Author! Author! Book marketing 101: selecting the right book category, part II, or, a visit from your literary fairy godmother

Yesterday, I broke the unhappy news that each and every one of you who ever plans to pitch to an agent or editor at a conference (or write an effective query letter) needs to pick a conceptual box into which to load your book. In other words, you need to pick a book category — and only ONE book category, please — for your book.

Since I could feel some of you cringe the moment I suggested this yesterday, let’s do a little meditation to help you acclimate yourself to this new reality, shall we? Everybody ready? Okay, picture me in your mind as your fairy godmother, wings and all. Perhaps a little something like this:


Got it? Good. Now picture me lifting my spangled wand high and dusting you with fairy dust. Poof! You are now no longer capable of being wishy-washy about your book category.

Now you will speak — and even think — of your book as a marketable product, as agents and editors do. You have been magically forever deprived of the unprofessional desire to describe your book as, “sort of a cross between a high-end thriller and a romantic comedy, with Western elements” or “Have you ever seen the TV show HOUSE? Well, it’s sort of like that, except set in a prison in Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages!”

Trust me, when you are sitting in a pitch meeting, you will thank me for disconnecting your ambivalence wires. This is simply not an industry where vagueness pays off.

While I was at it, I also knocked out of your vocabulary a few choice phrases that tend to make agents and editors cringe:

“Fiction novel” (by definition, all novels are fiction.)
“A true memoir” (by definition, all memoirs are based upon fact. As are all nonfiction books.)
“…but it is written like literary fiction.” (Perhaps true, but not a substitute for a category description; more on this thorny issue in my next post.)

Actually, if you write anything BUT literary fiction, the kindest thing your fairy godmother could possibly have done for you is prevent you from EVER saying it to an agent, editor, publicist, interviewer, or even the guy next to you on the bus at any point in the next fifty years. Why? Well, on a practical level, literary fiction represents only a tiny fraction of the domestic fiction market; not very many agents represent it, for that reason.

But there’s a better, more philosophical reason as well: because if you write in a genre, you should be PROUD of the fact, not apologetic.

Writers often do not realize it, but hedging about the writing in a book does indeed come across as apologetic to professional ears. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre?

It is also a turn-off, professionally speaking, a signal that the writer might not be very well versed in the genre. Why, the average agent will think during such a pitch, doesn’t this author write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving?

See the problem?

There is an unfortunately pervasive rumor on the writers’ conference circuit that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction. No, no, no: genre distinctions, as they are reflected in book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore. They’re NOT value judgments; they’re ways to divide up the industry.

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, NO agent represents EVERY kind of book. They specialize.

And believe me, an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

Trust me on this one, for your fairy godmother speaks from hard personal experience. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be critiqued by an editor who did not handle either: one of those conference assignment snafus I was mentioning the other day.

We could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish, but as those of you who read the previous week’s post already know, I am a great believer in trying to turn conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

If I had been clutching my magic wand at the time, I would certainly have turned him into a toad.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement and not leering sleaziness, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. But I kept my mien pleasant. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was another double Scotch.

Naturally, I was miffed, but in retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like the protagonist in the book we were discussing) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre.


I learned something very important from this exchange: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic. To them, books outside their areas of expertise might as well be poorly written; in their minds, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Oh, and just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging my readers to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE they meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor later became now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that bought my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covered in part my years teaching in a university.

Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago? Or transform him into a toad?

The baseless rumor that genre carries a stigma has led a lot of good writers to pitch manuscripts that would have stood out magnificently within their proper genres as mainstream or even literary fiction, resulting in queries and pitches aimed at the wrong eyes and ears. By labeling your work correctly, you increase the chances of your pitch’s attracting someone who genuinely likes your kind of book astronomically.

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

Being true to your genre will help you resist the temptation to label the book as an unholy hyphenate (“It’s a chick lit thriller!”) in a misguided attempt to represent it as having a broader potential audience.

Trust me on this one: if a subgenre already has a name, there is already a well-documented market out there for it. So don’t be afraid to label your work with a very narrow subgenre label, if it’s appropriate. Yes, it may whittle down the array of agents to whom you can pitch the book at any given conference, but it will definitely make your pitching — and querying — process more efficient.

It’s just common sense, really. There’s a reason that book category is the first thing that appears on a professionally-formatted title page, after all: the more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. (If you don’t know how to create a professional title page, or were not aware that all submissions to agencies require title pages, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.) Hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly.

And that, in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. (You knew to do that, right?) It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can reject it immediately, without investing all that time in reading.

And that, boys and girls, is why pitchers who are wishy-washy about their books’ categories annoy them. Being vague may seem as though it is going to please all of the people all of the time, but in practice, it’s more likely to generate ire than good will.

Trust me, you’ll be better off if an agent who doesn’t like your kind of work remains nursing his Scotch in the bar. Clearly identifying your book category can help YOU weed HIM out, rather than the other way around.

Next time, I shall deal with the two book categories that are most often misdefined: literary and women’s fiction. In the meantime, may the Force be with you, my friends, and also with your books. Keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “Author! Author! Book marketing 101: selecting the right book category, part II, or, a visit from your literary fairy godmother”

  1. Silly me, but I have trouble with my fiction category. I write mainstream historical fiction, but sometimes wonder if historical fiction is the genre period and forget about the mainstream part. This is confusing when trying to place a literary contest entry in the right spot for submission.

  2. Based on my limited and sometimes perplexing experience in this area, I would suggest, Janet, that you would do better to categorize your work simply as historical fiction. If the work then tends to be of a more “mainstream” nature, perhaps someone in the industry would suggest a change…such as Anne has recently mentioned. (I believe, in her post previous to this one.)
    In my own experience, I first labeled my work as mainstream because none of the genre and sub-genre definitions really seemed to fit. Finally, based on suggestions from one whose advice and knowledge I greatly respect, I selected a more specific and fitting category for it. And now, using that category on my title page and in my query letter(s), I have gotten much more favorable responses.
    Even so, I realize that my work (and I suppose the work of many others) contains elements of other genres and categories.
    Should these other genres manifest themselves strongly enough, then perhaps it would be time to consider a category change.

    1. I was the same way. Now have settled in as historical fiction, but still in contests, I don’t know whether to put in genre or mainstream. I’ve had good response in the mainstream category, but calling it historical fiction in the pitch.

  3. It can be even more specific: baiting the hook for the fish you want to land during this fifteen-minute meeting; the right bait for the next one might well be different. But Dave’s notion of most often using the one that has historically garnered the best responses is a sound one, too.

    Agents routinely category-surf when they’re pitching books to editors, fitting the label to the audience; not very well-publicized phenomenon, but true. I’ve given up asking things like, “Is this editor interested in it as a memoir, or as NF politics, or environmentalism?” Which is a shame, in some respects, because the category under which it ultimately sells will dictate the direction of further revisions.

    1. “Agent Cards! Get’cher Agent Cards! Righ’cheer, hot offa press, can’t pitch a’right pitch you don’know yer agent! Agent Cards! Get’cher Agent Cards! Righ’cheer . . .”

      Yet another thing I’ve never heard at a Cubs game.

      1. And that’s only partly a joke. You’re right – the pitch has to be subject to ‘special fitting,’ as you note.

        25% through writing the book, and the fun is only beginning!

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