The importance of branding yourself as an author: Stick to one genre or else

This is a guest post by Martha Carr

The rules of the publishing game have all changed in recent years, and with the onslaught of ever-newer social media tools, that’s not going to change for the foreseeable future.

However, there’s still one powerful rule that remains, and it can mean the difference between making a comfortable living as an author or just barely getting by despite the great reviews. Think of it as our industry’s Golden Rule and big fat secret.

Trying to get published, even getting published in more than one genre will greatly reduce your effectiveness at marketing and shrink your overall sales.

But I didn’t want to listen to that advice and set out on my self-willed quest to prove them all wrong.

I wrote three different books in three different genres despite advice from some very big names in the publishing world. The books each came out to great reviews from literary critics and loads of fan mail, which I took as an affirmation that I was unique. Really, I was just scared and arrogant.

Even though everyone agreed the books were great, the Golden Rule prevailed, and only one thing was missing from my triumph: the money.  It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter but even a middle class lifestyle is very expensive and after awhile the low sales became hard to ignore. I was learning the hard way that there is a consequence for everything.

I’ve been a writer for over 20 years now. I’ve even gotten to write for some great big city newspapers like the Washington Post, and I eventually became a syndicated columnist with a nationwide audience. That all sounds great, on the surface.

Frankly, most everyone who hears about what I’ve accomplished quickly starts to ooh and aah with a glint in their eye at the big American dream of writing a novel and having people not only read it but say they like it. I thought so too and, for a while, despite the insider advice I was given, I continued on my way. I was that sure that in the end I’d be proven right.

Of course, in order to be right, you have to know what it is you’re trying to prove. This is precisely where I tripped myself up.  I was ignoring my intention, which was to prove I could really write. If that’s you, let me save you some time.

Pick a genre that you can live with for the next 5 to 10 years and if you manage to get even one book published – you can write. Now focus on marketing the book and writing the next one. Stop trying to re-answer the same question. It’s a waste of your time and energy.  In publishing a certain amount of stick-to-it has big payoffs. That’s probably a good motto for life in general.

Fortunately, I’ve changed my ways and now I stick to thrillers, which has made so much of my professional career easier. I know how to focus my blog,, and my marketing. As a matter of fact, Novel Publicity is running a blog tour this month of my thriller, Wired, set in 1989. Imagine if I’d come to Emlyn Chand with a hodgepodge of ideas and asked her to help me sell books. To what audience?

There’s only so much time in a day and all of us only have so much of it to spend getting to know an author. Spend yours wisely and you’ll reap the rewards.



marthacarrAbout this post’s author:

Martha Randolph Carr is the author of three books and has a weekly, nationally syndicated column through the Cagle Cartoon syndicate on politics, national interest topics and life in general. Her newest work, The List, is a political thriller set around the attorney, Wallis Jones her husband Norman and their son Ned. The List is the first in a series. Martha is currently at work on the sequel, The Keeper. You can read short weekly thrillers at her blog, and catch her on Twitter @MarthaRandolph or on Facebook at

Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem

Do you think this also applies to non-fiction?

I write self help memoirs on personal growth through travel and when I approached publishers they suggested I write travel books, memoirs or self help. I struggle with marketing in each area but if I just market in self help some of the travel parts would be missed as would happen in any one area of focus.

Your post struck a chord with me. Thank you.

    Martha Carr

    It’s not possible to include all the things we love in one genre and that’s where the trouble begins for writers. We think we should be able to right upfront. This applies to fiction and non-fiction alike. Choose the one that you can bear to do for at least five years and then go for it. Don’t veer no matter what friends or family say about how clever you were in the other. It pays off big in the end.

Don Ford

Dear writer friend,

I loved everything to suggested to new writers and maybe even veterans who appear to be spinning their wheels. The one line won’t work for everyone, certainly not the kaleidoscope of writer I have become. For a storyteller I am steeped in every genre, from romance to horror (Good horror of course) and have mastered most in terms of selling them. Children’s’ tales and the short story in general are my full head of steam. I don’t “think I can”, I have, and do okay in this area. I spread my self thick across many lines, but then I see myself as the odd bird or exception to your rule.

