Does Genre Matter?

Earlier this month two literary heavyweights discussed the issue of “Genre” and whether or not it should exist in its current form. Read Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s discussion in the New Statesman.

It all started because Ishiguro’s new novel Buried Giant is not presented as a Fantasy novel despite having a number of elements in it that would brand it as a Fantasy (like ogres). The argument is made that genre is an artificial construct that has no place in the scheme of literature. For example Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was not called a fantasy when it was first published. It was just “Fiction.”

Little Boxes

We use genre as a way to identify the category of a book. Where it should be sold in a store. Or who its competition will be.

The best way to describe it is to say that publishers and booksellers sell books out of boxes. The boxes are labeled “Romance” “Thriller” “Mystery” etc.

Before we resist that exercise I would claim that we consumers buy books out of those boxes. It is quite possible that the boxes were created by us (the consumers).

What frustrates the artist/writer is when a book fits in more than one box. Or doesn’t fit in any box. (Thus the concept of being “outside the box!”) The writer, with good reason, resists being branded.

The writer can be further frustrated if they are successful with one type of book but want to write something that would go in another box. Their publisher tells them “you are off-brand”, “stick with what sells”, and “no one will find you over there.”

How Many Genres Are There?

As fiction expanded over the years there has been a corresponding need to identify the various genres. The BISAC (Book Industry Subject and Category) codes are what the industry uses to determine the sales category for each book.

Click through to see the list of almost 150 fiction genres: Fiction BISAC Categories

Someone once said that the internet makes genres unnecessary because there are no more shelves. No need to group books together. The problem with that argument is that even Amazon breaks books down by genre. They know that someone who loves historical fiction will want to read more in that category and helps their visiting consumer with suggestions of other books to buy which are like the one they just bought.

What About Non-Fiction?

Does this problem happen in non-fiction? Of course it does. Instead of genre there are different topics. And success in a topic creates brand expectation of that author. Imagine you have written a successful parenting book and your next book idea is a devotional based on the Book of Psalms. Your books are no longer in the same box. And you are deviating from your successful brand.

Remember the Dewey Decimal system? It was created as a way to organize books in a library by topic.

It can be a challenge for a book that crosses multiple topics. A book of Apologetics could be classified as Theology, Philosophy, or Apologetics. Much depends on the content and the author’s reading audience.

Who Cares?

Good question. Those who sell books care because the consumer cares. When a customer wants a new mystery to read, they ask their favorite retailer for a suggestion. They ask either by visiting a physical store and browsing the Mystery section or by going to their favorite e-bookstore and typing in some sort of search (either by genre or author) and seeing what comes up. Or they may check the bestseller list, in that genre, if available.

Thus because the consumer cares and the booksellers care, the publisher cares.

And therefore the writer should care. We want our books to be found by our readers. “Discoverability” is the buzz word of the last couple years.

But What if Mine is Outside-the-Box?

It is hard to tell someone “There is no hope for your book” because it is the wrong genre or cannot be identified with one genre. I never like to say never, because that simply isn’t true. There have been breakthrough books that ended up defining a genre. This Present Darkness all but created the Christian supernatural novel as a genre (published in 1986 – stayed on the Christian bestseller list for 150 weeks!).

But at the same time we must be realistic. Claiming that your book is genre-busting is a bold claim and must overcome sincere and reasonable objections. Ishiguro’s novel mentioned at the top of this article isn’t sold as a Fantasy. Thus consumers who bought it did not expect to find Ogres in the book. In fact his most famous novel is the critically acclaimed Remains of the Day about a “perfect English Butler.” Unhappy readers will think twice before buying his next novel, unsure what to expect.

Your Turn

Do you think genres serve a valuable purpose?

Do you think branding restricts creativity?





19 Responses to Does Genre Matter?

  1. Avatar
    peter June 29, 2015 at 4:10 am #

    Yes Steve I think they matter. It is about ease of search. In websites a similar dilemma occurs if a site’s purpose is not clear. Clarity of purpose provided as close to the first landing, is not only essential it also follows a search path that must essentially confirm to the visitor, “this is exactly what you searched for or as close to it as possible”. If it doesn’t – and visitors are as impatient as bookstore browsers, they will go back and search further. Google ranking algorithms follow the same logic through tests on word density, etc.

