On Publishing and Marketing: Crossing Genres, or not


In case this is not clear from the literally dozens of market-oriented posts all of us have written here at MW over the past several years, publishing is a truly crazy business. Publishers and editors seem to want one thing, until they get it and then realize that they’re not so sure they wanted it after all. They are hungry for “something new,” until new appears before them and they brush it away as if it were a venomous spider and run away, screaming like frightened children. If they weren’t the arbiters of my professional futures, I would tell you that all of these people are certifiable. But you didn’t hear that from me.

As today’s example of what I’m talking about, I present for your consideration the genre-bending novel. Now, I should pause here to say that Thieftaker is actually a cross-genre novel. (Yes, I’ve mentioned Thieftaker in a MW post; I’m sure all of you are shocked . . .) It is a fantasy, with strong mystery elements, and a historical component that is absolutely essential to the narrative. In my mind, that recommends the book, and as I’ve talked to people about it, they have responded with great enthusiasm to the book’s conceptual core.

Thieftaker jacket study, before edit

Thieftaker jacket study, before edit

Thieftaker jacket study, after edit

Thieftaker jacket study, after edit

But in marketing the book, I have always emphasized the fact that it is, at root, a fantasy. It’s being published by Tor, which specializes in speculative fiction, and so that logo on the spine is an immediate marker for potential readers. When it is released (July 3 — fourteen days, seventeen hours and fifteen minutes from the time this post goes live — but who’s counting?) it will be shelved in fantasy. Its most important readership will be fans of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy. In fact, when I first saw the jacket art, I loved it, but I was worried that there were no visual markers in the image that said “fantasy” to potential buyers. At my urging, the artist added the very faint and subtle “magic” that appears in the hand of the standing figure. It’s not a lot, but it is enough to let readers know that the book has a magical component.

And that really is important. Because while publishers might say that they are looking for new books that break down traditional barriers among various genres, the truth is, they don’t want that at all. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from fellow writers (and my colleagues here will back me up, I’m sure) that they submitted something that crosses genres and offers that fresh take on storytelling that people in the business claim to be after, only to be rejected because the publishers “didn’t know how to market it.” “Loved the book, but we just don’t know who the audience would be.” “Great story, cool character, love the tone, but it really doesn’t fit in with our marketing right now.”

I know a writer — his books sell very, very well, and he has been equally successful as an agent and editor — who says that while publishing claims to want books that straddle genres, the truth is that they don’t know how to handle them. More to the point, he also says that “cross-genre” promotion is actually a myth. Fantasy and science fiction books that try to sell themselves as multi-genre, he says, are almost invariably doomed to failure. Because publishers don’t really know how to market them, bookstores don’t know how to list them or shelve them, and readers are frightened off by the inclusion of genres in which they don’t normally read.

By his reckoning, if we were trying to market Thieftaker as a mystery AND as a fantasy AND as a historical, the book would probably do poorly. Why? Because many readers of mystery tend to eschew books in other genres, particularly in speculative fiction. Because readers of historicals often feel the same way. And because readers of fantasy tend to gravitate toward their sections of bookstores and libraries, to the exclusion of other sections.

Now, before you object too loudly, I am NOT saying (nor is my friend) that every reader is like this. Some readers like to be eclectic, and would be generally enthusiastic about books that can be categorized any number of ways. But what he is saying is this: The notion that if a publisher markets a book in all three genres, it can triple the readership for the book by attracting readers from all three genres, is patently false, and has been proven so again and again by the disappointing sales numbers for these sorts of novels.

So is Thieftaker doomed to disappointing numbers? I don’t think so. Because, again, we have marketed the book as a fantasy. And we’ve told fantasy readers that, in addition to magic, it has a historical element and a mystery element. We didn’t try to sell the book as a mystery, or as a historical. We had no illusions about attracting readership from every genre. We stuck with our core constituency and developed a marketing strategy that would maximize our readership within it.

