Of all the questions to ask as an author, have you ever found yourself pondering “what genre is my book”?
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.
What Is “Genre” Anyway?
Genre, a French term meaning “kind” or “sort,” is the type of story you’re writing. It’s a way of categorizing any work of art (books included, obvs!) for the sake of the consumers. Genres often share similar stylistic elements, format, and even subject matter. There can obviously be a lot of variation within genres, but in the bookish world, fans of any given genre are likely to know what they’re getting when they pick up a mystery or romance or narrative history.
Most booksellers and readers recognize genres such as:
- Science Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- And so many more!
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. You lack focus and are trying to please too many different types of readers.
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 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 and fast.
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.
Four Steps to Nail the Question of “What Genre Is My Book?”
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.
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!