Writing in a different genre can be a difficult sell, even for a successful author
Literary success seems to prescribe that you find a writing style, and stick to it. But not everyone wants to do that. And not everyone is able to do it either.
J.K. Rowling made headlines when she began to publish crime fiction under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, having previously confounded the market with adult contemporary fiction in The Casual Vacancy. Both are far removed from her apparent comfort zone of children’s fiction. John Banville admits that his criminally inclined inner scribe, Benjamin Black, makes far more money than he does writing acclaimed literary fiction.
Robert Galbraith is a huge success – no matter what happened with the convenient ‘leaking’ of ‘his’ true identity – with three bestselling novels and a couple of excellent BBC adaptations already under the belt, and another novel on its way. Banville’s Quirke likewise made it to the small screen following considerable success on the bestseller shelves.
Are Rowling’s and Banville’s popularity in alternative genres due to the fact that they are writing under a pseudonym which doesn’t confuse readers who couldn’t care less who’s really behind the name? Or did The Casual Vacancy get a rough ride with reviewers because people were expecting Harry Potter and the Dementors to cause havoc at a village council meeting?
Not Everybody Gets The Choice To Change
Both Rowling and Banville have been very successful, writing things which are generally considered not to be Their Thing. Maybe it’s escape for them; maybe it’s what they always wanted to do anyway. But many writers actually fear writing Other Things. And many other writers never get the opportunity in the first place to write anything different.
When writers start out, they’re told that prospective publishers don’t like confusion of any sort which might disrupt sales. This includes the use of a pseudonym, or writing in two or more different genres.
And even as contrary as I am, I can’t pretend I don’t get that. When I fall in love with a new author’s historical fiction, I don’t automatically want to read their erotic accountancy crime (well, not until I’ve exhausted every single other option, at least). I’m a simple creature at heart. When I read something I like, I quite often want more of the same.
So I can understand a scenario where the following happens.
Publisher: Hello. Thank you for your submission. Upon mature, powerful reflection, we have decided there is a chance that we maybe perhaps might publish your torrid romance. It just so happens that we were this very week looking for romantic fiction containing three pugs, an azalea bush and a smash-and-grab raid on an electrical shop, and by sheer coincidence, there you were.
Writer: Yay!!! [champagne cork pops]
Publisher: We’ll give you a two-book deal and an advance of €81.20. Sign here.
Writer: Woo-hoo!! Happy days! I’ve like, totally made it!! [sips from bottle which constitutes 70.6% of advance]
Publisher: There’s just one thing. Your second book must be submitted within 30 days.
Writer: That’s no problem. I’ve already written my second and third novels. They’re both dystopian fantasies, about avocado farming in a world where brunch is illegal.
Publisher: No, that won’t do. Your second novel has to be exactly the same as the first one. We’re building your brand, you see.
Writer: But the thing is, I don’t normally write romantic fiction.
Publisher: You do now.
Writer: But I don’t, you see. Wait – why am I cuffed to this chair?
Publisher: Shhhhhh. Hush, now. It’s aaaaall right. Your brain belongs to us now.
But some authors just can’t write the same thing all the time, particularly if they’re trying to avoid churning out stuff that’s so homogenised it could be pumped into the particle accelerator in CERN.
Funny writers have days when their writing is black with a bollicky B; romance writers have days when they hate everyone, and crime writers have days when they just might want to see the good in people.
The solution is to write something else entirely: hopefully something that won’t alienate every reader you ever had.
Of course, for writers who have yet to find an audience, there is no need to worry at all. Because this is your time for experimentation. Now is when you should be going wild with no constraints, except for time, and that incessant urge to sleep.
The moral of the story is that there is quite possibly a lot to be said for not being published – yet. The freedom is limitless, all genres for the taking, and the future is, as the late great Tom Petty said, wide open.