If It Looks Like a Duck …… by Nicole Kimberling

Picture this: you go to a restaurant and you see on the menu an item called “pie.”

You ask the waitress, “What kind of pie do you have today?” (For the purpose of this thought experiment, let’s say you are a big fan of pie and may very well buy a piece of it, depending on how the waitress answers.)

“It’s hard to describe,” the waitress says. “It’s kind of a tangy, creamy, sweet dessert. It’s layered and really complex. Part of it is yellow. It’s totally sick.”

Your heart sinks.

“What ingredients does this pie contain?” you ask, mainly out of curiosity. Your chances of buying under-defined “sick” pie are virtually nil.

“It has an all-butter pastry crust, with lemon curd filling and meringue topping,” she says. “You can see it in the case right there.”

A quick glance confirms suspicions that you have been harboring about the mysterious pie. “Isn’t that just regular old lemon meringue pie?”

The waitress looks down at you with slight weariness, “yeah, that’s what some people call it but the chef here doesn’t believe in defining his creations in bourgeois marketing terms.”

Unable to stop yourself you ask, “But ‘lemon meringue pie’ isn’t a marketing term so much as a well-accepted name used to describe the contents of a particular kind of pie. Don’t you think the pie would sell better if diners understood what it was?”

“Maybe,” the waitress replies, “but it’s important to our primary vision to avoid pigeonholing something so expansive and indefinable as lemon meringue pie into one tiny little category. You can’t put labels on art.”


Ah, if only that were true. The fact is, though, that if one is going to engage in the business of selling art, it eventually becomes necessary to define what this thing that you are selling is supposed to be.

As a writer of fiction that could often be best described as “interstitial,” I struggled and fought and wept and shouted long and endlessly into the unforgiving night about the stupid need to define my stories in terms of pre-existing genres. It’s very fair to say that this inability to accurately describe my own work delayed my being published for at least ten years. Why? Because without being able to summarize or label my work, I couldn’t write a query letter.

It was only after I became an editor and started reading other people’s terrible, dismal, baffling query letters that I realized how important it is for an author to be able to accurately define their own work. It all comes down to this: being able to describe one’s work is not only a sign of maturity, it communicates to the editor that you (the author) have enough grasp of publishing markets and their salient genres to roughly know where your story falls in the great, three-dimensional continuum of narrative. It means that you understand that there are different types of story with different structures, aims and goals. It means you have the critical capacity to compare your stories with the stories of others and see where they are similar and dissimilar and make a judgment about where this thing you have written should be categorized, and put it all together. It means that you have a grasp on the larger purpose of marketing—which is to connect readers with stories that they will enjoy.

And when I say buyers, I don’t mean just editors, but readers as well. In these days of easy self-epublishing, authors interact directly with readers more and more. Accurate marketing is crucial so that readers do not feel as if you’ve attempted to deceive them into buying something that they don’t want. Labeling a 100 page piece “erotica” when it contains only three paragraphs of sex will lead to readers who rightly feel cheated–like you’ve pulled a bait & switch on them.

Okay, so I think I’ve beaten the idea that labels help buyers understand your product home well enough.

But understanding that labeling is important doesn’t really help with the problem of defining your own work in the first place.

Here are some tips that can help you better describe your stories. I suggest that when you’re trying to define a piece first just come up with some words that convey the separate elements in play. One way that’s worked for me is to look at the individual parts of a story: the plot, characters, setting and tone and then come up with some terms that describe the various parts first.

Words that describe plot include (but are not limited to) romance, mystery, adventure, thriller, comedy, coming-of-age, quest, space opera, family saga and horror.

Character words can be things like gay, detective, mother, teen, alien or vampire.

Setting includes words like paranormal, contemporary, historical, science-fiction, or fantasy.

Finally we have tone, which can describe either the style of the writing, or the themes explored or both. These are descriptors like literary, hard-boiled, inspirational, epic, erotic or humorous.

One note here: some terms describe a very specific kind of story structure that includes a particular tone. These are words like noir, gothic, steampunk or regency. If you use these descriptors, be careful that your story fits all the criteria. Just because a story is set during the regency of Prince George does not mean that it contains witty banter and comedy of manners. Conversely, if the tone and story progression are right, a story can be rightly called a regency even if it takes place in outer space, as with  JL Langley’s My Fair Captain.

