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Craft: Determining Genre

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

(Blog Post)

Q. I am ready to search for an agent, except that I don’t yet have a title for my novel. Here’s my dilemma: My story is both a mainstream novel and a mystery novel. I have two questions.

1. Is it okay to let a potential agent decide what my book should be?
2. How should I select an appropriate title? Should I offer the potential agent two title options?

A. The agent will conclude which market provides the best opportunities for selling your novel to a publisher, but ultimately, a publisher will decide how to best market your novel. Given a choice between the mystery genre–which has an established reader base that has already been identified–and mainstream–which is a catchall for books that don’t fit into a defined genre–most publishers will choose the genre.

Their rationale is a solid one. It’s extremely difficult to market a first book mainstream. It requires an enormous amount of ground work and marketing/promotion. Then, it’s still very risky business with at best an uncertain level of success. Conversely, the mystery genre is established. With a strong reader base already established, marketing can be more intensely focused and honed. Booksellers know where this book on the bookshelf. More importantly, wholesalers–who often are not readers–know where it belongs on the racks. So the odds of potential readers finding the book are enormously enhanced. Most importantly, readers who like to read this type of book know where to find it on the shelves/racks. From identified readers to obtaining reviews to getting word-of-mouth going about the book is easier. This makes placing the book in the mystery genre very attractive to publishers.

Agents, of course, know this, and since their goal is to maximize odds of placing the book with a publisher, they are prone to follow that path. This is typically the agent’s best shot at creating a win/win situation for publisher, author, and agent.

That said, I’m reluctant to agree that an agent should decide whether to market a novel mystery/mainstream. The agent is a partner, but having even the best partner in the world doesn’t absolve the author from understanding his/her industry and how it works. I know. Some say ignorance is bliss, and some authors just don’t want to get involved in the business end of the business. But more often than not, that isn’t in the writer’s best interest. It leaves the author vulnerable to making career and life-altering decisions based solely on the judgment of other people. And regardless of how well qualified and trustworthy those people are, the author is going to have to live with those decisions.

In my humble opinion, if I’m going to live with a decision, then I’m going to understand it before it becomes a decision–before a situation is created where I have the obligation and responsibility to fulfill terms and conditions created on my behalf. Also, having a partner means respecting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t mean that the partnership couldn’t benefit from shared wisdom. You rely on each other, respect each other, but sharing your wisdom creates an atmosphere of building momentum–being stronger together than either of you can be alone. So if you understand your industry and how it works, then you have more to offer the partnership. Teamwork, so to speak. And that greats an atmosphere capable of greater success and harmony.

On the title. I would title the work once. Since marketing mystery has the higher marketing odds, I’d chose a mystery title that carries specific connotations suitable to the book.

Understand that titles are typically considered “working titles” through the production stage of the novel. That means you might have a book titled in the contract, but far later down the production line, say, marketing, feels a different title would make the book more marketable. Your editor then would come to you and say, “Marketing has recommended a different title. This is what they’re after. Could you come up with some suggestions?” Or the editor might say, “Marketing is concerned about XYZ. They’ve suggested THIS title. What do you think?” And then you’d agree or disagree and offer alternative suggestions.

So for now, give the book a title that you feel is really indicative of the work. (One that carries an emotional tone compatible with the tone of the novel works great.) Understand that it’s a working title and that you might or might not be asked to change it. Whether or not you’re compelled to change it will depend on the way the contract is drawn. However, if marketing suggests an alternative, I’d suggest you remain open-minded and receptive. They’re experts at what they do. Remember, their goal is to sell as many copies of your book as possible. So unless you’re totally convinced they’re out in left field, do give their opinions the weight they deserve. Their credentials and experience deserve the writer’s respect.


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