Earlier this semester, we had the pleasure of a visit from fiction author Elizabeth Buchan. Buchan has written 12 novels, including bestsellers The Good Wife and That Certain Age. While it’s always a treat to have such a well-respected professional from the publishing industry as a guest speaker, Elizabeth’s visit was especially enlightening because she exposed many ‘secrets’ from the author’s point of view.
Among the topics Buchan discussed, one that really stuck with me was the issue of pigeonholing in publishing. For an author, once you’re placed into a niche or genre in the industry, either by your own determination or by a publishing team, it can be very difficult to branch out. From a marketing perspective, of course, this makes perfect sense. If an author is lucky enough to find a niche and an audience that enjoys their work, it makes commercial sense to stay in a market where they are known and respected rather than risking a move into an area where they are unknown to the readers; why tempt a good thing? But from a personal perspective, an author needs to grow if he or she wants their work to steadily improve. Sometimes that means breaking out of the niche they’ve become so comfortable in.
Buchan herself found a very comfortable seat within women’s fiction thanks to storylines that were relevant and appealing to the market. Unfortunately, when she tried to get her novel on World War II published, her publishers were less than receptive.
To get around this pigeonholing, many authors use different approaches. One way is to write under a pen name. Take Eleanor Hibbert, better known under her pennames Jean Plaidy or Victoria Holt. The acclaimed author broke barriers in the paranormal romance and the fantasy fiction genres, and her books have sold over 100 million copies to date. For other authors, pen names are a way to write despite societal norms and protocol. American author SE Hinton, best known for The Outsiders took her penname to mask her gender, because she feared her readers may not have accepted or bought work written by a woman. The downside of writing under a pen name to break into a new genre is that many publishing contracts forbid authors publishing competitive titles with another publisher. If you are planning on entering a new market, it must truly be different from your previous work, or you could be in breach of contract.
Another author who recently broke out from her niche (children’s fiction) is JK Rowling. Her novel The Casual Vacancy is her first work of adult crime fiction. While the book itself received mixed reviews from critics, it sold nearly 125,000 copies in its first week. The figures clearly don’t compare with the Harry Potter series, but it was still a very successful launch. In this case, having one of the most celebrated children’s authors attached to a crime fiction novel worked well as a marketing tool and allowed the author to break out of her niche.
Many authors, however, are quite content to stay within their niche for the sake of their careers and their audience. Finding a place within the world of publishing isn’t an easy feat and it can be a risk to move away from it. Every author approaches the issue differently but it’s interesting that in today’s market, where self-publishing gives authors so much liberty, pigeonholing is still a concern when it comes to ‘traditional’ publishing.