Monday, 23 September 2013

Why are genres determined by reader expectations?

by Narelle Atkins

I write in the contemporary inspirational (Christian) romance genre but I love reading books in other genres. A genre can be defined as a category of literature. Fiction genres include Romance, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Historical, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Paranormal, Horror and Young Adult. Each fiction genre may contain multiple sub-genres and also cross over between genres. Historical Romance has many sub-genres defined by the time period and/or setting. For example, a regency romance is usually set in England, 1811-1820. 

Why is genre important? If you’re writing for your own pleasure, then genre really doesn’t matter. But if you’re writing to publish, you need to find a market for your books. Your market consists of readers and genre definitions are a marketing tool that helps readers choose between different types of books.


For example, in a romance novel the story will focus on the developing romantic relationship between the hero and heroine. Romance readers expect the story to have a happily-ever-after ending for the hero and heroine. They read romance to journey with the characters as they struggle to overcome obstacles in the story to achieve their happy ending. If a book is marketed as a romance but the hero and heroine don’t meet until three chapters before the end, or the hero and heroine go their separate ways at the end of the book, the reader will be disappointed because the book does not meet their expectations of a romance book.


The book market works on the principle of supply and demand. Publishers and authors supply books to meet the demand of readers. Publishers will go bankrupt if they don’t supply books that readers want to buy. They pay attention to the consumer behaviour of readers and strive to supply books that meet the different expectations and personal tastes of readers.


Books are not a ‘one size fits all’ generic product and I’m going to use the analogy of McDonalds burgers to explain my point.


McDonalds offer a wide range of burgers. A customer who orders a beef burger but is given a chicken burger is not going to be happy. They will be disappointed, possibly angry and most likely wanting to exchange the chicken burger for the beef burger that will meet their expectations. The chicken burger may taste great, but they will be thinking about how they really wanted a beef burger and are less likely to enjoy eating the chicken burger.


A customer who orders a Big Mac is not likely to be happy if the burger contains beetroot. Even if they like beetroot on their burgers, they didn’t request it on their Big Mac and it won’t meet their expectations.


Under the Australian Consumer Credit Code, the customer is entitled to ask for an exchange or refund in these situations because the product does not meet the advertised specifications.


In the same way fast food outlets want to provide burgers that meet their customer’s expectations, publishers and authors want to provide books that meet reader expectations. I’ve asked Jenny Blake, a reader friend who contributes to our blog, a few questions to see how this works in real life.





Narelle: Jenny, thanks for joining us today. I know you are a fan of the Love Inspired and Heartsong Presents range of inspirational romance books from my publisher, Harlequin. What are your reader expectations of these books?


Jenny: A clean, light read with an inspirational content. I love that I know I can read these books and know there will be no bad language or sexual content in them. The books are easy to read but still have a message. The books have grown over the years to have stronger storylines and do deal with real issues. Having the three lines for Love Inspired (Historical, Contemporary and Suspense) gives a good range of books to choose from.


Narelle: I’ve included the link to the Love Inspired and Heartsong Presents Writing Guidelines so you can see if Jenny’s reader expectations in any way reflect the writing guidelines for these books. 

http://www.harlequin.com/articlepage.html?articleId=538&chapter=0 

My next question: What is your favourite genre? Has the style or content of books in this genre changed over time?


Jenny: My favourite is historical but not all historical. I am not a regency fan but love how there is a range of historical eras. Yes I can see the books have evolved over time. The books now are more realistic and often much better researched. I have noticed it more so in the Heartsong Presents range as these are the ones I started reading first. The style has change and it’s hard to say how but the stories are stronger and the characters are not as perfect and unrealistic as before. Also before Historical was mainly American Prairie stories now there is so much more variety.


Narelle: Thinking of the books you read in your favourite genre, can you think of anything that would deter you from buying a book in this genre and could possibly be compared to my analogy of adding beetroot to a Big Mac? Would these story elements turn you off buying future books from that particular author or publisher?


Jenny: Yes one of my favourite Historical times is the Civil War. Last year I was so excited to get a book set in the era but when I started the book the language was so bad. They used one word to excess and I had to stop reading because of this. It was so disappointing and I would never buy another book by the author and I would wonder at the publisher also. I also enjoy inspirational romance but have been frustrated when I have bought the book marketed as this only to find it’s got a high amount of suspense in it. I do not read heavy suspense books and this is a big turn of and yes it will make me wary of the author or publisher.


Narelle: Have you come across any books that don’t seem to fit into a genre category? For example, the marketing or back cover information might be vague in regards to signaling the type of story. In your opinion, is this a positive or negative factor in determining whether or not you will buy the book?


Jenny: Yes, it doesn’t happen a lot but when it does it can be frustrating. When I am looking for a book I normally look at the genre and read the blurb. There have been a few from reading the back I thought it was a romance only to find it was chick lit or women’s fiction which I do not really like or have found the story to be totally different from what the blurb indicated. For example I thought it would be an inspirational romance only to find it deals with the heroines demon’s and there is very little romance in the book.


