Are You Selling Out? When to Pivot as an Author

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 4 weeks, 1 day ago

Or “Choosing a genre isn’t like choosing a face tattoo.”

Recently, I was a guest on Author Platform Rocket, and the topic became “The Power of Pivot.” I chatted with Jonny Andrews about my own experience in shifting from one genre to another—sci-fi to thrillers—and my hesitation in doing that, since I’d been a sci-fi writer for so long.

Turns out, that was a topic people were eager to hear more about. I’ve had hundreds of emails and messages on social media, asking me questions and telling me how glad they were to hear someone bring this up. Apparently, a lot of authors are thinking of making a switch, and there isn’t enough information out there to guide them through it.

I thought I might help remedy that, at least in part (and for a start). Let’s look at some things to consider when you want to pivot.

What’s making you reconsider?

My “pivot point” came when my friend and podcasting co-host, thriller author Nick Thacker, dared me on air to write a thriller. I had been kicking the idea around, though not all that seriously, but the dare was enough to make me pull the trigger.

The result was The Coelho Medallion—a book that went on to be a bestseller on Amazon and iBooks, and that won me the Shelf Notable Indie award. It did very well, in other words, despite having a few notable flaws (including one major plot hole!).

It also brought in more reader email than anything else I’d ever written. People loved the book—flaws and all.

I wish I could say that was all it took, but I spent the next year hemming and hawing. I had a couple of series to complete, and so I put my energy into those. I wrote one more Dan Kotler book (my thriller protagonist) in that time, but also wrote three other sci-fi and fantasy titles. Each of these did ok—but none had the success of Coelho Medallion, and none was as exciting for me to write.

It wasn’t until I attended the 2017 Nebula Awards that I finally had the course-altering epiphany.

I loved meeting these amazing sci-fi authors, and discovering their incredible work. I loved sitting and chatting with them about writing and science and technology and the wonders of potential futures. It was a brilliant experience, and I was grateful to be there. But I found myself, more and more, not caring to talk about my own sci-fi. Instead, I wanted to talk about my thrillers, and what I was doing with them.

That was the moment I decided I needed to hop off the fence, and plant my feet firmly on one side or the other. I knew that I wanted to be a thriller author, full time. So I burned my boats, left the shore, and set out to conquer this new land.

You may be experiencing something similar. If you’ve been thinking about switching to a new genre, there may still be this lingering, nagging feeling. The “dance with the one who brung ya” feeling. Loyalty to your genre, because it’s your genre.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with sticking with your original genre, nor with adding an all new genre to the mix. There’s nothing that says you must commit 100% to one direction or another. There are plenty of authors having great success writing in multiple genres. That could be you.

But if you’re contemplating changing directions altogether, don’t be afraid to do that, either.

The downside: You may have to start over completely, in terms of building your platform and finding your audience. Marketing may have to start fresh. You may be starting at ground zero, once again.

Or you may not. It’s entirely possible that your existing audience may follow you into these new waters, if you give them the opportunity. Those who love your work, regardless of your genre, will follow. Some won’t, and that’s ok, too.

In my case, enough of my sci-fi readers were fans of thrillers that when I made the switch, they had no problem tagging along. Those who left, did so without much fuss. By the time the dust settled and the smoke cleared, I still had a healthy mailing list and a loyal following. My book income dipped to frightening levels for a time, but it has slowly risen again, and continues to rise.

The upside: Despite the challenges of “starting over,” you can get some renewed energy and momentum from a genre switch. You’re starting in a whole new category, with a volume of work already sitting in your back catalog. New readers may not like or appreciate your older work, if they’re hardcore for your new genre, but some may be thrilled to dive in just because they like your writing style.

Plus, having a back catalog shows your longevity as a writer, and shows you aren’t going to disappear any time soon. It adds to your credibility, even if it isn’t specifically attuned to your new audience.

There’s an adage: “The first million words are practice.” Starting a new genre with a bunch of books already behind you means you’re starting strong. Take what you’ve learned about craft, marketing, and the business of writing, and apply it to this new genre. It’s almost like starting out for the first time with every resource you need already in place.

My big takeaways, from The Thriller Dare to the Nebula Awards, might be helpful:

  • It’s ok to love one genre for its entertainment value, but write in a whole other genre—you won’t even lose your street cred
  • It’s ok to decide you’ve told all the stories you want to tell in a certain genre, and change direction
  • It’s fine if you want to keep writing in one genre while also writing in another, but it’s also fine to burn your boats and take on the new direction full time
  • No one you need to care about is going to judge you harshly for your change in direction—remember that you’re writing for an ideal reader
  • If you’d rather talk about the “new genre” than the “old genre,” it’s probably time to consider a switch

Determine your new target audience

Now that you’ve made the decision, it’s time to consider the practical side. Starting with, who will your new ideal reader be?

