How To Pick The Right Genre For Your Novel (And Why Your Sales Depend On It)

    Do you want to sell thousands of copies of your novel?

    Maybe you want to sell to a traditional publisher through an agent.

    Or would you rather sell directly to readers through self-publishing?

    No matter which route you choose, your ability to pick the right genre for your novel can mean the difference between success and obscurity.

    Genre is the type of story you’re writing.

    Most booksellers and readers recognise genres such as:

    • Romance
    • Mystery
    • Science Fiction
    • Fantasy
    • Thriller
    • Suspense
    • Historical

    But these are just categories, right?

    What makes genre so important

    Agents and editors tend to specialize in a few specific genres. Unless your manuscript fits the genre an agent represents, it will end up in the slush pile.

    Agents and editors use genre to see if you know what you’re writing.

    There’s nothing an agent hates more than hearing “well, my book is a little bit of a mystery, but it’s set in a dystopian future, so it’s sort of sci-fi… and there’s a love story, so it’s also kind of a romance…”

    If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.

    And without understanding your target audience, you won’t know how to market your book.

    This will make an agent think twice about signing you.

    If you’re adamant that you “don’t want to be labeled” because your book is “so complex” – well, that’s a clear indication that you’re more interested in your identity as an artist than you are in being a selling author.

    Which will make an agent reject you outright.

    Your ideal audience uses genre to find your book

    Let’s say you love mysteries.

    You’ve got a long trip ahead. You’ve read all the books by your favorite authors, and you need to find something new.

    In about twenty minutes.

    You’re not going to wander randomly around the store. You’ll go straight to the mystery section.

    So if I’ve written a mystery but shelved it under Romance because the detective falls in love, you won’t find my book, because you weren’t looking there. (And some poor romance reader is going to be annoyed because she was expecting a lot more romance, not all this solving-the-guy’s-death business.)

    In short, choosing the right genre is about improving your odds of making a sale.

    Here are four simple steps to help you choose the right genre for your book.

    #1. Get to know genre options

    A quick look at Amazon’s Books page, or a stroll through any bookstore, will show you the main classifications for fiction.

    The Amazon bestseller page for books splits its lists by genre.

    Look at the top five bestsellers in each genre. Read each book description. What does each genre emphasize?

    For example, James Patterson’s NYPD Red 2 is on the list for “Mystery, Suspense & Thriller.” The description features crime scenes, brutal slaughter, and shocking murders.

    Now glance through the Romance list. Nora Roberts’ The Collector also involves solving a murder.

    But it describes “the woman with no permanent ties finds herself almost wishing for one” and “Ash longs to paint her as intensely as he hungers to touch her.” The focus is obviously the passion between the protagonists rather than the resolution of the case.

    Once you’ve looked through a few book descriptions, you’ll understand which elements are most important to each genre’s readers.

    #2. Identify genre elements in your work

    Look closely at your novel.

    Does it have a love story? A crime?

    Are there elements of magic or the supernatural?

    Is it set in the past, present, or future?

    What age are the protagonists?

    What drives the plot?

    You’re looking for elements that could help narrow the focus.

    What do you feel is most important about the book?

    Which elements do you enjoy the most? What are you the most proud of?

    You don’t need to make a decision about genre yet. You’re just looking for the story pieces that will help you decide. You want to know what you’re working with.

    Once you’ve got a list of your story elements, you’re ready to move to the next step.

    #3. Identify your “most likely reader”

    What sort of reader would love your novel, and why?

    Keep in mind: the question is not which readers might enjoy your novel. Anyone could buy the book by chance, and be surprised at how much they enjoyed something outside their norm.

    But your odds of finding that person are slim. That’s not marketing – it’s luck.

    Instead, you’re targeting the fan who will go absolutely nuts for exactly what you’ve written.

    Who is the screaming super-fan for this book?

    Try to imagine a specific person.

    Pretend you’re reading a review by your super-fan. What does it say?

