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&N.com, the fiction section came up with the following sub-genres:
- Christian Fiction
- Fiction & Literature Classics
- Fiction Subjects
- Gay & Lesbian
- Graphic Novels & Comic Books
- Historical Fiction
- Literary Criticism
- Mystery & Crime
- Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Short Stories
- Teen Fiction
- War & Military Fiction
- Women's 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.