Monday, February 20

How Important is Genre in Today's World of E-Books?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I was talking about genre, and commenter Wendy said something that really made me think:
I often hear writers say that genre isn't so important in these days of e-books and self-publishing -- selling novels in the 21st century is supposedly all about author platform now, not bookshop shelves. Just wondering...
It's a great observation, because more and more people are buying books online and not going into the stores (sad as that in). Shelf space isn't what it used to be.

But will it affect genre and how readers buy books?

My first reaction to this questions was: having a larger choice of books might actually create more genres and subgenres, because it'll be that much harder for readers to find what they're looking for. And without the constrain of shelf space, niche markets can flourish and books can be grouped together in tighter categories.


I don't read e-books, so my views here are a little one sided. So I did an experiment to get a feel for the e-book buying experience. I went to the three major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's) and clicked on their e-book links. I was curious how the booksellers would lead you through buying an e-book.

Amazon takes you right to a fiction page and the top-selling e-books (and interestingly enough, the top three books were all YA - The Hunger Games trilogy). On the left, there's a link menu to further select your category. It has a very "look, here are the best-selling e-books. Want one?" feel. The thing that struck me the most here, is that everything was grouped together and if you weren't after a best-seller, it would take you forever to find what you were looking for unless you did click on a genre link. It also seemed to ensure the best sellers kept selling. A mid-list book won't show up on that huge list for a long time. Customers can sort this list by popularity, price, publication date, or customer review. I did notice that the "popularity" sort also had the free e-books at the top, since folks with brand new e-readers tend to grab a lot of free books to try it out. So customers have to wade through the free stuff that may or may not be any good.

Barnes & Noble does something similar, but their genre breakdowns are more obvious and on the main page instead of just on a side menu (though they also offer that). Below that they have the deals, then the best sellers. It's set up more like a bookstore feel, with "shelves" for what the reader is looking for. Click on a "shelf" and you get another page of menus with breakdowns and whatnot. What struck me here is that you get about fifteen books highlighted in each of the sections, so again, only the top sellers are going to stand out. But at least here you can separate them by what you like to read. They do have links to "see all," but nowhere did I find a link to see all the books in one genre (or any way to organize them). They had bestsellers, hot picks, cool picks, new releases, upcoming release, books under $5, but no "all" link. Again, if it's not a best seller or being talked about in the news or picked by the staff, I'm not sure you'd see it unless you typed in the title.

Powell's had a different approach by not throwing a ton of covers at you on the main e-book page. The first thing you see upon landing on the page is a text link to learn more about their e-books.  Below that are the cheap e-books. Then the new releases with covers and blurbs, then a list of categories to look for more (the also had a side menu, though it was lower on the site). When you clicked on a category, you got a side menu with even more breakdowns. The individual categories had the same basic format as the other stores, focusing on the new releases and best sellers. What struck me here was that it felt harder to find e-books unless I knew what I was after. (Though in all honesty, I'm not sure how much Powell's is pushing their e-books since they don't have e-readers like the other two. That makes a big difference in how they'd sell them)

The most telling thing I discovered overall, was that these e-book breakdowns are identical to how these retailers sell print books, so the model is the same either way. I don't think it's a matter of genre between e-books vs. print books, but how folks buy books online. And to me, the more items you have available for purchase, the more you'll need a way to categorize those items. Any online site follows this model, so why not books?

So, after this experiment, I do think that genre will still play a role in online books sales, and likely grow stronger, not weaker, as more and more books are purchased online. The place where I think things will change the most are in word counts, because a shorter or longer book won't matter so much in electronic format. (but that's probably another post)

What do you think? Will genre become more or less important as e-book and online book sales grow?


  1. I think it should be important. Because people tend to read in certain genres and it would be helpful to be able to search for books by genre. Like at a bookstore.

    I don't have an e-reader so don't read that way either except for an occasional book I download to my computer.

  2. Genre is just as important as it ever was. Different online retailers deal with it differently, sometimes vastly so, and none of them have gotten it perfect if you look at every facet of why genre categorization might be important/useful. The saving grace for ebooks and distributors, though, is the ease of multi-categorization.

    As an example, I currently have a title up at the iBookstore. I categorized it as general fantasy, so it shows up there, and in the broader category of sci fi & fantasy. Of their own accord, Apple also decided to feature it in the new & noteworthy section of fantasy short stories (it's a short story collection).

    Multi-categorization is a vastly underused tool for authors. Of course, the other edge of that sword is if an outhor tries to shoe-horn their work into acategory that it doesn't really belong to (because it's the 'hot' category, etc.) Then readers will be dissatisfied, having bought/downloaded something that wasn't what they expected. They can and will rate the work accordingly.

  3. As long as businesses and people keep categorizing, genres are here to stay. That's my thought.

  4. I think genres are a bit like a contract that the writer makes with the reader. For example: If I want a mystery, I'm looking for a different reading experience and have different expectations than if I pick up a romance (Just as a sweet romance is entirely different from an erotica romance).

    When 330,000 books are new to Amazon every month, the reader has to have a way to find what they want quickly and efficiently - hence the categories / genres.

    I can see that sub-genres may grow, but the big genre categories are as important with e-books as they ever were with print books.

