Thoughts About Authors Changing Genres?

This is a Reader Friday-type question, but I have a question for y’all: When an author whose work you have previously enjoyed begins writing in a new genre, using a different voice, how have you responded? Do you think it’s a good idea for authors to use a pen name for a new style of writing, or are you willing to accept different voices from the same writer?

31 thoughts on “Thoughts About Authors Changing Genres?

  1. Kathryn, I think pen names are a relic of the past, when authors with traditional publishing had to hide in order a) not to confuse or infuriate their readers; b) not to confuse or overstuff bookstores, which did not like to buy multiple titles from an author in the same season or even year; or c) to protect the integrity of their brand–e.g., the lit-fic writer who didn’t want to be caught “slumming” in the PI genre.

    These days I think that’s kaput. I admire an author who can do different voices, if those books are actually good on their own terms. Plenty of readers will “cross-pollinate,” too. So I see only gain.

    • Interesting point, Jim! I’m wondering about the many authors who still publish traditionally, or combine indie and traditional. Would publishers still want them to use pen names, I wonder?

  2. I wonder what would be the response from readers if a Christian fiction author went “mainstream” and published pieces whose aim wasn’t to satisfy the limits we accept in C-fic, but whose aim was toward a larger readership. Jim, what do you say in that case?

  3. Pen names free authors to try something new without being automatically criticized because it’s not what the reviewer expected.

    Stephen King felt free to experiment when writing as Bachman, and Rowling wrote as Galbraith. Neither would have been as free without the pen names.

    Nate, editor of The Digital Reader

    • Right, Nate! And I think both were nonplussed that their work under the pen name didn’t sell as well until the connection to their famous personas was discovered! πŸ˜‰

    • Nonplussed they may be, but it simply proves what Seth Godin and other publishing “gurus” are saying, i.e., that debut authors have a tough time getting noticed, even with a major publisher behind them. (Each time you use a new pen name, you’re a debut author.)

  4. I’ve always been amused by the quaint conceit that in the eyes of publishers, readers are dewy-eyed, delicate flowers who throws a faint or seals a pyloric valve if their favorite authors do anything even slightly different — write an on-page murder, or suggest that women have breasts, or have characters whose expletives stray beyond the “dagnabbit” fence. Oh, my stars and garters! Goodness and mercy and sweetness and light! I’m positively in a swoon!

    I’ve always thought it to be a chicken-and-egg thing: Is this conceit in place because publishers are being fainthearts, or because their readers are telling the publishers that they’re fainthearts?

    Either way, I agree with Jim: For the most part, this conceit has outlived its perceived utility, and its perceived reader base. Cross-pollination is so common, and authors are so easily trackable across pen-name genre divides, that the illusion created by the pen name and the cross-pollination is thin enough to read a newspaper, through. Oh, wait … newspapers are a bygone conceit as well.)

    If one of my favorite authors crosses over into a genre that I don’t care for, I JUST DON’T READ THOSE BOOKS. For instance, I like Michael Koryta’s fully realistic crime novels. But occasionally he strays into the realm of the paranormal. I just don’t read those. I don’t punish him for stretching himself by posting pissy one-star reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Neither should anybody else. And if people insist on doing that, that’s their issue. That pettiness shoudn’t be enabled by the publishing establishment.

  5. I agree with Jim. I think readers will follow us writers into new realms, as long as we’re careful to label them as different. I’ve followed favorite mystery writers into vampire, paranormal and dystopian novels.

    • I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, Elaine, and I’m very choosy about trying new fiction. I’d likely try a new type of book from an author I already like, but it might not happen right away, because I tend to ration my fiction reading. Others wouldn’t be slowed down a bit, I’m sure!

  6. I’m sort of weird about authors changing things up with their brand, like when I heard of the Dark Tower books by Stephen King. It just didn’t seem loyal to me and I never read a single one. Now, I understand I’m missing out on some good stuff, but I’m not sure why I can’t bring myself to invest the time in them.

    • That’s so interesting, Diane! I’m sure that’s the kind of reaction some publishers have feared. I loved reading Kate White’s light mysteries, but when she started writing other books, I didn’t check them out, either. My loss, I’m sure!

