Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Many authors find it difficult to define the genre of their work. There’s nothing wrong with that as you’re writing – seeing your own art as so unique as to defy classification is perfectly healthy – but when it comes to marketing and publishing, you need to know what you’re selling.
That’s why, in today’s article, we’ll be looking at why genre matters, how to apply it, and why going deeper than surface categorization could assuage your worries and sell more books.
Why does genre matter?
One reason that so many authors struggle with genre is that they think it’s insufficient for categorizing art, and they’re right. Genre is a terrible tool for describing the heart of a book, and writing to genre – using genre parameters to define what you should write – is likely to stifle the creative spirit.
Instead, genre is for readers. Hundreds of thousands of books are published each year, and they join the ranks of the millions of books that were published before them. Genre may be a clumsy tool, but it’s a good place to start when you’re trying to find something you might like. You may not consider your book fantasy or sci-fi, but if that’s the closest genre descriptor, it’s probably fantasy or sci-fi enough to help your ideal reader zero in on it.
Of course, they’ll find that even easier if you get a little more specific, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
What does genre mean?
A genre is just a category of art. In writing, genres cover some basic styles of fiction, with subgenres clarifying specific styles even more. What’s interesting to note – and key to understanding genre – is that genre categorizations tend to depend on aesthetic (the look and feel of the world you describe) rather than ideas or even structure.
We’ve talked before about how, for authors, it’s useful to consider how the Star Wars movies are far more fantasy than sci-fi in terms of how they’re put together:
Science fiction is just that, fiction about science. The science might be invented, and it might be of any stripe: political science, psychology and sociology, electronics, or the type with beakers and skeletons, but all sci-fi revolves around a central ‘what if..?’ question that addresses a deeper query… The Star Wars movies, however, are not built on this kind of thesis. The story is of a (jedi) knight on a quest to save a princess. The castle may be a star ship, the duels fought with laser swords, but the futuristic tech is never used as a lens through which to examine our own world.– The 3 Golden Rules Of Writing A Science Fiction Book
That’s good advice for authors (if I do say so myself), but it doesn’t apply to readers. Readers use genre to find the aesthetic worlds which they want to explore, and that means that Star Wars, with its aliens, robots, and laser-based weaponry, is firmly sci-fi.
It also means that the dominant aesthetic is usually the key arbiter of a book’s genre. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files combines mystery and fantasy, telling the story of a wizard PI. There’s a little crime in there, a lot of detective fiction, and some noir sensibilities, but when a bookseller puts it on the shelf, they’re probably going to file it under ‘fantasy.’
Why? Because it’s more likely that fantasy readers will enjoy the crime fiction than that crime readers will enjoy the fantasy. Genre primarily identifies the flavor of the world you’re going to be visiting, not the nature of the story you’ll be told when you get there. There are interesting roots to this, but they don’t change the practical consequences for authors: the ‘feel’ of your world is the first thing you need to describe.
What genre is my writing?
Book genres change with the times, and opinions differ on what’s a major genre, but it’s likely a novel is one of the following types of fiction:
- Thriller – Fiction built around the fast-paced pursuit of a commonly life-or-death goal.
- Fantasy – Fiction typified by fantastic aspects, such as magic.
- Sci-fi – Sometimes called ‘speculative’ fiction. Fiction typified by scientific aspects, such as nonexistent technology.
- Horror – Fiction built around instilling dread or fear in the reader. Sometimes but not always featuring supernatural aspects.
- Mystery – Fiction built around the solving of a mysterious set of circumstances.
- Crime – Fiction typified by a focus on criminal activities.
- Historical – Fiction typified not just by being set within a defined time period, but drawing context from the cultural understanding of that time.
- Western – Fiction typified by aspects of the American frontier.
- Romance – Fiction that focuses on a romantic relationship as the source of its drama.
- Erotica – Fiction primarily intended to instill arousal in the reader.
- Literary – Fiction that focuses on realistic, weighty issues, typified by character-focused writing and a lack of other genre features.