    That confirms a need for categorization and fulfilment for all consumers of information. As to whether it cramps my style, no, actually creative gurus argue that context is essential for creativity i.e. if you want people to be creative at work, work from a common problem and define that problem clearly and specifically enough to ensure real creativity without over-generalization, else you will mire creative teams in very deflating distractions.

    That all said, forcing an oeuvre into a single box is neither necessary nor productive. The consumer is as well served if they search historic or romance to arrive at say a novel about Anthony and Cleopatra (I accept that a historic-romance genre might exist, just offering an example). Part of the problem lies in how we are wired – from an early age, through schooling and into working life, most of what we need is categorized and boxed – bread is in the bakery, milk in the dairy, oil in the motor section, etc. It makes our life easier, so why mess with that if it is how our consumers search for our offering.

  2. Avatar
    James Scott Bell June 29, 2015 at 5:48 am #

    Writing in another genre is at least possible in the indie world, because a) you can publish it; b) you can get it “shelved; and c) you can promote it to your fans. There’s also a bit of d) some new readers will find it and, if they like it, try your other books.

    Genre brand is essential in the trad-pub/bookstore context. In the indie world, authors themselves can become the brand.

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    Vannetta Chapman June 29, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Great explanation. There has also been talk of “brand elasticity,” meaning if I write Amish romance, my readers might stretch to read a contemporary romance – but it’s doubtful if the same readers would stretch to read fantasy. Some might, but the bulk would think “WHAT?” and wait for the next Amish romance. That doesn’t mean that writers are in a box, but it does mean we have to consider our audience and how far afield they are willing to purchase from an author they know.

  4. Avatar
    DIANA HARKNESS June 29, 2015 at 6:11 am #

    I don’t know whether it matters. It certainly matters to the people who classify books. All I really care about is whether a book is well-written. I read across what may be many genres because I have difficult time classifying anything! In the past month, I have read and enjoyed Ella Enchanted, Jesus Between the Lines, A Timbered Choir, Station Eleven, Moo, The Heir of Redclyffe, The Furious Longing of God, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Bad Intentions, Into the Savage Country, Crow Hollow, Gray Mountain, The Invention of Wings, Patrick W. Carr’s Trilogy, and probably a few others. I don’t look for books of a certain genre, I look for books that win awards, that are by authors I respect (getting ready to start Lila), or that are recommended or mentioned in articles I read. I will read anything in any genre as long as it is written by an author with some expertise. People operate with mixed motives, mixed cultural backgrounds, mixed personality traits, and mixed giftings; they are complex. Books should reflect that complexity without creating a million categories. Let’s go back to the easy classifications of fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose. With so many categories, I don’t even know how to classify my own writing. Maybe I’ll wait and see if someone will classify it for me!

  5. Avatar
    Jackie Layton June 29, 2015 at 6:17 am #

    Hi Steve,

    I believe genres are good guidelines.

    I’m also a pharmacist, and certain prescription drugs are made for a specific purpose. For example, Neurontin was created to treat seizures. Over time, it became obvious that it helps with nerve pain, and it is prescribed for pain way more than for seizures. Then other drugs come out and the manufacture lists ‘unknown’ under mechanism of action. My point is that if there can be gray areas in something as scientific as drugs, there must be gray areas for literature.

    As far as James Scott Bell goes, if I see his name, I’m going to read his book. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or craft, I know it’ll be good.

    Have a great day!

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 29, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    First, Steve, I would like to thank you – and everyone – for your prayers last week. I’m still in trouble; the issue is in doubt, but while optimism is guarded at best, there is always room for appreciation – and joy (if anyone’s interested, I wrote a bit about the dichotomy of pain and joy on my blog –

    On genre – I don’t like it, because it presupposes a somewhat mechanistic consumerism for reading, which I hope is not reflected in fact.

    I think we’re smarter than that.

    As an example, over the weekend, without the ability to do much else, I watched the film “Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World’. I’m not a fan of the Napoleonic Wars, and I’m certainly not enamoured of the Age of Sail; I know quite a bit about it, and I’m not called to sea, in fact or fancy.

    But it’s a terrific film, and I loved it. I won’t go looking for movies in the same genre; I may look for anything directed by Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe..

    Same with Susan Howatch’s “Starbridge” series. The epic’ is not something I seek out, but the books were wonderful; they created a world, and I know that it was Howatch’s world, not the real world. I’d go back and visit with her, take her tour of the land of her imagination, but I’m not inclined to ecclesiastical romances set in mid-20th-century England.

