'll have to do it because I'm not sure potential readers would accept the huge change of direction.

  8. Without wanting to sound to much like an angry old man, genres are just another oportunity for various folk to make arbitrary rules and punch you in the teeth. One of the things I've always enjoyed, is asking librarians why libraries don't do genres. Haven't got a sensible answer yet. Librarians have to do degrees and such to get the jobs, whereas agents and publishers don't, as far as I can tell. So who to believe?

  9. Spin, you could do 'Lucie Parish writing as XXXX' perhaps? It seems a shame to make the next book hard for your readers to find. After all, they may like it.

  10. Rod, my local library does some genres, the politically-correct ones like Gay and Lesbian...

  11. Technically, I'm already The Mysterious Miss X writing as Lucie Parish, so I'd be The Mysterious Miss X writing as Lucie Parish writing as XXXXXXX. It'll get complicated.

    My local libraries have seperate sections for Crime, Romance, Westerns, Family Sagas...

  12. Spin, your trouble is you're just too darned mysterious. Could it be you are really someone very famous or well-connected, too famous and well-connected to write under her own name? Even more f and w-c than Pippa Middleton...

    You're not Kate, are you, by any chance?

  13. I do like sci fi but if I like an author I'll read everything by him or her that I can find.

    Tanya Huff writes vampire books, modern fantasy and military sci fi and I lap it all up.

    I'd call Ice Diaries sci fi(probably because I like sci fi so much) but I don't care what genre your next book is, it'll go straight on my wish list.

  14. Thank you for your faith in me, FH. Just off to finish my latest oeuvre, 50 Shades of Paranormal Zombie Serial Killers...

  15. Curses, that's pre-empted the Difficult Second Novel. Back to the typewriter...

    Lexi, are you accusing me of some spectacular double bluff, writing a novel with a heroine called Kate looking for her Prince Charming? ;-)

  16. I'm amazed no one else has noticed...

  17. I totally agree with you. Found you from PG.

    Anyhow, when I was listing my book, Dreams of the Queen, and had to pick genres I was stumped. Fiction, yes, scifi, mainly but then it careens off into action/adventure/romance/fantasy. The scifi is strong but only in the sense that I use is as a supporting character with all the technical science Heinleined within the story. But I spin it with a magical feel. So... when people ask what genre is it... it's difficult for me to answer to. So I tell them, it's scifi/action with a strong romance. What else can I say?

    My niece, 10, recently discovered scifi in her school library (which only categorizes fic/non fic. She didn't know what to call it, so she called it 'fiction that wasn't real.' LOL! Once she explained the story to me, I told her that would sci-fi but I gave her 10 points for ingenuity. :o)

  18. Hi jinx, welcome to the blog!

    Cross-genre books can disappoint readers who are enthusiasts for one of the elements and view the others as superfluous. On Amazon a book can end up on a misleading chart. But I still think literature is richer for their hybrid vigour.

    I know just what your niece meant :o)

  19. I thought my book was going to fall into one of the larger categories on Amazon, i.e historical romance, though I knew it didn't sit squarely in that genre. I felt the characters have an adventure and there's a fair bit of contemporary story too. Then I noticed that sometimes a sub-genre to 'romance' shows up of 'time travel'which fits my book.

    This turns out to be useful as there are fewer time travel books than historical romance ones which makes it easier to rise up that chart.

    I mention this so that we can think about using to our advantage what we have no control over.

    It is so true what Lexi says: what readers want is an absorbing story. Fantasy is not a genre I would have picked out but I fell in love with Lexi's dragons - I never gave the genre a thought until I'd finished the book.

  20. That's it!

    My next novel will now be 50 Shades of Time Travelling Paranormal Zombie Serial Killers...

  21. *scrunches up revised version of new book again and lobs it into bin, muttering*

  22. I think trying to sell a genreless book is like trying to sell a pair of shoes out of fashion. I can see why, for marketing, the label is needed.

    There are a lot of indie-publishers who accept 'general fiction' which I suppose is where the genreless can go but I don't think they get enough notice.

    I agree with an earlier comment, that in this fast changing industry, publishers need to start thinking outside the box!

  23. Fiona, I suppose Simon & Schuster buying up Author Solutions Inc. is them trying to think outside the box. But I'm not sure publishers are managing to think even inside the box right now.

  24. Thanks, Lexi, I agree about the genre confusing and disappointing certain readers. But then, I hope to market to intelligent readers who would rather find an engaging well written story rather than a specific genre or else. Myself, I love to read, anything, doesn't matter. So if found something that looks good, the genre/author is irrelevant to me. But you're correct. There is a certain set of readers who expect to be spoon fed and when their expectations aren't meant (are they're unduly surprised) they don't like it.

    Weird but there it is.

    BTW, I'm HG, on PG's blog. And yes, I know what my niece meant too. You should've seen her face once I started talking books and fiction. She inched closer and opened up. I love that she loves to read. She wants to read my work, but it's too adult for her, so I may just have to write YA for a bit, lol!

  25. Dear me, another mystery woman of many aliases...

    I had one nice reviewer who said at last she'd found in Remix chick lit she enjoyed. I thought, that's because it's not chick lit...

    Reading is a great bond. Fortunate for your niece if you are able to recommend books she will like.

  26. I do so agree with all the comments about the limitations of genre. Should my story go under pets, fantasy, farming or autobiography? Decisions, decisions . . . My mum just leaned over and unkindly asked if there's a section for sentimental slosh, but I will ignore that rather rude remark. BTW I really like your illustration this time, Lexi. You could lose the parrot and the snake and most of the others but the two main characters in the middle are just the biz.

  27. Cassie, you'd just fit nicely between those handsome animals :o)

  28. Anyone for granny porn ? Oh sorry that is just disgusting, despite the fact that 80 year olds have a very active sex life.

    So granny porn is yuck - but Fifty shades / mummy porn isn`t ?

    Filth is filth, regardless of genre.

    And Ice Diaries has been like ice cream, just delicious. Why label it as anything else ? Hmmm, the cream thriller genre.....