Typecasting – good or bad?

So last Thursday I read this interesting  piece  in The Wall Street Journal and it got me to thinking (again) about whether being slotted into a category is a good or bad thing.

I say “again” because long ago when I was the publisher of World Almanac Publications and my employer wanted to branch out into areas far from our popular reference book line, I went to the book buyers – Dalton, Walden, and Ingram – and asked them their opinion.  Every one of them opined adamantly that no matter how good these proposed books might be, they wouldn’t buy them from us.  We were the publishers of popular reference books, they said, and that is the way it was going to stay, as far as they were concerned.  Ultimately, the decision was made by my colleagues to go ahead with the new products.  Knowing what would surely happen, I left the company and became an agent, and that publishing program ultimately failed miserably.

So, what about someone like J.K. Rowling and her foray away from the Harry Potter world into the adult nonfiction category?  Notwithstanding the success of The Casual Vacancy, should she have taken this chance?  And if the book doesn’t sell up to expectations, what will that mean to her career?

Many of my talented self-published clients ask this same question.  They understandably want the ability to publish in more than one category, but the question is, always, will their readers, their fans, “follow” them?  I often find myself advising that an author should build up his/her sales in one category, become a best seller and then do whatever s/he wants.

A terrific example of this is Mitch Albom. Michael Crichton is another author who mixed it up in his bestselling novels. And what about all of the thriller writers recently who have found their way into the children’s category?

So, I am curious as to what you think.  Should an author, bestselling or not, publish in more than one category or would they be better served by “sticking to their knitting”?

7 Responses to Typecasting – good or bad?

  1. J.K. Rowling’s career is going to be fine. There’s just no way her next few books will flop, due to her prior success. Even if they do, she can experiment as much as she wants; she doesn’t need to worry about the financial side for her career.

    That kind of flexibility really is determined by prior success. Ability to play around with genres, etc., is a luxury a writer has to learn. A new author will probably struggle to find a fanbase if their first few works are wildly different. They should concentrate on one thing and then, if they’re successful, they’ll have the luxury to branch out.

  2. RamseyH says:

    I don’t think this is the question we should be asking anymore. I think what the industry needs to be asking these days is, how should we redefine our categories to best fit authors?

    Once upon a time there were only a certain number of categories an author could be slotted into. In fiction, say, you were either romance, horror, sff, historical, or general fiction. There were only so many shelves in the store and they had to be divided up somehow.

    Steampunk, sf-western, paranormal romance, etc. All of these at one time would have been pushed one way or another – authors would have been asked to alter their work so it would more clearly fit in to the already defined shelving system.

    Now that most sales are happening online, these mashups and sub-genres are flourishing into entire genres in their own right. Why? Because we have an infinite ability to categorize. Not just by author or genre, but by an individual’s taste. Various websites like amazon and goodreads can look at one person’s prior reading history and come up with a good estimate of what other books that reader would like.

    I think systems like this are ultimately going to give authors the freedom to write whatever they like, without worrying about arbitrary categories.

  3. D.C. DaCosta says:

    The “solution” (if one is needed) is simple: if you want to change genres, invent a new nom de plume.

  4. EDWARD says:

    Elisabeth Kubler~Ross, M.D., became famous for her work on DEATH AND DYING. Toward the end of her life, she studied the dying talking to their dead relatives, ghosts, etc. These later books, critics claim, ruined the legitimate science she had studied in her earlier books: ruined a hard won reputation as an authority on death and dying.
    Decades later, neuroscientists discover a certain area of the brain which is chemically responsible for much of this before death phenomenon. What once was considered supernatural is now explained by science. Kubler~Ross was a good scientist to the day she died. The fact that she was shunned by the masses for abandoning science is a reflection of them, not of her.

  5. Kellie Lovegrove says:

    I could be wrong, and correct me if I am, but I don’t believe that anyone really wants to be typecast. Every time I hear someone say, “So and so does that great, but they will never be able to do anything else,” I think of Robin Williams. For years all he did was comedy and, while he was great at it, no one thought he could do anything else. That is, until “Dead Man’s Poet Society” was released (one of my all time favorite movies, by the way).

    Honestly, I don’t see why an author could not write in several genres if they want to. Sure, if your a bestseller it may be easier to make that transition, in the traditional sense. And if you want that prestigious hardback then going that route may be what you want to do. However, with the low cost self-publishing that e-publishing provides I believe that it opens the field for authors who have the desire to write in multiple genres the ability to do so. Especially if they don’t necessarily have the cash flow at the time.

  6. D.V. Bennett says:

    While I agree with D.C. DaCosta’s simple solution, I think it’s unfortunate that reality should demand it. The fact is, the agents, publishers and editors have a vested interest in whether or not jumping categories is worth the risk, and I believe that if the talent for storytelling is there, the readers will enjoy, and follow.

    It’s a balance that is proven to be achievable.

    • D.C. DaCosta says:

      Your phrase “if the talent for storytelling is there” is the key, I think.

      Does someone like J.K. Rowling have a talent for storytelling? Or did she just invent a wonderfully interesting universe for the Harry Potter books, and was that universe enough to ensure success? If Margaret Mitchell had lived longer, would her talent for writing have been enough for her to succeed with a whodunit or something in non-fiction?

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