Once you’ve got a few accurate words, putting them in order can be tricky. Is your story a romantic mystery or a mystery romance? Here it becomes useful to look at proportion. Does your primary protagonist spend 75% of the pages solving a crime and 25% accidentally falling in love in the process? It’s a romantic mystery.

Sometimes you’ll need a string words to get the gist across. For example, I would describe my hardest to define the story, The Red Thread of Forever Love, as a gay, paranormal romantic-comedy. Ginn Hale’s Rifter series could be described as a fantasy epic with a gay protagonist. Because of the proportion of intimate scenes to total page count, Josephine Myles’ Barging In could be considered a gay contemporary erotic romance.

And so on.

If all else fails you can always do what I did–ask your savviest friends to help you. Then—and this is the tricky part—believe what they say. Sometimes it’s very hard to separate your own favorite parts of the story, or what you’re proudest of being able to write, from what ended up being most prominent on the page. Maybe you thought you were writing a hard science-fiction story but what you ended up with was a M/M futuristic romance. Go with it. No matter how it’s described to buyers (so long as that description is accurate) it’s still the same manuscript to you. And labeling it correctly will give it a fighting chance of reaching the readers who will love it.

Good luck!



  • This is a great post. I, too, wrote baffling query letters for years, because I was trying to make my work sound unique and special. The truth was, I wanted to write romance, and did write romance, but was too stubborn to say it and came off as pretentious instead. Tough sell, that. :)

    • Hi there Tali!

      You know, so many writers hold such a terrible bias against romance and romantic fiction writers that I could see where the urge to not define your own writing that way would be strong.

  • Oh labels, how we love you, and hate you, or it seems some publishers hate them. :-)

    There is nothing worse than thinking you are buying a mystery, only to find out the lead detective spends about 20 min. of the entire 2 months the story lasts actually working on said mystery, meanwhile angsting over his boyfriend. Or vice versa, in the mood for a hot and steamy romance, only to find the guy’s boyfriend is mentioned in passing twice as he chases serial killers. Both are great, but sometimes I want one and sometimes the other and it can really affect your feelings for a book if you think you were tricked by the blurb or labeling. Emotions in reading are tricky business.

    Tali makes a good point. We all want to be “special” and stand out, but I think most readers have defined tastes. They know what they like and they know what they want, and if you are offering something too unfamiliar, they will pass for the tried and true.

    • Hello Tam, good to see you!

      I remember one time when I was about 20-ish or so I reached for this coffee cup and (thinking it contained coffee) took a big swig. As it turned out the cup contained some mysterious sweet substance. I seriously almost threw up. Then I realized that what the cup actually had in it was coca-cola.

      Now I really like coca-cola and I really like coffee too. I was baffled by the fact that I could not only not recognize something as familiar as coke, but thought it was really vile-tasting when what I was expecting was coffee. That was the first time I ever realized how incredibly important perception is to how we experience an event.

      And I think you’re absolutely right that a lot of angry, bad reviews could be avoided if blurb writers (authors and publishers alike) tried harder for accuracy.

      RE: being special

      I have to say that as an author whose writing generally contains too many unfamiliar elements to instantly attract the mainstream reader, being special has its downside. But I think that readers who are looking only for the tried and true wouldn’t really be my ideal appropriate audience anyway. So misrepresenting my books as being…oh, I don’t know… steamy thrillers or something like that, would be disastrous and result in a slew of bad reviews, I think.

      And if there’s one thing I’ve come to realize, it’s that having wide sales that result in a deluge of angry, bad reviews is much worse than simply having a small, but select readership that really likes you. 😀

  • Thank you so much. That’s the first sensible advice I’ve seen among all the discussions about marketing your books properly. Most of them usually boil down to “Pick a genre and write for it.” I’m not alone in writing books that cross genres and refuse to fit into convenient slots. It’s a frustrating problem that sometimes seems to have no solution.

    • Greetings Catana!

      I’m not sure that picking a genre and then writing for it actually works in terms of the generative creative process. What can be successful, though is after the story is written, looking at the elements and then choosing a slant to work toward during editing.

      Like, for example, if one has written a story that contains a mystery element that’s not realized to its fullest potential, knowing that one would like to go toward mystery can help an author make decisions about what parts of the MS to strengthen or emphasize and what parts to minimize.

      And that dovetails into the question of why editors want an author to be able to describe her work in the first place. Sometimes it’s about future marketing, but oftentimes in the early stages of editing, the editor wants to be sure an author has a clear vision–even if that vision is complex or unusual. The editor wants to know that the author understands what she is doing intellectually as well as intuitively. Because editing is all about making conscious, reasoned decisions that point toward a specific end goal. And it’s a lot easier for an editor to determine an author’s goals for a piece if the author knows and can clearly state those intentions.

      That way an editor can be an ally to the author, rather than working at cross-purposes to her, which ends up being really painful for everybody.

      • “I’m not sure that picking a genre and then writing for it actually works in terms of the generative creative process. What can be successful, though is after the story is written, looking at the elements and then choosing a slant to work toward during editing.”

        Oh, absolutely. If you’re setting out to make a commercial success of your writing, then picking a genre can work very well. I’ve read any number of blog posts and forum discussions by people who do exactly that. When you’re the kind of writer who writes stories that demand to be written and believes that they have their own life that needs to be respected, that isn’t an option. But I can look back at one of my novels and see that, even though it’s SF, I didn’t work hard enough to bring out that aspect of it. I could have done that in the editing. If a book has elements of two or more genres, it makes sense to see if you can emphasize one in order to make it easier to describe.

        • “If a book has elements of two or more genres, it makes sense to see if you can emphasize one in order to make it easier to describe.”

          In my experience, if a book contains elements of two or more genres, it’s helpful to the reader to prioritize those elements so that the reader knows what they are supposed to be paying attention to.

          Choosing the primary element is actually pretty easy–it’s the one that best reflects the plot.

          But let’s say you’ve got a story that has a futuristic setting, a romance plotline and a mystery plotline. If the romance plot and the mystery plot are equally strong, they will diminish each other because they draw on different tension dynamics for their power and require different types of scenes in order to reach their fullest potential. So then the author must make the often painful decision of which one of those plotlines will be cut down so that at least one of the plotlines will be able to shine.

          It’s hard to cull one set of scenes in favor of another, but if no decision is made then the reader often ends up muddled and confused by the clash of momentum caused by dueling plotlines.

          Or that’s what I think, anyway. 😉

  • I’m often disappointed about the blurbs because many of them don’t reflect the story. I really hate that.

    When I look forward to reading a book that’s promoted as science fiction that’s what I expect, but often it ends up as a love story with very few sci fi elements. I could say the same thing about “murder mysteries” which don’t have any mystery about the murderer, no other suspects but the obvious perpetrator, or for that matter, any mystery. This makes me feel cheated.

    • Hey there, Wave!

      I think that maybe blurb writers, especially for digital publishers, have a tough life. On the one had they’ve got the publisher saying, “sell this thing and make it sound like something that fits inside our sexy-sexy product line” and on the other hand they’ve got the author saying, “but that’s not really what my story is about!”

      Generally when I submit blurbs for the stories I write, they get rewritten to be more sexier sounding. And I’ve definitely gotten flack from readers who have been disappointed by the less-than-the-blurb-would-imply level of explicit sexual content.

      But it IS markedly worse, I think, when the plot of a story is completely misrepresented. That is really frustrating for buyers–like ordering chocolate cake and instead being served carrot cake with a handful of chocolate chips in it. 😕

  • Having just been seriously burned by a blurb that didn’t accurately reflect the story, all I can say THANK YOU!

    • Hello Cryselle, thank you for dropping by.

      I’m sorry to hear you got burned. That is always so disappointing. And also sad because it often results in having negative feelings about a story that one might not have had if there wasn’t that sensation of having been scammed.