I’m Native American, but that’s not necessarily where the storytelling comes in. It could have been just something in the water. LOL I would like to stay in touch with you as a fellow writer. I have work in numerous magazines across the U.S. and now in 62 other countries. I LOVE writing and my MUSE loves me too. But there’s a little love/hate going on here too! :-} Don

Where eagles fly,
Don (Greywolf)

    Martha Carr

    It’s not so much about how good you are in any of them or even how well you market each of them individually – but how much better you could have grown one audience if you had focused. There’s a certain magic to focusing on one genre or topic and being willing to explore it through every layer, deeper and deeper as you build one large audience who really gets the chance to know you. There’s time enough for branching out in much later years.

Laura Reese

Thanks Martha – this is a question Emlyn and I have batted around recently. Thanks for the advice!


    Martha Carr

    Thanks Laura! And thanks for being the guest short thriller over at my blog next week. 🙂 Conclusion to this week’s thriller comes up tomorrow.

Cameron Chapman

I think the big thing is when you only try to sell one book in each genre. If you have more than one title in each genre, I think it’s less of an issue. Personally, I’d go crazy if I only wrote and published in a single genre.

Right now I have books out in two categories (two in steampunk/fantasy and one in women’s fiction). The steampunk books are selling well, the women’s fiction not so much (my fault, since I’ve done little to nothing to market it). We’ll see what happens when I release a second women’s fiction book, which I hope to do in the spring. I expect as my backlist grows in each category (did I mention I’ve got a couple of sci-fi books in the works, too?), sales will pick up for each.

    Martha Carr

    Cameron – this is something I learned the hard way. I have build smaller dedicated followings in each of the genres I started out with but never broke through because it takes focus and work to do that. If being self-supporting through your writing isn’t at the top of the list then go for it! If it is, you might want to reconsider. It’s not about how many things you’re good at – it’s about how many people you’d like to eventually reach.

    Leah Petersen

    A lot of people consider sci-fi/fantasy to be one category when it comes to advice like this. They’re a crossover audience and many successful speculative fiction authors write both sci-fi and fantasy. Many readers (like me and every other spec fic fan I know) will follow an author they like across both genres. So if you’re published in fantasy, adding sci-fi isn’t necessarily muddying the waters.

      Emlyn Chand

      I tend to agree, and it’s nice to hear it from you too, Leah. Farsighted is paranormal, but down the road, well, I just know I have a fantasy novel in me!

Jackie Swift

This makes sense, if not frustrating advice for many of us who do straddle several areas. In the past many big writers got away with this by using different names for different genres. At the moment I’m doing that with my paranormal romances and women’s/contemporary fiction. My non-fiction stuff, lifestyle, travel, education, I’ve always published as myself.
As you say, it is about building profile and audience. If we want to reach our readers we should show some respect and use our imaginations to do what is expected of us and what we want. Smart people learn from others.
Thanks for this. Good food for thought. Jac

    Martha Carr

    thanks Jackie! Something else I found out – that I couldn’t have known until I gained that focus – is that there’s only but so much time in the day to devote to anything and having focus meant I was building something reliably in one area. Also, people who want to help me have a clearer picture of what I do. It’s easier and I’m not saying, “Well, I write this and oh, wait, there’s that.” I write thrillers, my blog is short thrillers every week, I put my PR funds into thrillers and I talk about thrillers. Readers hear my name and can think, Oh she writes thrillers and if that’s what they like… You get the idea.

Russell Blake

I too am interested in the question of whether this applies exclusively to fiction, or also to non. I write thrillers, and by year’s end will have 5 or 6 out. I also write non-fiction, specifically a parody of writing and publishing, and soon a non-fiction dog book.

Do you see the same sort of stigma, or can you have your fiction voice, and then your non? Also, I see that John Locke is doing pretty well with action/thrillers, and is now also climbing the charts with his westerns, and his non-fiction book on…how he sold a million eBooks. Could this mean we are in a new paradigm, or do you think he’s the exception?

I’ll be curious to hear your views. Nicely done blog.

    Martha Carr

    I have published in both fiction and non-fiction and found the problem crosses over because it’s about the audience getting to know me and what I’m talking about all the time – not fiction vs. non-fiction. John Locke is a great example of someone who built a big audience first and then started dabbling elsewhere. Also, remember that there’s always an exception to every rule but they’re called exceptions for a reason. This doesn’t mean you can’t eventually branch out – it means explore the genre or type you pick and really master it AND build that audience. Once they really like you and your style, roll the dice and go for it.