But all that said, I find myself wondering if publishers and even my friend, who knows as much about the business as anyone I know, might be underestimating the flexibility of readers. And I wonder if, as we shift to a virtual book market rather than a physical book market, some of the existing barriers will come down. Think about it. It’s prohibitively expensive, not to mention incredibly inconvenient, for a bookstore to shelve copies of Thieftaker in the historical fiction section, and in the mystery section, and in the fantasy section. But cross-listing electronic versions of the book in all these genres is easy and costs booksellers nothing. So as these infrastructure barriers to cross-genre promotion continue to break down, it’s possible that the industry’s hesitancy to publish such books might do the same. Or, it’s possible that nothing will change at all. Never underestimate the power of a change-averse industry to stay exactly the way it is.

So what do you make of all of this? Do you like cross-genre novels, or do you prefer to read fantasy when you’re in the mood for fantasy, mystery when you’re in the mood for that, romance when you want romance, etc.? And where do you think we’re headed in this regard?

David B. Coe

30 comments to On Publishing and Marketing: Crossing Genres, or not

  • sagablessed

    Oddly, I can relate. I kinnda gave up on my last WIP, Sleepthorn, as while I made the query as UF, because the protagonist is LGBT, many agents and publishers were not sure how to market it: gay fiction (which has a lot of bad connetations, and none that were relevant to the work), or fantasy.

  • Totally agree. My entire career is cross-genre and I’m living proof that publishers and traditional bookstores just don’t really know how to make my different grops of readers cross pollinate. Yes, I have some who will read whatever I write, but there are more who won’t, and a lot who don’t even know that I work outside the genre they read. But the web (and ebooks in particular) have, as you say, changed this to a large extent, creating a virtual world where books in different genres by a single author, like cross-over books, are easier and cheaper to link together. I wonder how this phenomenon will affect not just sales, but tastes. The web is usually thought of as the home for niche markets, for very particular tastes which might not have had an identity before. But might we not also see the ability to link and find cross-over work creating more of a market for it, breaking down the barriers between traditional genres simply because the web doesn’t rely on restrictive categories. I hope so, esp. for books like Thieftaker.

  • Hm. I write a lot of cross-genre. It’s kinda my thing. Many of my works just lend themselves to it. So, I guess what it comes down to is knowing what the predominant factor is in the book and calling it that. Like, I have a fantasy with sci-fi elements, I may as well say it’s a fantasy for placing/marketing purposes and for advertising, mention that it’s a fantasy with sci-fi elements. There is one, well, two that have fairly equal sci-fi and fantasy elements however. I guess they’re straight up what they call science-fantasy. I already know the work I’m writing now is predominantly urban fantasy but with a film noir feel and other minor genre elements.

  • I’ve also been wondering how much virtual bookstores will change buying and even reading habits. I’ve seen my mother’s reading taste expand beyond her favorite mysteries since she got a Kindle. She’s much more likely to look at and buy non-mystery books if they’re recommended based on something else she’s ordered, or even books she just sees that are popular on Kindle. It’s easy to click from one book to the next when you have all kinds of lists to look at.

    For my own book, it’s a science fiction mystery–it used to have some magic in it. I ended up taking that out in a very early draft because I decided I didn’t want the characters to have access to magic, but I was also thinking that removing the magic might help clarify the genre.

  • I commented a few weeks ago when you first started talking about Thieftaker that I hoped you were successful, for many reasons. I, as a debut author, had challenges in procuring an agent because of the very items you mentioned. I now have an agent (yeah!), and one of the items we discussed in our strategy was how to market my work. We decided to do as you did- market it as a fantasy with historical and magical elements. Will keep everyone updated on our progress.

  • Hmmmm… Interesting. I know I read multiple genres, thought not many. I read Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, some Literary, some Paranormal Romance and Horror (gee, there’s a pattern in there) Comic Books, Graphic Novels and a little bit of YA (okay, those are mediums, I guess, not genres but that’s a whole other question). I don’t read Mystery or Romance without the paranormal elements. I don’t read much historical, either, but I’m giving it a go with theiftaker ’cause I like the author. I’ll jump with the author IF they let me know I’m jumping.

