One of the traditional mantras of publishing is that you must brand yourself, specifically when it comes to genre. Once you’re a published cat mystery novelist, thou shalt not ever attempt to write a dog mystery. And heaven forbid you switch to romance or thriller. Only the most established of authors may attempt a genre switch mid-career.
You’ll also hear this same mantra echoed throughout the world of indie writers. And we can argue that it makes sense. If you’ve built a loyal readership of ten-thousand romance fans, switching to crime fiction means starting over, right?
There are certainly readers who are loyal to one narrow genre. Mystery and romance readers are notorious for their loyalty. However, a good percentage of readers constantly genre jump. And, of your ten-thousand readers, it’s a good bet that a few-thousand will follow you into your new world. Enough to quickly rebuild a fan base.
However, we can make this transition a smooth one. No reason to lose most of your fans. Building that email list took years (you are building an email list, aren’t you?). It’s heartbreaking to scrap most of it and start over. The way to avoid this was given to us by a daytime soap opera. You may remember it as Dark Shadows.
Dark Shadows made its first appearance on ABC on June 27, 1966. It was an immediate bomb. For a year, the soap struggled to attract viewers. After one year of dismal ratings, ABC threw a Hail Mary. Either out of pure genius or desperation, the writers introduced a character named Barnabas Collins. Now, it’s not unusual for TV shows to introduce new characters when ratings start to fall. The joke in our house is, “She’s pregnant, the writers must be getting desperate.”
Barnabas, however, was no ordinary soap opera hunk. He happened to a vampire. Ratings skyrocketed. Whether ABC lost any viewers over the move is uncertain. That they did not care is most certain. They had a hit now. One that would carry them through 1971, when the series was cancelled. A short run for a soap opera, but better than an instant failure.
So back to my lesson o’ the day. While switching genres is entirely up to you, especially if you plan on self-publishing, easing into your new genre with one or two characters, an event, or perhaps a new location will allow you to test the genre waters with minimal risk.
I wrote Now I Knew You as a stand alone novel. I’ve always been fascinated by near death experiences (NDEs), and love reading about people visiting heaven. We can debate over coffee sometime whether or not these experiences are real, or biblical, or Satan playing head games with us. Fiction writers care not. It’s fiction. So my first YA novel is about a self-centered track star who gets into an accident and spends a few moments in heaven, where he’s offered clues about all that he’s missed on Earth. I tackled issues of friendship, family, and teen abortion. I loved writing the novel and have gotten lots of good feedback (though encouraging people to review it on Amazon is a bit of a challenge).
A funny thing happened while writing Now I Knew You, though. My fictional town of Cherry Hill, Michigan became a character in and of itself. And I wondered, what if there is something about Cherry Hill that sparks elements of the supernatural, like visits to heaven and anything else I can dream up?
Thus, Angel ‘n Me came to life. Angel ‘n Me is a clear rip-off of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin’s All of Me, but there really are no new ideas, so what the heck. Angel ‘n Me, also set in Cherry Hill, takes me from the contemporary YA world of Now I Knew You into something a bit closer to supernatural YA fiction. But it’s still a bit fun and not to paranormal weird.
After I’d finished Angel ‘n Me, however, I knew where I was going. I wanted to get to the paranormal weird. So I went back through my draft, salted it with hints about Cherry Hill’s odd history, and set up one of my secondary characters for her own paranormal journey in book 3, which has now morphed into books 3 and 4 (Want a never ending series? Keep pulling back-up characters out of past books and make them the protagonists of future books). And there I have my subtle transition from contemporary YA to paranormal YA.
Now, I understand that I haven’t established myself as a contemporary YA author. One book doesn’t do that. But there is no reason why some of you, after years of success with romance, thriller, scifi, or what have you, cannot make a slight shift in direction, just enough to gage your reader’s reaction. Perhaps an alien invasion can disrupt the quiet ranch of your cowboy romance. Or the murder of a beloved character can take your women’s fiction protag from unhappy housewife to amateur sleuth. Or, like me, you an take your oh-so-charming little burg and uncover a horrible past that will change the lives of your cast forever.
What have you got to lose? It’s one book. If your readers scream for your head on a Kindle, you can set things back to normal with the next book (though, if you choose to drop a nuclear bomb on your cowboy ranch, that may present a challenge).
My opinion? If you’re ready for a change, your readers may be, too. Give them a surprise. It may be the boost your career needs. Maybe it’s time to introduce your vampire.
Ron Estrada is the author of Now I Knew You, the first novel of his Cherry Hill Young Adult series. He also writes a regular column in the print magazine Women2Women Michigan entitled Don’t Tell My Wife I Wrote This.