Narelle: You’ve read Jenny’s responses, the opinions of one reader. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of the questions I posed to Jenny. Please be respectful in your comments and acknowledge that Jenny was brave to sit in my ‘hot seat’. Any inappropriate comments will be deleted. 





NARELLE ATKINS writes contemporary inspirational romance and lives in Canberra, Australia. She sold her debut novel, set in Australia, to Harlequin's Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line in a 6-book contract. Her first book, Falling for the Farmer, will be a February 2014 release.


Narelle is a co-founder with Jenny Blake of the Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA). http://acrba.blogspot.com


Website: http://www.narelleatkins.com
Blog: http://narelleatkins.wordpress.com 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NarelleAtkinsAuthor
Twitter: @NarelleAtkins https://twitter.com/NarelleAtkins

21 comments:

  1. I remember reading one book I thought was a romance where the couple broke up in the final chapter. That's a quick way to turn a five-star book into a two-star book. He broke up with her because he was a Christian and she wasn't (which I agreed with), but it was a Christian romance, so I was expecting her to become a Christian in the last few pages, not for them to break up!

    What was worse was when I read the second book in the series, set six months later. She'd become a Christian, they had reconciled, got engaged and married. All in six months. And none of that was visible to the reader. It felt like I'd been fed dinner then deprived of the promised dessert.

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    1. Oh that is disappointing Iola!
      I think fitting within the main guidelines of a genre is important. This ensures the reader is getting the product they paid for.
      As a writer, this can feel restrictive, but if we want to publish, we do need to think of our readers as customers and not just think they will love our 'baby' as much as we do. A reader comes in fairly blank to a book and they start to form ideas as soon as they see the cover, blurb and then start reading. Those expectations should be met - or any surprises should be pleasant. Great post Narelle.

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    2. I agree having a book where the heroine and hero split would be disappointing. also not having her become a christian. If there is a sequel like there was I would expect it to show how she became a christian and they married. you are right to feel shortchanged.

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    3. Iola, that is frustrating! I once read a romance contest entry where the hero and heroine were unhappily married to other people for the whole story. They somehow got rid of their spouses during the story and, according to the synopsis, ended up happily together at the end of the book. The entrant had misunderstood the basic fundamentals of romance and the story belonged in a different genre ie. contemporary fiction.

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    4. Cat, great thoughts! Our books are products and we also have to emotionally detach from our mss and not treat them like children. A story may need to be tweaked by an editor to fit into a genre or line for marketing purposes. My Aussie books will have American grammar and spelling because they are primarily being sold in North America. We need to be open to editorial and marketing advice from the experts who know how to sell books.

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  2. Thanks, Narelle and Jenny! With one of my earlier novels, I deliberately left the ending a little 'open' as, at the time, I thought I might write a sequel. However, my publishers thought they had lost the last chapter of my manuscript and insisted I needed to write another chapter in which everything was happily resolved, which I did! But that novel was general fiction and not specifically romance--and I still think I preferred the 'unresolved' version! I find this whole issue of genre quite difficult, to be honest, although I understand the need for the industry to categorise and also the importance of not disappointing readers. Nevertheless, I would like all my novels to be classed as 'general fiction' as I don't want to cut out any potential readers because of any 'labelling' and I would hope the back cover blurb would give them enough idea what to expect. Just this past week, there were two occasions--once when being interviewed on radio--when I realised the males with whom I was speaking had wiped the idea of ever reading any of my novels because they thought they were some sort of 'formula' romance!

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    1. Jo-Anne if your books are not Inspirational Romance I would prefer them labeled general fiction or women's fiction then I am not disappointed if there isn't a HEA ending. That was where I got in trouble with one book (and the author will know who I am talking about) I thought it was romance when it was Womens or General fiction. When I found out it completely changed my opinion. I had been disappointed a couple things I was waiting for didn't happen but then finding out I had the genre wrong I understood and it was a good book. Gilbert Morris is a classic example while he writes historical fiction and there is romance elements the books are more historical than romance where as someone like Julie Lessman is more Romance than history.

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    2. Jo-Anne, general fiction is a genre, a kind of 'catch-all' for contemporary fiction books that don't fit neatly into any other genre categories. The back cover blurb can be helpful in signalling the type of story to the reader, although I've found some blurbs are quite vague. I like to know what I'm reading and I'd probably skip looking at a general fiction title if I didn't know the author or have some idea about the type of story. I usually like happy endings but sometimes I'll feel like reading a tear-jerker or an issues-based story that has a satisfying ending.

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  3. I typically read suspense or thrillers. Speculative fiction in the CBA market has been growing in prominence over the past few years and now has many different sub-genres to it. It's often difficult to assess by reading the blurb on a book what particular aspect of "speculative" will feature in a novel. I'm not big on "horror" or when vampires appear as this takes me too far out of what I consider to be believable.