Every writer must consider the target audience, or the ideal reader, not just for marketing their work but also for crafting stories that those readers want to read. When we sit down to pen our tales, we need to know who we’re writing for. We need to be able to hit all the right tropes, and all the right notes, so that our work meets that reader’s expectations.

When I decided to write thrillers, I did some research into my potential audience. I looked at people who were reading other thriller authors—the type of authors I wanted to emulate with my work. I read those authors myself, to see if I could pick up on the things that their readers loved. Turns out, I could. And turns out, I understood that audience well enough to write stories that would please them.

This is an important step. If you’re considering switching genres, you need to make sure what you write is going to appeal to readers of that genre, or your efforts could end in frustration and slow-to-no-sales.

You should also test the market. Is anyone successfully selling in your new genre? If you decide you want to write for a niche genre, there’s still every possibility you can be successful. It’s just that some genres will take more work than others.

Sci-fi, for example, tends to be a tough genre to crack. There’s a lot of ‘competition,’ in terms of books competing for the reader’s attention. This is a discoverability problem, though. With the right marketing and promotion, you can overcome this as a limitation, and succeed.

If you want to write for a narrower niche—maybe something like alien abduction fiction—you’ll need to see what the offering of books in that genre looks like, and see if readers are responding. If the top 20 books in that genre only sell ten copies each, the chances of you making a living from those stories are pretty slim.

Not impossible—because the universe is weird. But a lot tougher.

If that’s the case, you might consider trying to fold the type of story you want to write into a genre that gets more attention. The ideal balance is “high interest, low competition,” of course, but striking that balance could mean doing some research, experimenting, and making some compromises.

For example, aybe “alien abduction” isn’t a great market directly, but “alien invasion” is. Shift things only slightly, tailor your story to hit the right notes for the larger genre, and you can tell the same story while getting better results.

The real key, however, is to know your audience. Spend the time to do the research, to find where this new group of readers likes to hang out, and to become a part of their community. Get to know them so well, you could write for them in your sleep.

Will you be happy writing books to this market?

One of the big worries I had was that I would end up committing to a genre and would start feeling restricted by the types of stories I could tell. I held onto the much broader “speculative fiction” genre for a full year, simply because it meant I could write a sci-fi novel one month, a YA fantasy novel the next, and a thriller sometime after.

While there’s nothing wrong with that—speculative fiction is the category of choice for some incredibly successful authors—I personally knew it was me being non-committal. I was afraid, actually, that if I committed to one genre, I’d be stuck in it forever. I was worried I would become bored, and I’d start to hate my work, my life, and Jason Bourne movies.

What finally changed my perspective, though, was discovering that I had little interest in talking about my sci-fi work, but a driving and powerful compulsion to talk about my thrillers. In other words, I took a close look at what really excited me, and concluded that I would be happier if I focused on that, rather than sticking with something that I was only mildly interested in.

That said—there’s no rule that says I can’t write a sci-fi story again someday. Choosing a genre isn’t like choosing a face tattoo.

The thing to remember: You likely got into writing because you were excited by the stories you were reading. You read a book or saw a film or television show, and thought, “I can tell stories like that. I have lots of ideas!” Your interests guide your career, in that case.

If you’re starting to rethink that, and starting take interest in something entirely new, there’s no shame in that. It means that you’ve told the stories you wanted to tell, and now you’re looking for new challenges.

You can always go back.

I know, I’ve talked about “burning the boats.” But the truth is, we aren’t invading a new country, and we aren’t trying to conquer it. We’re telling stories. And in the end, we can tell any kind of story we want. Whether anyone buys and reads that story is more a function of marketing than anything else. But we can switch genres any time, and if we bomb, we call it a learning experience and we move on.

I like the idea of committing to my genre all out, but that doesn’t have to be your path. Dip your toes into new waters, see how it feels, and if you find yourself pouring more time and energy into that work than you could muster for the older work, you’re probably on to something.

Practical Steps

The thing I’ve been asked most, by people who come across that Author Platform Rocket interview, comes down to this:

What do I need to do, once I’ve decided to switch genres?

