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.)
[pullquote]Clearly identifying your genre can help agents and editors, by giving them a vision of how your book can be sold and marketed. [/pullquote]
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)? [Read more…]