    Beyond the generic “this book is awesome,” what does the super-fan specifically adore about your novel?

    Its twisty plot, like a Dan Brown suspense?

    Or maybe the intricate and thorough world building, like Hugh Howey’s Wool series?

    The world-stage fantasy politics, similar to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones titles?

    Or maybe the toe-curling love scenes, like E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey?

    What does your super-fan complain about?

    Keep genre conventions in mind.

    If the couple in your love story die at the end, romance fans will be up in arms, because they expect a “happily ever after” (or at least “happily for now”) resolution.

    Disappointing a reader means poor sales and bad reviews.

    Make sure your super-fan will be happy with the entire story, not just some aspects of it.

    #4. Use comparative titles to nail your sub-genre

    Each genre carries books by writers who offer different “flavors” – different sub-genres.

    Take mysteries. Dan Green writes police procedurals in his Max Segal series. These are very different from the cozy amateur sleuth of Jessica Beck’s Donut Mysteries, or the sexy, silly fun of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

    In the young adult genre, there’s a wide disparity between dystopian love stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent, the frothy Braced to Bite, and the angsty Twilight.

    Once you know your most likely buyer, imagine you’re looking at an online bookstore sales page for your novel.

    Underneath the “purchase” button you’ll find recommendations for other novels, with the phrase “People who bought this also bought…”

    Think of three novels your super-fan might enjoy that are similar to yours in style and content. See where these are categorized on Amazon or in your local bookstore.

    This is how you will identify the genre that best suits your novel.

    However you plan to publish, learning to pick the right genre for your novel is crucial.

    It will teach you how to match the best elements of your writing with the audience that will most appreciate them.

    The better you get at identifying your strengths and your reader, the more accurately you’ll pick your novel’s genre. And the more sales you’ll make.

    Try it and see.

    How do you identify the right genre for your novel? Let me know in the comments!

    About the author

      Cathy Yardley

      Cathy Yardley is a novelist, teacher, editor, and writing coach at Sign up for her free e-course Jumpstart Your Writing Career, and receive helpful hints on pinpointing where you might be stuck – and how to get back on track for a successful fiction-writing career.

    • Hi Cathy,

      I really enjoyed your post and your steps make good sense, but I’m not sure how historical works fit into this. There is no historical fiction section in brick and mortar book stores that I’ve ever seen. Amazon lists it under Literature & Fiction, but there is a lot of diversity under it’s Historical Fiction heading – ancient history, modern history, romancy stuff, literary stuff, mysteries, books featuring real figures from history, books set during real eras from the past but with characters who are entirely fictional. Really, it seems like the only genre convention they have in common is the absence of a contemporary setting. There isn’t even a clear consensus on what constitutes “history”: some say at least 50 years, some say 25, others still say it doesn’t matter so long as the author is writing the era from research rather than personal experience.

      It seems to me that simply indicating to an agent or editor that I’m writing historical fiction wouldn’t be enough to convince them I understand my target audience. Is it correct to assume that a sub-genre is not only appropriate in the case of historical fiction, but necessary as well? Perhaps to the point that the sub-genre actually IS the genre and the “historical” part is more so a statement on the story’s setting? Any thoughts you have on this would be much appreciated.

      • Cathy Yardley says:

        Agents would recognize historical fiction as a genre (at least, the agents I know would), but I think that if you mention a sub-genre, or even better a comparative author/title, it’ll go a long way to assure them you understand your target audience. For example, there’s a difference between historical fiction like “All The Light We Cannot See” and, say, “Catch 22” even though they are both World War 2 novels. It will give them a sense of what you’re writing.

        Does that help? Good luck with your project!

        • Janna G. Noelle says:

          Thank you, that does help a lot! I’m glad to know that agents do consider historical a genre.

    • Rosey says:

      Hi Cathy.

