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If the Genre Fits

May 30, 2012

Show of hands. Who’s having trouble deciding the genre of your book? What if your work, for example, falls into women’s fiction, but is also a romance with a dash of suspense and the paranormal? What if it’s Young Adult, but also a Western with a touch of sci-fi and magical realism? (OK. That’s a bit of stretch, but you get the idea.)

The truth is, the number of book genres and sub-genres out there can make your head spin. Literary agents and editors probably have a hard time keeping them straight as well. But when it comes to you, the author, how do you classify your book if it’s a mix of genres? Here are some thoughts from various sources.

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, in search of an agent, then knowing your genre is critical, according to John C. Ford, author of “The Morgue and Me” (Viking). “If you don’t know what shelf your book should be on, then agents, editors and booksellers probably won’t either, and that will make them reluctant to invest in your manuscript,” he recently wrote on Folio Literary Management’s site.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner agrees. “Genre sets the stage, sets up an expectation, and gets the listener in the right frame of mind to understand your story,” she wrote some months ago on her blog “Just like Netflix or at the Redbox, where you can choose to search movies by category (thriller, action, romance, comedy, family), the genre is usually the first thing someone wants to know about your book.”

Gardner goes on to say that genre exists to help readers find the books they like. So, she advises finding 10 books whose readers will probably also like your book. Think to yourself, “My readers are people who love books such as ______, ____, and _____. What are those books? Now, what genre are those books?”

Sometimes, it’s OK to use two or three words to describe your genre, she writes, such as historical romance, or paranormal thriller. Others have suggested simply leaving the specific genre off your query letter and leaving the decision to the agent, or to mention that the book could be positioned within more than one genre.

In fact, some say it’s permissible to break the genre rules. Today, that seems to be happening more with e-books. In the e-publishing world, you as the author are in control of your marketing destiny, so you can decide what genre fits and what readers you want to attract.

Ultimately, genre is a marketing label that helps publishers and bookstores, but has very little to do what interests the reader, say Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion writing together as M.H. Mead Readers want to know if it’s a book they’ll enjoy reading.

“Readers don’t care [about blended genres],” they write. “They want a good story, well told. We don’t know anyone who exclusively reads a single genre and we bet you don’t either. And when genres blend, we like it even more.”

Still, Gardner and other agents advise there is no getting away from genre. “You need to be able to tell someone what genre your novel is,” she writes, “for a variety of reasons that all relate to the fact that you’re trying to make your art into a business.”

So there it is. If the genre fits, slap a label or two on it. Or not. As Yang and Campion say, just make sure it’s a good story, well-told.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 12:30 PM

    I put a lot of stock into the advice “story first, genre second.” But that being said, there can be some merit to deciding a genre ahead of time just for the sake of knowing what form and tropes to play with. Regardless, you’re right–the genre is more for the business side of things than it is for the readers. Writers can’t let themselves get too bogged down by the details.

  2. May 30, 2012 12:36 PM

    Thanks for your comments and stopping by, Rose Red (and love the name of your blog “Coffee Stained” which is usually how my desk looks). I agree that story trumps all. If we write a good tale, readers — and hopefully agents — will find our novels, regardless of genre.

  3. May 30, 2012 2:37 PM

    Thought-provoking post. I’m struggling with this issue in my WIP. As a writer, I just want to tell my story and let the lives of my characters unfold. It seems to me that real life is a combination of mystery, romance, and fantasy. I love fiction that encompasses all of those elements.

    • May 31, 2012 6:09 AM

      I love your comment, Sandy, that real life is a combination of many elements — and why should our novels, that reflect real life, be any different?

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