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Opinion: Are Readers’ Expectations Of Genre In Self-published Books Unfair To Indie Authors?

Opinion: Are Readers’ Expectations of Genre in Self-published Books Unfair to Indie Authors?

headshot of P R Hilton

British indie author P R Hilton wants to call the shots for his crime novels

When is a thriller not a thriller? And how far should authors compromise their writing goals in order to conform to readers' expectations?

 Indie crime writer P R Hilton makes the case for ignoring trade publishers' criteria for genre writing and asks readers to allow authors more leeway to be creative and original. 

I have found from personal experience that a number of readers come to a novel with preconceived expectations, simply because of the genre the book is placed in.

For example, my historical Harry Royle thrillers are written with an older feel to them. This is intended. However, I have had readers tell me that they are not thrillers because they lack sex and violence.

cover of A Question of Honour

P R Hilton's traditional crime thriller

Now, if I take A Question Of Honour, the first book in my Harry Royle trilogy, it has gangland violence, using knives, guns and even a razor, but it is not gratuitous and is purposely carefully handled. I write with an eye for accuracy of period and a style which I nickname English Noir. I have had readers whose ages have ranged from teenagers to late seventies and all have enjoyed the books without reservations.

My intention in writing a thriller, is first to tell a good story, and secondly to make it accessible for anyone with an interest in this particular genre, which would be historical thrillers.

A common argument I am given is that times have changed and with them readers tastes and expectation. This argument, in my humble opinion, just does not hold up when looked at carefully.

Who would argue against the inclusion of a book of the calibre of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca from a list of top timeless thrillers? How about Agatha Christie? Or have times changed and is she no longer considered a thriller writer?

To my mind, to attempt to force a writer to conform to an unrealistic expectation is nothing short of insulting to any author that a reader hopes will be an interesting new voice.

The Challenge of Marketing Outside of Main Genres

Some readers even insist that should a thriller be what they consider tame, that it should be classified as Cozy Crime. I respect this sub-genre. However, my thrillers do not fit this category. So how am I supposed to market a book to a potential reader?

There are so many sub-genres now, and more seem to be appearing all the time.

  • So, is the answer to create a brand new one to alert people to a book which might offend because of its failure to deliver serial killers, graphic sex and other mentions of abuse?
  • Or should there be a graphic content thriller genre to alert people like myself, who prefer books to be more stories and less a retelling of mainstream media and reality television?

I believe very strongly in an author’s right to free expression, but not at the expense of another writer’s craft.

There should be ample space on the bookshelf for every kind of book, regardless of each subject’s coverage or style.

As a writer I believe that we must stay true to our art form and endeavour to connect with a readership which understands our motivations and appreciates what we are each able to offer in our own unique voice.

To allow readers to shape and transform our work is no less than entering into a collaborative working  relationship, and surely being an author is about finding your own individual voice, and, having found it, using it as your creative statement of truth.

  • Anything less than truth in voicing our fiction must be a compromise, and, as such, has to detract from what we are able to offer to the world.
  • Anything less devalues a writer and in a sense dulls their ability.

In conclusion, I suggest that readers need to remember that variety in fiction has to be a good thing, since it gives a reader choice.

OVER TO YOU How far do you match your books to standard genres, and to what extent do you take advantage of your independent status to break the mould? Join the conversation via the comments box.

#Authors - should you conform to genre rules or should you break the mould? - by @PhilipHIlton Click To Tweet



Author: Philip Hilton

PR Hilton trained as a journalist and has written for magazines, both print as well as electronic, for the stage and BBC Radio and for numerous websites.
Growing up the son of an infamous father also gave him insights, which he has channelled into the Harry Royle Books. Researching and writing these books has given Philip not only more of an insight into his own father’s life and times but has also brought a deeper understanding of his own father-son relationship. He is currently working on book three of the Harry Royle trilogy, "A Mission Too Far" and "Hobbsley’s Secrets", a second volume of short stories. Find out more at his website: www.prhilton.co.uk.


