You Gotta Know the Territory

So you’re writing a book. In what genre? Don’t know? You must.

My colleague, Dan Balow, recently wrote a valuable blog post (here) that touched on the many genre categories and sub-categories in today’s publishing world. You should read it—when you finish reading this, of course.

“I don’t care about genre,” you may say. “I’m a writer, not an editor or publisher.”

To which I say, “Tough.”

If you’re a writer, you must care about genre. You must know where your work-in-progress fits. And you must write according to the conventions of the genre.

As a young man, I set a goal to publish a book—just one—in my lifetime. So, when I took a day job as a magazine editor, I thought it would be a good opportunity to make strides toward meeting that goal (I had previously been a full-time pastor, which was not a nine-to-five job, to say the least). So, I put together two book proposals and mailed them off (this was back in olden times).

One proposal was for a book called, If Christ Had Sinned. It comprised twenty or so short chapters each of which retold a biblical event dramatically, as a biblical novel would, but with a different ending. I think I wrote three wonderful sample chapters, but I can remember only two: “If Adam Had Refused the Fruit” and “If Judas Had Changed His Mind” (the final chapter in the collection was the title chapter). The writing was stellar, if I do say so myself (and I do), and each chapter concluded with a set of “Questions for Thought and Discussion.”

I thought it was a brilliant idea. Short fictional chapters, an alternative ending, and a few questions making it useful for individual thought or group discussion. What could be better?

A book that fits into a genre, that’s what.

The proposal was rejected dozens of times. I thought editors were just being narrow-minded (never mind that my title chapter was dipping a toe into theological waters far too deep and murky for my abilities). At the time, I didn’t know why, but I do now.

Imagine if—by some miracle—my book had been published. Where would it fit in the publisher’s catalog (or, today, website)? Fiction? Nonfiction? Bible study? Group resource? When it shipped to a bookstore and the manager went to display it, what shelf would it go on? Or, in today’s terms, what would the Amazon categories be?

Sure, back then, I would have said, “Put it in every catalog section, on every shelf in the store!” But that’s not how it works.

Customers in a bookstore expect to find a Bible study in the Bible study section, and novels in the fiction section. They don’t want to be confused. They want to find what they’re looking for, whether that is Latin Dancing or Lithuanian Cooking. And publishers know that. Attention to genre helps them meet their book-buyers’ needs, and publishers that meet book-buyers’ needs sell books.

You may remember the scene that begins the Meredith Wilson musical, The Music Man. It’s called “Rock Island” and it takes place on a passenger train filled with traveling salesmen, rolling into the Rock Island, Iowa, station. You probably remember the salesman who says, “Look, whatayatalk. Whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayataalk, whatayatalk?” But when it comes to writing a book—fiction or nonfiction—I suggest that you remember to be guided by one of the other salesmen. You know which one I mean. The one who says, “Ya gotta know the territory.” That’s what writing in and marketing for a particular genre is: knowing the territory.


35 Responses to You Gotta Know the Territory

  1. Janine Rosche September 27, 2017 at 4:20 am #

    May I ask for a list of the particulars that vary genre to genre?

    Plot Structure
    Title (Steve taught me this lesson at ACFW. “No one wants to read a romance with the word Monsters in the title.” Haha, whoops.)

    What else?

    • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 5:51 am #


      I like your thinking! Perhaps consider these aspects as well:

      Word Count
      Topic (?)
      Ending (if it’s romance, LOL)
      Marketing strategy

      • Brennan S McPherson September 27, 2017 at 7:08 am #

        Maybe, “Everything.” 🙂

        • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 10:21 am #

          Oh my gosh, Brennan, how encouraging. 😀

      • Janine Rosche September 27, 2017 at 7:31 am #

        Thanks, Tisha! I’m at the beginning-ish point in my writing journey, so I appreciate helpful advice! I hope to pay it forward one day!

        • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 10:23 am #

          Hey, no problem. I’m still learning and am at that beginning to intermediate-ish stage myself. It’s great to learn together. Glad we can be on the journey together.

          • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 10:26 am #

            I stand corrected. I’m still at the beginning-ish stage! :/

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 8:08 am #

      Brennan is pretty close to the mark.

  2. Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 5:48 am #

    I adore The Music Man! The songs are fun and so catchy, although my sister has memorized all the songs than I have. What a cool illustration for knowing the genre, territory, audience. The salesman was so slick and sly to have fooled that small town, and they let him (well, except for the mayor…eventually)! I’m not saying we writers should fool the publisher—good gracious—but the measured planning, careful consideration, and pointed goals must be included in knowing our book’s specific territory. What fun-work!

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 8:10 am #

      Tisha, you brought to me a startling new realization. Professor Harold Hill THOUGHT he knew the territory. He THOUGHT River City was just another town he could dupe with his usual tactics, but HE was the one who got “played,” so to speak. By L-O-V-E. 🙂

      • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 10:13 am #

        Professor Harold Hill! That’s it—see how well I remember those movie details? 😉 Could you imagine if writers act upon what they *think*? I shudder at the unfortunate possibilities. Let’s hope none of us writers are so much in love with her book that we forget the important aspects of editing and platform and marketing and how they must be used to reach our readers effectively.

  3. Daphne Woodall September 27, 2017 at 6:13 am #

    In fiction the lines can get blurry when it comes to genre for unpublished writers like myself but I count on the experience of others. There are many blog posts that can help you determine where your story fits. And this is one of the best to find answers.

    I loved Music Man and when I read those words I realized this must be Bob Hostetler. I love the humor he brings to this blog.

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 8:20 am #

      Daphne, it does take time and effort to “get” genre, etc., and just when we think we’ve mastered it, the lines move a bit. BUT we learn, and then we learn some more.

  4. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D September 27, 2017 at 6:36 am #

    Great posting, Bob. I agree that knowing ones’ genre is very important. I don’t like horror books and would be greatly upset to go to Christian fiction, where I would buy a book only to find that what I thought was Jan Karon turned out to be Stephen King.

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 8:22 am #

      Ha! Yes, Sheri. That would be a shock.

    • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      Sheri, that’s actually quite funny in a way. Made me chuckle (in horror) for a second.

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 27, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    Personally, Bob, I think we’re all the poorer that “If Christ had Sinned” never saw the light of day.

    Genre’s important, but audience is vital, and I believe your book would have found its audience. Think of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (yes, I do realize it was a completely different era in publishing, but please bear with me).

    It was rejected over thirty times, and when Eleanor Friede championed it she got a miniscule advertising budget…I mean, what WAS “Jonathan”? A less-than-10k-word narrative of a spiritual talking seagull? Where did THAT fit in?

    As it turned out, it really had no genre, but had a huge and untapped potential following…people who wanted to see a purpose and a hope in life, and who didn’t find those at church. (One could make a case for Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” forming a sort of proto-genre into which JSL did fit.)

    Another and more recent example might be “The Hunt For Red October”…I mean, really, it’s an expanded advertising brochure for nuclear submarines, with a far-fetched plot…and it’s a novel published by the Naval Institute Press?

    But Red October filled a need for those who wanted to identify with the modern military, and wanted to feel like they were in the know, and it spawned its very own (and often awful) genre, the technothriller.

    In this time of almost unlimited reach via social media, we do, I think, have the means to reach readers who are not necessarily pigeonholed by genre, and it may be that the publishers are half a step behind here.

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks, Andrew. This is a new day, that’s for sure, and writers have more outlets and alternatives than ever before. But I think readers (such as Sheri, above) will always want a clear indication of what they’re getting before they buy. And I wish I still had my copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I even bought the soundtrack album back in the day.

    • Carol Ashby September 27, 2017 at 8:52 am #

      Clancy published his research for Red October in a book, Submarine: A Guided Tour Inside a Nuclear Warship. I found it at a library book sale in Portal, AZ (a town with no gas, one cafe, a post office, and a library, but it’s famous for rare hummingbirds and trogons). I couldn’t resist snapping that one up for 50 cents. That might not seem terribly useful right now since I’m writing Roman and the Roman navy didn’t have a submarine corps (except for the ships that got rammed and sunk), but who knows what I might write in the future?

