Pick a Genre

crayonsI received a query that pitched six completely different kinds of books:

A social commentary. A historical novel. A “road” story travel memoir. A compilation of short stories. A contemporary novel about a class action lawsuit. A history of Harley-Davidsons.

There is absolutely nothing I can do with this, and it’s a quick pass. First, I need you to sell me on one book – your very best book, your “break in” book. Then once I’m interested and we’re in conversations about representation, I want to hear about the other books you have in the works, books that would serve the same audience as the first one. I need you to have a “brand” that you, your publisher and I can build and promote, book after book.

When you have books in so many different genres and categories, each one targets a different audience, and therefore with each book you’re like a completely new author. A publisher can’t build on that (and neither can you). There’s no way to build an audience from book to book. You’re starting from scratch every time.

I might recommend self-publishing to someone in this situation, but even then I hesitate, because the same principle applies. Do you really have time to market to six different audiences? Even in self-publishing, there are limited resources and limited time. How will you use yours most effectively? You need to build a brand and market to your target audience.

Are there authors who write in more than one genre? Yes. But is this the way to get started? No. Establish yourself in one genre at a time. Give yourself time to find your voice, find your audience. Then, expand if you like.

Listen, I know many of you are talented writers, interested in a wide variety of topics. Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, you do it all. Unfortunately, we can’t sell it all. So as you’re getting started, you’re going to have to choose.

Don’t shoot the messenger!


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  14. Paul Hastings on September 2, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    Phenomenal observation!

  15. Diana on August 28, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    I have written a novel which could fit into two genres and I’m willing to rewrite it to fit into either. It’s a fictional account of the prophet Elijah styled as a 3-book series. The book is currently written in what others have told me is speculative fiction, because I have included modern thought and technology. I could, however, easily rewrite it as historical fiction. How should I pitch it to an agent considering the fact that Christian speculative fiction is not a popular genre?

  16. Rick Barry on August 10, 2011 at 1:58 PM

    Okay, I was in Eastern Europe and out of touch with the the West for half the summer, so I’m still catching up on your blog posts. But this one crystallized for me the urgency to do what I’ve been postponing way too long–choosing a brand. Thanks for forcing me to set aside thoughts of “other stuff” I like to write and compelling me to dedicate myself to creating my own particular brand, Rachelle!

  17. stephen matlock on August 8, 2011 at 1:35 AM

    Quandary is this: I’m working on a novel that is about kids in high school (coming of age), but it is hard to put into the YA category based upon the thematic elements and story content.

    And the genre determines the opening. A mainstream or even crossover-YA will have a different opening than a true YA, I think.

    What I was told this weekend was (a) there are no rules and (b) if it works, it works.

    But I suspect there is (c) your first book should not be difficult to market; when you’re Stephen King, no problem.

  18. Lawrence J Caldwell on August 7, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    I’m in a quandry because I have completed manuscripts in historical fiction and Christian non-fiction. I write what I have to write. But choosing one to get started with? Do I solicit both and then whatever agent bites determines the path of my future?

  19. Rachel Wilder on August 5, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    I write historical romance. And I love it! It’s my true passion.

    While I have ideas for contemporary with a romance bent, it’s unlikely I’ll ever try to publish them. I enjoy writing about the characters, but I’m not sure I want to share them with the world. They’ve seen me through so much, and I’ve put them through so much, it’s like baring my soul in Times Square.

  20. Elaine Cougler on August 5, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    This just makes so much sense! Thanks for stating the obvious, Rachelle. Sometimes we need it.

  21. Reba J. Hoffman on August 5, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I used to be that way. I’d think “gee I’d love to write a book about…” or “Why not try my hand at…” I realized many of those genres and I don’t get along. My writing falls flat and my emotions are hollow. Great to know from the expert there’s no such thing as the Heinz 57 genre!

  22. Peter DeHaan on August 5, 2011 at 7:40 AM

    At a recent writers conference I asked how I could determine which of three genres I should pursue for my first book.

    The advice was that I should actively query all three (though not at the same time to the same agent!).

    Whichever genre garnered me a writing contract was the one to pursue. Later, when I was more established, I could attend to the other two.

  23. Mercey V on August 5, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    This post is so necessary when there seems to be confusion amongst writers regarding where they fit. Knowing who to pitch to is a must, but you also need to know why you’re pitching to them. Read their titles and let that be a researcher’s guide. Careful scrutiny can really help narrow things down and save stress, too.

    I’m including a link for some helps I used and learned from back in the day, but are still relevant… RG, you da bomb!


  24. Taz on August 5, 2011 at 2:57 AM

    A good post! The first thing I ever learned when I studied writing was to ‘know your market’. It was the first lesson we had and we had to prove we knew what that meant. I’ve never forgotten it and it’s helped define what stories I write and also what I like to read, which are often two separate genres (a bit like being a housewife and being a mother, closely related but different).

    I still believe knowing one’s genre should be “Writing School 101”.

    Thanks also for the change to the subject line in the email posts. I’m so excited about it I’m outside my skin with delight 🙂

    No wonder they love you.

  25. Catherine Johnson on August 5, 2011 at 2:19 AM

    It would kill me to have to choose between picture books and early chapter books. But that’s hopefully a more acceptable mix than YA horror and cute picture books. I can see your point about establishing yourself in one first. I’d like to get myself established with chapter books first, though as it stands I have more pbs almost ready. T’en pie!

  26. Susan Rush on August 4, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    Thanks for the great advice. As a novice, one novel complete but not yet published, I’m finding that I can dabble in a lot of genres or hone my skills in a specific area. I don’t like to spread myself thin so for me it’s inspirational romance.

  27. Deborah H. Bateman on August 4, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    Thanks for sharing this post. We all have varied interests. I know I do, but my genre is Christian. I am trying to build my audience and my websites and blogs around that genre.

  28. joan Cimyotte on August 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    So don’t tell the agent you are querying that you story is a romantic science fiction historical suspense mystery with a hint of a personal advise journal?

  29. Kathryn Elliott on August 4, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    The only time that much variety proves beneficial is at a shoe sale! I’m a one genre gal, at least for the moment, and feeling better about it after today’s post. Thanks.

  30. Kristin Laughtin on August 4, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    Yikes. There are certainly authors who publish in multiple genres, but they either build up a name in one before branching out (e.g. Kurt Vonnegut, though an old example, published novels before becoming known for social commentary–and his novels all had aspects of social commentary in them) or they use pen names for different genres, but they still have to build each name from scratch (e.g. Lynn Viehl has a great blog and about six million pseudonyms). I can’t imagine trying to balance writing six genres, let alone promoting a book in each.

  31. joylene on August 4, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Thank you for this. I’m sharing it with a gifted friend who’s struggling over this issue.

    Rachelle, where did you find your Follow Me widget at the top of your page. It’s so tidy.

  32. Rebecca Grimes on August 4, 2011 at 1:15 PM


    Thank you for all of your wonderful articles. They are clear, consise, and informative; therefore, one of the most helpful resources for a would be author that I’ve found.

    Rebecca Grimes

  33. Sharon McElwrath on August 4, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    My genre is Christian women’s fiction. My first book was not a love story but the sequel to that book will be. Does that make it a different genre if it is based towards the same audience but has romance in it?

  34. Kate on August 4, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    Very good point here. I have two major projects — one high fantasy, one supernatural — and last year, I made the decision which one I was going to focus on and market: the supernatural. I knew the audience better and thought it was more accessible than the high fantasy.

    One day, I’ll attempt to market the high fantasy, but for now, I’m happy to be a supernatural author. 🙂

    • J.L. Mbewe on August 4, 2011 at 4:07 PM

      Wouldn’t high fantasy and supernatural all be considered speculative fiction? I’ve seen many agents/publishers lump fantasy/sci-fi together but I guess when it comes to marketing there would be two separate audiences…hmmm…guess I answered my own question 🙂

  35. Sarah Ketley on August 4, 2011 at 11:29 AM


    I have one problem. I LOVE too many different genres. I love writing them and i love reading them.

    I know i must choose eventually.

    Thanks for the kick.


  36. Ramona Richards on August 4, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    I think some new writers get confused by looking at mainstream/literary writers (such as Joan Didion) who “appear” to write in a lot of areas. Especially true if they have a negative feeling towards “genre” books.

    I know I drive my agent crazy because I am an “idea a minute” girl; I can come up with a new plot just walking across the parking lot. But I found my brand because no matter what I wrote, dead bodies kept showing up. Now that I know what my “brand” is, Sandra is helping me focus on getting ONE idea at a time finished and polished.