Here’s the basic list:

  • Hit up your existing audience—If you’ve already built your author platform, there’s no need to start from zero. Set up a new mailing list, a new Facebook page, and/or any other new platform tool, and invite your existing audience to hop in. Ask for volunteers to join your street team, and give them free copies of your book to critique, edit, and review. Ask your current readers if they know anyone else who reads this genre, and get them to spread the word. Your existing audience may have come for one genre, but if you’ve been building a relationship with them, they may follow you anywhere. So remember to ask.
  • Read widely in your new genre to make sure it’s “second nature”—One of the biggest mistake incoming authors make is writing in a genre they don’t read. You need to spend time in the worlds of authors similar to you, so that you instinctively understand reader expectations. Stephen King famously wrote, “If you don’t have the time to read do not have the time (or the tools) to write.” Read widely, obviously—reading is writing fuel. But make sure you’re reading books from your genre as well, so that your writing in that genre feels natural to you and to your reader.
  • Keep your back catalog—Several authors have asked me if they should remove their older books as they publish in a new genre. There are varying opinions about this, but I recommend keeping all your old work online. For starters, no one is going to decide you’re not worth reading just because you have some books that aren’t tied to your current work. Those older books may not sell with your new and incoming readers—but then again, they might. Regardless, they serve other purposes, including showing your “credibility” as a writer. Having a catalog of previous books is an easy way to show people you can be trusted to produce. You’ve put time in and crafted other books, so you’re not likely to flake out and leave a series hanging. Which reminds me …
  • Finish your other series—I know, it’s going to be painful, going back to those old series you’ve started, now that you’ve decided to move on. Those stories may not be juicing you up the way they used to. But trust me, you want to finish what you started. Not only does it count toward your credibility, but it also takes a weight from your shoulders. If you leave an unfinished series sitting out there, it will haunt you. It will nag at you. It will drain your reserves of hope and joy, and make finishing new work even tougher. It will also make your readers feel betrayed, and block an opportunity to get them into the new stuff. Do yourself and your readers a favor, and finish your existing series. You can always alternate between old and new, from book to book, building your new catalog while finishing out your old one.
  • Considering a pen name? If you want to keep either your new or your old catalog “unsullied,” using a pen name will allow you to start fresh. It doesn’t have to mean starting from zero, though. There’s no rule that says you can’t reveal that you’re the power behind a pen name—it isn’t a secret identity, Clark Kent. Just remember, every new identity is a new brand, with new marketing needs, and you’ll have to build a new platform around it. You can boost that by reaching out to your existing platform, to create some crossover.

“Am I Selling Out?”

Any time the discussion of “writing to market” or “switching genres” comes up, the inevitable question arises: “Am I selling out if I do this?”

It depends …

Are you flopping from one genre to another because you’re chasing the latest trend, trying to make a buck off of the glut of excitement readers have over a hot new release? If so … then maybe.

But maybe not. Because if you see that the newest “hot novel” is a genre that piques your interest and excites you as a reader, it might also excite you as a writer.

“Selling out” comes down to whether you’re being true to yourself. If you’re writing something purely because you want to cash in, and you have zero interest in the genre otherwise, you may be selling out.

I was offered a chance to write supernatural romance. I think it’s a great genre, with lots of potential. But it didn’t really fit me. I believe, wholeheartedly, I could write in that genre, and be successful. There’s even a small part of me that wants to give it a shot, because it could be fun. But I turned down the offer, and decided instead to concentrate on the types of stories I know I love to write. I did it because doing it any other way would feel like a lie to me. That, in a nutshell, would have been selling out.

Would I ever consider writing those stories, in the future? Maybe. If I get an idea for one, and I get passionate about it, and I read the genre and understand the audience, then I wouldn’t feel like I was selling out, if I wrote it.

Consider, though, that just because you write in a genre that pays well, even if you don’t particularly like that genre, doesn’t necessarily make you a sell-out.

As a copywriter, I was always writing about topics I had no interest in. Trust me, no one really wants to study and write about the oil and gas industry, food distribution services, or server backup software. There’s nothing sexy about medical administration or SQL database management. But it paid the bills (and pretty well) for most of my adult life, even if I would rather have been writing about aliens and ancient artifacts.

Was I a sellout?

I don’t think so, personally. I was doing what I needed to do to make a living. In that sense, I was doing it for the money. But while I was doing it, I was also learning new skills. I was honing my craft, and my ability to meet a deadline. I was developing a daily writing habit and a work ethic. In a sense, I was doing my apprentice work, learning how to be the writer I needed to be.

At the end of the day, if our goal is to make a living from our work, we have to accept that there’s more to being a writer than a pure love of the craft. We may not like the idea of treating it as a business, but unless we gain a patron to support our artistic endeavors, we’re in business all the same. Better to improve your odds of financial success by picking a genre that has some marketability.

That said—there’s a lot of leeway here. “Writing to market” has become something of a buzz phrase, and it gets misinterpreted often. The idea, though, is still to write what you love, but to find the market for it before you begin. Do the research, read in the genre, find and study the top sellers, and target your work to the largest pool of readers for that genre that you can find.

Selling out only happens if you stop being you, for nothing better than profit.

Switching genres can sometimes be the boost you need to reenergize your work, and create some new momentum for your career. Don’t be afraid to test the waters a bit, to see if this new direction excites you and opens up new opportunities for you.