#DesiLitBiz Community Question: On genre-switching as an emerging writer

This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


“Should we stick to a specific genre until we become established writers? As a newbie, yet-to-be-traditionally published writer, should we stick to one particular genre until a book gets picked up by a publisher?”

~S. N. (Singapore)

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member, S. N., about switching genres as an emerging writer still to be published traditionally. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks

Jenny Bhatt: Thanks for this question, S. N. It’s definitely a rather popular one among writers as a quick google search shows us. All the more reason why it’s also one of the most confusing ones, given all the conflicting advice out there.

First, I think it’s ALWAYS a good thing for any writer, emerging or established, to try their hand at different genres. This flexes different writing muscles, allows us to explore our strengths and weaknesses, and deepens our craft. The most-admired writers throughout history and in our own times are those who comfortably switch between genres or create hybrid versions of their own.

Also, sometimes, we need to tell stories that don’t readily fit into the same genre confines each time. We may have to switch from social realism to magical realism, from contemporary to historical, from science fiction to fantasy.

That said, genre is also, let’s be honest, a marketing construct to help sell books via categories and labels that readers can easily identify. Taxonomies and classifications have always mattered to us as a species and been put to both good and bad use.

If you’re sending your book(s) to traditional publishers, you need to look at this issue from their perspective. Generally speaking, they’re looking for writers who are a) skilled in the genre of the book they’re trying to get published; and b) can attract, build, and grow a large and loyal readership. And large groups of readers aren’t going to easily jump from one genre to another en masse. Also, packaging, marketing, and promoting books is not easy in today’s world where they compete with so many other forms of media, information, and entertainment. So publishers prefer authors to have quick brand-like recognition. [Note: Unfortunately, this “author brand identity” includes genre among many other troubling things, which we can discuss at length another time if someone wants to send in a question about brands and platforms.]

I want to speak specifically to South Asian publishing dynamics now, which are different if you’re with a publisher in South Asia versus one in the west.

From what I’ve seen, writers within South Asia do switch across genres more easily than writers in the western diaspora. Partly, this has to do with how readers in the subcontinent tend to read more widely across genres themselves. And, partly, it’s because publishers look to the author brand or personality more than the genre when making publishing decisions. [Note: This is also an unfortunate necessity, given the numbers of books that actually sell for an average writer in the subcontinent.]

In the western (mostly the US and the UK) diaspora, writers of South Asian origin are already among the marginalized. It’s difficult for them to build and sustain any kind of widespread brand recognition especially if they’re not conforming to gatekeeper biases and expectations. If they also start hopping across genres, it gets even harder to secure book deals. Some South Asian writers have done this via pseudonyms but this is getting trickier in a 24/7 social media world where hiding behind pseudonyms isn’t so easy anymore. It’s rare to see an established South Asian writer in the US or the UK who also switches genres successfully unless they happen to be the likes of Salman Rushdie, who has switched between social and magical realism, historical and contemporary fiction, and more. In general, the more you identify as a minority group writer, the harder it is to switch genres.

Bottomline: if you haven’t had a book picked up by a traditional publisher yet, you’ve got room to play with genres and sub-genres and find your voice and comfort zone. Read and research widely, work on your craft, build your literary networks, develop at least a small, loyal readership within particular genres via magazine or blog publications. Above all, understand that switching across genres means navigating potentially longer learning curves, dealing with a potentially a longer timeframe to secure a book deal, investing more effort and time to cultivate new support and reader networks.

Have I put you off? I hope not. In the end, we will only be the kind of writer that we can be. I may want to write like Rushdie or Lahiri but I can only write like myself, given the sum total of my life experiences and craft skills. The important thing is to tell the story only you can tell and have fun finding your voice, genre, and community of writers and readers along the way that story takes you.

This week’s question is from a Desi Books community member, S. N., about switching genres as an emerging writer still to be published traditionally. #DesiLitBiz #WritingCommunity @DesiBooks


This is a series within the #DesiLitBiz channel to answer questions from the Desi Books community about writing, translating, publishing, the book biz, the literary life, etc. Where feasible, other desi writers, translators, or publishing professionals will be invited to share their expertise/advice as well. Go to https://bit.ly/desilitbizquestion to send in your question.


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