Monday, October 13, 2008

Picking a Genre for Your Book

Categories, categories. It seems that I can answer these questions a million times over; there never seems to be enough information on how to categorize a book. A recent question asked me this: What do agents mean by General Fiction?

Let’s look at categories from a very basic marketing perspective. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the reader or for the bookstore buyer. The truth is that who categories matter most to, in the end, are readers. Most readers tend to gravitate to one section of the bookstore first, and those sections are usually divided by: Mystery, Romance, SF/Fantasy, Young Adult/Teens, or Fiction. Okay, yes, there are many different sections in the bookstore, but most of those are nonfiction. Fiction categories tend to be a little more narrow. Now some bookstores may deviate from this a little, depending on the store, but for the most part this is what you can expect. So, when choosing a category, the first thing you are going to look at is where in the bookstore does your work best fit? Who can you compare it to? When picking an author to compare your work to, do not pick anyone who has ever hit the New York Times bestseller list. Why? Because inevitably once they hit that list they’ve crossed genres in some way and no longer clearly fit a perfect category. Stephen King, for example, is not a horror writer anymore, he is Stephen King and could easily have his own section of the bookstore. The same could be said for authors like Nora Roberts, J.R.R. Tolkien, or Janet Evanovich. So who else can you choose? Can you find someone new, fresh, and hot to pick from? Keep in mind that this is for your own personal research, you don’t have to share this with anyone else.

So what if after all of that your book falls firmly into the “fiction” section. Can you call it fiction? Yes, absolutely, that’s what it is. Of course that’s what all of those sections are. Typically when an agent calls something general fiction (or mainstream) she is thinking of a book that can’t be categorized in any other way. Often it’s more literary or more generally mainstream. An author who would perfectly fall into that area is Tom Perrotta. His books are not women’s fiction because although they do and will appeal to women in many ways, they enjoy a broader audience and tend to have themes that would appeal to men. Nick Hornsby's books are another example, as is The Kite Runner. Although The Kite Runner might be seen as a little more literary.

In this case the reader thought her book would be better categorized as women’s fiction. So call it that. If the book would appeal more strongly to women, like the books of Elizabeth Berg, Jodi Picoult, or Nicholas Sparks, it should definitely be called women’s fiction. Okay, so you fall into the “fiction” section of the bookstore, but agents and editors aren’t bookstores. They are individuals with more individualized tastes. Calling a book women’s fiction or historical fiction rather than just fiction gives us insight into who the audience is, what the themes of the book might be and, frankly, whether or not it’s a subject that might be of interest to us. The same holds true for you. If you were told you should read a book called Jessica’s Story and that it’s fiction, you probably wouldn’t jump at it because it gives you no description. If, however, Jessica’s Story was described as historical fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction, or gay & lesbian fiction you immediately get a different image.

Another reason sub-genres are becoming more popular is an increased use of online bookstores. While a physical store doesn’t have room for 15 different fiction sub-genres, an online store does, making it more appealing to readers. When I browsed books on B&, the fiction section came up with the following sub-genres:

  • Anthologies
  • Christian Fiction
  • Drama
  • Erotica
  • Essays
  • Fiction & Literature Classics
  • Fiction Subjects
  • Gay & Lesbian
  • Graphic Novels & Comic Books
  • Historical Fiction
  • Horror
  • Letters
  • Literary Criticism
  • Mystery & Crime
  • Poetry
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Short Stories
  • Teen Fiction
  • War & Military Fiction
  • Women's Fiction
Interesting. If you don’t know where within the broad spectrum of fiction your book lands, maybe this is the place to start. Where within these sub-genres does your book land? Check to see which authors they are placing there and read some of the books to get a feel for why something might be called war & military fiction versus mystery & crime fiction.

I honestly think one of the reasons authors have so much difficulty with this is because they have a hard time really narrowing in on what their books are. Any book in any of these categories tells a bigger story than just women’s fiction, for example, and we would all like to think that our books appeal to more than just those people shopping in that section or shopping in “gay & lesbian,” for example. But give yourself time to find those audiences. For now, just pick a sub-genre.



Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

I find categorising my work is difficult,so this was an interesting post.

