Navigating the Sticky Terrain of Creative Shifts

The challenges of market repositioning for authors, artists and career switchers

In the ever-evolving landscape of cultural industries like film, music and books, the ability to innovate and explore new creative areas is often celebrated as a hallmark of artistic success.

However, in our recent study, "The Stickiness of Category Labels: Audience Perception and Evaluation of Producer Repositioning in Creative Markets,” my co-authors and I shed light on the challenges that creators face when venturing into new areas—particularly when these shifts involve a departure from their established creative identity.

The Stickiness of Categorical Labels

With my co-authors Balázs Kovács at Yale University and Amanda Sharkey at Arizona State University, we delved into the concept of "categorical stickiness" within the book publishing industry.  Our study is forthcoming in INFORMS Management Science.

We explored how book authors who attempt to reposition themselves into different genres are perceived and evaluated by their audience. The term "categorical stickiness" refers to the persistent association of an author with a particular market category (like a genre or style) and the resistance the author encounters when attempting to break free from this categorical mold.

For example, consider the first novel published by J.K. Rowling after concluding the Harry Potter series—“The Casual

book cover of The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Vacancy”—a social and political satire written for adults. A glance at its Goodreads reviews shows that several loyal Harry Potter fans felt shocked and disappointed in the book’s gritty and mature themes. Despite its clear description as aimed towards an adult audience, readers did not appear to fully grasp the idea that the creator of the magical world of Hogwarts was writing a realistic, adult-themed novel. 

Goodreads Data

Our research explores category stickiness dynamics by analyzing data from on over 1.5 million books written by roughly 460,000 authors and incorporates insights from interviews with book authors and readers.  

We studied the genres that authors aim to position their books into by using a deep learning model to predict genre labels of books based on the book descriptions. This information was typically found on a book publisher’s website, the book’s back cover or dust jacket. 

Our model's predictions were validated in two primary ways: examining out-of-sample prediction performance and collecting and comparing to human classification in a controlled environment. We then compare these to the genres that Goodreads users classify those same books into. 

The Mismatch Dilemma

Our analyses find support for the idea that the preconceived expectations audiences hold for an author based on the author’s prior works shapes how they perceive and evaluate an author's venture into a new genre.  

We find a systematic mismatch between what authors claim and what audiences perceive when authors reposition themselves in a new genre, and ultimately in a devaluation of the author's new works.

Further, readers with more experience and familiarity with an author's previous works are less likely to recognize and appreciate the author's repositioning efforts, reflecting the constraints of categorical expectations on audience reception.

Exceptions to the Rule

We found some notable exceptions to this rule. 

The first exception is that authors with a history of diverse genre writing who have a portfolio that spans across different literary styles and themes. These authors may find themselves in a slightly more favorable position when it comes to repositioning. Their existing reader base, already accustomed to seeing the author explore new areas, might be more open and adaptable to further shifts in genre. The established versatility of the author serves as a buffer, reducing the intensity of categorical stickiness.

A second exception relates to readers who we characterize as “cultural omnivores”, who read and appreciate a diversity of genres. These readers tend to navigate through the literary landscape with a more flexible and open mindset. They are generally more willing to cross genre boundaries in their cultural consumption. Even when confronted with a book that is positioned differently than they expected, they are likely to find the book more appealing compared to a reader with a narrow taste profile.

Beyond Books: A Universal Conundrum

While our study focuses on the context of book publishing, the implications of categorical stickiness reverberate across various professional and creative industries.

Consider, for instance, when an accomplished actor known for comedic roles stars in an action film—fans may go to the movie theater expecting comedy even if the film has been marketed as pure action and come away disappointed.  Or when a seasoned finance professional attempts to transition into the world of tech startups.  

The mismatch between their new career aspirations and the perceptions held by potential employers, colleagues, and industry peers can potentially lead to resistance, skepticism, and a devaluation of their skills and experiences in the new domain. 

In a variety of contexts, the perceptual labels that stick to individuals based on their previous track record can act as an inertial force—providing a stable identity while simultaneously constraining new and transformative pursuits.

Career Transitions: Navigating the Mismatch

So, how does one navigate through the challenges of sticky categorical labels and successfully embark on a new path? The key may lie in strategically managing perceptual transitions and aligning them with audience or industry expectations.

Gradual transitions, strategic communications that highlight diversity in past works, collaborations that bridge old and new domains, targeting and engaging omnivorous audience members, and creating narratives that coherently link past endeavors with new pursuits might serve as viable strategies to minimize the resistance encountered during repositioning.

Embracing the New While Respecting the Old

In a world that seeks innovation and celebrates reinvention, our research findings invite us to reflect on the perceptual biases that may hold these endeavors back.  And to think about how we might create more room for the unexpected and the transformative journeys that creators and professionals embark upon.

Meanwhile, authors, musicians, actors, and other artists could use our findings to think about the importance of clear communication with audience members when they are trying to navigate shifts in genre or style.

In a similar way, people contemplating career changes can focus on communication and strategies for gaining understanding and buy-in from peers and employers, facilitating smoother transitions.