Hi. Here’s a question that will hopefully not be too troublesome. When marketing a book do you or the publisher or bookseller decide if the book is a mystery, or romance or science fiction or fantasy?Mary
Reason I ask is that frequently I am in a bookstore or library, I find a book in the romance section and discover that it is much more mystery than romance. Or find a mystery or science fiction in the general fiction section. Why?? Is a bookstore worker or librarian reading a title or blurb and deciding from that what type of story it is??
Genre is a marketing tool. It categorizes books to make them easier to find for readers. We’ve all seen labels on the store and library book shelves: mystery, Science Fiction, Romance…
But who actually assigns genre? Who decides which book goes on what shelf? We’ve
rudely annoyed interviewed a few industry professionals for you in an effort to find out how this mysterious process occurs.
Nancy Yost Literary Agency
Sarah’s been with NYLA since 2011.
She is specifically interested in representing all varieties of Romance, Women’s Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and select Non-Fiction. For romance she is interested in the following genres: Contemporary, Historical, Western, Sports, Regency, Inspirational, Category, Urban Fantasy, Paranormal, Suspense, and any combination thereof. For women’s fiction Sarah is drawn to layered stories that don’t shy away from the realities, and often difficulties, of life. She particularly enjoys women’s fiction that has cross generational plotlines, and as always meaningful pet characters are a plus along with happy endings. For non-fiction projects she would love to see anything involving animals, specifically inspirational equine stories, and she also is an avid sports fan and would love to see more athletic narratives in her queries.
Main attractions in romance submissions are: strong romantic relationships (chemistry is a MUST). Voice should be intelligent and unique. Plots should be well thought-out and original with touches of humor and whimsy. Sarah cherishes her rural southern roots and particularly enjoys stories with a supporting cast of animal characters: horses, dogs, cats; essentially all pets furry and friendly.
PLEASE NOTE: Sarah does not represent Poetry, Horror, Middle Grade, or Children’s books. And she is no longer looking to take on any new YA projects. Thank you!
The mileage on this answer will vary so take with a grain of salt that the genre categories for a book can fluctuate throughout a book’s lifecycle. (Most of the time you think it wouldn’t, but it’s possible that it could. And I’ll outline the ways in which some of those fluctuations/variations happen.) Sometimes those changes come because a different sector of the market is selling better and if the book has some overlap it’d be best positioned to sell more copies there so either agent, editor, publisher, or sales department will highlight a specific genre tag, or change the order of priority of those tags.
Another possibility is that an editor at a Fantasy/SciFi imprint acquired a title vs. a Romance imprint/publisher, and so their team knows how to market into a specific market better than the other (even if it has elements of both SciFi/Fantasy & Romance) so it gets skewed in the market that way. However, other times it could purely be that bookstores and librarians have agency choose to shelve a particular book or format based on cover / packaging or even an author’s own backlist in a particular area of their store/library.
Let’s take a general romance and see how many categories it could possibly hit depending on a few story elements. But first, to get there let’s define a romance. I’m going to define in my terms/vocabulary, but it’s pretty general. Here we go!
For a romance to be a romance, in my professional opinion, you have to have the following items: a meet-cute (where the love interests meet or re-meet), you have the acquisition phase where the individuals are getting acquainted (or re-acquainted), you have the unification phase (where we think that they can be a couple and that an HEA/HFN is possible), then the break-up (alas, books need conflict and the leads usually make me cry because they are literally breaking my heart), then the grovel (on one or all sides), which is shortly followed by the reunification phase (yay problem(s) solved! LOVE will win!), and at the end of the book we get the Happily Ever After or Happily For Now.
If a book hits those 6 emotional phases, I classify it as a romance. However, if a book is set in space and on ships, I’ll think SciFi romance (and I can go to different sets of editors and imprints because of this element), set in the contemporary/everyday life space it might be contemporary romance, or it might go into Romantic Comedy if it’s kinda funny, or if it has some deeper emotional story arc elements for a main character who is a female it might go into Women’s Fiction, same with fantasy elements, or historical elements etc. etc. this is all done to add some more specific genre tags and help readers find books. This can change per bookstore / library, it could be determined by the publisher’s sales team if this book is published with a traditional publisher, or as mentioned above by an agent on their initial pitch, or by the editor once a book is acquired.
However most independent stores and libraries control where they choose to put books on shelves, be that specific genre sections of a store or on front tables or special displays. (Not going into co-op placement!! LOL)
Where things get complicated is determined a lot by what’s selling in the market place, and what format it’s selling in mostly on the print side of things. (Ebooks are great and important.) But later on in the question it does mention in a bookstore or library finding a book in a different section. (This is key!) The print sales and the market for various types of books can often determine and shift how a book is categorized. And we as industry professionals want to pay attention to the books and genres that are selling as readers of that genre are coming into stores to buy more books, and if we can get our books in front of those readers, we will (hopefully not fully contradict what’s between the covers) but try and get our books as close to where the readers are as possible.