    The lockstep of genre seems to me a trap; I understand that it’s necessary for marketing and placement, and for the crucial ‘what to publish next’ question, but I believe it does the reader a disservice by disposing of the serendipity of browsing, when a trip to the library could be a voyage of discovery.

    • Avatar
      peter June 29, 2015 at 8:09 am #

      One of my favorite movies. Hope you are okay Andrew.

  7. Avatar
    C. S. Lakin June 29, 2015 at 7:02 am #

    Hi Steve, this is my hot topic, as I wrote to genre two years ago with a pen name to see if I could sell well without platform (yes, the book sold very wel–at least to mel). Since I wrote in a lot of genres and couldn’t be “branded,” it really hindered me from getting the traditional publishing contracts I’d hoped for.

    But as Jim says, with self-publishing, an author can write in many genres and develop reading audiences for all their books. It takes some work to reach out to diverse readers, but so what? As far as getting branded, you get branded as an author that writes in a lot of genres. That, for me, has been a good and a bad thing at times.

    I do feel, though, if a writer wants big sales, it helps to target genre. I did a series on Live Write Thrive about how to do that. (start with this post:

    I’ve also discovered a great app that gives authors a fast inside look at what genres and subgenres are selling well, what keywords they are using, and what real sales they are making. For an author trying to find a niche to fit into, this really helps:

    Really, this is all about what’s more important in your life right now: Making money to pay your bills and support yourself as an author or writing what you really want to write even if the genre is fuzzy or not popular. Sometimes we have the luxury of writing for the joy it brings without being concerned about which genre we write in. But others, like me, actually have to justify the time spent (i.e., I need to support my family so my writing has to pay).

    I hope you continue this discussion on genre as it ties in big with the discoverability issues. Thanks, Steve!

  8. Avatar
    Connie Almony June 29, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    Genres to me are like writing/crafting “rules.” They have a purpose. We must understand that purpose in order to use it well. But to elevate it to divinity would be to stifle the art. The truth is, these rules and constructs are there for a reason. They define what works and what doesn’t and inform the writer as well as the reader. We should not take them lightly. However, as times change, so will rules and contructs.
    Being able to describe a novel in one word—by genre—is very helpful in the world of character-limiting social media. People DO still buy books based on the groupings they prefer. However, as you mentioned, though Amazon still groups by genre, a novel could land on several different virtual genre shelves online, where it would only be allowed ONE genre shelf in the physical book store. A novel’s ability to be shelved in a variety of ways can only increase its visibility not decrease it. Most of my novels will show up on Women’s Fiction, Romance AND Mystery and Suspense on Amazon. I like that! This would not happen in bookstores.
    Additionally, with Christian Fiction in my area, ALL Christian Fiction novels are on the same shelves. I don’t know if this is because the Baltimore-Washington area is not a larger Christian reader demographic, but in mainstream stores, Christian Fiction gets lumped into the Inspirational section and sometimes is not even separated from other religions or non-fic material. In the Christian bookstores here, there is the Bible section, the children’s section, maybe a youth section, non-fic and fiction—no genres!
    Having said all that, I still agree that genre branding MUST be considered as an author plans his or her career. An author will sell more books easily if he or she sticks within a reader group. When the author does this, each book is a form of marketing for the next one. When an author branches out, he or she will be starting again. I’ve found this in my own experience as well by noticing the different “also bought” books on my novels’ Amazon pages. The romance novella featuring a thirty-something war veteran gets a very different demographic than my romantic suspense novels set on a college campus. Though I can expect the readers of one book in a series might read the next, I cannot count on all my readers crossing series or genre. Therefore, if making money or maintaining an avid reader base is my only goal in writing books, I would need to consider sticking within a single genre.

  9. Avatar
    Carol Ashby June 29, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    Bizarre that this is the topic for this morning. I was just pondering (I’d say worrying about, but worry is symptomatic of a lack of faith) the question this weekend because of a comment by a Genesis judge that my submission was historical, not historical romance. The distinction between “historical” and “historical romance” is summed up at the ACFW site as “The love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the story is emotionally satisfying.” Very true of my entries, but they were as much about the spiritual transformation of one of the romantic leads as about their ultimately successful romance. Actions motivated by ambition, hatred, and greed are as important as those driven by romantic love. So, how does an author decide where to place such a work? Is historical a broader category in the eyes of the publishing world that includes, as a subgenre, historical romance, or are the two treated as relatively exclusive of each other? Are there other genre combinations that have the same relationship? How does an author decide which tag to attach without keeping the broadest possible group of readers from discovering the work?

