by cane c. strathy
Publishers, booksellers, critics, and readers have identified many genres of books, along with countless subgenres and crossover genres. The proliferation of these labels causes many aspiring writers to lose sleep worrying about what genre their current work-in-progress is in and how that will affect their ability to sell.
You are reading: How to categorize books by genre
While classifying genres is an important marketing tool, it’s not always one that writers need to be experts at. the task of assigning an exact genre is often best left to the editor.
However, here is a little insight into the various genres of books, how they are created, and how you can use this knowledge as a writer.
gender as a marketing tool
Imagine that you are a book seller or a librarian. One morning, a person walks into your store and says, “I really liked the last book I read. Do you have anything else like it?”
Obviously, the first thing a good bookseller or librarian will do is see if they have other books by the same author. but what if the author hasn’t written anything else? Or what if the client has already read everything by that author?
Having books grouped by genre can help direct someone to a shelf where similar books are kept together. so if the customer really liked the hunger games, the bookseller can recommend other dystopian sci-fi novels.
Publishers and libraries can also use genre tags to help with acquisitions. For example, if a certain book becomes a bestseller, publishers will want to quickly produce other books in the same genre that can be sold to fans of the first book, whose appetite has now been whetted for more.
6 ways book genres are determined
Generally speaking, a genre is a group of books that are similar enough to appeal to the same group of readers. Nonfiction books can be classified by subject, which is a fairly easy process thanks to Melvil Dewey and the Library of Congress. with fiction, however, it is much more difficult to determine which characteristics best distinguish one genre from another or appeal to the same group of readers.
I have provided definitions for the most common book genres elsewhere.
Broadly speaking, there are at least six different ways to classify fiction. I will present them here, starting with the least important…
1. medium or format
Fiction can be categorized by the format or medium in which it is presented. stories can be told through…
a) music (as in opera, musical theater, or popular songs)
b) theater (plays, movies, television, radio plays, video games, etc.)
c) works of art (graphic novels, comic strips)
d) printed language (novels, short stories, narrative poems)
However, while it is true that some people prefer one medium to another, and many libraries and bookstores archive different media separately, most people feel that the content of the story is more important than the medium.
2. literary classifications
In the last 2,400 years of human storytelling, scholars have come up with various gender labels that most people only use in school.
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For example, classic drama was given labels such as tragedy or comedy (as in a happy ending, not necessarily humor).
or you may find tags like pastoral, gothic, epic, bildungsroman, etc. that speak to tradition, but are rarely used in bookstore signage today.
3. graphic content
With a few exceptions, like splatterpunk or some romance subgenres, graphic content isn’t a very useful way to distinguish between genres. Few readers walk into a library and ask for a story with a particular level of sex, violence, gore, or profanity.
Of course there are exceptions, which is why romance novel publishers will create separate lines for readers who don’t want graphic sex (e.g. “sweet romances”) and other lines for those who prefer something closer to eroticism (eg, “blaze”). .
What is more likely is that a reader will say that they do not want a book with more graphic content than they feel comfortable with.
However, the presence of a trigger warning in a book alone doesn’t give much of an indication of the actual story.
4. reader demographics
A more useful way to identify book genres is by the characteristics that the target audience has in common. Assuming you are writing in English, readers can be distinguished by…
a) culture (eg, African-American, Native American).
b) region. books are often identified as belonging to the literature of a particular country or region, on the basis that some readers like to read about their own culture.
c) age (eg, picture books, middle grade, young adult)
d) gender (eg women, men, lgbtq)
e) inspiration (eg, Christian, new age)
All authors should have an idea of their readership, as (to take an obvious example) the appropriate graphic content, vocabulary and style will change considerably if you are writing for a middle grade or adult. In some genres, like romance or young adult, it adds to the book’s appeal if the main character shares similarities with their ideal reader.
certain genres of books are distinguished primarily by their particular setting (eg, historical, western, alternate history, high fantasy).
However, it should be noted that setting alone is not always a good indicator of genre. for example, a murder mystery set in the Victorian era will appeal more to mystery readers than historical fiction readers. by determining the genres of the books, the setting takes a backseat and moves on to the next category…
6. the intellectual or emotional experience
all writing can be considered to take the reader on an intellectual and emotional journey. However, just as some people prefer a European museum tour to a North American road trip, different readers enjoy different kinds of experiences. so many genres of books are distinguished by the kind of intellectual/emotional journey they offer.
in her book, librarian joyce g. Saricks applies this approach to group together some of the most popular book genres. for example, under the heading of emotional stories are those designed to produce the feeling of…
These are fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stories that produce a particular sense of thrill or excitement. genres in this category include
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thrillers (of all kinds)
Obviously, the horror genre is about creating the scary experience for the reader.
This type of emotional response is created by genres focused on building relationships (such as romance or friendship stories).
women’s fiction (which differs from romance) is written to produce a sense of finding fulfillment in areas of life other than romance.
In either case, the reader experiences emotional satisfaction vicariously through the main character’s story.
Other book genres offer more intellectual experiences. these include…
mysteries: where the focus is on solving an external puzzle.
psychological suspense: stories that offer an exploration of psychological madness or aberration (an internal puzzle). the reader tends to feel more detached from the main character in these stories, observing the psychological breakdown rather than experiencing it.
Science Fiction: Which, in its pure form, focuses on speculation about the future and is based on current trends in science, technology, and society. this is a genre where ideas rule.
7. cross genders
Each of the six ways of categorizing stories above can be helpful in determining what genre label to put on a book. If you’re a writer, it’s helpful to know what genre you’re writing for when you’re developing a story: who your readers are and what they’re looking for in a new, potentially favorite book.
However, many writers create interesting subgenres by mixing and matching these six categorization schemes. the result is often referred to as cross-genre or mix-genre stories.
A common approach is to take a particular type of journey, such as romance or mystery, and place it in a conventional or non-contemporary setting, such as a historical period, a futuristic setting, or a fantasy world. For example, while the movies Alien and Blade Runner 2049 are science fiction stories with futuristic settings, Alien combines science fiction with a horror plot while Blade Runner 2049 combines it with a mystery plot.
Or you can choose an established subgenre, such as regency romance, but adapt it to appeal to a different audience (for example, young adults rather than adults). or maybe you import a character type from a genre like horror to create a paranormal romance (eg twilight).
what if a story doesn’t seem to be part of an established genre?
Novels with realistic contemporary settings and no fantasy elements that do not appear to belong to any particular genre can often be identified as conventional or literary fiction. Distinguishing between these two genres of books is a challenge for everyone and may depend on which label the publisher’s marketing department creates that will generate more sales.
Of course, when in doubt, you should always write the story that interests you and not worry about the exact genre label until it’s time to market the book.