Genre-Hopping Your Way Out Of The Midlist
The Midlist. You know where that is, don't you? Technically, the midlist is the well-stuffed section of a publisher's catalog full of books written by authors who are neither debut nor bestsellers. For new writers of commercial genre fiction, most especially in romance, this is a clear and well-defined destination. No longer a newbie, a midlister has a decent, if not magnificent, print run. A midlist writer probably has a good agent, a fairly attentive editor, and a growing audience. Life in the midlist is fine - not the fanciest house on the street, but, heck, it is in an exclusive neighborhood. The lure of 'lead' is out there, the next destination, the next move up.
That is, unless you linger in the midlist too long. A few too many books that don't inch their way up in the sales catalog, and a writer can face something much worse than languishing on the midlist: Life Without Contracts. This can happen after just a few years or a few books, primarily because one or two books sell only moderately well, causing booksellers to reduce orders for the next one, resulting in lower print runs. This is not an uncommon situation, one that can either cause your publisher not to offer a new contract, or force a writer to 'relaunch' herself with a name booksellers don't recognize.
Another danger with an extended stay in the midlist is publishing infrequency. A writer at a major house my be delighted to be playing with the 'big guys and girls' only to find the lead and bestselling authors get the first and most slots -- often with reissues -- while a newer midlist author is published once a year, if that.
One of the ways to avoid both low-to-no print runs and a paucity of pub dates is to create a 'safety net' by publishing in multiple sub-genres, such as paranormal, women's fiction, historical, contemporary, chick lit, comedy, young adult, and more. Publishing within more than one sub-genre at the same time, or moving from one sub-genre to another, offers a number of benefits, including:
- An increased base of readers
- More frequent releases
- Enhanced career security with two publishers
- Fresh opportunities for creativity
- Additional income from advances and royalty checks
- Delighted publishers who see an increase in orders
Of course, the technique is not without its detractors. Some say that hopping can dilute a writer's audience, increase her marketing budget and, worst of all, infuriate her publishing house. However, if you choose between two or three sub-genres that share readers, handle the issue of marketing and names properly, and work with your publisher(s) to time releases for the most impact on sales, genre-hopping can be a godsend to a midlist writer.
Genre-hopping is best done on a voluntary, planned basis. Several authors interviewed for this article stated that they switched genres because they were forced to because of dried up contracts, a new editor, or a failed line. That kind of 'imposed genre-hopping' has given the practice a bad name, inducing stern warnings that writers should 'pick their niche' and stay with it.
While that is often wise advice, niche-picking and niche-staying can be frustrating to prolific, ambitious, creative writers who not only are able to write in multiple sub-genres, but want and need to for financial and artistic reasons. In talking to a number of highly-productive and motivated genre-hoppers, a few key pieces of advice emerged that will help increase a writer's success in moving between and among multiple genres.
Be sure you have a hopping personality. Specifically, genre-hopping is not for the feint of heart. You'll need to juggle multiple projects, deadlines, editors, personalities, and, most importantly, writing styles. Your voice is your voice, and it will shine through regardless of the sub-genre. But category romance requires a different pacing than single title, and historical demands phrasing true to the time period, and paranormal readers like their prose dark. To accomplish this juggling act, you'll need to be organized and flexible. If you are neither of those things, genre-hopping may not be your ticket out of mid-list.
Know your sub-genres and gauge their appeal to your muse. There are some obvious differences at first glance: category is shorter than single title; erotica is, well, more erotic than mainstream romance; romantic suspense requires a dead body that contemporary romance can do without. But there are also much more subtle differences in tone, language, audience expectations, character types, and taboos. To know them, you need to read within each sub-genre, communicate with other writers in the sub-genre, and follow the reviews, where you will get a sense of the story premises and themes.
Once you know the sub-genres well, you will recognize the opportunity to feed your muse by trying your hand at different types of romance. For many writers, this is a stronger impetus for hopping than any business or financial reason.
Multi-published author Melanie Jackson hopped from the historical sub-genre to the paranormal because she wanted to write in a broader universe. She explains that the actual historical events and people confined the reality in which she could write, but in a world of time-travel and magic, one can do anything and explain it away. At the time she wanted to make the switch, paranormals were still looked at with suspicion and historicals were a known market. Her approach was to write both until both her readers and her editor recognized her success in paranormal, and today she's happier writing in the wildly popular sub-genre of paranormal and enjoying a much wider audience.