  7. I’m a bit on the fence on this one. It doesn’t bother me as a reader when an author crosses genres and tries something new – I’m certainly not going to feel all befuddled by that:) But, I can see the benefits of using an alternative name if an author wants to tread new waters without alienating their previous readers – say they went much darker and into thriller territory when before their name was very much associated with light, humorous cozies. I think Elaine’s right, it’s more a question of marketing and clarification when this happens to make sure readers know what they’re getting when they pick up that new book that is a different direction for an author they like. I wonder if publishers really still think using a different name for a different genre is necessary?

    • It’s really just packaging, isn’t it, Clare? And yet as consumers we’re all so susceptible to packaging. Like an old ad man once said, “Buy my soap, it’s rounder!”

  8. Peronsally I have no problem with multi-genre writers as long as the book description is accurate about what’s in there. Ken Follett, one of my favourites, went from military/espionage, to crime thrillers, to historical fiction without changing his name.

    On the other hand, if in my own work I go from military thrillers & historical fiction, to say comic writing about Leonard and my Leprechaun buddies, I might actually do best to change names on the front cover so that fans of one are not totally blown away by the major difference in material. I would likely put my real name on the back cover copy, or at least inside the flap, so folks know it is just a different side of me they’re seeing.

  9. Hmmm. I write under a pen name because people always have a hard time with my real name. And I write C. romantic suspense and also sweet romances and haven’t noticed any loss of readers…

    • I guess the test would be if you started writing in a darker or salacious genre under the same name you’re currently using–would the romance readers follow?

  10. Joe Konrath wrote a hilarious blog about his readers responses when he finally put sex scenes in his books. He has well established pen names. I know writers who don’t want their families to know about certain generas they write in using a pen name. Other writers are experimenting with pen names to launch different genre series. I think when vastly different generas are written by the same person eg Christian & erotic romance that the readers are different groups. Therefore different names are useful

  11. This reply came in via email from DEBORAH:

    “If you use a pen name you won’t really get the acknowledgment of your work. It is just another name to memorize. I think there is no reason why an author should not keep using his name. In life we all make changes. I know some artists who are excellent in one style of technique but want to change it up and try other techniques, and they still use their names. If an author is going to change the genre of their writing there will be a lot of PR explaining the new genre. I think people will be impressed with an author’s ability to write in a different genre.”

  12. I can see why some people might want to, but I mostly don’t think it’s necessary unless you’re writing Christian Fiction and Erotica. And even then, there would most likely be a scandal if your Christian fiction readers found out you were “hiding” in another genre.

    Seanan Mcguire writes urban fantasy under her own name, and horror as Mira Grant. She’s up front about this being a pen name, and she said it’s for clarification of genre, in case her UF readers didn’t want to read her more horrific stuff, but I personally like both genres so I have no qualms with either of her genres.

  13. Ok, so I mulled over this concept all day as I went about my errands and Thanksgiving Day plans.

    I think readers often don’t pick up a series written by a favorite author when they write in a different series simply because the *genre* is not one they enjoy. Many readers of fiction tend to stick to certain flavours. There’s just certain topics they do or don’t care for.

    So, if the author branches out into another genre that their fans tend to like then I reckon there are few complications. But if, as has been mentioned in other responses, the genre is utterly divergent from their established readership, they likely wouldn’t pick up the book no matter who’s name was on it.

    I love Nora Roberts’ paranormal works, and her JB Robb books, but if she went into dark thriller, I wouldn’t read it. That doesn’t change the fact that I am a fan of hers. I’m just not a fan of dark thrillers.

    I think someone mentioned the use of pen names to shield family and friends who might not understanding of avenues the writer wishes to explore. I can understand that, though I think if you are going to write something the people you love might be scandalized by, perhaps it would be better not to write it at all then to hide behind a pen name.

    Personally, I like the idea of hiding behind a pen name because I don’t want “fame. If I wrote books that became popular, I’d prefer leaving the books to be the stars. But as a newbie to this whole concept I am not sure that’s even possible in this information age.

    • Very good points, Wren. As you rightly point out, in this instant-information age, the moment any book becomes popular, any author using a pen name will quickly be “outed.” Thanks for your comments!

  14. I’ve used my real name for everything, fiction, nonfiction. I think I’m going to do the thing from that song and start up some erotica series myself:

    I’m gonna trade this life for fortune and fame
    I’d even cut my hair and change my name

  15. Like some others who have commented, I too would follow a writer to another genre if it was the kind of book I normally like to read. It’s more about the type of story and less about who wrote it. I respect authors who are willing to stretch themselves and grow in the art and craft of writing.

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