      I’m a first time writer and was wondering if you could give me a few pointers as to what genre my book might fall into.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for this great post!
      To enrich the marketing strategies for authors, in addition to what it is mentioned here, I’d like to include the following which I could test with good results:

      1. Take advantage of the launch of a new site The Books Machine to give your work a shock of publicity tools and also obtain honest reviews on the platform where you have published your books.

      2. Fill in your author information on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, etc. It’s really important that we connect to the reader, especially when they don’t know us.
      3. Regularly edit and improve the description of your book on those online stores. The description doesn’t just tell what your book is about IT’S ALSO THE READER’S FIRST IMPRESSION. A reader judges your writing based on your description. It’s important not only to inform the reader, you have to seduce them.
      4. Create visual support for your book through a website so that when you post on social media you have a visual connection. If you can’t afford the investment in a professional web page, create a blog. There are tons of tutorials.

      Well friends, that’s my mini summary of what I have experienced first-hand.
      I’m already putting it into practice daily with my book and I’m seeing my sales increase daily.

      Stay well,

    • Vicki says:

      Cathy–I’m needing a bit of help in choosing my genre. I think it fits best in romance, but if the reader is looking for something steamy–my book does NOT fit. Inspirational Romance is probably the best fit. It doesn’t even have much kissing in it–more looking for the best fit, for what they feel God wants for them & figuring out how to deal with some of life’s more difficult problems like losing a loved one. There is also a little suspense thrown in (need some conflict besides just life stuff), but not enough to be in that category.

      Also, I’m working on a fictionalized story, based on true life, aimed at young girls (pre-teen and teen) that have been molested. What genre would that be? Thanks for helping us budding beginning writers.

      • Hi Vicki,

        It sounds like your book is Inspirational Romance, absolutely. That genre absolutely should not have “steam!” In many cases, the hero and heroine aren’t allowed to be alone together after nightfall. (The guidelines for many Inspirational romance publishers are rather strict.) It actually sounds like you’ve got a perfect fit for that category.

        As for the pre-teen and teen book, I’d say it’d be a middle grade reader, or possibly YA, depending on how it’s written (what the reading level is.)

        Good luck with your projects! — Cathy

    • Len Diamond says:

      Sorry I’ve been missing since April 22, but thanks for your reply. Anyone ever asked an agent or publisher directly for a definition of mainstream? Anything not out of the mainstream, probably.
      Reading some of the later responses I see I’ve slipped into the dreaded “cross-genre” genre. The story started from two unrelated impulses, and this is the result..

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    • Linda says:

      Thanks, Cathy, some useful tips here.
      As a reader, I love finding ‘different’ books that don’t fit neatly into one narrow genre. But, as a writer, I know that in order to get my first novel noticed by a publisher or agent I’ve got to make it easy for them to put a specific label on it.

      • One of my favorite series of all time is Jim Butcher’s DRESDEN FILES series, which combines old-styled noir gumshoe sensibilities with urban fantasy and humor. There are both mystery and suspense elements. But I found it through fantasy. I think open-minded mystery readers or people just interested in fun books would love it, but they marketed it to the most likely, most vocal readers… which is how the word spread enough to get to the “edge” or “trans-genre” seekers, like yourself. I’m sure you’ll find the right genre for your “super-fan” audience. 🙂

    • An interesting piece, thank you. I’d spent a lot of time wondering what genre to club what I’d written – I’m still not sure if I’ll bother trying to get it published. It seems like a lot of hassle, and I don’t really have the time. It’s a modern take on the French existential novels you’d find in the ’40s. Sartre and Camus – this type of thing. It’s been a challenge to catagorise it.

      Thanks for the insights!

      • Hi Alex,

        If you’re writing an existential novel, that automatically goes into literary fiction, I’d say. Possibly a further sub-genre, but lit fic ought to cover you. And you’re right: publishing and promoting is a lot of work, and a bit of a steep learning curve. You’ve got to really want it for it to be worth the time, and if you can simply gain enjoyment from writing it, that might be as far as you need to go in the process. Good luck!