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 29, 2015 at 8:42 am #

      Excellent question, and I’d love to know, myself. It seems to me that historical becomes something of a catch-all when the rather vague criteria for romance are not seen to be met.

      And what is ’emotionally satisfying’? The heart of “The Caine Mutiny” is the relationship between Willie Keith and May Wynn; it drives Willie’s soul as a light touch can move a perfectly counterbalanced crane, and makes possible the mutiny of the title. And yet, at the end they are not together…but that possibility exists…and we’ll never know.

      Is that satisfying? To me, it is, because it’s real, and I would call “The Caine Mutiny” a historical romance, because it is much more about the changes love brings to the heart than it is a treatise on military justice.

      Pursuant to talking about “The Caine Mutiny”, it’s my feeling that genre profiling has cost us a lot. Tom Clancy’s first novels showed immense promise, and he had a WW2-themed novel planned…but it was never published, as the increasingly turgid technothillers became a force unto themselves, and the impenetrably dense prose they engendered put concrete galoshes on what had once had the potential for lightness, humour, and genuine characters. Compare “The Hunt For Red October” with “Red Rabbit” and you may see what I mean.

      • Avatar
        Iola June 30, 2015 at 2:17 am #

        Yesterday I could have explained the difference between historical fiction and historical romance.

        Today, Thief of Glory won the Christy Award for Historical Romance … a novel I considered as historical fiction, because I don’t think it meets the requirements of a romance (telling you why will involve spoilers, so I won’t).

    • Avatar
      peter June 29, 2015 at 11:57 am #

      That does sounds like creativity succumbed to bureaucracy. Jesus said “the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath”. It applies to genre, which has usefulness for readers and writers, but must not then become a life unto itself – we dare not throw babies out with their bath water. Surely the quintessence of creative expression should be quintessentially creative and adaptive, as it is in music, dance, poetry and art, which have all crashed boundaries and invented genres with abandon. I trust that the noblest expression of the human soul is not becoming a slave to Sadducean myopia. I can only hope your experience reflects the exception, not the rule.

  10. Avatar
    Thomas Allbaugh June 29, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    This is not aimed at anyone in particular–perhaps it is aimed at today’s unimaginative readers. But here’s the thing: When people don’t know very much, or if they are unimaginative, they are usually unbending about a few rules that can never be broken. So we have this current absolute thinking about genre “rules,” when genre is actually a pretty fluid concept. In fact, every new book pushes at boundaries a little, but even in the last forty years or so, look at what has happened in the horror and fantasy genres. I remember horror before Stephen King. It didn’t rely so much on what he calls the “gross-out.” I suspect that we will continue to see only changes, with new, so called “genre-busting” books–books readers love–leading the charge.

  11. Avatar
    Sandy Faye Mauck June 29, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Interesting blog today and all discussions. I get ya Carol. That sounds confusing to me. I am Christian Historical Romance. Romance being predominant over history but if you label it Christian Romance you’re in with the contemporary crowd, right?
    When I think Historical only, I think not much if any romance at all.

    When I search for books, I want what I want and the narrowest delineation works best for me as a reader. I came across a site that actually narrows things more and I like that. “Christian” needs narrowing all in itself. It is wide open and the road is really narrow.

  12. Avatar
    Nick Kording June 29, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    I’d like to say genre doesn’t matter but realistically, I know I often choose books based on genre. Ironically, I’ve been saying my WIP is more of a movie than book genre – contemporary Biblical fiction. I guess flexible genres would be more inclusive… but I understand the ease of categorizing and searching books by genre. I also try to read a book every other month outside my preferred genre to broaden my horizons… genre identification makes that easier. Next on my list… vampires.

  13. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks July 1, 2015 at 4:07 am #

    It matters to me because it makes my favorites easy to find. In our book club we read a wide variety but I have to admit left to my own devices I’m hypnotically drawn to mystery.

    Although I have tried to capture the concept of defining my own books – I struggle with mystery/thriller/suspense?????

    Good topic!


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