This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. Thanks for a well written article. I agree with you and do think in the scheme of things,well written stories will capture the market.

  2. Thank you so much for the moral support, along with this excellent article! I’m currently trying to create a sub genre of my own within fantasy…ambient fantasy. I chose the word ‘ambient’ because ambient music often use album covers invoking the kind of imagery which goes with the genre I’m trying to create. Ambient fantasy is aimed towards a more equal opportunity audience who like aestheticism, something a bit closer to shoujo manga than more rugged fantasy involving a party of adventurers out fighting with swords and surviving in the wild in a different world. I’m working on a series which falls under this category.

    1. Hi Kari, I think what you’re doing a great way to challenge expectations, readers, reviewers, or writers and well, a lot of people 🙂 I came up with my English Noir tag, simply because when I thought of of my stories, I kept coming back to those classic noir movies, but of course mine had an English accent. I love the idea of your sub-genre idea – Ambient Fantasy, what a great idea, love it 🙂 it can be frustrating, but there should be enough room for the ‘New’.

  3. When the “experts” can’t agree on basic categories, I say screw them and write what we need to write. I write what I call suspense novels, but half the time on various bookstore and online buying sites, suspense is either not included or is lumped in with thrillers. Some places don’t even list thrillers as a genre, just mystery. Others lump crime novels in with mysteries. Others combine all four.

    To further complicate matters, these genres can easily combine in one book. A thriller may have the solving of a mystery of who killed a character as the discovery that allows the hero to save the world from nuclear annihilation. And in most thrillers and suspense novels, some crime is usually being committed by the villain (unless the villain is nature– a hurricane, volcano, tornado, etc.). It’s hard NOT to cross genre lines in many stories.

    My bottom line is to write the story I want to tell, knowing that the general rules of genre apply to suspense fiction–something has to keep the reader turning the page to find out what happens, and tension, danger, and risk must escalate to the climax of the story.

  4. Excellent points made in the article and comments. Don’t get me wrong, I think “writing to market” is in theory a good thing (for commercial/economic purposes). But it is also a horribly vague notion. For thrillers, does “writing to market” mean writing Jack Reacher type novels because “that’s what sells,” even though the series was started two decades ago? I read on Joanna Penn’s website that Lee Child himself recently said “My career could not exist if I was starting today.” Hmm…yet there is a prominent indie thriller author currently making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year writing Reacher-type thrillers…

    “Writing to market” is way too vague to be useful advice, in my opinion. “Read your genre and write similar stuff” is slightly less ineffective, but not anywhere close to being effective (due to the fact that, as some of the commenters have pointed out, nobody really agrees or even knows what the bounds of a genre actually are).

    My theory is that the gurus who dichotomize indie publishing into “write to market or else you are a selfish undergrad who is pretending to be literary and will therefore fail” don’t even know the definition of “writing to market.”

    The truth: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

    A damn good story is a damn good story, period.

  5. Thanks for an excellent article. I concur. My books loosely classify as paranormal romance yet they differ from almost all the best selling PNR books. They don’t contain gratuitous and graphic sex and their style leans heavier towards the European than the American. Yet my readers love them. I’ve rejigged them into romantic suspense and wondered whether I should toe the genre line. But I can’t bring myself to do it. As long as readers love them because they’re different, I’ll keep going as I am. I’m certain that I’ll get a few 1 star reviews along the way, who doesn’t? I’ll just have to be canny with my marketing.

  6. Very interesting. I both agree and disagree. I absolutely agree we must stay true to our art form. On the other hand, if we position ourselves as writing in a certain genre, we either align ourselves with that genre (and woebetide any writer who tells readers they know best) or we set ourselves up as deliberately genre bending.