    • Thanks, Cathy. I’ve done what you mentioned…gone to Amazon for help. I’ve also wandered through Barnes & Noble to check out the genres. You’re right. Nailing this is a BIG deal. Great post.

      • Marcy, sounds like you’re doing the footwork the right way. Thanks for reading!

        • Thanks, Cathy. I’m trying! I appreciate you responding….

    • I agree that proper genre classification is absolutely vital to making sales, for all the reasons Cathy has so clearly identified. Reading what Mai said, however, regarding how disappointing it is for those of us who write cross-genre, I do want to offer one somewhat different perspective on the future of book sales. While genre is still – and likely always will be – extremely important, the number of genre and sub-genre categories are much higher now than they have been in the past. I personally believe that as e-books become more popular, we’ll see more authors and publishers experimenting with genre conventions – for the simple reason that e-books are relatively cheap to produce, and the risk is reduced. That being said, in the current market, my own experience has been exactly what Cathy has warned us against. I’ve garnered quite a bit of interest from agents and publishers in my books, but have not been able to close a sale. Editors have told me outright that it’s because they wouldn’t know how to market my work because it doesn’t fall neatly into one category or another. Does that mean there’s no market for my work? Of course not. But without the proper genre classification, how is anyone going to find it?

      • Thanks, Lori. I’ve hit the “I don’t know how to market this” wall, too, in traditional. The thing is, there’s an audience, but it’s a smaller audience, and you need to know how to find it (or how to grow it) when you write cross-genre. Publishers may take a risk, but right now they’re in survival mode, and larger publishers (in my experience) are still in “bestseller mode” — gambling to see who hits it big. Small but solid isn’t their aim. It is perfect for self-publishing, however… which is why so many midlist and cross-genre authors are doing well there. Good luck with your novel!

    • Mai Bantog says:

      Thanks for this informative read, Cathy. While I must admit that your advice regarding genres is excellent, what struck me the most is the fact that if you try to go outside the box of conventional genres, you step away further from becoming a bestselling author. It seems to me that developing your craft as a novelist is not the way to go if you want to be a bestselling author. As an MFA student, I’m very much interested in the blurring of genres as a means of advancing my craft, but it’s just sad to know that this might be the very thing that might alienate my potential readers. Is there no middle ground between craft development and wide readership?

      • Hi Mai,

        Let me clarify: you can absolutely WRITE cross-genre, but there tends to be one genre’s audience that will be more receptive than another. For example, if you wrote a Steampunk Western, your audience is probably sci-fi/fantasy, because true Western readers would not enjoy it (generally speaking.) If you wrote a mystery romance, the balance and emphasis is generally what decides which audience would most likely enjoy it. If the love story is at least half of the book, then you’re probably looking at Romantic Suspense rather than Suspense/Thriller.

        If you’re self-publishing, you might be able to cover your bases. It allows you to drill down, and also to choose two categories — which means you can choose one “broad” category, and hopefully one very fitting, less densely populated category.

        This is about being discovered. And while I applaud your pursuit of developing your craft, I think that you need to keep your audience in mind, as well. That doesn’t mean “writing to market” — far from it! — but it does mean having a target audience in mind, and writing to satisfy them. It makes developing your craft a challenge, but I think you’ll find the constraint actually brings about more creativity, not less.

        • Mai Bantog says:

          Yes, I’ve thought about self-publishing as some sort of middle ground, and I absolutely agree with you when you say that target audience is important. And I also appreciate Lori’s perspective that there is a market for cross-genre works; it’s just a matter of finding them. Like what you said, it’s about being discovered. I’ve met writers who started out in a certain genre, and then when they got published they started to experiment with their writing.

          Aside form self-publishing an e-book, I also think that publishing your fiction works in a blog or similar platform can also help in building an audience, right? It doesn’t pay, but it helps you get more leverage as a fiction writer as you establish your audience, so that when the time comes that you publish your cross-genre book, you have a market already.

