Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's your genre?

by Stacey

I am often pitched projects where an author will describe the book as a cross between several different categories. I usually find this problematic for the simple reason that a book that is described this way often suffers from an identity crisis, and publishers want to be able to clearly identify how a book will be positioned, marketed, promoted, and at its most basic level, where it will "live" in the bookstores (this despite the fact that authors often complain that their books are not available at bookstores anyway, since they can't possibly carry everything, and there are so many outlets now outside of traditional stores to buy books, but that conversation is for another blog post). For the most part, at the chain bookstores, books are shelved in one place and one place only, and it's not always where the publisher or author want it to go. If it's a cookbook that's also a self-help book that's also a memoir, or a literary historical romantic mystery, well, that makes it a lot more difficult to place.

I recently found this piece that talks about the different genre categories in fiction. It doesn't address nonfiction, which has its own language of categories, but it does serve as a good basic summary of the major fiction categories. There are always subcategories within each of these, and she leaves out thriller, which is often confused with mystery, and which I see as a subset, but really is its own category. The takeaway here for me is that whatever category your book falls into, you need to do your research into the best books of that category, where you can find them in the bookstores, and also which agents represent those books. That's who you should target first, and your pitch letter should be clear about which category your book falls under because if it's not, or it's a mix of too many genres, it's easy for the book to get lost before the reader even gets to page 1.

15 comments:

  1. I had trouble with this myself. The specific question which has kind of been answered is: Is twenty-something YA or adult? I have received mixed reviews but they all come with the same pained expression and a not so clear answer.

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  2. AgentQuery also has a good one here: http://www.agentquery.com/genre_descriptions.aspx

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  3. My own book is a romance. I know 100% that the romance section of Barnes and Noble would be where you would find my book. It also has touches of historical and fantasy which just make it all the more interesting, not confusing to place on bookshelves. Think Shana Abe and what she writes, think her Drakon series. Her novels are labeled romance but it takes place in the 1800's and deals with a family of dragon/humans.

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  4. I would love to see somebody post about what "Literary Fiction" really means. It seems to me that when writers use it in queries to describe their work, they label themselves as amateurs. Is that true? Is it something that agents put on their lists because many writers think of themselves that way, though they may really be writing, say, commercial/upmarket or women's fiction?

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  5. Exact same question as Anonymous! How do you tell the difference between lit fiction and commerical/upmarket? And if this is subjective as it seems, what would you, as agents, suggest using as a default? Does "lit fiction" make an author seem like a snob?

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  6. My novel is Sci Fi & Western similar to Stephen King's Gunslinger novels. I'm not sure where you would place that on the self. King's Gunslinger books go on the mainstream shelves with all of his horror & literary titles, but if I was an agent trying to market and sell that book I might look at a Sci Fi imprint like Tor, Orbit or Eos or even the newer Angry Robot.

    As luck would have it, I know editors at both Tor and Angry Robot, but I would still rather submit to an agent first since I'm A.) Unpleasent and disagreeable and B.) Not Contract Savvy.

    How would D&G try to sell a novel that fell into an oddball (yet highly successful) genre like Sci Fi/Western?

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  7. For those who wonder about literary fiction as a category:

    Think Lydia Davis or David Foster Wallace or Stephen Dixon or anyone publishing with McSweeney's. The people who write literary fiction are writing without regard to publishing trends or optimum saleability. They might unexpectedly find larger audiences, but even DFW never had the popular appeal of, say, Kate Jacobs.

    Likewise, writers of literary fiction do not follow set conventions, unlike, for instance, romance novelists, where it is my understanding that happy endings are a must. The only real criteria for literary fiction is that it is about ideas, first and foremost.

    This is not to say that genre writers love writing any less, or that they cynically chase trends. And not all writers outside of genre writing write literary fiction - I think Richard Russo is an excellent example of an author who writes mainstream (book club) fiction. But commercial fiction has the potential for wide commercial appeal; that's not a built-in expectation for literary fiction.

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  8. Is a coming of age novel literary fiction or young adult?

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  9. Nicole I thought 20 something facing first time independence events (like moving out, first job, etc) was New Adult. I am still not sure though whether a coming of age novel should be marketed as YA or literary fiction or commercial fiction. It has romantic elements but not the predictable happy ending. What do you call that? Protagonist is 17 and there are a lot of ideas as well as plot.

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  10. What about the category of mainstream fiction? Like Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy, or Amy Tan, for instance. These writers tell stories that are accessible to the "mainstream" audience. I don't think "literary fiction" as a category covers everything that isn't a "genre" novel.

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  11. If you've got a book proposal, just try and work out where the finished product would go in a bookstore.

    An SF Western is not at all problematic - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_Western - and you'll find them in the SF section. Why? Because SF sells more than Westerns at the moment. If Michael Chabon wrote one (a) I'd buy it and (b) it would end up in general fiction, because that's where people like me would look for a Chabon book.

    If your book is truly impossible to categorize ... well, that's indicative of one of two problems: either you've not done your research (there are a *lot* of books out there, and the chances are there's one very like yours already) or the book might lack a certain clarity.

    Genre's there to be played with, not conformed to, but it's also often a useful star to steer by. And publishers love thinking in terms of recent successes, not because they're narrow-minded jerks, but because they can look at actual numbers and come to a pretty good guess of the size of a readership. Write a YA paranormal romance, they know what they're dealing with. A magic realist erotic Western? Less so.

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  12. Multicultural literary? Is there such a thing? If so, that would be me.

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  13. I'm no longer sure what to call my paranormal romance, since it doesn't end with the "happily ever after". It ends with hope, but definitely not all rainbows and butterflies. So if that one thing keeps it from being paranormal romance, what is it?

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  14. Thanks for all of the great posts and questions. I'm going to respond next week when I post again. Stay tuned!

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