I have a confession. When it comes to art or entertainment, I don’t like categories.
It wouldn’t occur to me to put the books, music, or art that I like into any category more specific than “stuff I like.” But I realize most of the world doesn’t think that way.
And the publishing business definitely doesn’t think that way.
So today I’d like to share some thoughts about how fiction is categorized, raise some concerns about the obstacles that these categories (or genres, in publishing parlance) can present, and explore how to make these categories work in your favor.
Why genre matters
Whether you’re pursuing conventional publication, or looking into self-publishing, you need to be aware of genre – and its importance to you as a writer. To an agent or editor, identifying your book’s genre helps them determine if and how they can sell your book.
Please notice the “if” in the previous sentence. If what you’ve written is difficult or impossible for agents or editors to categorize, you’re going to have a really, REALLY hard time getting them to go to bat for your book. Similarly, if what you’ve written falls into a genre that the agent doesn’t represent, or one that the editor doesn’t want or need in her catalog, then you’re in a “do not pass go, do not collect $200” scenario.
Don’t freak out about this; just do your homework. It’s not hard to figure out which genres specific agents represent, and paying attention to what kind of books the various publishing houses specialize in is good basic intel for an aspiring writer to collect.
On the upside, clearly identifying your genre can help agents and editors, by giving them a vision of how your book can be sold and marketed. (If “sold and marketed” seems backwards to you, I’m referring to selling the book to a publishing house, and then marketing it to readers upon publication.)
Clearly identifying your genre can help agents and editors, by giving them a vision of how your book can be sold and marketed.
If you’re self-publishing, genre is still important, but for different reasons. While you won’t have to deal with the “gatekeeper” function that agents and editors serve in conventional publishing, you’ve still got to put real thought into how to market your book. Amazon only offers you a limited number of keyword “tags” to apply to your book, and those tags are very important in making your book visible to the right readers.
Most successful self-published authors do a fair amount of experimenting and strategizing when it comes to tagging their books, aware that it can make a big difference in their sales. Although Amazon’s tags are not limited to just popularly accepted literary genres, their function is still the same: to identify what kind of book you’ve written for somebody who has not yet read it.
Why genre can be a problem
Okay, those are some reasons why genre is important. But genre can also be an enormous pain in the ass. Here are four reasons why:
1. Genres are anything BUT universal.
Read some literary blogs, and you’ll see an amazing variety of genres discussed. You’ve got chick-lit, thriller, fantasy, coming-of-age, post-apocalyptic, romance, dystopian, young adult, new adult (which makes me wonder, is there an old adult genre?), science fiction, paranormal, mystery, women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, sparkly teen vampire, left-handed-people-with-freckles fiction, and God knows what else. If you are so inclined, you can slice and segment books into a seemingly infinite number of genres, getting more and more specific as you go. And maybe that’s helpful for an agent pitching a book to an editor.
But here’s a question: Where are all these genres when you walk into a bookstore or library? My local Barnes & Noble only has Literature & Fiction, Mystery, Romance, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. No dystopian. No women’s fiction. No sparkly vampire. And my local library only offers one additional option: Western.
2. Genres can be deceptive.
To make matters worse, many books don’t seem to be shelved accurately – at least to my tiny mind. Want to read the latest hilarious parody of South Florida weirdness by Carl Hiaasen? It won’t be under humor. And I doubt you’ll find a “hilarious parody of South Florida weirdness” section in your bookstore. No, you’ll find Carl’s latest book shelved in the Mystery section. Why? Because the very first book or two that he sold were mysteries. But the last dozen or so, not so much. I mean, this is the guy who wrote Strip Tease, which was made into a movie starring Demi Moore. Where’s the mystery in that movie (beyond wondering whether her boobs were real)?
Where are all these genres when you walk into a bookstore or library? My local Barnes & Noble only has Literature & Fiction, Mystery, Romance, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. No dystopian. No women’s fiction. No sparkly vampire.
Ditto for the later works of Elmore Leonard. If you’ve seen the movie Get Shorty (based on his novel by the same name), maybe you can tell me what the mystery is, other than how Travolta gets his hair to look so good. But like Hiaasen, Leonard’s first books were mysteries. So that’s where the rest of his books have been shelved, decades after he quit writing straight mystery.
3. Genres can kill your book if it doesn’t fit nicely into one.
Here’s where we get to the part where I’ve got some real skin in the game. Prior to writing what became my debut novel, I wrote a mafia comedy that I felt was very much in the vein of Leonard or Hiaasen, or of movies like Analyze This, Get Shorty, or Mickey Blue Eyes – all comedies that played up the funny side of organized crime.
The book had a lot of Leonard-inspired wise-cracking dialog between low-level gangsters, and a significant portion of my book was set in Florida, the state to which both Hiaasen and I are native. I had thought long and hard about my market, and had pitched the book as one that would appeal to readers of Hiaasen and Leonard. Given their cross-over success with books that became movies, I figured this would be very appealing to the publishing houses that my big-name agent was targeting.