    As a quick aside, I think mystery is probably the easiest of the genres to combine and not have a problem. An Urband Fantasy Mystery would just be a UF, I don’t see marketing having a huge problem there.

    But when I think about how I write, I don’t ever think of my writing as crossing genre, but maybe it does. I write Urban Fantasy, period. (Except in short stories where I’ve written light SF). I mean, one work I’m shopping now takes place now, in Fayeteville NC, and there are demons and vampires and stuff. Definitely UF. The other one I see as UF, but there are high fantasy elements (fae, for one, and knights and kings adn stuff) except that it happens now, it happens in a city (albeit a fae city) and it’s city is important. Def. NOT high fantasy. But urban? Well, it is to me. 🙂

    It’s hard for me sometimes to think about what genre I’m writing when I’m writing. My newest shiny is (god help me) a YA, I think (it’s very new), and it’s urban fantasy, but again the “urb” isn’t any of our “urbs” I think. But that one’s in the beginning stages, so that might change.

  • I’m definitely a reader who walks straight to the fantasy/sci-fi section and ignores almost everything else (with the exception of historical fantasy and some non-fiction). If it’s cross-genre and includes fantasy, I’ll only find it if it’s in the fantasy section.

    I don’t mind cross-genre, but I’m probably only going to pick it up if I know the speculative element is strong (i.e. Time Traveler’s Wife, but I never would have found that if it wasn’t an audiobook on sale when I worked at B&N).

    I guess I’m sort of stuck in my habits as a reader, but knowing what I like is what keeps me spending my money. I really like the addition of the magic to the cover art, because it lets me know immediately this is going to have magic in it! Yay!

  • henderson

    From a reader’s perspective, I am only interested in reading fantasy. Not so sure that I would read a book that crosses genres that includes fantasy unless I know the author, and then I will happily read books like The Thief-taker.

    From an author’s perspective, I wonder if a small-press would be more interested than a traditional publisher in marketing and selling a cross-genre novel. It seems small presses are little bit more flexible, and are willing to take more risks than traditional publishers.

  • I promise I won’t bemoan the medical thriller placed in the romance section of bookstores and advertized as romance. I promise.

    Okay I lied. I still grieve that series, lost because a publisher made one dumb mistake after another. Yes, I grieve. In today’s world, I’d still be writing Rhea Lynch, MD, and my books would still be selling because the e-marketing would have been excellent and I could have make up for the publisher’s error on my own with a huge e-blitz.

    But writing careers go on. And hey, I’d never have found Jane Yellowrock if not for that horrible marketing error on their parts. And I admit that I adore this character.

  • I think as long as the cross-over-ness is established early or even in the jacket, then I would be happy with any well written story. I would only have a problem with reading what I think is a traditional mystry and then suddenly find out the murder was commited using magic that was not fully established from the beginning. That would seem a bit deus ex machina for me.

  • bonesweetbone

    Thank you for this post, David! I’d been wondering why certain authors I followed were classified in one genre when another (to me) seemed to make more sense. Now I have an answer!

    I’m very picky about what I read and even more picky about what I pay to read (hooray for budgets…). I think ebooks are already revolutionizing the way we approach genre because I can see the changes in myself ever since I got my kindle. And in my bank account (failed budgeting…). I don’t have easy access to bookstores and the kindle changed that. On top of that, the sample feature has helped me broaden my horizons significantly. I can fly through books so much more quickly than I could in a store and I’m more likely to explore new authors and genres now that I have easier access.

    I never thought about my preferences genre-wise beyond fantasy or regarding crossed genres, but now I’m going to have to put some thought into it. I think fantasy is a good categorization for cross genre books because I feel like the boundaries are a little less defined there, so you can get away with more. Or at least I’m willing to accept other elements in my fantasy than in other genres.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I guess my instincts on the subject are: if it’s got magic in it, then it needs to be marketed as Fantasy, *possibly* unless it’ll be marketed as Literary fiction. As a reader, I definitely spend almost all of my time in SFF. This is partly, I think, because, there, blends of all sorts of things are welcome, plus I *really* like alternate-world stuff. To an extent, alternate world can be found in Historical, but then it’s harder to sift through to find stories that focus on the adventure/heroic slant I sort of depend on in SFF. Probably I’m just lazy.

