Who’s Gonna Read Your Book II: On genre conventions / unconventional genres

One of the most important and oft-cited tenets of marketing is to identify your target audience.

When it comes to books, an easy was to start doing this is through identifying your novel’s genre, thereby making your target audience the readers of said genre.

Many writers descry genre.  I’ve hear it stated that genre conventions impose limits to creativity and the possibilities a writer can introduce into a story.

Some also claim that genre is a means by which the traditional publishing industry pigeonholes the market by only publishing stories adhering to this or the other trend, which ultimately comes to define various genres as a whole (e.g. the dystopian trend in YA).

Yet, whether one agrees with the above statements or not, genre is the means by which readers have been trained to locate books within the publishing landscape.  Whether a book is traditionally published or self-published, it’s the GPS that helps lead readers to the promised land of similar content and fulfilled expectations.

According to bestselling sci-fi author Hugh Howey,

[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in becoming discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book….  Random fantasy books sell better than random randomness.

But what happens when your book doesn’t quite fulfill those expectations?  What happens when it meets some of the conventions of its genre, yet blithely disregards others?

What happens if your book is like my book?

My novel has an identity crisis

My novel-in-progress is a work of historical fiction, set in thirteenth century England around the time of Magna Carta.  It’s carefully researched and, to the best of my abilities, written in a sensibility that adheres to the prevailing societal attitudes of the day.


It’s not historical fiction of the sort that contains real personages from history as main characters (a conscious decision on my part to instead focus on the society itself as a main character).

Historical fiction as a genre isn’t required to showcase historical figures.  Yet, it seems to me that the most popular HF titles dealing with ancient history (i.e. Biblical, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Medieval, Renaissance) tend to be those with protagonists who already have their own Wikipedia entry.

My novel also contains various romantic elements: unrequited love, love at first sight, marriage.


The romantic elements don’t necessarily occur in the order listed above, nor do they all necessarily happen to the same character.

My novel is not a capital-R Romance, the convention for which is that the would-be lovers meet within the first chapter (they don’t), that the love story is central to the plot (it’s not; it’s merely or just one of many things that happens and contributes to the plot), and that the story ends in a traditional happily ever after (truth be told, I’m still not entirely sure if the ending of my novel will qualify as “happy” at all.)

As well, my novel contains warring factions, backstabbing, intrigue, and all the political machinations inherent in a medieval epic, plus suspense, if nothing else, in the broadest sense of the reader (I hope!) wondering what’s going to happen in the end.


There are no on-screen, political thriller/war fiction-esque battle scenes detailing the inner workings of siege warfare because the story is narrated from the first-person POV of a lady, who naturally wouldn’t be there on the front lines.  Nor is the story’s pace one that’s consistent with any type of thriller.

It’s also something of a work of feminist fiction, for I wanted to emphasize some of the hardships women faced in the thirteenth century as a means demonstrating how much – and in some cases, how little – women’s lives have changed in the present day.

(And I won’t even get into how, in its earliest incarnation, my novel was actually a work of fantasy, and still contains modified versions of a few of my favourite tropes from that genre.)

How the hell do you market something like this?

No, really – how?

Ask (of) the audience

The increased legitimacy of self publishing does offer writers a lot of freedom from traditional genre definitions and conventions.  That said, Amazon allows only an author two genre descriptors/browse categories for a given self-published novel.

Which I actually consider quite reasonable, I should note.  It doesn’t seem particularly wise to try marketing a novel as everything but the kitchen sink.  I could just see the tag line now: “Literally: a ~little~ something for everyone!”

Luckily, I found advice via Anna Genoese, a former acquiring editor at Tor Books whose blog I used to follow back in the days I was writing fantasy.

Random curiosity led me to look her up again, and a few clicks around her site led me to an article called “Genre as a Market Category”.  The article is from 2006, but the information still seems valid to me.  Anna writes,

The way to figure out what genre your manuscript should be classified as … is to pick one and then ask yourself: would the readers of this genre be satisfied by the story I am telling?

This may well entail finding beta readers of each of the various genres I’m representing and literally asking them.


Question: Writers: Do you struggle with defining the genre of your work?  Readers: Are you tolerant of stories that mix genres or otherwise disregard some of the conventions of genre?


Related post: Who’s Gonna Read Your Book: On gender, readers, and the (gendered) state of entertainment

(Image source #1 and #2)

10 thoughts on “Who’s Gonna Read Your Book II: On genre conventions / unconventional genres

  1. Hi Janna
    The mention of the character POV (a lady that would not be allowed on the front lines), reminds me of a book that I have here. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, at 836 pages, it’s not a light read, but explains what life during that war would have been like for the female population. Nothing wrong with that at all!

