Picking a Genre

Hello, readers —

Devoted reader Dave has written in with another question (which I encourage all of you to do with your writing-related questions; it I don’t know the answer myself, I shall track down someone who does), and in thinking how to answer it, I realized that I had not grappled with the issue of how to categorize your work in awhile. Since the PNWA contest rules dictate that entrants must label their work to a marketing certainty (YA Romance, etc.), I thought this would be a good time to revisit the issue of publishing categories.

Contest-running bureaucrats are not the only ones who will insist that you declare up front (as in on the title page and in your query letters) into which publishing category your book fits. 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, editor, or contest, you will need to decide which box is the most comfortable fit for your book.

Please don’t roll your eyes, as so many aspiring writers do, at the idea of squashing your complex rubric of ideas into a two-word phrase like HISTORICAL THRILLER. No one is asking you to summarize your entire book in a single phrase; this is straightforward marketing information. If you want your work to sit on a bookshelf in a bookstore, someone is going to have to pick a shelf. If you want Amazon to sell it, its patrons need to be able to find it under general search parameters. Librarians will want to know where it fits into the Dewey Decimal System.

Don’t make it hard for all of these fine institutions to get your book into the hands of readers by insisting that your book cannot be categorized. (Do anything you can to avoid irritating librarians. As the daughter of one, I can tell you: the most glowing reviews from THE NEW YORK TIMES cannot sell your book as enthusiastically as a librarian who really loves an author’s work.)

And you don’t get to wait until the book is about to come out to pick a category. 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?

If you shilly-shally about the category to which your book belongs, 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 FICTION. This is the bulk of the market, so do not be afraid of the plain-Jane moniker — it sells like the proverbial hotcakes.

A contest-related caveat: if you are entering the PNWA’s mainstream fiction category, most adult fiction can be categorized here. Even romance, which has its own category, has in the past won the mainstream fiction category. Go figure.

LITERARY FICTION: fiction where the writing style is the major selling point of the book. (Yes, I know — most writers feel this is true of their fiction, regardless of the category.) Generally, it is character-driven, rather than plot-driven, and assumes a college-educated audience.

HISTORICAL FICTION: You’d think this would be pretty self-explanatory, no? However, quite a bit of historical fiction falls into either the ADVENTURE or ROMANCE category. The dividing lines are wavy enough, though, that no one will blame you much if you guess wrong. Was COLD MOUNTAIN historical fiction or historical romance? Here’s a hint: until it hit the big time, agents went around telling writers at conference that historical fiction was dead. They don’t anymore.)

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 or THE COLOR PURPLE.)

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. (I swear I’m not making this up.) The sole example that anyone ever uses is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY.

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. (Again, I swear I’m not making this stuff up; this is really how folks in the industry talk about it.)

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.

Which brings me to Dave’s excellent question: “Would C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin books be considered mainstream fiction or genre fiction? Is “naval adventure,” a term I have seen applied to another similar series considered to be a specific genre or not?

The answer is: technically, ADVENTURE isn’t genre, Dave — mostly because it sells so VERY well. But so do mysteries, thrillers, and romances, and they’re all genre fiction. The difference is that ADVENTURE is usually shelved with FICTION, rather than in its own separate section. But like so much in the publishing industry, whether NAVAL ADVENTURE is its own subgenre — and whether it’s genre — depends upon when you ask. At the moment, when it’s popular, it is; ten years ago, it wasn’t.

I find it interesting that naval adventure is its own subgenre now, as I’ve never seen Bernard Cornwell’s immensely successful SHARPE series categorized as MILITARY ADVENTURE. (I’ve seen it categorized as both ADVENTURE and HISTORICAL FICTION — and it’s pretty much always shelved with the mainstream fiction.) Why is fighting at sea worthy of its own designation, and fighting on land isn’t?

SPORTS FICTION: Similar to ADVENTURE FICTION, but focused on conventional sports. BRIAN’S SONG leaps to mind here, or any of those many, many stories about feisty coaches bullying kids with problems into forming a cohesive sports team with heart.

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? Picture books and easy readers belong here.

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. (Hint: BATMAN was COMICS; THE DARK KNIGHT was a GRAPHIC NOVEL.)

Whew! And that’s just the non-genre fiction categories; I shall go into the genre categories tomorrow.

Do allow me to reiterate: you only get to pick one for your book. However, as long as you pick something close, you probably won’t be penalized if you guess wrong, because there’s a lot of genuine disagreement amongst professionals about where to draw the lines.

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 writing style will be happy to tell you how to fine-tune your choice.

Tomorrow, I shall go into some of the fine-tuning issues, as well as getting a start on the genre categories and subcategories.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *