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!


EM Lynley
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… Read more »
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.… Read more »
Susan Laine

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 🙂


Woa awesome post and so very true!



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.

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… Read more »
Josephine Myles
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… Read more »

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


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.


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.

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… Read more »
Tali Spencer

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. 🙂

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