Book categories — and yes, you have to pick one

Heavens — I got so wrapped up in my own saga that I almost forgot that I promised you a posting on book categories! To return to a theme from last week, labels, like standard formatting rules, are very important to agents and editors: if they can’t place your work within a conceptual box, chances are they will reject your work as weird. (And remember, in industry-speak, weird is bad; fresh is good.) Thus, before you submit your work to any agent or editor, you will need to decide which box is most comfortable for your book.

To be precise, you will need to mention your book’s genre in your query letter, on the title page of your manuscript (upper right corner is standard), and anytime you pitch. Hard as it may be to believe, to professional eyes, the category is actually more important than the title or the premise. To an agent, the category determines which editors on her contact list she can approach with your book; to an editor, it determines which market niche it will fill. If your work is difficult to categorize, or straddles two categories, their brains go into a tailspin: on which shelf in Barnes & Noble can it rest?

To a lot of writers, particularly fiction writers, the requirement to pick a single category for a work that may legitimately appeal to three or four target audiences often seems, if not repressive, a little foolish. You may be an expansive, freewheeling soul who longs to transcend narrow conceptions of genre; you may have a great love of two distinct genres, and long to combine them; you may feel that the value judgments placed upon certain genres render it undesirable to pick the most obvious label. (Why, for instance, is women’s lit so often sniffed at, when thrillers — bought disproportionately by men, and thus could legitimately be named men’s lit — are not?) You may feel, and with some justification, that the agent you are querying has a far greater knowledge of the market, and is thus in a far better position than you to decide in which category your book belongs.

No matter which you are, you will need to pick a category for your book anyway. Sorry. If you shilly-shally, or even hesitate when you are asked at a conference, you run the risk of appearing uninformed about the industry. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there do exist agents so category-minded that they will automatically disregard any query that does not specify the book’s category clearly within the first paragraph.

This is serious business.

Okay, let’s tackle fiction first. Genre fiction has subcategories, just as general fiction does, so these lists will be quite extensive. Hey, don’t blame me: I’m just the messenger here.

In general fiction, the categories are:

FICTION: also known as mainstream. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is a major selling point of the book. Assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: pretty self-explanatory, no?

WOMEN’S FICTION: not to be confused with romance; WF is mainstream fiction specifically geared for a female readership. Since women buy the vast majority of fiction sold in North America, however, this category’s edges can get somewhat nebulous. Think of the YA-YA SISTERHOOD.

CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION: Novels about what used to be called “career women.” If your protagonist is a doctor or lawyer who takes her work seriously, chances are that this is the category for you.

CHICK LIT: Assumes a female readership under the age of 40; always has a protagonist who is good in bed. In fact, some agents and editors refer to this category as GOOD IN BED.

LAD LIT: Similar to CHICK LIT, except the good-in-bed protagonist is a troubled young man; all of us have female co-workers who have dated the prototypes for these characters. The only example I have ever heard anyone use for this category is HIGH FIDELITY.

LADY LIT: Similar to CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION, but the protagonist is often independently wealthy, or regards her relationships as more important than her work; the protagonist is always older than a CHICK LIT heroine. (I swear I’m not making this stuff up.)

FUTURISTIC FICTION: Not to be confused with science fiction, which is its own genre, these are literary or mainstream books set in the future; I gather the point of this category is to permit agents to say to editors, “No, no, it’s not genre.” Think THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

ADVENTURE FICTION: Not to be confused with ACTION/ADVENTURE, this category encompasses books where the protagonists engage in feats that serve no business purpose, yet are satisfyingly life-threatening. If your protagonist surfs, mountain-climbs, or wrestles wild animals, this may be the category for you.

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports.

POETRY: If you do not know what this is, go knock on your high school English teacher’s door at midnight and demand to repeat the 10th grade.

SHORT STORIES: a collection of them. Generally, authors who publish short story collections have had at least a few of them published in magazines first.

CHILDREN’S: another fairly self-explanatory one, no?

YOUNG ADULT: books written for people too old for CHILDREN’S, yet too young for FICTION. YA, unlike other categories, may often be successfully combined with genres: YA FANTASY, YA WESTERN, etc.

COMICS: exactly what you think they are.

GRAPHIC NOVEL: A book with a COMICS format, but a specifically adult-oriented plot line.

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. If you are wavering between close categories — say, between CONTEMPORARY WOMEN’S FICTION and CHICK LIT, do not be afraid to guess; there is quite a bit of overlap between categories, whether agents and editors admit it or not. Take a good look at your manuscript, decide whether sex or job is more important to your protagonist (if you are writing about a call girl, this may be an impossible determination to make), and categorize accordingly. If you’re off by a little, an agent who likes your work will tell you how to fine-tune your choice.

The distinction that seems to give writers the most trouble is between FICTION and LITERARY FICTION. Let’s face it, most of us like to think our writing has some literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. When asked, even most agents and editors have a hard time telling you precisely what the difference is — but, like art, they know literary when they see it. Yet ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers.

Lest you think, as many aspiring writers do, that all good fiction is literary, let me remind you that these are marketing categories, not value judgments. LITERARY FICTION is quite a small percentage of the fiction market, so do be aware that if you pick that category, you may be limiting your book’s perceived market appeal. When in doubt, FICTION is usually safe, because it is the broadest — and most marketable — category.

If you are in serious doubt whether your book is sufficiently literary to count as LITERARY FICTION, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class? If the subject matter is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary. I once mortally offended an English professor by bringing in an example from GONE WITH THE WIND, as mainstream a book as ever you would hope to see: “That’s mass market,” the professor snapped. “We don’t study that sort of thing here.” Ooh — touchy.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market. Mainstream FICTION tends to assume a tenth-grade reading level: LITERARY FICTION assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because writers tend to LOVE punctuation. Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should get rid of them entirely.

If you don’t believe me, I implore you to spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, going from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction being the major exception), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

Tomorrow, I shall go into the genre categories and subcategories, as well as the nonfiction categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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