Some fiction books that would otherwise fall into these categories are instead defined by their audience, for example Young Adult fiction and Children’s literature. Again, categorization leads with the fact that most immediately winnows down the audience. The same is the case with books of poetry or short fiction – here, the genre aesthetic comes after the form, again because the market has decided that’s what most governs buying habits. A reader looking for sci-fi is apparently less likely to accept a book that’s also short fiction than a short fiction reader is to accept a book that’s also sci-fi (though only ever in terms of general market trends).
If you’re writing non-fiction, things get a little fuzzier, as non-fiction tends to be treated like a single genre. Despite this, non-fiction categories such as memoir, self-help, biography, sporting, travel, or true crime might be treated as genres in their own right in terms of bookseller categorization.
What subgenre is my writing?
Okay, here’s where things get trickier. There’s no way to cover every possible subgenre, but the idea here is to start narrowing the field. For example, ‘sci-fi’ is a wide-reaching genre that encompasses subgenres like soft science fiction (less focus on practical science, like in Doctor Who), hard science fiction (lots of focus on practical science, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Martian), ‘-punk’ genres like steampunk and cyberpunk (sci-fi that imagines science following different paths, like maintaining steam power, as in the Mortal Engines Quartet), Afrofuturism (sci-fi that imagines science extending from the cultures of the African Diaspora, as in Black Panther), as well as countless combinations of sci-fi and other genres, such as the space Western and sci-fi horror.
If your writing combines genres or genre conventions, it’s almost a certainty that there’s already a term for what you’re doing. Google these key facets and do some snooping. If your writing dabbles in genre conventions but doesn’t embrace them, there’s probably a term for that too. Your story might include some fantastic elements but be mainly about real life; that’s magical realism. Similarly, your story might have some definitive genre features but have a striking aesthetic that doesn’t quite fit that mold. In urban fantasy, magical elements are presented in a contemporary urban setting, while crime fiction that revolves around the court system would be labeled courtroom drama.
The easiest way to identify your subgenre is to find books that are similar to your own and see how they’re categorized. This is a fix that can fall foul of the problem that makes it necessary; if you don’t know what genre could apply to your book, you probably also struggle to identify what books are like your book (or, at least, your book seems too complex to be summarized by comparison).
That’s fair, but you’re going to have to overcome this problem with some work. First, imagine that you have the ability to place an advert for your book in the back of four other books. Which books would you choose? This tells you what audience you’re going after, and four books should be enough to get a sense of who you’re targeting. Next, consider your aesthetic – remember, the point isn’t to identify your book’s heart, it’s to attract people who already like the aesthetic experience you’re offering. Finally, take a look at the options the market is already aware of. You can click here to access a selection of Kindle’s suggested keywords for different genres. Which of these most apply to your writing? Remember, you’re not trying to explain the entirety of your book, you’re trying to advertise its aesthetic.
Under ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense,’ Kindle suggests keywords like ‘heist,’ ‘conspiracy,’ and ‘dark.’ If all you’re considering is plot, all of these keywords could apply to the same story, but when you start considering aesthetic, they get more specific. For example, a ‘dark’ thriller might include sexual violence, but a ‘heist’ thriller suggests a more light-hearted affair. This is one of the core values of genre labeling – it helps people who will enjoy the ‘feel’ of your book to find it, and it warns off people who won’t. As you pursue the ideal genre label with which to market and publish your work, keep this in mind: you’re trying to describe the vibe.
Choosing your genre
While choosing your genre and subgenres can be complex, remember that it’s not the be-all and end-all. You should really get the genre of your writing right, but subgenres are murky, and there’s room to learn and change your mind.
Do real research, describe aesthetic/tone/vibe over content, and be open to adjusting your decision down the line as you grow more accustomed to working with genres.
Ultimately, genre labels are a tool that are sometimes useful for academic discussion and mostly there to help stores sell books. They’re not going to capture the soul of your work, but they can help you communicate with first-time or potential readers, and that’s the spirit in which to approach them – an inexact tool that’s just the first step of an enduring relationship.
Do you write in an unusual genre? Have you changed the genre listing of your work in the past? Share you experiences in the comments below, and check out our genre archives for more insight into the right label for your work.