How do you know the category or genre of that pesky novel you’re writing? Is there some infallible way to know your category?
Lisa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Randy reading the question today about target audience got me thinking of another area I am having difficulty narrowing down. Genre/category.
It seems so simple on the surface, but in reality there are so many parts of a novel that it is difficult. I have even seem some authors call there book one thing while agents and editors call it another.
To make it even more difficult bookstores here have three sections Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, and Fiction. So how is an aspiring author to learn where their book belongs if they never see categories on the book store shelves.
I think I am writing literary suspense (maybe action) because my book is character driven with a plot based around family relationships (so literary) but it is also driven by external events that put the characters in danger (so suspense/action) I think..but there are supernatural elements that could put it in fantasy as well so how is a writer to know?
I am yet to see a list of criteria for telling what genre is what but perhaps I am not looking in the right places please help!
Randy sez: Category is complicated. I discovered this when I was writing my book Writing Fiction for Dummies and got to Chapter 3, on “Finding Your Audience and Category.” I thought this chapter would be a breeze to write, but the more I thought about it, the more subtleties I saw.
I had to talk to a number of author, editor, and agent friends to get it all untangled in my mind. Uber-agent Chip MacGregor was probably the most helpful at getting it all sorted out. Chip was the acquisition editor of my first novel; later on he became my second agent; later on, he spent a couple of years as Publisher at Time-Warner. Now, he’s back to the agenting business and he’s one of my most-respected go-to guys when it comes to questions about the publishing world.
The main thing I realized after talking to Chip is that the primary category of a novel is sometimes defined by its content and sometimes by its target audience.
There are several categories that are defined by the target audience:
- Children’s Fiction
- Young Adult Fiction
- Christian Fiction
If your book falls in one of these categories, then that is its primary category and your book will be shelved in that section of the bookstore.
I have a number of friends who write Christian fiction, and this drives them nuts. If they write mystery, they want it shelved with the other mysteries, not in the Christian section where they’ll be jumbled up with the Amish fiction, the sweet romances, the suspense novels, and what not.
Fact is, you’re not going to change the system by complaining about it. This is the way bookstores do it and they believe they can run their business without any help from the authors. So if you write in any of the above categories, that’s your primary category.
Most fiction will be categorized by its content, however. Here are some of the usual categories:
- Thriller (or suspense)
- Science Fiction & Fantasy
These are not fixed in stone. Different bookstores may break out Mystery from Crime, or Science Fiction from Fantasy.
You may also see a Women’s Fiction section, which is like the Children’s, Young Adult, and Christian categories in the sense that it is defined by its target audience. However, it’s unlike them because it generally has no subcategories.
Note that Literary fiction is not defined by its content but by its voice. In Literary fiction, style and theme often play a large role, and language is considered an artistic medium, rather than just a tool to get the job done.
If you really want to get confused, check out Amazon, where the classification scheme can go really deep, with a given category having numerous subcategories, each of which can have subcategories, and often subsubcategories. The paper book store is organized a bit differently from the e-book store. Barnes & Noble is organized differently, and Smashwords is different yet.
Lisa, you describe your book as literary suspense, with possible fantasy elements in it.
It’s not clear to me that the term “literary” applies. I’d need to read a bit to get a feel for your voice and use of language. Having a plot based on family relationships is not what would make it a literary novel (although plenty of literary novels do that). It might actually be women’s fiction, or general fiction. I can’t tell without more information. One thing an agent would do for you is to help you nail down whether the term “literary” applies to your fiction.
Also, it’s not entirely obvious whether the category “suspense” applies to your work. Many novels have an element of danger, but they are suspense novels only when the suspense is the primary aspect of the novel. (In the same way, many novels have a romance thread, but they are romance novels only when the romance is the main story.)
Finally, having supernatural elements doesn’t automatically make the book a fantasy novel, unless those are the primary driver for the story.
Ask yourself what’s the main thing that makes the story go? It sounds to me like it’s the family relationships. To me, that would make it either women’s fiction or general (or some people might use the term “mainstream”).
If you’re working with a traditional publisher, then you really need to nail down the primary category and be very sure that’s what it is. The reason is because the publisher will want to sell your book into bookstores, and the bookstore people really insist that they know what section of the store to shelve the book.
Things have become incredibly murky in this new age of publishing in which authors work directly with the online retailers to publish their fiction. There is no shelf in an online store. An e-book on Amazon can be listed under two categories, and they might be completely different. Barnes & Noble lets you define up to FIVE categories.
I spent quite a lot of time thinking about categories when I released the second editions of my novels OXYGEN and THE FIFTH MAN as e-books. Both of them are apparently science fiction novels (about the first manned mission to Mars).
But I’m a suspense writer, and the only reason I ever agreed to work with my coauthor John Olson on these books was because of the very high suspense content.
John particularly likes fiction with a strong romantic storyline and he absolutely loves fantasy.
Since there were no particular requirements to define only one main category, John and I finally decided to give the book the following categories (with subcategories in parentheses) on Amazon:
- Science Fiction (Adventure)
- Romance (Fantasy&Futuristic)
We assigned similar categories and subcategories on the other online retailers. It’s hard to know what to call a book, sometimes. The new world of online publishing makes it a lot easier to mix categories and have the best of several different worlds.
Lisa, I hope that answered your question. The bottom line is that assigning a category can be HARD. It’s often very confusing and sometimes can get messy.
Ultimately, the main thing that matters is that your readers know why they like your fiction and know what they get out of it.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.