For whatever reason, this was on my mind this morning, so I thought I’d share. In a way, it’s a PSA for creative writing teachers, especially for anyone teaching fiction. It's also a heads up to beginning writers who plan to query an agent or publisher at some point.
All my life, I’ve been told not to worry about what genre I’m writing. A number of published authors who visited both writing programs I attended said this. A (smaller) number of my professors said this. “Just write the thing. Genre is a marketing term. Let the publisher figure out how to market the book.”
While it's true that genre is a marketing term, and you should just write the thing, the idea that you don't have to market your work is toxic bullshit. 100% pure manure, fresh in the field.
Right now, I’m working hard on what I hope will be my second published novel, and I think constantly about how I am going to market it, because when you complete a manuscript, it doesn’t magically end up in the hands of a publisher or agent, who then says, “Bingo! I know exactly how we’ll sell this thing!” In reality, the first step—arguably the most important step on the writer’s end—is that you, the author, have to get an agent or a publisher excited about the thing you’ve written. Like it or not, that is a form of marketing. And in order to do that effectively, you have to have a clear handle on what you wrote, who may want to read it, and how you can define it for that particular audience. Not only is this key to writing a good query letter, it is key to finding the right agent or publisher in the first place.
I’ve read numerous articles from literary agencies bemoaning authors who have mislabeled their work in their query letters. “Do your research,” they say. “Know what genre you’re working in. Know who represents that genre.” And these are the people who will be marketing the book to a publisher! We’re not even talking about marketing to readers yet!
I don’t think the authors and professors who’ve given this bad advice are dumb or malicious. I think some of them have forgotten what it’s like to query. Or maybe this advice was more sound in the past. I can't speak to what worked ten years ago, but today, the market is very small and extremely competitive, with more writers and less readers. Agents and publishers have less resources to dedicate to all aspects of their jobs. They're busy. Most--if not all--get paid on commission. They need books that will sell. If you send a query that says something like, “Here’s a novel I wrote. I’m not sure what it is, but I think it's great, and you will too,” it's going to end up in a little trash can on a webpage or desktop.
How does this translate to writers? Do you decide to write something you think will be marketable, and let that guide you? Do you write the book you want to write, then work hard at defining it? Do you find a niche genre, research its conventions, and then try your hand at it?
That’s up to you. But whatever you do, ignore anyone who tells you genre is not important. And do yourself a favor and research genres for yourself. If you’re not sure how to define your project, there’s a good chance you haven’t read widely enough.
And, finally, to anyone who has ever told a beginning writer that genre is not important: for the love of God, stop.
Note: this post is geared toward traditional publishing. If you're self-publishing, you'll handle every aspect of the novel from the top down, so knowing your genres will be even more important.