Is self-publishing redefining the rules of book genre?

Photo by Westcott Phillip, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Like many début authors, I didn’t really think too hard about the genre of my first book until I’d finished writing it. And looking back, with large parts of the story seemingly writing themselves, I’m not sure I could have moulded it to fit a predefined literary pigeon-hole even if I’d wanted to.

So it was only when I started the laborious and disheartening process of seeking representation that I began to realise the importance, at least to the traditional publishing world, of fitting neatly within a recognised genre. Of course, you only need to consider browsing the aisles of a traditional bricks-and-mortar book store to understand why this is – they need to know in which aisle and on which shelf to put your book.

Publishing genre fiction also removes some of the risk since publishers already understand how the overall market is subdivided into groups loyal to each of the categories such as crime, murder-mystery, science-fiction, fantasy etc. and roughly how many they can sell into each. Consequently, agents and publishers tend to shy away from novels which fall between genres. Of course, there are the so-called cross-over novels, but the very small number of these which actually get published rarely come from new authors.

This is when I realised that my novel, CONNECTED, didn’t fit so neatly into any existing recognised genre. In fact, I’d had some early warnings of this when, in the very early days, having accidentally let slip to friends that I’d just written a book, I struggled to answer the simple yet inevitable next question, “What’s it about?”
“Well, on one level, it’s a mystery thriller with a little romance, some action and some crime,” I would stammer awkwardly. “But on another level, since there is quite a bit of science, some of which is extrapolated beyond our current knowledge and understanding, it could also be classified as science-fiction.”
At this point their eyes might start to glaze over as they start imagining aliens, spaceships and laser guns everywhere, which really couldn’t be further from what my book is about. In turn, I would feel intensely frustrated at my inability to articulate such a seemingly simple concept as the essence of a book. Having now thought about this a lot more, I tend to describe my book as speculative fiction or speculative science fiction, but these are not widely recognised genres – yet 🙂

However, when I finally made the decision to self-publish on Amazon Kindle, I soon realised that what had been a hindrance in my attempts to publish in the traditional paper-based world, could actually be an advantage in this new digital world. For in the virtual aisles of Amazon’s Kindle store, the same book may appear in multiple aisles and on multiple shelves at no extra cost to the retailer. This meant that CONNECTED could be found as easily by readers searching under Thrillers as it could by those searching under Science Fiction. Other sub-categories such as Science Fiction > Mystery & Crime only further increased its addressable market. In hindsight, I now believe this widening of the addressable market contributed greatly to my book’s early meteoric rise in the Amazon UK Bestseller ranks.






CONNECTED’s UK bestseller rank 8 days after launch

Of course, even as positive reviews continued to accumulate (currently 29 on Amazon UK with an average rating of 4.6 out of 5), Amazon’s recommendation algorithms eventually diverted their attention to all the other new books flooding in, and my Bestseller ranks began to slide.

However, this experience has led me to the conclusion that while falling between genres may be a problem if you want to sell your book via high street bookshops, it may not be such a bad thing for self-publishing eBook authors.

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. E-publishing is definitely changing the genre landscape, it will have profound effects on the future of book marketing.

    With social media, word of mouth marketing had shown on a much grander scale that the power of recommendation beats traditional marketing efforts (like ads), and just like you’ve experienced, virtual aisles can double a book’s presence if it’s cross-genre and thus increase its visibility.

    For indie authors who are invested in their online presence and frequently interact on social media, these two aspects come together to create good traction for their work. But they can also plummet that book into oblivion, if it’s improperly categorized, or if it’s just not up to par with reader expectations. Where traditional marketing might have still gotten some new eyes to a book through ads, mentions in newspapers or on TV shows, etc., today’s online rating and review systems can also be a book’s downfall (though I dare say, if that happens, it’s usually justified).

    I believe ultimately everything hinges on the quality of the book. After we set them loose on the audience, it will either generate a self-sustaining buzz and gain momentum, or dissolve into the long part of the Long Tail. 🙂

    Thanks for a thought provoking post, Simon. It’s an interesting evolution to watch, and exciting times to live in as writers.

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