          And I love that part about thinking of your audience as a constraint. That’s a great way to look at it. 🙂

          • I wouldn’t recommend publishing work on your blog. Blogs are tricky beasts for fiction writers, and driving traffic for them becomes a full-time job… which, if you already have a job, and you’re trying to write and promote a novel, basically becomes a huge time-suck!

            If you have a series, and you’re planning on self-publishing, I think offering the first few chapters or the full work on a free site like Wattpad might be helpful, depending on your kind of book. Another way is getting reviews from book bloggers who are open to self-publishing and who attract your ideal audience. You can do guest posts or have them direct back to your website, where you can offer the first title free in exchange for sign up on your subscriber list. Then, instead of trying to constantly draw new readers, you’ll have an easily accessible pool of “converted” to alert to new titles. There are a million tactics out there for self-publishing success. The trick is hitting on the right strategy.

            I’m glad you like the idea of “audience constraint.” I’m a huge fan of genre fiction, and I hate it when people think it’s “formulaic” or predictable. If you can make something truly genre AND be unpredictable, that’s where the magic happens, in my opinion! 🙂

            • Mai Bantog says:

              As you might have guessed, I’m not a big fan of genre fiction, basically because I read anything that interests me regardless of genre. I’m tired of fantasy, but I think J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are superb. I also don’t like romance, but I’ve stumbled upon a few works that I like. A good work is a good work, regardless of genre.

              But I appreciate and respect your views and tips. And I’m very much willing to try them. I learned a lot in your post and this conversation, so thanks a lot, Cathy! 🙂

    • Norah says:

      I loved this article of all teh ones you have ever sent me. This just set off explosions in my brain. Thank you so much for the info.

      • I love it when authors feel energized to write. Good luck! 🙂

    • The write to done messages have sparked my creative flame and I’m seeking and striving to keep growing in the art of writing. Thanks to the write to done crew

    • I’d be really grateful if you could define “mainstream” and “literary” fiction for me. Are there real differences between them, or is it a sort of affectation?. My stuff probably isn’t either, but I’d like to know. Thanks.

      • Well, this is just my opinion, but “mainstream” is something of a affectation. There isn’t a “mainstream” category in most bookstores or online booksellers, to my knowledge! On the other hand, “Literary” fiction tends to have more of a focus on the prose quality rather than on story structure. That’s not to say that literary fiction can’t have a story — it can — but it doesn’t have the same expectations of three act structure, escalating conflict, or other “requirements of satisfaction” that most genre fiction has. Does that help?

    • Petula says:

      I’m still trying to identify the right genre. And as soon as I lock that down (I think I’m on the right track) I’ll be ready to identify the sub genre. This is a great post – thanks for this “map” on how to get this done. It is right on time because I was actually reading about genres last night.

      Thanks again.

      • I’m glad you found the post helpful. Good luck zeroing in on your genre!

    • THank you for your advice. It matches what a friend in the industry told me from the early beginnings of my WIP, a Contemporary Christian Mystery. A new retiree and his wife move to their new community and dream home in a small South Georgia town. He investigates a tragic event that occurred three years before they arrived only to learn this tragedy was not the only one. He unravels the evidence with the help of new friends in the town to exonerate a town hero who was serving time for a crime he was framed for. The why and how is the fun of the writing this mystery, which I believe readers will feel sympathy for several key characters, both on the protagonist and antagonist side of the story. It is a story of God’s call for us to persist until providence crosses our path to reveal the truth He desires to be found for a greater purpose.

    • I’m a screaming super-fan of your advice, Cathy. Specifically because you’re awesome. And to think, before I met you I used to worry about genre. Well, that’s one less thing to worry about, anyway. 😉

      • Thanks so much, Vaughn! Just think, you’ve got your genre AND your Right Reader identified. You’re ahead of the curve, my friend! (And I appreciate you stopping by. )

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