Writing in Multiple Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in a lot of different genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to either? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here. A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write.

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

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  1. Fleur Bradley’s avatar

    This was a very informative post, especially how you explain the starting from scratch part. Definitely food for thought for me as I consider my next project…

  2. Gisele LeBlanc’s avatar

    Thank you for the great information, Mary! You definitely gave me something to think about.

  3. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    I love how you described an agents job as charting a career path, I’ve never thought of that before. Some really good information on this blog! Thanks. :)

  4. shannon’s avatar

    Excellent post. As a writer covering mulitple genres, this has been extremely informative. It’s great to know that their are agents out there who are excited to work with diversified writers!

  5. Laura Polk’s avatar

    I can’t tell you how happy I was to read this post. I’ve asked this question of others before and been told that writers need to FOCUS. Sometimes, writing in different genres within the same category like MR and YA actually makes me more creative. Writing for YA gives me a creative break from MR and vise-versa. I think writing in both has made me a stronger writer.

    Laura Polk
    laurapolk@windstream.net

  6. Jackee’s avatar

    Thanks for answering this, Mary. It’s a question I’ve been wondering for some time, as I want to write both nonfiction (in my area of expertise) and MG/YA fiction too. Cheers to versatile agents and down with branding!

  7. Samantha Clark’s avatar

    Great question and answer. My first and second novels are middle grade, and I have a bunch of ideas that are MG, but one of my down the road ideas is definitely YA and another is leaning toward that age group. Which to write next is always a question. I’ve been going toward whichever is speaking to me the most, but looking at it from a career consideration is important.

    Thanks for the info.

  8. Michelle Munger’s avatar

    I’m glad you like to see an author who likes to diversify. Much like a stock market portfolio, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. I like to dabble in a little of this, a little of that, I love picture books because it gives me the opportunity to showcase my illustrations, but I also love fantasy and mystery and that’s hard to do in picturebook form. You have to span out into MG or YA.

  9. E.A. West’s avatar

    Thanks for the information! I’m a writer who writes in a variety of areas. It’s a relief to know there are agents willing to work with authors who write in more than one genre.

  10. Mary Train’s avatar

    As a picture book author who has felt the pressure to expand into MG and YA based on market trends, I am thankful to read that, as an agent, you are more focused on working from a place of authenticity and developing a career path for your authors. Thanks for the great thoughts! Time to digest:)

  11. Van Pornaras’s avatar

    You have touched upon an issue that I have pondered for quite some time. I thank you for bringing light to it. I write in several different genres and find it to be quite cathartic. Especially after being totally wrapped up in an adult suspense novel, and being consumed in the evil antagonist’s character, I need to ‘cleanse’ my soul with a lighter genre, when it is completed. From comedy screenplays, to picture books, fantasy to suspense, I find that each story is a facet of creativity that needs to shine. My question, are there agents out there that can handle a client that has amassed such a collection?

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Van — Good question. Some agents are generalists and dabble in multiple genres and markets. Other agents are specialists. I only rep children’s books, from picturebooks to young adult. When you’re querying agents, maybe query those who rep all the stuff you want to write. AgentQuery.com has a great Advanced Search function that lets you check off all your genres and return only those agents who rep all of your interests. If you find someone who only reps some of what you want to write, talk to them. Most agents, as long as you keep them appraised of everything, are okay with their clients having another agent for markets they don’t sell to. Plenty of writers have, for example, an adult agent and a children’s agent.

  13. Heather Z.’s avatar

    I love this. This is something I have thought a lot about myself. And I really appreciate that you can take specifically and kid lit’s stance on it. I can’t tell you how much I am loving this blog of yours. Just found it, so happy I did.

  14. Peter Taylor’s avatar

    Your post and comment to Van are most interesting and refreshing. Here in Australia I have an agent who I am delighted to work with to plan my next non-fiction ‘how to’ crafty books for adults and children and to work with me on my YA – but she has no contacts for picture books or junior fiction.
    I’ve just paid my registration fees for SCBWI Bologna. I see Laura will be there. You too?
    With many thanks for all that you provide here.
    Best wishes
    Peter Taylor
    Coordinator SCBWI Queensland

  15. Karen Collum’s avatar

    Mary, thanks so much for addressing this issue as it’s certainly something pertinent to me. I love writing PB and have an absolute passion for them, but I also thoroughly enjoy writing MG or YA. As an author I find my most comfortable style is PB but I love the challenge and freshness that writing MG or YA brings, which then in turn has a positive impact on my PB writing. (And hello to Peter just above me. Fancy seeing you here :) Another SCBWI QLD member here…)

  16. Amanda Hoving’s avatar

    Interesting to hear your thoughts, Mary. This is something I’ve thought about, as well.

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