Authors who love to read in many genres often find it difficult to decide which one they should write. They often solve the problem by trying to write in multiple genres, which is rarely a good idea, especially for beginning writers.
If you’re trying to choose a genre or considering writing in several, this episode will help you determine which path is best for you.
When You Don’t Want to Choose
Jim: We can learn from successful authors who have, and haven’t, chosen to write within a single genre.
For example, John Grisham became successful by writing thriller after thriller. When he wanted to write a coming-of-age suspense novel, his publisher figured he was popular enough that it would sell, and they published it for him. Sadly, the sales were terrible because his throngs of regular readers were disappointed. They were used to reading thrillers, and the book did not sell well.
Another famous author, Stephen King, was once told, “Wow, you’re locked into the horror genre. You just can’t get out of it.” It was true. But Stephen King replied, “Yes, but I like the genre. It’s a great one to be locked into, and I’ve made quite a few coins doing it.”
If you’re wondering whether you should switch genres, consider those examples, and evaluate whether you love the genre you’re currently writing. If you love it, stay in it.
Thomas: Many authors have tried to write in multiple genres and either failed in all of them or in all but one. Make it your aim to master one genre. The first genre you choose may determine your career trajectory, and you may be stuck in it.
If you want to try a new genre, you could write it under a pen name as a hobby book. Don’t count on it to bring in a lot of sales, but enjoy the process of writing it and getting it out of your system.
Thomas: Generally, we don’t recommend writing under a pen name because it makes your marketing very difficult. Authors who use pen names tend to sell few books.
The Hedgehog Principle
If you’re unsure which genre you should start with, the hedgehog principle from Jim Collins’ book may guide you. In fact, I even give this advice to high school graduates struggling to make important decisions for their future.
Many older people may advise youn to, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” They don’t tell you that no one will hire you to do that job if there’s no need for it. To make a good decision, you need to find the sweet spot where your passions, skills, and the needs of a market overlap.
Choosing a genre or career you’re passionate about is important. However, you can’t make a decision based solely on your passions.
Besides having a passion for a genre, you must also be skilled in the area of your passion. For novelists, this means knowing the expected tropes in your chosen genre and mastering the writing craft.
What are people willing to pay for? Passion and skill won’t pay your bills, so you must discover what a certain market needs and wants to pay for. In marketing circles, this is known as market demand.
How can you determine which genres you’re passionate about?
Jim: If you’re passionate about a genre, you can’t avoid it. You’re attracted to it like a magnet.
What kinds of movies do you like to watch? List your top 20 favorite movies and see what genre keeps popping up. If you’re watching and rewatching science fiction, that’s something to pay attention to.
Thomas: By the same token, you’re probably not a good candidate to write a romance novel if you never choose romance movies. What’s more, it won’t be enjoyable for you. You’ll feel miserable if you get shoehorned into that genre.
Throwing Book Across the Room Test
When you’re reading a book and want to throw it across the room because you know you could write something better, that might indicate which genre you should adopt.
If you can actually write a better story, you may find a lot of success there. If someone else made money selling that book, you may be able to make more by writing a better story.
If you keep re-writing movies and books in your head, adding characters, and improving the endings, you should probably write something in that genre.
The Bookstore Test
What aisles of the bookstore do you keep browsing but not buying? If you’re really interested in Amish fiction, but none of the books in that aisle interest you, perhaps there’s room for your book in that aisle.
One Genre for Life Test
If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, which would it be? The answer to that question may point you toward the genre you should choose to write.
Why are passions even important?
You may be wondering why you can’t just choose to write in the genre that’s currently popular in the market. The most popular genres may not be enjoyable for you to write. If you don’t enjoy writing the book, your readers will not enjoy reading it, and that’s a recipe for a doomed book.
You need to enjoy the journey. Readers can tell if you’ve written with passion or simply made a paint-by-number book.
Some genres require non-genre skills.