      Russell Blake

      In a small voice, he says, “Too late now…”

      Here’s to exceptions. It’s an interesting movie so far…

        Martha Carr

        Ha! I hear you Russell but it’s never too late. Remember, you’re talking to the girl who wrote in three different genres and did a mashup in one before finally giving in. Never too late…

          Russell Blake

          I hear you. I intend to stick to intrigue/thrillers once the dog book’s out. It may slow my parabolic ascent, but my hunch is that once I have a pretty serious set of titles all in the thriller genre, a little pooch story or a jab in the eye of publishing won’t be too much of a ball and chain. I guess we’ll see. Alternatively, I can put the dog book out under a pseudonym. It’s a thought. Can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube on How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks now…

Merry Farmer

This makes me cringe a little bit (a lot) because I sort of cross genres myself. Well, I write Romance. That never changes. But I write Historical Romance AND Sci-Fi Romance. And once I wrote a Contemporary Romance. I feel like that’s sub-genre moonlighting instead of out-and-out genre crossing.

What strikes me about your post here is the intent of writing. What makes someone want to write? If it’s numbers they’re after, both in terms of readers and money, then yeah, I can see how this strategy would apply. But if writing has nothing to do with making money and everything to do with personal satisfaction and feeding the soul, like in my case, then I don’t think it matters what you write. Sure, I’d like it if people bought my books, but that’s not why I write. And if it weren’t for Indie Publishing I wouldn’t bother with publishing at all. But I’m still a Writer. I suspect I’m not alone.

But fortunately that’s why Baskin-Robbins makes 31 flavors. Your advice is spot-on for people with a certain intent in writing but not so much for those of us with entirely different goals.

Thanks for the post! =D

Dean F. Wilson

What about if you’re publishing fiction and non-fiction? I’m working with both, but I want my fiction to be bigger, so I’m sticking to one genre for that (fantasy) and marketing myself as a fantasy author. The non-fiction is targeted specifically at a niche market.

What I was considering doing is using my full name (Dean F. Wilson) for my fiction and axing the middle initiation (just Dean Wilson) for my non-fiction. Do you think this might help with separating things, or should I try to use just one name and hope some readers of each will follow over? My fear is that my fiction fans might buy my non-fiction by mistake and be disappointed.


    Martha Carr

    Dean – I said the same thing to my agent (I have fiction and non fiction titles) and she pointed out that editors immediately google your name and it becomes clear you’re the same person. If you use pen names be prepared to set up the complete persona so that one side doesn’t appear to be the forgotten part of your business. Then it’s only lip service and a book you published, or someone else published, suffered.

Anne E. Johnson

Very interesting essay. I’m in precisely the position you describe at the start, as a new author of fiction. I’ve written three novels in three genres. Two already have pub contracts, and the latest one is generating interest from pubs.

I hear what you’re saying, Martha, and I’m sure you’re right. But my voyage to becoming a novelist was mainly about finding a means of self-expression and forging my own path. I choose to keep a separate, part-time income from another source so that I can write in any genre I please. Should the day come when I can support myself with my eclectic mix of writing, then I’ll be one lucky so-and-so. But for now, I don’t mind being a marketing nightmare because I’m feeling so happy to be writing at all.

M.E. Anders

This advice was timely, Martha. I’ve found a genre that I truly enjoy writing, but I was entertaining the idea of branching off. Now, I realize those long-term implications would be undesirable…it’s sticking to my specialty. I’m discovering my genre brand through the process.

Your wisdom for newbies (like me) is much appreciated! 🙂

Mark Cantrell

Interesting article. It’s an issue I face in my own writing. I have suspected — no, I guess I should say known — that I should stick to one genre, but I don’t. I tend to mix and match and write different things.

Can’t help it. For me, I get an idea that fires me up and I take it to completion. If I get an idea that doesn’t fire me up, then it just doesn’t hold my attention.

I guess I’m saying that I’ll never be a professional writer, that I’ve trapped myself as an amateur because of a part of me that refuses to ditch the notion of artistic expression.

I suppose what writers have to realise is that, whether trying to be conventionally published or publishing our work ourselves, we’re effectively applying for a job. Just a job and nothing more.

    Martha Carr

    Mark – I wouldn’t say “a job and nothing more” but to remember that business is a big part of it and especially if you go the traditional route. The piece I wrote is for those who want to make an income from their writing and to really gather readers. For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that really matters to me and so there are choices to be made.

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