    My WIP is more anti-cross-genre than anything: alternate-world fantasy with *very* little magic in it. I know some people think that if you’re writing a story with very little magic, you should just switch to Historical but, a) that would confine me to certain, specific social structures, requiring me to either link in themes I’m not interested in or else ignore certain social barriers and produce something annoyingly anachronistic, b) while it’s not evident in the first book, I *am* using a magical element to underpin the conflict situation, and c) allowing for the possibility of magic in the readers’ minds in some ways validates the superstitions of the characters. If the characters believe there’s magic, but the readers say “this is Historical, there’s no magic”, that sets up a very different dynamic. Still, *I* know there’s a magical element that will be revealed in later books, but would fantasy readers be disappointed to get through a whole first book without clear indications of anything but superstitions?

  • Oddly (or perhaps it isn’t so odd), cross-genre movies do relatively well in the marketplace. Part of this is no doubt attributable to the fact that a movie trailer of a western/sf or gothic/superhero or romcom/action feature does not need to be displayed in two or three different sections of a movie theater; each of the movie’s aspects are presented as a piece and revealed to the complete spectrum of the potential audience with no extra effort, thought, or costs involved.

  • Saga, the industry has been far too slow to embrace LGBT protagonists without by default placing them in the “Gay Fiction” section. Things are improving in this respect, but slowly, too, too, slowly.

    A.J., thanks for the comment, and the good wishes for THIEFTAKER. You have, throughout your career, straddled so many genres and subgenres, and so yes, I figured you would relate to this post. And yes, I see great potential in the e-market for overcoming some of the limitations placed on the market by the traditional bookstore economy.

    Daniel, I’m with you — cross-genre is just more fun to do, and it sounds as though you enjoy straddling genres as much as I do. My advice (if I can so bold as to offer some) on the sci-fi/fantasy projext, I would market it as fantasy, for two reasons. First, fantasy is doing better right now in the marketplace than is sf. And second, fantasy readers are far more accepting of science in their fantasy than sf buffs are of magic in their sf. My $.02.

    SiSi, I’ve heard the same thing from other Kindle owners, and my wife, who now reads on her iPad, is certainly reading stuff she might never have looked at previously. And it sounds as though you did the right thing taking out the magic — mystery and SF readers are, as I said to Daniel, far less forgiving of magic in their books than one might think.

    Lillian, congratulations on getting an agent. That’s wonderful news!! Please do keep us informed as to how your work is progressing!

  • Wolf, that’s a really interesting point. I guess the book equivalent would be to get placed on one of the display tables or new-release tables right at the door, or on the front page of Amazon/Audbile/etc.

  • Emily, thanks. It’s funny that you should say that mystery is the easiest of genres to combine, because this is absolutely true and yet there is a big caveat attached to that. I LOVE weaving mystery into my work, and the mystery element in the Thieftaker stories and books is very prominent. And yet, the mystery market tends to be the most exclusive of all, in that mystery readers tend to be very reluctant to read crossover stuff. They want their mystery pure. As for your work, yes it sounds as though UF is your bailiwick, and right now that’s a very good place to be.

    Scribe (listening to the interview as I write this — thanks again!), there are so many readers who do exactly what you do. And I only found TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE because my kid recommended it to me — glad she did. Thanks for the comment on the cover; I like the change, too.

    Henderson, thanks! I think you raise a very good point — there is some more flexibility in the small press market, because those smaller houses tend to be willing to take chances on things the bigger publishers might avoid. The bookstore issues remain the same, but I think that indie bookstores and small press publishing can do a lot to loosen up the market.

    Faith, your Rhea Lynch books are a perfect illustration of what my friend has in mind when he laments the ability of the market to handle crossover stuff. But we’re all very, very happy that you found Jane and Beast.