  37. Heather Sunseri on August 4, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    This is a great reminder, Rachelle, and a subject I’ve given a lot of thought to lately. I’m afraid some writers (some writers is code for “I”) hold back on developing their brand for fear that the book they really hope breaks in isn’t “the” one.

    I think I’ve finally let go of that fear and the ideas have started to pour in. I’m sure the fear will continue to creep in from time to time, but it’s much easier to develop brand when you’ve decided on a genre to stick with and you let your voice finally settle in.

    How’s that for overanalyzing?

    • Marji Laine on August 4, 2011 at 12:55 PM

      Oh, I totally get your point, Heather. It’s like the point of no return. Once you make that decision, it’s hard to go back and remake it.

      That’s probably why they call it a “BRAND”. Although, I supposed it could be a “tattoo.” Lol!

  38. David Todd on August 4, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Oh my, that scattered approach sounds like me! But I promise you all that wasn’t my query.

    We’ve got to come up for a name for this type of writing behavior. What about “Unfocused Wordsmithing Disorder”? UWD.

  39. Kelley Gerschke on August 4, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    Rachelle, I just love your blog.

    Luckily I have two series in mind, one I am working on, another for when that’s finished, that both fit in the same genre. Contemporary YA adventure.

  40. Kristen on August 4, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    This post is a great reminder–thank you for posting it. I remember when I was younger, I would read everything by an author and it was so frustrating to pick up their new book only to find it was in a completely different direction than I was expecting. But sometimes, instances like that would introduce me to something I never thought to try before. I think it’s great when established writers branch out and try something new, but you have to establish a fan base with those first few books before you try and get your readers to follow you somewhere new.

  41. Patsy Collins on August 4, 2011 at 8:06 AM

    Helpful – thanks.

  42. otin on August 4, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    It seems that no matter where I start I always end up in the same genre. I don’t think that I’ll have a problem with this issue. I can see your point. I guess that’s why we shouldn’t take rejections personally. Sometimes it’s more about the ability to market the story rather than the story quality itself.

  43. Jackie Ley on August 4, 2011 at 5:53 AM

    I have a Masters in Creative Writing but no-one ever taught us about the crucial link between writing and marketing. It’s thanks to blogs like yours that I’m now gaining insight re the all-important marketing angle.

  44. Jeanne on August 4, 2011 at 4:27 AM

    I’ve heard this before, but it is a great reminder for a newer writer. I can see how it is important to determine my genre and then my brand (I am not there yet!). I’d love to hear more about how to establish my brand at some point in time.

  45. Dominique on August 4, 2011 at 4:19 AM

    This is something I think about a lot. Most of my writing breaks solidly into two camps: fantasy YA or contemporary YA. I have strong feelings about both sets of material and I read both genres, but I do also worry that I might have problems if I get published trying to pursue both platforms.

  46. Catherine Kane on August 4, 2011 at 2:29 AM

    I see your point. Would like a bit of clarification on my own situation, if you’re willing.

    I’ve already written and self-pubished a book in the occult field, and am working on a second in that field. At the same time, I’m also working on the third in a series of urban fantasy novels that incorporate details of how occult practices work as part of the story line.

    Fiction and non-fiction, but both based in the same field of knowledge. In your opinion, would this be writing in two different genres or in two different aspects of a single genre.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think. Thanks

    • Sarah Thomas on August 4, 2011 at 9:47 AM

      Catherine- I suspect most agents/editors would advise you to build an audience in one camp or the other before branching out. However, Mary DeMuth is an excellent example of an author who has built a brand that includes fiction, non-fiction and even memoir (she didn’t do it all at once!). Check her out at http://www.marydemuth.com

    • Sam on August 5, 2011 at 9:09 PM

      As part of the reading audience I’d say they are different genres… I read some urban fantasy and some fiction with occult elements, but that doesn’t mean I buy nonfiction about it. Nonfiction books are a totally different ballgame for me, and I have very different tastes in my fiction vs. nonfiction…

  47. Susie Klein on August 4, 2011 at 2:00 AM

    This was so encouraging and affirming because I do have my target audience figured out. Now all I need to do is that tiny little thing, writing the book!

  48. Tiffany Willis on August 4, 2011 at 1:49 AM

    This really helped. It’s been the hardest thing for me, even within literary fiction, to choose a genre. I feel like I can “write” anything….but what grips me???? I’ll let you know when I’m 100% sure! LOL