No such luck.
The book got a fair amount of positive feedback from editors. Some even loved it. But nobody would buy it – mostly because they didn’t know where they could shelve it. There was nowhere near enough crime in the book to qualify as a mystery. And nobody was kidding themselves that this was literary fiction. Bottom line, they didn’t know how to package it in a way that they thought would generate enough sales to be willing to bid on my book. Particularly with me being an unknown author, they weren’t willing to risk publishing a book they couldn’t easily categorize.
I recognized my mistakes belatedly. First, I hadn’t realized that Hiaasen and Leonard were still shelved in the Mystery section. That’s my bad – I didn’t do my homework. I had focused on the tone of their books, not where they were shelved. Second, I was thinking more about movies than books. Although mafia comedy is a popular genre for film, it hasn’t really carved out a space in the literary marketplace. The other movie my book was most similar to was My Cousin Vinny. But where in the bookstore or library is the ethnic fish-out-of-water comedy section?
Oops. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
4. Genres put you in a box.
Western society has fallen into a strange kind of prejudice. We tend to believe that a person who is really good at one thing can’t be really good at another thing. And maybe that’s true of some people. Our first reaction is often cynicism when we see a movie star trying his hand at fronting a rock band. Or a pop star trying to be an actor. Or when a romance novelist tries to write a thriller, a children’s author writes a detective novel, and so on. Some of that cynicism is well-earned. I doubt that many of us have invested in a complete collection of the musical works of Bruce Willis. And Patricia Cornwell proved pretty decisively that she should not try to write comedy with the mind-bogglingly awful Isle of Dogs.
Western society has fallen into a strange kind of prejudice. We tend to believe that a person who is really good at one thing can’t be really good at another thing.
But what about the ones who CAN pull it off? Janet Evanovich went from writing romance to the tremendously successful Stephanie Plum series of comedic crime novels (shelved in the Mystery section, for those who are curious). Kay Hooper went from romance to gripping suspense novels, some with a supernatural twist. (Some of these are still shelved in the Romance section of my local B&N, despite their murderous content.)
Have you ever seen the delightful movie The Princess Bride? Or watched Marathon Man, the white-knuckle thriller about a Nazi war criminal that starred a young Dustin Hoffman? It may surprise you to learn that both of these were based on novels by the same author, William Goldman. He also wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men.
Wow – talk about an unboxed writer. I love Goldman’s writing, and am so glad that it has found its audience(s). But I submit that he’d have a harder time in this micro-categorizing day and age.
The pen-name solution
An increasingly common tactic when an author writes something in a different genre than their previously published work is to adopt a pen name. On one hand, this can be empowering, giving the writer a clean slate, particularly if their previous books have not sold well. But it also helps them keep from shocking or disappointing the readers of their previous books, who are likely expecting the next book from their favorite authors to be similar to their previous work.
I ended up taking this approach with my second book, because it was such a departure from my debut. I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think the audiences for the two books are likely not very similar, and in particular I was concerned that the amount of profanity in my second book would not go over well with fans of the first (see my exploration of how readers react to profanity in this WU post). On the other hand it’s a little frustrating to have to hide my own name from something I’ve written. I mean, William Goldman didn’t have to do that. (I hasten to add that I don’t kid myself that I’m a writer of William Goldman’s caliber – no way, no how. But it’s something to aspire to.)
Ultimately, I just didn’t feel my second book would be considered an appropriate follow-up to my first, and my first one was definitely more in the style of what I most want to continue to write. So I’m hanging on to my own name for future books in a similar style, and may use my pen name for other less serious work. We shall see…
Making genre work for you
I hope that all of you will take a hard look at your own work, and think about where it fits into the currently accepted genres. Particularly if it’s your first, please give this real thought. Think about authors whose work you consider similar, and/or whose readers you think would also like your own work. But once you’ve done that, don’t repeat my mistake. Get thee to a bookstore, and see where their books are actually shelved. Then ask yourself whether your books would belong on those same shelves.
Once you’ve identified your book’s genre, learn the rules. Most genres have some well-established conventions in terms of word-count, language, acceptable levels of violence and sex, and so on.
Once you’ve identified your book’s genre, learn the rules.
If the thought of this makes you bristle, please know that I’m not trying to get you to stifle your creativity by conforming to some rigid but arbitrary conventions. But particularly as a debut author, I think you’ll find that the easier you make it for an agent or editor to package your work – even if it’s in their own minds – the better luck you’ll have getting them interested. And if you’re self-publishing, the better awareness you have of the conventions for writing, packaging and selling books similar to your own, the better numbers you’ll see in your KDP sales reports.
Like I said, I don’t like to think in categories, so the concept of genre can still be pretty annoying to me. But I’ve learned to take it seriously, and I intend to leverage what I’ve learned to help me become more successful as an author. I hope this post can help you do the same.
How about you?
Got any genre-related war stories or battle scars? Some supporting or conflicting thoughts about what they are and/or why they matter? I’d love to hear your input, so please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!
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