  • I know exactly what you mean about reader expectation being key. I’ve had to take advice from my editor every time about which categories my books fall into. Sometimes her decisions are based on the commercial potential: a story might be amusing and lighthearted enough to be labelled a comedy, but if it’s also erotic that’s apparently the kiss of death, sales wise. Readers don’t want to think they’re about to read comedy erotic romance, but if they read it expecting just erotic romance they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the humour.

    I suspect my definition of comedy is probably pretty different to that of other people – to me it’s a wide spectrum from subtle wit and satire to full-on slapstick, but perhaps others only consider the stuff that falls nearer the extreme slapstick end to be actual “comedy”. And slapstick sex? Amusing perhaps, but probably not erotic in most people’s minds.

    Hmmm, I’ve rambled, but your mention of Barging In really reminded me of the conversations I’ve had over labelling with my editor, and particularly how much of a particular element is required to shift it into a certain labelling category. As a reader I definitely don’t like being misled, so I really appreciate the publishers who label their books honestly.

    • Hello there Josephine!

      Yeah, there certainly is an existing idea that a piece cannot be comedic and erotic simultaneously, which is really too bad. I mean, to my mind yaoi manga artists seem to pull it off pretty much constantly. I don’t know if that’s because they’re working in a visual medium or because the yaoi story arc allows for comedy to occur–maybe a little bit of both?

      “And slapstick sex? Amusing perhaps, but probably not erotic in most people’s minds.”

      I so want to read your slapstick erotica now. If you ever write any let me know. I’ll be the first one to buy it.

  • Hello Nicole! Thank you for your wonderful article, esp. the lemon meringue pie-scene at the beginning. That made me laugh! 😆

    From a readers perspective, I absolutely agree with Tam, Wave and Cryselle. Wrong lables and misleading blurbs are annoying. If a book is labled/promoted as science fiction (thanks, Wave, for the prompt!) or mystery or historical fiction I want and expect the real deal and not a romance garnished with some ornamental pieces that somehow relate to the lable.
    It’s worst when the only thing relating to the lable actually is the blurb, like when the blurb talks about how the hero is this hot-shot FBI agent in some action/thriller setting and you buy the book and then find out that that was all in the past and you never get to see the hero in action… *sigh*
    On the topic of blurbs: Who actually writes them? Author or publisher? And is it only me or do they get longer and longer lately?

    • Hi Calathea!

      I’m glad you liked the pie thing. When I was formulating this essay I really wanted to use an example of non-labeling that was completely ridiculous. Mystery pie seemed to fit the bill.

      So, blurbs– basically an author writes an initial blurb and sends it to their publisher. The publisher then doctors the text up. Sometimes this is really good, since many authors are really bad at writing their own blurbs. Other times it doesn’t work out so well–especially if the person doctoring the blurb up has not read any part of the manuscript. That’s when the tone of the blurb ends up being so completely dissimilar to the tone of the actual piece as to be misleading.

      I, too have noticed product descriptions getting longer. Time was that the blurb (or backcopy as it has previously been known) could only be a certain length because it had to fit on the back cover of a book. But with digital publishing that constraint is obviously gone. So maybe that’s why they’re stretching out these days.

      • Thanks for the explanation, Nicole, and the new word (backcopy)! 😀

        I agree with Tam regarding the loooong ones (backcopies, that is^^). I stop reading after one or at most two paragraphes. If I don’t know till then what the story is about I’ll skip. Some of the longish blurbs feel like the outline of the book to me and it happens that there’s actually nothing new in the book that I didn’t already know from there. That is kind of disappointing, if in another way from backcopies that are incorrect or only reflect the prologue.

  • Calathea

    On the topic of blurbs: Who actually writes them? Author or publisher? And is it only me or do they get longer and longer lately?

    It’s not you – they are much longer. Yet they still don’t reflect what the book is about. Writing blurbs takes a special skill and most authors don’t possess that skill. However when the publisher’s marketing department write the book blurb they don’t seem to be concerned about content – they want to sell, sell, sell.

    • I’ve always been tasked to write my own blurbs and then they are slightly edited, but no more than the manuscript is. Sometimes I wish someone else would write them. Some publishers have LONG blurbs which I dislike because I stop reading after the first paragraph, my last one with Silver I was told had to be shaved down to 240 words, not easy. LOL But I think most of the time it’s the author who writes them with a bit of cleaning up. Mine have not changed all that much except for tightening up.