On his blog Nathan Bransford also spoke of an emerging genre, Book Club Fiction. This incorporates fiction that is too literary to be commercial, but too commercial to be literary. Target market: book clubs. Nathan defined this market as groups who want an easy read that appeals across different reading tastes and still provides enough depth for topic discussions at the monthly book club meets.

Anonymous said...

I saw a similar post on Nathan Bransford's blog the other day, dealing more specifically with suspense, mystery, and thrillers.

I'm you ever have people tell you their work is a combination? Like it's a mystery/thriller, or a sci-fi/romance, or women's/suspense?

Does that bother you at all or is it pretty common?

The Rejection Queen said...

Thanks...I was totally wondering what the difference was between mainstream and commerical fiction. *Whew*

TerriRainer said...

I agree, it is confusing and often subjective.

Thanks for the info, we can never hear it too many times (at some point, it might sink in)!

:) Terri

Anonymous said...

I can see where some of the confusion starts--or at least my confusion about the genres and categories.

It's the writing books.

Many of them still focus on a very narrow list and don't take into account categories and subgenres. And they're often the first place writers turn to figure out what they're writing.

When I first started a novel, I determined what I thought the genre was by the books I got at the bookstore. Mystery, great. I then got all the writing books on how to write a mystery.

My book wasn't anything like what they described. I didn't have a detective solving a mystery or even a crime as the central story. It turned out it was a suspense novel, but none of the mystery books I got even talked about that.

So I'm glad to see a discussion on this! Thanks!

Sabina E. said...

I've also noticed "ethnic" categories at my local bookstore like "SOUTH ASIAN LITERATURE" or "BLACK WRITERS," which is annoying and offensive, because why can't they be put in Literary Fiction or any other appropriate categories?

I'm kind of afraid to classify my book as "literary fiction," cos that doesn't sell too well, does it?

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

I know exactly what your posters mean about the difficulty of choosing a genre. My book is targeted to both YA and Adult-- and it's labeled simply as "fiction."
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Ch. 1 & Book Trailer are online!

ChristaCarol Jones said...

Reading this, I also wondered about the book club "category" I read on Nathan Bransford's blog as well. He mentioned it isn't technically a genre yet, so with that I assume we couldn't query an agent saying it's a 75,000 book club fiction? :-P But I almost want to say most book club books fall into main stream or literary fiction, right? I guess it's a case by case.

Travis Erwin said...

This has always been a struggle for me.

And even though several of my novels are clearly women's fiction in my mind, I have problems at conferences and what not convincing others that a big hairy guy with a heavy Texan accent is capable of writing such a story.

Rodney Battles said...

Travis, I feel your pain. I also write romance and women’s fiction. A few years ago, I queried an agent for an erotic suspense novel I had written. In the query, I only used the initial for my first name. The agent actually called me after requesting and reading a partial, but when she realized I was male, she was no longer interested. I’ve since decided to make sure agents know I’m a male when I query them. If we persevere and remain positive, maybe, just maybe the old paradigms will change.

Anonymous said...

When you pick a genre for your first book, will you be expected to write and submit only in that genre until/unless you become very successful?

What about time-travel or alternate history fiction that's not category romance, like Octavia E. Butler's Kindred or Diana Gabaldon's Outlander? For instance, Kindred is Sci-Fi/Horror, yet it's usually relegated to the "African-American" section. Outlander is Sci-Fi/Historical Romance, yet it is always in the General Literature section. Short Story editors have referred to these types of plots as Slipstream. I like Slipstream as a genre, but it usually ends up shelved with Sci-Fi or Fantasy, and I'm not sure that as a bookstore manager I would have an easy time placing either of those books. What's the best way to make sure you're using the right genre in those kinds of situations?

T. M. Hunter said...

Most of the science fiction sub-(sub-?)genre works get lumped into science fiction regardless...I write space opera stories and manuscripts.

Some magazines will discern which type of science fiction they like to see, but very rarely will you see a publisher or agent do the same.

Lanette said...

My novel is a mystery from the POV of the coroner. That sounds fairly easy to categorize, but here's what makes it more difficult to place. The coroner's human, but the decedent is a leprechaun, and the cast of suspects are all mythological creatures. What do I put down as a genre?