Ask The Lit Coach: "Should Writers Settle Themselves Into A Single Genre In Order To Be Successfully Published?" and More

Great questions this week, LitReactors! I answered two of the most frequently asked questions dealing with choice of genre and opportunities for Transgressive fiction. Warning: I use the term "author branding" and the outlook for Transgressive fiction in traditional publishing is not bright. But you have options.

Question from Raelyn, Sacramento, CA

It seems that most well-known authors have a certain niche they fit into: Gaiman does fantasy, Palahniuk does transgressive, Koontz does horror, and so on.  When I look at pieces I’ve written, I cannot find a single correlation other than I’m the one who wrote them. I’ve written fantasy, dabbled with historical fiction, attempted transgressive, and a few others.  Is it necessary for writers to settle themselves into a single genre in order to be successfully published? More specifically, if an agent or publisher asked a writer to define their work, what would be the best way to respond to this if the writer doesn’t have one single definition?

If you’re writing for yourself, write what pleases you; if you’re writing for an audience (publishing world and your audience), you need to pick a genre.

Agents and editors are largely looking for brandable authors – authors they can shape into house-hold names. Gaiman, Palahniuk, Koontz, King, etc., are well-branded authors. We have an immediate reaction when we see their name. We know what to expect when our eyes hit their book jackets – we have an emotional response. Sure, the book jacket design and cover copy play a role in eliciting this response, but it’s the author’s consistent voice and style that ultimately attracts us to their work – something that comes naturally to the author.  

Sometimes an author gets the green light to walk outside their usual genre after they’ve built their name in publishing. One of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, is one of these. After writing several short story collections and novels, he wrote a YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), which won the National Book Award. Alexie’s trademark poignant wit transferred well to the new genre and was a success with readers. Hell, I’d probably buy a cookbook written by Alexie just to see if he could make me think, cry, and laugh in that medium as he has in others. But I only say that because I’ve read most of his work. He’s built that emotional relationship with me over the years through a consistent style and exquisite use of language. And that's what agents and publishers are looking for - brand consistency.

So, Raelyn, it’s best to choose where your heart really lies in fiction and start from there. Which genre excites you the most? Which genre fuels your imagination? What kind of author do you want to be known as? Think – when people pick up your book over and over again, what response do you want them to have? What experience do you want to deliver to your reader over time?

Few agents or publishers want to invest time, energy and money in a one-hit-wonder – they want an author with career potential. So plan for the long term.

Let us know what you decide.

Good luck, Raelyn!

Question from Dakota, Louisville, KY

With the exception of Chuck Palahniuk, the idea that transgressive novels don't sell seems dominant in the publishing industry. Should transgressive fiction writers find different platforms to get their material published or keep trying with traditional publishers?

The uphill challenge for transgressive fiction writers is, and always has been, that it is very difficult to get their work placed. The good news is, the audience who loves Transgressive fiction is a hungry, loyal, supportive one that will come out of the woodwork to support other authors in this genre.

Before I get to a possible solution, let me give you some background and something to consider.

Back when I was an agent, several years ago, I mentioned in an interview that I was intrigued by Chuck’s voice and style of storytelling. The floodgates opened and I was hit with a barrage of queries from loads of writers who never used the term “transgressive” per se, but proclaimed Palahniuk was a huge influence in their work. Their synopses reflected male protags who were misanthropic, nihilist, depressed, drug addicts, etc., who along with their crew of similarly cast friends, fought against social norms for the sake of fighting against social norms. The end. I turned all of them down because I felt I wasn’t reading an original story with a strong philosophy and authentic style. I was reading a new writer’s attempt to be like Chuck or Irvine Welsh, not a new writer’s attempt to add their own voice to the genre.

And this is the problem.

Writers, if transgressive is your thing, the philosophy behind your protag’s way of being has got to be well-developed, sound and SMART. Your protag has got to want something. We need to see them go after what they want. We need to see them challenged by something other than "the man." We need to see them get what they want or not get what they want. We need to see a fresh plot! Why does it matter? We need more than a edgy voice - WE NEED STORY! An agent and editor are always going to ask, “So what?” If you can’t wrap up why your story matters within the genre and why you think it will matter to your readers, it’s time to get back to work.  

Baring original storytelling, literary has always been difficult to publish; transgressive is a sub-genre of literary, making it very difficult to publish – there are only so many authors within the genre the market will support. That does NOT mean you should quit trying, however.

Your Options

Now, the best thing you can do AFTER you are sure you’re adding something valuable to the genre is seek out literary journals online and in print  that are right for your voice and style and start submitting to them (who knows, there may be an opportunity to publish in an anthology). Build your portfolio. After some successful placements, query agents, and don’t overlook the small, indie presses you can query yourselves. Go ahead and break some rules – send them a few chapters with your query and synopsis. You're kind of a literary bad ass, right? See what happens. 