  • That was a very thoughtful piece of writing, Nicole. Very useful. Writing blurps and query letters never gets any easier, but it does become manageable–if you’re willing to accept that different people might view your story differently.

    And you’re right about romance writers being labeled as hobby-writers of fluff. I know I got some snickers from loved-ones for choosing it, even though they meant it kindly. After a year, they’ve grown accustomed to it, and so have I :)

  • Hi Nicole I had read your post when it appeared – always do :) but decide that your very good advice this time had been mostly for the writers and I did not think I had anything to say. But my fellow reviewers made a very good points about blurbs not reflecting the story correctly, mislabeling, etc so I wanted to ask a question. Say you have not described your story accurately but the publisher decided they still want it and they made you see the light 😉 . They explained to you in which genre it really should belong,etc. So at the end the publisher really should market it correctly right, if they understand what the story is about? And if the story is a mystery with a smudge of romance, tiny smudge or none it really should not be marketed as romance, right? Thanks Nicole.

    • Hey Sirius! It’s always good to see you.

      Well, in an ideal world, authors and publishers would be able to agree about what to call a story, but alas…

      The trouble is, I think, that the author and publisher have different motives for the labeling. The author wants the label to be accurate, but might not be able to figure it out because of being too close to a story. A publisher might be trying to squeeze a story into a more popular category so that it will get more exposure and sell better, which benefits both them and the author.

      So in some cases neither party might be actually right and in some cases having a story categorized badly will doom it’s sales because no appropriate readers will ever find it.

      I personally feel that the term “m/m” should be liberated from the romance genre and be a category of story all in itself, in the way that yaoi is. I mean, not all yaoi stories are romances. A lot of them are horror stories, for example.

      An m/m story is also not a automatically a gay story, though some qualify in both categories. So within the m/m genre there are romances, mysteries, thrillers, humor pieces, science fiction etc.

      I think readers of m/m would be better able to find what they’re looking for if there wasn’t an automatic notion that all m/m stories must be romances at their core. It might also broaden the range of m/m stories published to include more than just romances, which would enrich the field.

      I mean, as an author I can say that none of my titles are actually romances, though they all contain strong m/m romantic stories. They are undeniably m/m stories. But if they were removed from the romance category, no readers would ever find them, right?

      Anyway, so that’s why I think that in an ideal world m/m would get to be a category all its own.

      But that’s just my ideal world, I suppose. :)

      • Nicole wrote: “I personally feel that the term “m/m” should be liberated from the romance genre and be a category of story all in itself, (…)”

        Funny you should say this. Only a couple of weeks ago I seperated my m-m-romance bookshelf over at Goodreads into m/m and romance because I found that a lot of the books I read lately didn’t actually fit in the romance category. Or at least the romance took a backseat and it wouldn’t be fair to the book to use it as the sole lable.

  • This is a great post on a subject that applies not just to authors but to publishers as well. Readers want to know what to expect when they buy a book, and disappointed readers don’t keep buying. That can hurt both the authors and the publisher. I say that as an author who worked with a publisher that gave every single book five peppers (top heat rating) and called it all erotica when many of the stories were much tamer and less emphasis on sex. Readers who wanted 5-pepper books got upset and people who didn’t want 5-pepper books didn’t buy them. Everyone lost out.

    The same issues apply with regard to genre and tone. A happy, up-beat blurb shouldn’t be used on a dark, angsty book, no matter how good it sounds from a marketing perspective. Blurb-writing should be a collaborative process to best define the book for a prospective reader within pre-defined boundaries for heat and content.

    Thanks for tackling the subject. At least if authors can be more mindful, they may be able to help their publishers be both more accurate and more precise.

    • Hello there, EM!

      Oh heat levels…. Is there anything more subjective? I completely agree, though, that both authors and publishers tend to exaggerate the level of “hotness” of any given piece.

      I personally like the guidelines given on All Romance Ebooks regarding their flame rating system. I found it useful and easy to understand.

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