    1. I can see your point Dan, and you make a very valid point. I suppose for me it is somehow wanting my books to be accepted as part of the wide genre that is thriller and finding that to many people’s minds, it is no longer wide, but very narrow and that my work needs a sub-genre. I suppose really that it is all opinions. I even find myself arguing against myself at times over this one. Thank you for sharing your opinion on this 🙂

      1. For me, a great example of someone who gets it really right is Javier Marias with “the Infatuations”, which is a thriller and sets out its stall as a thriller, but is very clearly a thriller like no other

  7. I’d rather leave money on the table by not conforming to strict genre expectations so that I can write stories my way. I want people to think of my books not as genre novels but as Jane Steen novels. My favourite authors are the ones who’ve added something new to a genre rather than obeying its rules.

    This leads to some weird marketing, though. Strictly speaking, my novels are suspense novels. But I can’t market them in the suspense categories because those are all Gone Girl-type psychological suspense novels. They don’t sell as well in the historical fiction categories because the bestsellers there tend to be biographical fiction. So I market to mystery readers, about 5% of whom are mystified because they realize I don’t really write mysteries (the rest don’t seem to notice). Fortunately many of that 5% enjoy the books anyway.

    1. Thank you to contributing to this Jane, your opinion is very much appreciated. I can also see from your fine personal example , how you have adjusted your own marketing approach with your books. To be honest I have at times shuffled my books into historical, adventure, thriller and all kinds of strange places in the hope that the right readers will find them.

      I do feel it important though that I keep things as they are or else I fear my stories would be made weak. I have gone through those urges to beef things up and every single time I come to the same conclusion that it wouldn’t be my voice, but a copy of a different author and of course that would be wrong.

  8. I couldn’t agree more!
    You write a story because it’s a story you want to write. You include elements that are appropriate to the story and nothing gratuitous should be inserted for effect.

    When you cross genres, or write in an ‘unfashionable’ niche it’s harder to market, but then we indies do like a challenge!

    1. Alison, thank you for your comments. Yes, that’s the way I feel and in time it will, I imagine be no problem, because readers will find them and they will become known for what they are and attract the readers who will enjoy them as intended. It is a pain though, from a marketing viewpoint. A challenge, that I’m always up for 🙂

  9. I’ve noticed two things about genres in recent times. One, the lines between them are blurring for authors to varying degrees (depending on which genres you are talking about), probably because of the independence that self-publishing has given us to write what we like. Two, readers have a very foggy idea of what each genre really is.

    I recently scored a Bookbub ad for my first-in-series permafree mystery, Multiple Motives. Yay! Except that they wanted to bill it as a thriller. I know darn well it’s no thriller; if anything it’s a little slower paced than a lot of mysteries. But hey, it’s Bookbub, so with trepidation, I accepted, sure that I would receive at least some bad reviews that complained about a too slow pace.

    So far I’ve only had one 4-star review mention that it’s a little slow for a thriller, but they still liked it. Several reviewers have called it a thriller in their reviews. Which tells me they don’t know what a thriller really is. So be it. They downloaded the book, read it, liked it, are buying more in the series, and they gave it a good review. They can call it whatever they like! 😀

    I’ve also had readers call the same book and others in the series a cozy mysteries, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum. That is far from accurate as well.

    1. BookBub’s pretty darn good at deciding where your book belongs in their emails. I wanted mystery, they put me in historical, and I’m certainly not complaining about the number of downloads I got. The only drawback was a slightly higher percentage of readers complaining about it being a series–historical fiction readers are less drawn to series than mystery readers, it would seem. I’ll submit for mystery again next time to see what happens.

    2. Kassandra, that is so interesting to hear. And yes, I agree completely genres can take care of themselves if they get in the way of authors, books and readers. I have no objection what people consider my books to be, so long as they, the readers find their way to them.

      I think because we as Indie’s are now calling the shots, we are probably to blame for the lines blurring and merging and maybe this is a good thing. Thank you for your comment.

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