If you are writing Christian fiction but aren’t convinced of or familiar with the tenants of Christianity, your writing will not be believable. By the same token, if you don’t understand a bit about quantum physics, you probably should not write a time-travel novel. If you don’t understand the science behind science fiction, your novel won’t sound authentic.
Romance authors need high relational empathy and an understanding of human psychology. Historical fiction writers must be experts in the period of history their story occurs. And action writers must, at the very least, know what it feels like to fire a gun. In America, there are more guns than people, so if your character clearly doesn’t know what it’s like to fire a gun, your reader will notice.
For example, if there is nearby gunfire in your story, your characters won’t be having a conversation because their ears will be ringing.
Knowledge + Research Test
The key is to know what you’re writing about or be willing to research it thoroughly.
If you hate research, you might consider writing a fantasy novel where you can create the world along with all the rules. To make your fantasy novel effective, consider rooting the story in existing folklore.
Past Sales Test
If you’re already published, you can determine where your skills are strongest by looking at your past sales. If your romance novel sales languish while your vampire books sell like hotcakes, concentrate your skills on what sells.
What kind of books are on your nightstand right now? You write best what you read most. By the same token, avoid writing in genres that rarely or never appear on your nightstand.
If you do have a TBR stack on your nightstand, see if you can find a common denominator amongst them that made you pick them up in the first place. That may offer another indicator of your passion or skill.
What subject would you be willing to pay to learn more about it? Would you be willing to pay for a workshop on quantum physics or how to fire a gun? Or would you prefer to attend a class on fabrics of the Middle Ages? What are you willing to study?
What authors do you see as mentors?
Thomas: Successful authors often form gene-specific communities where they can learn from one another and continue to improve their writing. Who are the authors you can learn from?
Underserved Category on Amazon
Jim: Look at the market and see what is needed. Is there a category on Amazon with an audience but few authors and books to serve that audience? You may find your place in that genre if it’s also an area of your passions and skills.
Thomas: Often, a genre will become so popular that loads of authors jump into the genre pool and write to that audience. For example, when Y2K was looming in the nineties, end-of-the-world books became very popular. Over time, the market moved on, and no one wanted end-of-the-world books anymore.
If you choose to write to an overserved market, you will have trouble distinguishing yourself from the other writers. Additionally, readers will have trouble finding you in the mountain of books available to the overserved market.
Similar to a Popular Book or Movie
Jim: If you try to ride the wave of a popular book or movie, just be aware that by the time your similar book releases, that wave may be diminishing. In the early 2000s, chick-lit was everywhere, but now it has really died off.
By the same token, solid pop culture phenomena such as superheroes will probably continue due to the ongoing marketing success of Marvel and the worlds they have created. The superhero wave may be a safe bet for years to come.
Thomas: The faster you write, the easier it will be for you to adapt to the trends. If you can hit the trends at the right time, you can potentially earn a lot of money. Indie authors have an advantage over traditional authors in this regard since their publication timeline is shorter and far more flexible.
Popular Computer Games
The most popular form of entertainment is computer games. More money is spent on computer games than on books or movies. The world of computer games offers a springboard for novelists. For example, I enjoy the post-apocalyptic game “Fallout,” and when I looked for books written in a similar vein, I discovered several that are selling well.
How can readers enjoy reading what you were miserable creating?
Ultimately, though, whether we’re talking about passions, skills, or needs, writing needs to be an enjoyable journey for you. If you’re not passionate about it, you won’t have the patience to build the skills. Without the skills, you won’t be able to meet people’s needs in a way they’re willing to pay for.
If you’re writing for the fun of it, your skill will improve, and hopefully, the market demand is there. Paying attention to market demand is helpful, but be cautious about chasing trends. Authors who chase trends are often a few steps behind the trends. They’re rarely successful, and they don’t really enjoy the journey. If you can learn to enjoy the journey, your editing, writing, and books will all improve. Better books will make marketing easier and sales higher. And that will help you achieve bestselling author status.