Editorial Director, Avon Books
Erika Tsang has just celebrated her 19th year with Avon. Her authors include Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, Thien Kim-Lam, Jeaniene Frost, Jennifer Estep, and Ilona Andrews.
She loves romance, her auto-buy author is Nora Roberts, and she believes that the readers are drawn to romance because of the HEA (happily ever after). “Reading a story that makes you happy and believe in love and the goodness of people, that’s my happy place.”
Usually genre is determined in consultation with marketing. If we think something will have a better chance selling in as one genre versus another, we go with the one that gets us the stronger numbers. And trends also play a role; if we see that mysteries are trending down and a book would be better received by booksellers if it was a romance, we’d go with romance. But that wouldn’t stop us from advertising with both genres in mind. And this would only happen for titles that actually do cross over into other genres. I wouldn’t say something is a romance if it clearly isn’t.
Ace l Roc l Berkley Publishing Group
Penguin Random House
Anne Sowards is an executive editor at Penguin Random House, where she primarily acquires and edits fantasy, science fiction, and romance for the Ace and Berkley imprints. Some of the terrific authors she works with include Ilona Andrews, Anne Bishop, Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Jack Campbell, Zen Cho, Grace Draven, Kim Harrison, Laura Sebastian, and Sharon Shinn.
Her favorite subgenres run the gamut from epic fantasy to military science fiction to contemporary RomComs, including urban fantasy, romantic fantasy, space opera, dark fantasy, and sweet contemporary romance.
“I am looking for fantasy and science fiction with characters I care about and a story I can’t put down. I’d love something with a distinct voice and a high concept, something that can attract mainstream readers as well as genre readers (like THE MARTIAN or GAME OF THRONES). On the romance side I’m particularly looking for romance and RomComs (both historical and contemporary) with just a sprinkling of magic featuring characters of diverse backgrounds. But I’m very open—I may not know what I want until I read it and fall in love with it.”
Agents are definitely the first to determine a genre, since what category they put a manuscript in will inform who they decide to submit to. Sometimes an agent could see a project fitting into more than one category, and that’s when things get interesting. I see this a lot with YA and with romantic fantasy / fantasy romance, where an agent will submit a project they think could go either way to both adult and YA editors, or to both romance and fantasy editors, and then see who’s interested. From an agent’s point of view this increases the number of potential bidders for a project
At that point, the acquiring editor and publisher will determine where the book best fits on their list. (We also discuss with the author and the agent—if the author sees their book as a fantasy and we see it as a romance, we may not be the right publishing partner for them.)
With YA vs. adult, I usually look at age of protagonist and the themes—if the protagonist is 16 but is working and has an independent life (say, for example, as a servant in a castle in a medieval fantasy world) that might work better for the adult market than if that same 16 year old protagonist is fighting for independence from their parental figures (like they’re being trained to run the family tavern but want to run away from home and become a minstrel).
Similarly with romance vs. fantasy, you look at how dominant the romance is in the story. If you take out the romance and the book then falls apart plot-wise, that’s a sign it should probably be published as a romance. But if the romance is a small plot thread in comparison to the overall story it could be better off in fantasy—if something is published as romance but the love story is only a subplot, readers will be irritated.
It’s rare to find a writer like Grace Draven, who writes rich fantasy novels with an equally strong and emotionally resonant romance. We do publish her as fantasy in spite of the powerful romance because the convention for romance novels is for the relationship to be the largest part of the plot and with Grace it’s more like 50% fantasy / 50% romance.
There can be market considerations as well—for a long time horror was really tough as a category so books with horrific elements might be categorized as “dark fantasy”; that’s changing now so you could see more books classified as “horror” these days.
So ultimately on the editorial side, deciding how to categorize a book is about being aware of reader expectations and determining which readers would be most likely to positively respond to the story.
Senior Director of Publicity and Brand Marketing
Pam Jaffee has been a publicist since 1994, a book publicist since 1997, and began integrated marketing for books in 2000 with Harper Collins, where she held the same position.
She is passionate about books, and developing author careers. In the evolving marketplace, discovery is crucial — how can you make book campaigns pop, spur sales, and create author brand advocates? She specializes in integrated marketing campaigns that mix traditional publicity with social media and marketing/promotion, with the goal of making her authors — and their books – household names.
There is no crystal ball. At the beginning and end of the day, authors are closer to emergent trends than we (in the publishing trade) are. Your readers talk to you, tell you what they love, what they want more of, what resonates. And many authors write directly to the heart of that.
