Tuesday, August 23

The Importance of Genre Specific – Part One

By Susan Brooks, @oosuzieq 

Part of the How They Do It Series

Knowing where your book fits into the market helps readers find those books. Although the terms often used interchangeably, genre and market are not the same. Editor Susan Brooks takes the podium today to help clarify how they differ, and how they affect a writer's chances at selling a novel. Please help me give her a big welcome.

Since 2009, Susan has served on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a non-profit educational organization supporting both published and aspiring writers of commercial fiction. She holds a master’s degree in publishing from George Washington University and is Editor in Chief at Literary Wanderlust, a new, small traditional press located in Denver, Colorado.

She tweets once in a while and you can follow her as @oosuzieq on Twitter. She also writes a weekly blog on writing craft and other writing topics which you can find at The Writer's Bag of Tricks.

Take it away Susan...

What is genre?

Novels are generally written with a particular style, on particular topics, with particular kinds of characters. These different styles are categorized. The categories break down into genres. This sounds simple, but can be confusing for some authors, and unfortunately this confusion can lead to rejection from editors, agents, and publishers, and/or negative reactions from readers and booksellers.

Genre is important, not because publishers want to force authors to write according to some rigid system of rules, but because readers and booksellers tend to group stories together which share certain similarities. Booksellers use these groups, or marketing categories, to sell books. The marketing categories and genres included within them help readers to choose what kind of books they want to read.

There is a difference between genre and marketing category. If an author doesn’t know the difference, they might miss a big opportunity to sell their book.

Think of it this way. You meet an author. You ask them what genre they write, and they respond YA. That’s fine in general, but it’s too vague to make a sale. The author should be giving you more detail, either in hopes that you will buy their book now, or that you will remember it and buy it later for yourself or a friend. But you need more information regardless.

Here’s the problem with the above. Young Adult (YA) is not a genre, YA is a marketing category. The marketing category is determined by the audience of the work. YA books are directed toward young adults, or people approximately aged 12+, where the protagonists of YA books, generally, are a couple years older than the target audience. This is because kids read up (they want to read about slightly older kids), and the themes and topics of the book will shift depending upon the age of the target audience. The marketing category of YA encompasses all the fiction and non-fiction books directed toward tweens and teens because that is the targeted audience who will purchase the book.

Included in the YA marketing category for fiction are the genres of: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, General Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Scary Stories, Science Fiction, and Westerns (Booklistonline).

If, however, the YA author told you they write YA Fantasy, and then told you about the plot, and/or the characters, you would be much more interested especially if you like to read YA Fantasy. You might buy the book for yourself or your kids.

Now, say the YA author is at a writers’ conference and they are pitching their book to a publisher of a small press in hopes of getting a contract. The publisher asks them about their book. The author answers and says that they write YA, but doesn’t or can’t provide more specifics of the genre of their novel. Usually this happens because the author doesn’t actually know the genre. The author might say the book is an adventure where children use magic to solve crimes and then time travel via machine to the future where they fall in love with elves. This story, of course, could be an amazing read, but what kind of book is it? Which YA reader is the author trying to reach? Action/Adventure? Mystery? Fantasy? Romance? The issue is that the genres are so mixed up that it will be difficult for the publisher to determine where the book will best fit on a shelf (or how to manage the metadata). This book will be difficult to sell as the author is currently marketing it.

Remember that the goal of the pitch is to sell the book to the publisher so the publisher can sell the book to bookstores, and libraries, and readers. If the publisher, or agent, or editor, doesn’t think they can sell the book, then the book is not a good risk and will be rejected. Publishing, whether you go the traditional route of publisher and/or agent, or whether you self-publish is a business. The bottom line is about making the sale.

What if your book is mixed genre?

There are very many books that are cross-genre, and these books include the tropes or patters of multiple genres mixed together. The above book of our YA author could be one of these. Cross-genre books generally used to be written by more established authors who had more leeway with their publishers and readers, while first-time authors didn’t generally publish cross-genre books because publishers wanted them to become established in a specific market. But this is changing with the growth of self-publishing.

Regardless, the author of the cross-genre book still has to know their marketing category, and genre(s) of their books because the book still has to be marketed in order to be discovered by readers. Remember it’s all about book sales. If the reader of the above described book is looking online for a YA Romance, and the author markets it as YA Romance, the reader may very well be disappointed, and consequently the author could end up with a bad review, which is a bad thing for book sales.

If you write cross genre books, what do you do? Use only the primary genre in your initial pitch and cover copy. Minimize the number of genres that you use in your description to one or two. If necessary, use one additional genre to provide accurate description but only if necessary. For example, perhaps you write, Urban Fantasy with a strong romantic element. The strong romantic element information lets the reader know that there are romance elements in the book however this book is not considered a romance because the primary focus is not on the romantic relationship of the characters. Contrast this with the Paranormal Romance where the primary focus of the book is on the romantic relationship of the characters. The paranormal genre also tells readers to expect a fantasy element.

Ideally, it is the primary genre that is moving the plot forward, and as a writer, you should be able to focus on that primary genre when writing your pitch, or working on your cover copy and marketing materials.

In part two of The Importance of Genre Specific we will discuss the most popular marketing categories and genres for the most mass market authors.


  1. Thank you for this information - I wish I'd had it before sending out a dozen query letters. I have a question. My novel is a mystery set in current times, with an historical subplot. What is the best way to describe the genre in the pitch?

    1. Hi Sue. If your novel follows the expected tropes for mystery then pitch it as a mystery. If it does not follow the expected mystery tropes, then we might need additional information to help.

  2. This is a very helpful article, thank you so much! So...I would say that the novel I'm writing is post-apocalyptic fiction with elements of women's fiction. Does that tell you anything?

    1. This one can be a little confusing. Post-apocalyptic fiction is under the marketing category of Speculative Fiction, but from there it can depend on your focus. Is it more science fiction? Dystopian? Horror? How secondary is the women's fiction element? I would focus on whatever aspect is the main element and craft your pitch around that.

  3. Luigi KleinsasserAug 23, 2016, 12:22:00 PM

    Very helpful. I look forward eagerly to more of this information