    Mark, I think your comment speaks to Faith’s experience. The reason crossover stuff fails when it’s poorly marketed is that readers wind up with a book they didn’t expect. It might be an outstanding book, but that almost doesn’t matter. If you’re a fantasy reader and you buy a book thinking it’s going to be fantasy, you’re going to be ticked off when it turns out to be something else.

    Bone, your point about e-books and the fantasy market are both spot on. Fantasy readers do tend to be more open to reading across genres. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy writing in our genre. Thanks for the comment.

  • Hep, you ask an interesting question. On the one hand, I can point you to a book like A SONG FOR ARBONNE, a historical fantasy written by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of my favorite authors. The book is fantasy, in that it’s alternate world. But there is very, very little magic in it. And it did well. But the flip side of that is that Kay was already a recognized name in fantasy when he wrote it, and I think that gave him some leeway. You might want to hint at your magic in that first volume, maybe even show a glimpse of it, just to establish the fantasy element and thus make certain that your readers aren’t disappointed by the lack of a strong fantasy element. Something to think about at least.

    Wolf, I do think that readers are far more willing to read and enjoy cross-genre stuff than publishers give them credit for, and that would possibly explain why in the broader movie marketplace cross-genre stuff does well. But then again, I find myself wondering if there are as many cross-genre successes in movies as we think. Cowboys and Aliens didn’t do all that well, and it seems to me that most of the really popular stuff to come out recently is pretty firmly set in one genre or another. I’m sure I’m blanking on successful cross genre movies — which films did you have in mind?

  • sagablessed

    I do have to wonder how hard was it to get an historical UF idea past the publishers?

    And Faith: don’t forget Beast. I think I haz 2 new heros: Beast and Ethan.

  • I like cross-genre novels. I’ve read things I wouldn’t normally read because they happened to have a bit of magic mixed in. But I do admit, I’ll gravitate to the SFF section of a bookstore, because that’s where I prefer to be. Well, that and the YA section.

    I would hope that the web works in the favour of cross-genre categorization. Amazon’s “Others who bought this also bought this other book” feature might prove to be useful.

  • quillet

    Long-time lurker here, stepping out of the shadows. *waves to everyone, then blushes* I hope you’ll forgive my newbie mistakes.

    As a yet-to-be-published writer, I’m pretty firmly in the fantasy genre, though my WIP has a strong mystery element. But as a reader, I shop in several sections of the bookstore. I have a lot of likes and I don’t need them segregated. Comedy in my sci-fi? Sure. Romance in my fantasy? Bring it on. Mystery in my historical fiction? Heck, yeah! I love cross-genre stuff, and don’t much care where in the bookstore they shelve it—as long as it has good characters and voice.

    Also wanted you to know, David, that three of my favourite genres are historical fiction, mystery, and especially fantasy. So…you totally have my interest for Thieftaker. Thrice over. 😀 Can. Not. Wait!

  • Donald, the fact is that getting Tor to publish historical UF was not at all difficult. In fact, as I think I might have mentioned in a post a couple of weeks, my editor was actually the person who first suggested that I write the book as a historical rather than as alternate world, which is what it was in its first incarnation. In this case, Tor saw great marketing value in adding in the historical element, as long as the book was rooted firmly in the fantasy genre.

    Laura, I think that web will have that effect, and I think you’re writing in thinking that recommendation engines like Amazon’s could be a powerful tool for steering readers in directions they might not otherwise go. Thanks for the commment.

    Quillet, welcome and thanks for de-lurking with a great comment. You’re the kind of reader we writers dream about — open to mixing and matching. As I say, I think there are a lot more readers like you out there than the publishers sometimes acknowledge. And thanks for the kind words — hope you enjoy THIEFTAKER when it’s finally out.

  • Razziecat

    I’ll admit to being tremendously picky re: fiction. I read mostly within fantasy and SF, and then only the books that catch my interest. I have found a few non-genre books, only by chance, that I enjoyed very much, but it’s rare. And I don’t read anything based on how popular it is.