    As for the genre, I’ve struggled horribly with this (as I’m sure others have also). My first self published story was of a Civil War re-enactor who makes the acquaintance of two soldiers that had lived in a long forgotten military camp the city once housed.

    Is it mystery, historical fiction (the town mentioned did house this camp), or paranormal?

    I have two short stories on my website as samples, one is flat out historical fiction…the other starts and ends as a modern day thriller type of story, but due to a dream midway, it turns into a 1930’s Gangster style bank robbery. Did I mention that in this dream, the protagonist runs into his now dead neighbors?

    Again, do I call it a mystery, detective, historical fiction or paranormal?

    If you are thinking Amazon, sales seem to be driven by the number of books sold and rank anyway(#1 in Historical Fiction vs # 160451) and that is where you have put on that marketing hat and tell the world about your work.


    • I personally like stories that stray a bit from established genre conventions. So long as I know going in that it’s broadly a Civil War historical fiction, I’m usually pleasantly surprised to encounter elements of other genres. One of my favourite authors – sadly deceased – was Judith Merkle Riley. The first book by her I read was a medieval historical fiction. But I had no idea is was going to be such a humourous read. I loved it!

      It’s just a matter in choosing the broad genre to call one’s story. This is where what Anna Genoese recommends can help. Something else to consider, as you say, is Amazon sales rankings. If possible (and not a case of false advertising), it’s probably better to choose the genre that has the lower number of books in it, thereby giving an author a greater chance of getting to #1.


  2. It would be beating a dead horse to say my stories do not fit into a genre. It’s my bane as a writer, and my pleasure. If I write in a box, the story will be shit, so I write whatever I feel like writing. People will either discover it or they won’t.

    As far as your approach to historical sort-of fantasy… who knows? You could start the next wave of whatever. Someone has to be first, so why shouldn’t it be you? Somehow I doubt the Steinbecks and Hemingways sat there worrying about where their work fit in a bookstore.

    I totally get why publishers want genre-specific work. They are laying out money and want a good return on investment. I get why agents want it, because their job is to sell manuscripts. Maybe one day I will grow up and write something suitable for that mindset. It may not be good enough still, but I’ll have no one to blame but me.

    I turn into quite the narcissist in your comments section, don’t I?


    • Maybe one day I will grow up and write something suitable for that mindset.

      I dunno – it seems to me that you (and by you, I also mean me) have to just write the story you (I?) want to write. I’m somewhat of the opinion that genres are limiting, and spawn genre clones. Besides, shoehorning one’s work into a square hole is just depressing. I think that with the rise of self-publishing, it will become a bit less about genre and more about writing that is consistent with oneself (e.g. it may be fantasy or it may be mystery, but it always contains the writer’s trademark sense of dark humour).

      In terms of putting some kind of label on it, though, I do like Anna Genoese’s advice of asking “Would readers of [insert genre here] be satisfied with this story?” I think if a writer tries filling in the blank with enough possible genres, s/he’s sure to find one that sticks.


  3. I find it so difficult to put my stories in genres and the fact that the are all completely different is an even bigger killer. People tell me I should write to a genre and stick to it, but I can’t. I guess this is why I don’t go through traditional publishing companies anymore – I hate being put in a box.


    • I agree that genre can be limiting, and I think I lot of self-pubbed authors feel the same way as you. It’s so great that writers have so many options now on how to get their work out there. I wonder if, now that self-publishing is so much more prevalent, this is the beginning of the end of genre as we’ve traditionally known it. New “genres” seem to be popping up all the time now in the self-publishing world (e.g. new adult).


  4. As a reader I enjoy diving into most books that haven’t got a zombie or vampire in them. It hardly occurs to me to look beyond the blurb and to pigeonhole it. As to my own efforts, if they have any sort of genre then I decide what it is after publication 🙂 No wonder I don’t sell zillions.
    Clearly the writer determined to make a mark must be far more aware and disciplined.


    • I like to know broadly what genre I’m reading (fantasy, mystery, historical, etc.), but if the story strays from the established conventions, it doesn’t bother me so long as it works with the story at hand.

      If you’re looking to be more aware of your genre, maybe try what Anna Genoese recommends (i.e. ask yourself “Would readers of [insert genre here] be satisfied with this story?”). If you’re looking to be more consistent with your genre in future books, you could ask yourself “What can I do to make this story satisfying to readers of [whatever genre your last book was that you’re looking to write in again]?”


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