Positioning a book: My favorite moments are in the company-wide meetings: launch, sales conference, when all of us, across every publishing division, first learn about the books, then have read the books, and then, we start really TALKING about the books.
Oh wait, this isn’t a rom-com. Why are we calling it a rom-com?
Hey, spicy paranormals are on the rise – does this fit into that category?
Mark my word, Regencies are going to HOT next year.
This is a Marvel-inspired historical? Whaaaat?
In these moments, we start playing with BISACs (book publishing subject codes), and discuss how to best characterize the book to appeal to readers, promote discovery and spark reading. The genre/subgenre of a book is truly born from the author’s imagination, but in these intersectional moments of metadata and marketing mixology, the authors’ publishing partners formulate (content + reading trends) = strongest book positioning.
Blue Willow Bookshop
14532 Memorial Drive
Houston, TX 77079
“Our team works so hard, and we have so much fun together. You know them—they fill your orders, share your lives, and are a shoulder to cry on. And you can always count on them for a wonderful book recommendation. I think that’s what makes us West Houston’s favorite bookshop: We truly want to share our love of books with you, whether you live across the street, inside the loop, or in Tennessee. Or even Italy for that matter.”
We only use the category of fiction. We are a small shop. Years ago, we separated mysteries and “light” fiction but found that people did not really shop there. Once we combined everything, we sold more of all genres. We alphabetize by author and handsell based on customer needs.
Valerie Koehler on behalf of Blue Willow Bookshop.
Note from HA: Blue Willow is our store for signed copies. If you get a chance, please check out their website. They carry an excellent selection of books and their blog articles are worth reading.
Anonymous/Barnes and Noble
“We do not determine the genre. We are told where the book must be placed by the corporate office.”
Anonymous BN employee, brief interview over the phone.
Note from HA: This means that the book buyers, people who purchase the books for the entirety of the BN stores, determine the genre. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach any of them for comment.
Anonymous/Large Independent Book Store
Most of the time decisions on where to shelve books and authors are based on a combination of experience, and using the publisher catalogs as a guide. The publishers have put a lot of thought into which genre readers might want to read that book. Though with a human being involved, sometimes mistakes can be made.
Anonymous bookseller via email
Associate Librarian of General Reference Services
Orem Public Library
I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and am so grateful to have a job that allows me to read for a living.. For the past 27 years I’ve worked at the Orem Public Library (oremlibrary.org) a city library with a collection of 290,000 items, in Orem, Utah. I am currently the Associate Librarian of General Reference Services. I supervise a staff of 10 and provide Readers Advisory and reference assistance for general fiction, non fiction and young adult fiction.
Presently, my assignments include The Orem Library Book Club, collection development for genre romance and e-book training for patrons. Orem (pop. 97,000) and the neighboring city of Provo (pop 116,000) are home to Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University with a combined student body of 45,000, many of whom use our library services.
I am a member of ALA (American Library Association), ULA (Utah Library Association) and the Children’s Literature Association of Utah. I am currently an MLIS student at Valdosta State University. Additionally, I am a licensed (retired) massage therapist. I love to cook, hike, travel and spend time with my family.
Normally publishers choose how to market a book and what the genre is. Famous case is Diana Gabaldon’s book, Outlander. The publisher categorized it as a romance because that is what they thought was the best fit and would help it sell. My library has it as SF.
Bookstores and libraries, as a rule, organize their materials a little differently. Bookstores often use something called BISAC categories which is system of assigning subjects to group together. Libraries usually use a classification system which in the United States is almost always Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal. A work of fiction is given subject headings that classify it.
For example, here are the subject headings for Sweep in Peace from my library’s catalog.
Subject Term: Bed and breakfast accommodations — Fiction.
Hotelkeepers — Fiction.
Bed and breakfast accommodations — Texas — Fiction.
Magic — Fiction.
Werewolves — Fiction.
Vampires — Fiction.
Good and evil — Fiction.
Geographic Term: Texas — Fiction.
Genre: Fantasy fiction.
These terms will help folks using the catalog to identify items, such as paranormal fiction or werewolves, that they are searching for.
Ultimately the cataloger, the person who organizes the records, decides what the genre of a book will be in their organization’s catalog and that decision varies based on the individual. I have argued with our cataloger about a book belonging in romance — I lost. She put it where she felt it belonged even though I had purchased the book for romance.
And this says nothing of how items are arranged on shelves. Bookstores often group by genre for easier browsing. Some libraries group by genre some shelve alphabetically.
When in doubt, search for subjects you are looking for or chat with your librarian and ask for recommendations. Talking to people about books is the BEST part of my job.