Choose sub-genres that will co-exist and support each other. Ideally, there should be some cross -over of readership. The most effective sub-genre hopping occurs where the cross-over audience is built-in, such as mystery and romantic suspense, light comedy and chick-lit, erotica and dark paranormal, or contemporary romance and women's fiction.
Award-winning author Brenda Novak writes romantic suspense single-title and long contemporary romance. Brenda recommends that writers select their sub-genres with the same care and consideration they would in investing their money. Writing for series (category romance) is like investing in bonds, she says. They're safer, more secure. Single titles are like investing in stocks. They're a little riskier, but they have greater earning potential because they can hit a list and stay on the shelf longer. The only downside for Brenda is the work load. She notes that writing for two sub-genres you have to be pretty prolific, and it's not always easy to turn out that many books in a year.
Play the name game and realize the implications. You have three choices when you genre-hop regarding your pen name(s). You can keep one name for all sub-genres. The benefit of this is a reduction of marketing costs - it does take an investment to build a brand, run a web site, produce collateral, or increase name recognition. The downside, of course, is the possibility of diluting that brand so that readers don't know what to expect. Many authors have written in multiple sub-genres under one name. Julie Garwood, Linda Lael Miller and Karen Robards, for example, are writers who have a fairly well-established 'brands' and legions of readers who opt to buy by author, not genre. Their publishers wisely alter covers and cover copy, as well as advertising, to promote the 'different' versions of the brand.
Another option is to create a completely separate name, such as Rachel Lee and Sue Civil Brown, or Jayne Ann Krentz and Amanda Quick, or Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb. This completely eliminates the worry about diluting an audience, but it does increase the cost of marketing and brand-building. Most authors are open about their duel identities and encourage readers to give their other 'self' a chance. If the two sub-genres have little cross-over audience (young adult and erotica, for instance), then this is a recommended avenue. It might not get you out of the midlist as quickly as having one name, but it will build overall sales and spread your talent around.
The final option is a similar name. Meggin and Meg Cabot, writing chick lit and young adult is an example, or Nicole and Niki Burnham, writing romance and young adult. The goal is to bring along established readers, but make it clear (along with entirely different covers and even formats) that they should not expect a similar read from these books.
Look long and hard at the opportunities in category romance. Category, or series romance, published primarily by Harlequin/Silhouette, is one of the great training grounds for sub-genre hopping. Writers who sell to one line (such as Silhouette Desire or Harlequin Intrigue) have an easier time sliding from one type of category romance to another. This allows a writer to flex her genre-hopping muscles. In addition, the move to single title is encouraged with the HQN and Mira imprints, and authors who find they are able to write a longer book with multiple sub-plots and points of view have the opportunity to do so for their own house, or for others.
Moving into category after selling a single title to a mainstream publisher is a far less common career choice, but can be a wise one for a prolific, disciplined writer. I made that move in 2004 for a number of strategic reasons. Category romance does not require a great deal of marketing investment, and the readers tend to be loyal line buyers, so the need to establish a name is less pressing than it is in single title. In addition, the high print runs ensure a large, new audience will discover your work, an audience that many believe does cross-over to single title when they like a particular author.
The timing of category releases can also have a powerful impact on the sales of a single title. My agent recommends releasing a category book a month after a single title, to give the single title a sales boost from readers who enjoy the category and then seek more from the same author. This kind of carefully-planned timing requires open and regular communication with your editors, but they want your sales to be as high as possible and will usually work to schedule releases for the greatest benefit to everyone.
Beware the Option Clause. If you are inclined to genre-hop, the biggest impediment to doing so for more than one publishing house will be the Option Clause in your contract. Be certain that your agent or literary attorney limits the wording of this clause to precisely the sub-genre that you have sold. For example, the publisher should have a right of first refusal on your next 100,000 word contemporary romantic comedy, thereby allowing you to write category, or paranormal, or suspense, or women?s fiction for another publishing house.
If the clause is general, open-ended, or requires the house have first refusal on something as vague as 'the writer's next work,' you may have a difficult time moving to another house or another genre. If you succeed, you need to keep both or all editors apprised of your schedule and meet all of your deadlines, remembering that they are, in a sense, competitors for your time. Like any smart business person, never let one customer think they are less valuable to you than another.
If you've recently entered the mid-list, congratulations. The arrival is a tremendous accomplishment for any writer. But if you'd like your stay to be brief, you might consider hopping right out of that bulging middle and into the lead spot in your publisher's catalog. Happy hopping!