Switching Genres — Can it hurt your author brand?
I asked for blog topic suggestions on twitter yesterday, and one of our readers posed the following (paraphrased):
There’s the idea of author brand and books readers expect from that author. But what happens if the author wants to write in a new genre?
As a YA author who debuted with a sci-fi/dystopian trilogy and is following up those three books with a historical fiction stand-alone, I find this topic incredibly fascinating. Yes, I’m changing genres, but it hasn’t worried me too much. And maybe that’s because I don’t really think my brand has changed.
As an author, the bulk of my brand is me, a human being. I'm not Nike or Starbucks,[1. Nike and Starbucks are the brands, sneakers and coffee are the products, respectively. The same is true for authors. The brand is the person, the product is the books.] some corporation with a logo and strict style guide. I'm Erin, who loves Harry Potter and geeks out over good typography and has an unhealthy obsession with all things Autumn. These are the things people know about me via twitter convos and blog posts, and they haven't changed. Neither has the fact that I write YA fiction.
I'd argue that the remainder of my brand as an author is made up not by what genre I write, but by the characteristics of my novels, the type of story a reader is going to get when they pick up any of my books.
Let's look quickly at the Taken trilogy and Vengeance Road. The two are very different when it comes to plot and genre classification. But if I examine the core elements of either story, there’s a lot of overlap: good vs evil, a gritty world, unexpected twists, action and adventure, a dash of mystery and a touch of romance. As such, readers who enjoyed Taken will most likely enjoy Vengeance Road.
I guess what I’m saying is that readers love an author less for the genre that they write, and more for the type of stories they create. If the staple elements that readers fall head-over-heels for exist in an author's newest book, there's a good chance readers will be happy regardless of that book's genre or label.
Stephanie Meyer, for example, jumped from straight-up paranormal romance to light sci-fi. Many fans of Twilight followed her to The Host and were rewarded with her staples: forbidden love, relationship drama, and a slow-burn romance. Lauren Oliver debuted with a stand-alone contemporary and then released a dystopian trilogy, but both had the beautiful prose readers expect of her, plus nuanced female friendships and well-developed themes of love/family.
Perhaps the more difficult-to-navigate transition is changing audiences—switching to MG or adult, after establishing yourself as a YA author. Naturally not all of your existing readers will follow you if you do this, simply because the new book is meant for a completely different age group. Still, Oliver has found success writing for a variety of audiences, as have others.
At the end of the day, the advice we hear over and over is to write the story that excites us, the book we’d want to read. I still think this is some of the best advice around. Let your publisher worry about how to entice your existing fanbase to try your next-book-in-a-new-genre. You just worry about writing an awesome book. Be aware of what elements from New Book will also appeal to fans of Old Book, if only so you can better promote it to your existing readers when the time comes, but write what makes you happy. Life is too short (and the publishing industry too uncertain) to write only within one genre if you’re anxious to try others.
Remember: Labels are a result of bookstore and library shelving. They are a necessary evil of the industry. But readers just want good stories. So go write good stories, genre be damned.