  5. I'm not an e-book reader, either, but...

    In physical stores, the genre breakdowns are large. Fantasy & Science Fiction are one section. YA is one section. On Amazon, I can look at Science Fiction, which can subdivide into Adventure SF, into Space Opera. Pretty narrow. Yes, self-publishing e-books allows for anyone to easily put up a genre-bending novel. reason people have loved YA is that, with all YA shelved together, it was easy to genre-bend. I think the narrow classifications (like Space Opera) actually make it harder for readers to find genre-bending books.

  6. I think now more than ever, genre is important.

    It's a great way to sort through online bookstores. As you remarked, most home pages of online bookstores only show the most popular books. If I want to browse, I'm going to have to dig. Genre is going to be an efficient way for me to dig without getting lost in thousands of titles.

    Aside from practical reasons, I think genre won't ever go away because it informs how we approach a book. Mystery tells us what the book is going to be about, just as fantasy does. We know some of what to expect just from genre alone, and I think that's a good thing.

    However, with space no longer a problem, I do think there will be MORE genres. Something that's technically a mystery, but has a lot of other elements added in.

  7. Great post, Janice!

    Count me in with readers who find genres expanding with the times. It's a great "sea change" in publishing, reflected in consumer lives.

  8. I don't read e-books either so I had no idea genre was even an issue with e-books!

  9. This was a great question, one I didn't even think of, honestly. I still read paper books (I know, I know, I'm a dying breed).

  10. I also don't have an ereader, so am thinking from that angle.

    Since I'm a poor, struggling artist, I can't afford to buy every book that I want to read. As such, I make great use of our local library system. One of the things that frustrates me about it is that, unlike a bookstore, adult fiction is arranged in a huge blob of alphabetical order, with no genre classifications. That results in me wandering the aiseles, randomly plucking books from shelves while I look for a rare urban fantasy novel. It drives me insane. There have been days that I spent two hours looking through those shelf on shelf of books and came away with nothing.

    I would imagine that browsing ebooks that haven't been sorted by genre would be a similarly frustrating experience. As long as companies exist to make money from the sale of ebooks, they are likely to use genres as a way to increase sales. After all, who wants to spend two hours browsing online, only to end up accidently buying a crime novel instead of the fantasy novel they wanted?

  11. I think genre will always have an important role to play. If I don't know specifically what I'm looking for on Amazon, I'll do a search for titles under a genre I'm interested in. I'd much rather be able to say I'm looking for urban fantasy books instead of "I'd like to read a book with magic and monsters but set in the modern day." :-)

  12. Hmm. If e-book treat genres like blog/bookmark tags (all relevant tags can be slapped on) and less like bookshelves (a physical copy of a book has to go one one genre's shelf or the other), that could be really helpful. (I really like goodreads system of shelf-building, where readers can assign a book to as many shelves as they want. It would be awesome if e-sellers would apply something like that and let readers search by "shelf" instead of just genre.

    It might also help the problem of special interest "ghettos" -- ie, queer romance could show up in a search for general romance as well as in a search for LGBT books; books by/about African Americans can show up under special interest as well as literary (or another genre -- I thinking of how NK Jemisin has written a few times about frustration with her fantasy novels getting shelved in the African American interest section bookstores).

    As for myself, though, I rarely browse for e-books through B&N, even though I have a Nook. I'm way more likely to read an interesting review and decide I want to pick up the book, and "pick it up" by searching for it specifically on the B&N site (or my Nook itself) and buy it, rather than poking around the website for something of interest. (I still do that in physical bookstores. *g*)

  13. Thanks for doing such a time-consuming sort, just to answer one question. It really has opened my eyes regarding the e-book selling platform.

  14. Thanks for picking up my question and running with it. Much appreciated!

  15. Great points everyone! (and nice to see others feel genre is here to stay as well).

    Lorraine, 330,000 every month? Wow. that's huge. I wonder how much of that is self pub'd these days?

    MK, that's true about YA. Maybe it works there because it's a small section of the store? And because YA has a similar theme no matter what the genre?

    Julie, I'm a paper book gal, too :) To me, reading on a screen equals working, and I can't turn off my inner editor.

    Jo, oo awesome point re: libraries. You're right. That's a fairly accurate example of what it would be like without genre.

    Becky, I like the tag ideas. I think Amazon is already doing that (others might too).

    Wendy, thanks for asking it! I thought it was a great topic.

  16. I totally agree with you. Hot selling genre books sell the best - as long as the story and writing are there - whether trad. pubbed or self pubbed.

  17. Novels are ice cream. Ice cream flavor is the genre.

    People don't want to order ice cream and get salmon celery because they forgot to mention chocolate. They want to get something specific. Genre allows them to narrow the field down.

    Book vendors will need to get much better at allowing categorization of their products. Genre is a start, but we all know how difficult it can be to fit a book into one genre sometimes. With e-books, you don't really have to because the book can be on multiple shelves of the e-bookstore rather than one in the physical store.

    Catch interest, and then draw them in. Genre, title, and cover art catch the interest. The blurb draws them in. A good product brings them back again.

    If people want to search by special interest, then that gets much easier if the proper tags are applied. It will be up to the writer, agent, or publisher to insure that the book is properly tagged for the right readers to find.

    Plus, lots of readers don't know much about genre beyond the big categories. Using keywords like vampire, or soldiers, or assassins or apple pie, they should be able to find offerings that they want to read.

    I think a model, something like what Pandora offers for music "channels" would be really interesting for ebook buying.