I know there are other librarians in the BDH and they might have additional insights.
PS. Sorry about this very long answer — I am writing a paper about organization of information at the moment and I got carried away here!
Reviewer at Fantasy Book Critic
Mihir is a physician and a Masters graduate. He is an avid book collector and longtime reader of fantasy, thrillers and Indian mythology with additional interests in historical fiction and urban fantasy.
Favorite writers include Jeffrey Deaver, John Connolly, David Gemmell, , James Clemens/Rollins, Craig Schaefer, Rachel Aaron, Rob J. Hayes, Richard Nell, Ilona Andrews and many others.
Mihir is also a diehard fan of the Indian Cricket team and Chelsea Football Club. Mihir currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family, and is ever looking forward to discovering new authors and old books.
Mihir can be contacted directly at Goodreads HERE.
Thank you for your email and for this very fascinating question. Honestly I’m stumped about genre a lot as nowadays in the traditional and self-publishing worlds we get stories that straddle so many genres easily.
From a reviewer perspective, I tend to go off on what the author/publisher primarily provides when we get review requests but of course I like to comment on whether the genre blurb holds true or not. It can be tricky from a reviewer’s perspective as we try to compartmentalize books but then others (reviewers and readers) might disagree.
Also there’s the question of preferences, genre blurbs tend to help in attracting reviewers to books and I’m guilty of this too. So in this we are all certainly influenced and look to the genre to get an idea. I know I’m in the rare minority among reviewers because I NEED to read the blurb before starting a book. For the life of me, I can’t go into a book blind. But most other reviewers I know tend to do the exact opposite.
I know for many readers and writers the genre label has become a kind of profanity. More of a hassle than of any help but I believe people stress about it too much. This is not from a bookseller’s or publisher’s POV as they absolutely need it to be able to classify and sell books to the right crowd.
But IMHO if people start thinking of “Genre” as akin to a direction marker, it would be less of a stressor. It’s not going to be wholly accurate but is more of a pointer towards the destination which the readers might like to head towards. Things are always confusing with certain titles such as the ones below:
- Green Bone trilogy by Fonda Lee (Is it a crime saga/secondary urban fantasy/epic fantasy?)
- Kate Daniels saga and world (UF romance/action-packed epic fantasy/dystopian fantasy thrillers?)
- First Earth saga by Craig Schaefer (Horror/dark fantasy/UF noir?)
- Otherland saga by Tad Williams (Cyberpunk SF/LitRPG fantasy?)
- Shadows Of The Dust by Alec Huston (Space creature fantasy/Secondary world fantasy Western/ Science fantasy?)
- The Books Of Babel by Josiah Bancroft (Literature fantasy/steampunk alt-history fantasy?)
- The Coldfire trilogy by C.S. Friedman (Secondary world fantasy/Dark fantasy/SF EPIC?)
- Tales From The Flat Earth by Tanith Lee (Horror/Epic fantasy with demons/mytho-fantasy?)
- The Darkstar books by Benedict Patrick (Space fantasy/Portal fantasy with dragons?)
- The Heartstrikers saga by Rachel Aaron (UF with dragons/SF fantasy with time travel/own genre?)
But the aforementioned titles tend to be the exception rather than the norm. So genre labels are still helpful to the vast majority of the readers and authors who can highlight easily what this book is going to be about and why others will want to read/buy/check it out.
I’ve given up on trying to put a genre tag on our work. We write it and let someone else – our agent, our editor – figure out where it lands.
Yes, I know that some people will view it as a sort of privilege, earned through hard work and commercial viability. An author who is just starting out must define the genre of their work to effectively query the right agent. They can’t just let someone else do it.
Our work was always difficult to classify. Kate Daniels is Urban fantasy, but also Post-Apocalyptic, possibly Dystopian, Heroic Fantasy with a good splash of Paranormal Romance. Hidden Legacy is Paranormal Romance, but also a Fantasy, with PI. Innkeeper is… Sci-Fantasy? I don’t even know where to go with the Edge and neither did the marketing department.
This is to our detriment. It’s much easier to market a book if it falls clearly into some definite subgenre category. It lets you target your audience better. I’ve been told a couple of times over the years that if we could only tone down the oddness, we’d sell better. Sadly, toning down doesn’t seem to be happening. Both of us have a switch in our heads that’s permanently stuck on weird, which is why we have living turtle temples and philosopher space chickens.
So my best advice to you, if you are an aspiring author, look at the work that’s similar to yours and see how it’s classified and who represents it. If you’re weird, own it. It might work for you.
And there you have it, more information about the genres of commercial fiction than you ever wanted to know. Our deepest thanks to all of the people who generously donated their time and expertise to answer our annoying questions.