    I've started reading romantic suspense this year as well and have been pleasantly surprised how much I've enjoyed them. I'm keen to try my hand at historical but am unsure as to what period. I think I'd prefer to go more ancient than modern as I'm fascinated by the early years of the church.

    And I reckon a burger always tastes better with beetroot, hence, why I rarely eat Maccas burgers. But their fries are another story.

    Good post Narelle and clever grabbing Jenny to provide her input too.

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    1. Thanks Ian, Suspense is one where I dont like it to heavy or horror but like light suspense. Someone like Margaret Daley does a great Suspense with just the right amount of romance. Her books have action but not to heavy. I have read a few speculative books too like Broken Angel (which really had my fear of dogs heightened when he used attack dogs in the story). This year I have loved a few of the Love Inspired Suspense books cos they are an easy read but have a good story.

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    2. Ian, I occasionally read CBA speculative fiction. I love Tosca Lee's books. I usually don't read romance while I'm writing my first drafts and I enjoy reading books from other genres. I love how we now have a wide range of genre choices within the Christian fiction market. I don't like horror or literary fiction that is dark and depressing. Btw, I like beetroot on my burgers, too :)

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  4. As a reader I like to be surprised and am intrigued when authors bend and even break the "formulas". I also read widely and eclectically - fantasy & sci-fi, literary fiction, historical, inspirational, young adult, crime, suspense, maybe even a bit of romance - though I don't like horror. So while I can understand that many readers like a strict genre formula, for some readers that becomes too restrictive and predictable. Maybe that's why I'd much rather have a hamburger from a small, corner shop with or without beetroot than the rather tasteless Maccas version (that is at least until I developed a wheat allergy). I love that about Paula Vince's books which have romance, suspense and faith. And maybe that's why I enjoy writing fantasy and YA where crossovers between genres are much more acceptable - and I can add romance and/or suspense judiciously.

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    1. Hi Jenny, I dont mind cross over books but I do like to know what type of book it is. I have read a couple that were labelled wrong. Like being labeled inspirational fiction only to find they were more womens or chick lit. One in particular was about a married lady who's parents had a health crisis which sent her into melt down and dealt with her not dealing with the issues. There was almost no romance in the book infact she left her husband they did reconcile at the end but it was not a romance and I have to say I haven't read a book by the author again. If it had been marketed as general fiction or womens fiction it would have been different (still would have hated the heroine but would have made allowances for her).

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    2. Jenny, I think readers are open to a wide variety of books but they do like to have some idea of what they're buying. For example, some readers hate romance, and a romance sub-plot that's not hinted at in the blurb or the genre keyword classifications could spoil the story for them. I agree with Jenny B that labels are very important, especially for indie books. Indie authors need to know what genre/genres they're writing and how to market their book to the right audience. It's rare to find a fiction book that everyone likes because personal preferences are diverse. Paula's books usually include all the genres she mixes together on the front or back cover of the book, which provides a clear marketing signal to the reader. If a reader visits Paula's website and researches her books, they'll know what to expect :)

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  5. I like reading books where I know the genre, but also ones that cross over between genres. I particularly like the suspense-romance.
    I've also read a lot of the Heartsong and Love Inspired books. I like them, but it always bugs me that the story is built up over the majority of the book and then suddenly in the last 2 pages everything is worked out, but you're not quite sure how. Everyone just suddenly works out their issues. I keep reading them though, because it's how I often test out new authors.
    I agree with Jenny about the language issue. I will throw out a book that has swearing in it and not buy any more books by that author.

    Please keep writing books. I'll keep reading them, and if I love them, they will be read more than once and recommended to my friends.

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    1. Thanks for commenting Beth I think we are very similar in our reading styles. I found the Heartsong presents and LI ranges were like that everything wrapped up in the last 20 pages or less. But lately it hasn't been quite as predictable. I went through a stage where I was waiting for those pages to wrap it up and it was getting annoying now it still happens but its not always that though oh I know it will happens soon just get one with it feeling. (Says she who has been reading the one book for 2 weeks now and is only on chapter 3).

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    2. Beth, thanks for visiting :) It's frustrating when the conflict in a romance story seems to miraculously disappear without the hero and heroine working through their issues to achieve their HEA ending. The reader wants to let out a satisfied sigh at the end of the book and feel confident that the hero and heroine will live HEA for the rest of their lives. We appreciate your encouragement and support of Aust/NZ authors and books :)

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  6. I admit I mostly read what I would classify as mainstream fiction

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    1. Dale, mainstream fiction is a broad category that provides a wide range of books. That said, there are still some similarities in style or structure that appeal to fans of mainstream books. Readers will find the genres and book categories they like, and choose books according to the reading experience they are seeking.

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    2. True, I agree with that Narelle.

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