Dangers of Cross-Genre Indie Books: Returns and One-Star Reviews

When I set out on the Kickstarter project for Birthright last year, I had a major task ahead of me: I had to define what made my book any different or any more suited for crowdfunding than anyone else’s.

I mean, I was a new author with no discernable fanbase, writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. How the hell was I going to market that?

And then it hit me. I was writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. Scifi. Not fantasy. On top of the MMO-themed technology (Instancing) in my book that I thought was a selling point, I could tout Birthright as being cross-genre.

Which I did. And the Kickstarter was a rousing success–155% of my initial $2,000 goal!

And now, a year later, the book is selling pretty well. It’s listed in two very distinct categories on Amazon (Epic Fantasy and Space Opera), but I can’t help but wonder if going the cross-genre route was a good idea.

Traditional No-No

From all the research I’ve done, books need to fit in a single, well-defined category. It can be pretty much anything the book’s about, but it needs to be singular. Crossing genres and saying you have a erotic dystopian zombie memoir is a recipe for disaster.

Because while you’re going to appeal to those true-life, post-apocalyptic, zombie-sex lovers out there (you know who you are), anyone who likes just one of the constituent genres is going to be left out.

So unless your book can fit snugly in a marketable category, traditional publishing is probably going to pass. Which is understandable because you’re at risk of not earning out.

Enter The Indie Author

But as indie authors, we have the power to cross-pollenate. We can list our books in Epic Fantasy and Space Opera at the same time. We can tell a swords-and-sorcery story while hopping dimensions and creating pocket universes.

And people who like that sort of thing will absolutely rave about it. Your day will be made. So will your week, your month, and your year. You’ll be ecstatic, and you’ll scream “This is why I’m an indie!” from your roof until your neighbors tell you to shut the hell up.

And then it will all come crashing down.

Because you didn’t account for two simple things in your ecstasy: ebook returns and one-star reviews.

One-Stars Hurt

To be fair, I’ve only been given a single one-star review, and it wasn’t on Birthright. (I know that one’s coming, too, but it just hasn’t yet. I’m steeling myself for it, though.) And it sucked. It hurt my feelings. And it took everything I could not to get on Twitter and whine and cry and bitch about it.

But I didn’t. Because that’s not professional. You take the bad reviews with the good ones. Even if you don’t agree.

And when you’re writing cross-genre books, you will most certainly not agree with everyone. They may think you’re book is too much of this without enough of that. Or the reviewer might love your implementation of that and that your claim to be this was overwrought for marketing purposes.

Whatever. If you write cross-genre, be prepared to upset some fans of one or both of the genres you’re messing with. It comes with the territory, and while it’s not easy to deal with, you have to suck it up and know that you’re screwing with something someone holds very dear.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Ebook Returns

As a working author who’s made a pretty decent number of sales on my books, I like seeing big numbers. Amazon allows indie authors to check sales data in pretty close to real-time. I can F5 my browser and watch (more often pray) for new sales to show up.

Unfortunately, Amazon also allows readers to return purchased ebooks within 7 days of purchase with–from what I understand–no questions asked. 7 days. Which is plenty of time for someone to read a book, enjoy it well enough, think about it a bit, and then decide they’d rather have their money back.

So they go, initiate the return, and my F5’d sales numbers drop. Money that I thought I’d made disappeared.

And as a cross-genre indie, I have to accept that. Some people will buy my book because it has a flaming, golden sword on the cover. Then when they get to the part where I’m discussing pocket universes and hyperspace envelopes, they rush back to Amazon because that was not what they thought it would be.

And that’s okay. I’m still unhappy about it, and every time it happens I’m a few dollars short of quitting my day job and doing this full-time, but I expected it. People who want a sci-fi book may not want fantasy trappings, nor do people who want a fantasy book want to deal with technobabble.

So they return the book and buy the fiction they were originally seeking.

It sucks, and again, it hurts my feelings, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. Plus, like my wife says, it’s better that they return the book and get their money back than leave a one-star review.

True dat. I repeat: True. Dat.

If a reader doesn’t like my cross-genre writing, their return only costs me a few bucks out of my month’s sales. Their one-star review sits on that book forever. So of all the bad stuff that can happen to cross-genre indie authors, returns are actually on the better end of the spectrum.

In The End

You want people to buy your book, love your artisanal genre-bending, give you five-star reviews and all the money in their bank accounts. And while that might happen on a small scale, the reality of indie publishing is the same as traditional: in the end, money talks.

There’s a reason that traditional publishers avoid cross-genre books. It doesn’t make them a bad idea–in fact, it opens up a market for them for us indies–but it makes it so that if you’re going to try something that’s less-than-mainstream, you should be aware that it might not be all hearts, roses, and an easy jog to being a millionaire.

Do you have any experience marketing cross-genre literature?


  1. I am staggered about the 7 day return rule. That makes no sense at all for ebooks.

    One a more positive note you might be pleased to hear that your books were included on a targeted email I got from Amazon today advertising Science Fiction and Fantasy books. Hopefully this publicity will drum up lost of sales for you.

  2. Speaking as one of those zombie-sex lovers (and yes, I do know who I am), what’s your actually return rate overall for Birthright? The national average retail return rate is 5%. If you’re under that, then in reality, you’re doing just fine! If it’s more, then there’s always things you can tweak if you feel it’s necessary.

    Yep, it hurts when you get the 1-star “This sucks!” reviews. Unfortunately, that’s part of the entertainment world. Don’t look at your numbers or your reviews! And listen to your wife. She’s one smart cookie.

    P.S. I think it is fabulous that your Kickstarter succeeded!