    However, it seems to me the market is being sliced and diced into hundreds of mini-genres, and this is hurting us all. I don’t search specifically for, say, “steampunk mystery-romance with dinosaurs, zombies and time travel”, I just look for FANTASY, which to me means there is magic involved. SF means space travel, aliens, and/or technology that goes beyond what’s possible now. Of course I want characters, plot and quality of writing that are good enough to pull me in, but to me the specifics of time, place, setting, etc., are not what defines the genre.

    My tastes have matured and I won’t settle for any old dreck just because there’s a wizard and a unicorn it it, but I don’t like placing books into all these pigeonholes, either. It’s restrictive and defeats the purpose of finding as many readers as possible.

  • Razz, I agree that the specialization of the markets into narrow sub-genres seems to be accelerating, and I share your concern about it. But when I try to articulate why it bothers me, I can’t really put it into words. And, in fact, I wonder if some good comes of it. That seems to run counter to what I put in my post, but what I see happening with the proliferation of sub-genres is publishers finding a way to publish those books that are hard to classify. To use your example, instead of saying “We can’t publish a steampunk mystery-romance with dinosaurs, zombies and time travel” because we wouldn’t know whether to group it with zombies or steampunk or dinosaurs or romance,” they’re saying “Sure we can do that: Let’s just make a new shelf for just that kind of book and put it there.” Weird as it seems, that’s kind of an improvement. See what I mean? Or am I completely off base?

  • David – if I were a book-seller or marketer, I think I’d categorize Thieftaker as Alternate History. AH is one of those areas where pretty much anything goes, so long as it is rooted in “real-world” history.

    I tend to read all over the map, depending on mood and sweet-tooth. I’ll spend a month or two devouring “classical works,” then shift to Fantasy, then another month or True Crime, Horror, SF. I have to laugh at the Amazon/Kindle recommendations lists that pop up based on my shopping history. I think I’ve confused the poor algorithm. 😉

    The Thieftaker cover looks great, and I can’t wait for the book to come out. I love a good alternate history, especially if it tosses in a few other genres to earn the “alternate.”

  • David, I will definitely keep that advice in mind. The Warlock of Gramarye novels were science-fantasy, but I think most just called them fantasy novels and that’s kind of where some of my work sits, especially those two I mentioned.

  • Lyn, I think of alternate history as being more along the lines of what Harry Turtledove writes, or what Philip Roth did with THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA — namely taking a historical event and changing it so that the novel’s version of history follows an alternate path. That’s not exactly what I’ve done. Then again, I am certainly offering a different version of 1760s Boston, so maybe it does fit. I’ll have to think about it. Thanks for the kind words about the cover; I hope you enjoy the book. And I think it’s great that you have eclectic taste in reading. I happen to as well, and I think I’m a better writer for all the different things I’ve read.

    Daniel, glad to help.

  • rebnatan

    After a great deal of contemplation, I determined that the novel I have written, Quantum Cannibals, is “dark science ethno-fantasy.” Maybe I’ll get a better response from agents if I simply refer to it as fantasy.

  • Reb, yes, I think you’ll be MUCH better off marketing it as fantasy, at least at first. Later, when the book has a home and is going to press, you can start to refine the pitch you give to potential readers, but for now, keep it simple. My advice, at least.

  • Razziecat

    Hey David, yes, I see what you’re saying, but the problem is a limited number of available shelves. Unless there’s a proliferation of steampunk mystery-romance with dinosaurs, etc, no bookstore is going to make a special section for that one genre, and then you’re back to publishers saying they don’t know how to categorize it. Maybe sub-sub genre e-books wouldn’t be as hard to sell, since you don’t need physical space, but you still need to tag the book with a term that makes it easy for people to find who are looking for that genre.

    Is it bad that I’m now having visions of “clockwork dinosaurs meets Doctor Who?” 🙂

  • Razz, yes, you make a good point. As to tagging, that’s one of the best things about the new technology, and speaks to a point I made before: While we can only shelve in one place, there is no limit to the number of tags we can use for cross-referencing an ebook. It can be tagged “dinosaurs” and “steampunk” and “mystery” and “romance” and “UF” and whatever else, making it easy to find for fans of all tastes. And, no, I think those visions are perfectly normal, at least in this crowd….