      • Peggy Booher September 27, 2017 at 7:57 pm #


        I have to ask, what is a trogon?


    • Janine Rosche September 27, 2017 at 9:03 am #

      Andrew, I love that you mentioned Jonathan Livingston Seagull! My father forced me to read that in middle school, as it was his favorite book. Naturally, I loved it. In my mind, I’ve written its sequel. Jonathan’s grandson, Jack, convinces all the other gulls to leave the oceanside and follow him to the magical land of the Great Lakes. The gulls are disappointed and settle in a Walmart parking lot until Jack redeems himself by discovering Cedar Point Amusement Park. It replays in my mind every time I see a seagull eating a Mcdonalds French fry atop a cart corral up here in northern Ohio.

  6. Carol Ashby September 27, 2017 at 9:04 am #

    I’ve found that keeping the demographics of your audience in mind is a key part of understanding how to stay true to your genre. Before my first Genesis contest, I thought I wrote historical romance because the adventures included a love story, but I was told by a judge that I wrote historical. That difference guided my cover and title selection, and both men and women read and enjoy the books. If I hadn’t learned the distinction between romantic historical and historical romance so early, I wouldn’t be attracting the male portion of my readers.

    (Many thanks, Andrew, for helping me figure out what works as a historical cover and a title for both men and women. Your knowledge as a visual artist and art historian, an author of novels with romantic plotlines, and a man proved invaluable.)

  7. Joyce K. Ellis September 27, 2017 at 9:15 am #

    Thanks, Bob, for this good illustration of genre, reminding me of one of my favorite musicals. My sister was the “prompter” for our high school’s production of The Music Man–too many years ago to admit. A lot of those lines are permanently wired into my brain. So I’ve used these quotes many times, too, when I’m teaching at writers conferences about audience. I’d love to hear you elaborate more, maybe in a future post, about the relationship between audience and genre.

  8. Kathy Sheldon Davis September 27, 2017 at 10:51 am #

    Bob, I see now how an agent can be a life-saving resource for helping an author discern “territory,” since the lines are wiggle-able.

    How often to you see a manuscript with a not-quite-accurate genre designated and promote a change? I have a feeling many writers don’t get it right at first.

    It must be hyphen day, I’m using so many of them!

    • Bob Hostetler September 27, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

      Kathy, that’s-a-huge-advantage-to-crafting-a-proposal-with-an-agent’s-help-because-it’s-a-learning-curve. 🙂

  9. Hannah September 27, 2017 at 1:27 pm #

    Welllllll, you got trouble my friends. With a capital “G” for genre and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool! 😉

    love the musical reference!

    For me one of the hardest things wasn’t necessarily to see where I fit in genre-wise, but which genre I wanted to write in – or, rather, COULD write in. I had wanted to write suspense. I had the plot figured out to the detail. Then I sat down to write it and it was the worst. thing. ever.

    Needless to say, I’ve found my voice in romance. I’ve always known I wanted to write for the Christian market, but it took a while to figure out romantic suspense wasn’t my genre to write.

    • Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

      Trouble right here in Author City!

  10. Tisha Martin September 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Hannah, what did you figure out your kind of romance writing genre is? Contemporary? Inspirational? Or…?

  11. Sandra Lovelace September 28, 2017 at 5:49 am #

    Having dutifully read your message, I will now return and review Dan’s heretofore endorsed article. 😉

  12. Crystal Caudill September 29, 2017 at 7:40 am #

    Great post. But knowing a genre isn’t enough, I have found that it really takes studying the greats and reading widely in the genre you want to write in order to really come to that understanding of what is expected. Knowing your territory is a great example. I think I am going to have to rewatch the Music Man. I haven’t “seen” it since I was a member of the cast in high school, and then you only really see the scenes you are in. 🙂

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