I hate the dropdown list.

If you’ve ever tried to enlist your book at a book-marketing website or even just self-publish it on Amazon, you’ve seen the dropdown list:

Please select a genre for your book:

  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Paranormal
  • Literary
  • Young Adult

Of course, many of the lists are more diverse, giving you everything from Urban Fantasy to Paranormal Romance, but you know what? That doesn’t make any difference, because no matter how specific the genre, it still doesn’t fit my books. In fact, making the choices more specific only makes the problem worse. The smaller the pigeon-hole, the worse the fit.


There are two golden rules of selling stuff:

1. know what you are selling


2. know who you are selling to.

They are the twin maxims of marketing. Write something people want, and then go out and find them. Know thy audience! Then target them. I’ve given almost no thought to who my books are for. It’s not that I’m not interested. I want people to like my books, of course, but I have no control over that.  I haven’t gone to a single bookstore, online or otherwise, trying to find other books that are similar to mine so I can tap into a ready-made audience.

I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to go and find that audience.

It’s one of the many things I’ve done wrong. I don’t target my audience. I don’t write high-concept. My books don’t sit comfortably in any particular genre. I can’t even identify an appropriate age group. I classified Spark as Young Adult, but in all the comments by reviewers at Amazon, what was the single most common observation?

The book isn’t really YA:

“…definitely different from your typical young adult novel.”

“I’m not sure it can be classified as Young Adult.”

“I am trying to think of the best genre to which this book belongs.”

“what separates this book from other YA or science fiction-type of books is the attention to detail and language.”

“…not typical of YA books in general.”

“…may be a little misclassified as a YA novel.”

Here’s the thing, though: while everybody mentioned it, nobody called it a bad thing. In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.

So while a marketing consultant might leap on my genre dysphoria as the fatal flaw that is preventing the book from catapulting to a wider audience, I don’t think most readers really care all that much. And sure, there are plenty of people out there who only read cozy mysteries or high fantasy or YA dystopian, but those people probably aren’t going to be in my audience anyway. We’ll never be more than just friends.

And if I’m going to be totally honest about it, I like genre bending. I enjoy books that are hard to classify, that defy convention, that live in the spaces between categories. I like reading them. I like writing them. So maybe it isn’t a problem at all.

Except for those damned dropdown lists.


12 responses to “How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career”

  1. mimispeike Avatar

    Does anyone really shop for a book by category? I go by voice, in the blurb, or in an interview, or whatever.

    Interesting remarks on Facebook catch my eye immediately. There’s one guy on my buy list for that very reason.

    In all the time I spent on Book Country, I never once looked at the genre map. When I have to make that decision, I’ll choose literary and be done with it.

    Maybe literary humor. Maybe literary humorous fantasy.

    Is there a category, literary smarty-pants cats?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. atthysgage Avatar

      Mimi. I know it isn’t you. It isn’t me either. But I think there is ample evidence that a LOT of people shop for books by category. AND (and here’s more the problem) the book marketing industry is keyed to that sort of shopper: what genre is your book? what other books are similar to your own? On and on. It’s a simplistic model for marketing, but one that lends itself to using computer algorithms and automatic mechanisms to (maybe) sell books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. onereasonableperson Avatar

    “In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.”

    Selling books is a numbers game. You’re only going to convert a certain percentage of people who see your book. Thus, the more people who see it, the more sales you’ll get.

    If you’re a no name indie author, readers aren’t going to be searching for you b/c they’ve never heard of you. Basically, then, they’re finding your book by searching for books like yours, either via a category search or in the similar books list for a book they just looked at.

    If you don’t fit well inside a genre, you’re seriously limiting your sales potential.

    I’ve seen author after author at the Writers’ Cafe say the same thing, “For years, I wrote what I wanted and didn’t sell much. Then, I wrote a few books based on a specific market, and BOOM!”

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing what you want to write. It’s great. Take pride in it and find joy in it.

    But you have to temper your expectations. Accept that there just isn’t much of a market for what you’re selling.

    If you want to sell, it looks like you need to study a genre and produce books that fit in that genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. atthysgage Avatar

      I agree. It is a numbers game, and certainly people find new authors by searching for similar books in a genre they’re already comfortable with. I don’t object to writing to fit a genre, but I question my own ability to do it in a way which is going to satisfy hardcore fans of that genre (whichever one it might be.) And if I get too formulaic, I’m probably going to lose interest myself, a sure way to produce a lackluster book.

      It’s not like there haven’t been break-out hits that don’t fit their genres very well—and perfectly good genre-hugging titles that never sell. But being a good genre-fit is certainly one more advantage. Publishers and distributors and marketers rely on selling-to-folks-who-like-a-certain-genre because they haven’t any idea how else to market. I don’t blame them, really. Books are damned hard to sell.

      I guess that’s the bottom line on traditional marketing. Cram as much as possible inside the box and forget about everything that falls outside. But it’s limiting. And I’ve never been sanguine about traditional marketing as a way of selling books.

      Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. onereasonableperson Avatar

        I’m lucky in that I tend to have commercial tastes. Most of what I like to write coincides really well with what a lot of other people like to read.

        I can certainly understand your frustration at the situation, but in the end, it is what it is.

        There seems to be wide agreement among indie authors way more experienced than me that it’s a longshot to produce good sales writing whatever you want.

        I think that expectations are important. If you go in thinking that you’re going to be one of those breakout hits, you’re going to get awfully discouraged. Perhaps you’d be better off just accepting that it’s unlikely you’re going to sell a lot of books?


  3. GD Deckard Avatar
    GD Deckard

    I love this post! Drop down menus limit choices to what the program is developed to handle. Can’t have people inputting an unknown!

    The developers want only output that they can then plug into their (limited) marketing efforts -they call it target marketing- and there is no slot for minds like Atthys’ in their consumer base. Can’t have readers who want something they don’t sell!
    (But like Atthys says, why would the readers care what the marketers know?)

    I swear, computers are enough to drive a person to think independently.

    Great blog!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. mimispeike Avatar

    One Reasonable, I agree with everything you say. I agree with you one hundred percent. I just can’t make myself do it.

    Mimi OneUnreasonablePerson Speike

    Liked by 4 people

  5. curtisbausse Avatar

    I find genre writing less odd than genre reading. My sister-in-law reads only detective stories, which I find astounding. And frankly a little sad, but she gets all the reading pleasure she needs, so why not? But it’s a bit like never tasting different cuisines. There’s so much out there to discover! Genre writing on the other hand – yes, I can understand that. I do it myself more or less, or at least I happily click on ‘Mystery’ in the drop down menu. And I enjoy the challenge of it, for the moment anyway. But if genre writing means turning out dozens of the same, no thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. mimispeike Avatar

    The best genre writing transcends categorization. That’s the genre writing I like. Jonathan Strange, it’s fantasy, isn’t that genre? Still, it’s a breathtaking piece of work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. atthysgage Avatar

      I agree entirely, Mimi. There’s something truly marvelous about the unclassifiable work of art. Like I said, I love genre bending. The only downside is that it makes marketing even more difficult than it already is. But we gotta write what we gotta write.


  7. DocTom Avatar

    Atthys, I agree totally. You write the story that’s in you. As far as genres are concerned, an editor once told me that their sole purpose is to help bookstores decide which shelf to put the book on.
    BTW, sorry this took so long, but I’ve just finished an interview I was working on, and if you’re still interested I can get to Spark now. Can you send me a copy to review?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career […]


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