You asked about different platforms transgressive authors could share their work. E-publishing is a potentially great way to test the waters and build your author platform if your novel is exceptionally well-crafted and you have the wherewithal to invest in professional cover design, copyediting and e-formatting. Like I said, the transgressive genre is tight but the audience is very supportive of its authors and hungry for more.  E-publishing could be a great way to break in and get noticed if executed well and you’re ready to hit the ground running with promoting your book via social media and live events. This medium has worked well for the more nichey genres that push the envelope, like Erotica, for example.  

Second to e-publishing, which is very cost effective, is self-publishing, which is less cost effective. I'm getting tired of the self-publishing debate, frankly. I don't care who published your book - I read the first page to determine quality before I check the spine for the publisher's logo. Anyway, self-pubbing a physical book is also an option, but be ready to plunk down anywhere from a few hundred to a few grand to get your book printed and appropriately distributed. Then again, it's up to you to work the social media and live events to sell your book.

Hope this helps, Dakota. Stay positive and more importantly, don't be afraid to use your best resource - creativity. 

Thanks for your questions this week, writers! Now go do something worth writing about.

If you have a question related to writing, literary agents, publishing, platform or promotion, I'm now taking questions for Issue 3. I'll choose a few to answer in my next column. Remember, the more specific you are, the better I can direct you. Issue 3 answers will be posted Monday, November 7th.

Click here to submit a question for Issue 3 of Q&A with The Lit Coach!

Part Number:
Erin Reel

Column by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading October 24, 2011 - 9:06am

Nice. This is great.

.'s picture
. October 24, 2011 - 9:08am

Thanks for the detailed answers Erin, really helpful insight.

@Rae ^5

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2011 - 10:29am

Thanks, Dakota. Don't let the challenge deter you. 

Read fellow LitReactor columnist, Richard Thomas' fantastic post on my blog. If that doesn't instill a little hope in you, well...


Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club October 24, 2011 - 1:12pm

Awesome answers Erin, thanks so much.  

Right now I'm in the beginning stages of a YA fantasy-adventure novel, so we'll see where I go from there.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2011 - 1:27pm

Sounds good to me, Raelyn! Do you want to build a career there? 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts October 24, 2011 - 1:33pm

Great Q&A

Raelyn's picture
Raelyn from California is reading The Liars' Club October 24, 2011 - 1:38pm

Definitely.  My main goal as a writer is to create books that keeps the younger generation interested in reading.  Every kid is read to as a child, but once the task falls on them it seems they have better things to do.  I do, however, want to write YA stories that still appeal to adults.  The Golden Compass is a great example of this, and is one of my inspirations. 

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2011 - 2:14pm

Thanks Renfield.

And that's pretty solid motivation, Raelyn. I would encourage you to also check out Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators to help fortify your education in the genre. 

Good luck! 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies October 24, 2011 - 2:51pm

Great answers, Erin. And thanks for the shout out too.

I'll add a couple things. There have been successful transgressive authors out there, beyond Palahniuk. Check out this Wiki link. This could almost be my list of favorite authors.

I agree with what Erin said, and in the end, it doesn't matter what you call it. The work has to sing. A lot of the time labels are only there to help you the author remember what you're doing, or to help you when you submit to a magazine, website, press or agent. But some just say they want "commercial fiction" or "literary fiction." And anything under the "thrilller/suspense" umbrella? Well, that's a wide range of work too.

I've been shopping my second novel recently, and I sent it to "horror" agents as well as those that represented "thriller/suspense." You never know.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2011 - 4:25pm

You're quite right, Richard. Thanks for adding that resource. 

EricWojo's picture
EricWojo from Livonia, Michigan is reading The Brothers Karamazov October 24, 2011 - 6:10pm

Thank you so much for spending some time helping Transgressive writers.  I've spent the summer looking for an agent or publisher or small/large mag looking for Transgressive but the closest I see are interests in Bizarro or Absurdist or Quirky/Off Beat.  None of these describes Transgressive.  And if you're looking for an outlet to submit Transgressive work to, even Duotrope has no search field for it.

I joined LitReactor because of the backings of Transgressive authors and their audience.  I counted on such help and you're advice shows it was worth the time and money.

Thank you for being involved in this.  And I look forward to more input.



laurelin gilmore's picture
laurelin gilmore from Sacramento is reading Tropic of Cancer October 24, 2011 - 11:48pm

It's so great that there are people here giving specific advice from a place of experience and a genuine desire to nurture new writers.  Thanks for being here and involved, Erin!

Dan's picture
Dan from Santa Monica, CA is reading Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk October 25, 2011 - 1:00am

Erin never ceases to amaze me with her knowledge, inspiration, and genuine kindness.

Thanks again Erin!

.'s picture
. October 25, 2011 - 2:04am

Awesome blog Erin, thanks for posting the url.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 25, 2011 - 8:59am

Thanks guys! I appreciate the feedback and am so glad you found this Q&A helpful.

I like Richard's advice. 

I've been shopping my second novel recently, and I sent it to "horror" agents as well as those that represented "thriller/suspense." You never know.