Awhile ago I received a call that illustrates a common error a writer can make when making their pitch…The problem of not knowing the genre in which they are writing. The call went something like this:
Writer: I’m calling to see if your agency handles Westerns.
Agent: That is a tough genre to sell in the current market but a lot would depend on how well you can write it.
Writer: Some places I’ve called have been rather rude when I ask that question.
Agent: I’m sorry to hear that. But an agency can only earn its keep if they can sell a project and a Western would be a long shot.
Writer: I’m frustrated because it takes place in the future and I think it is unique…
Agent: Wait. What? It takes place in the future? Not in the late 1800s?
Writer: That’s right. It takes place in a future time where someone recreates the Old West by buying up millions of square miles of land and bans technology and sets up a new “throwback” society.
Agent: That’s not a Western, that is Science Fiction. That changes your entire pitch! Sounds a little like the old Yul Brynner movie Westworld.
And so the conversation carried on from there. Whether or not this was a viable book idea isn’t the point of this anecdote, instead it shows how an author can be summarily rejected because they start their pitch in the wrong place/genre.
Last year at a writers conference a similar thing happened. The writer sat down for their pitch session and began with “I’m writing a Fantasy.” Within a minute I knew they were on the wrong track. Their book was a thriller set in the U.S. in the near future with some sort of attack on American soil. The author thought because they were setting it in the future and making up the names of the President and other key people that it was a Fantasy.
You might roll your eyes and say to yourself, “I’d never make that mistake.” But don’t be too hasty. It can happen to the best.
Why is this important?
I’ll use a metaphor of sorts to explain. Readers buy their books that are inside specific boxes. Boxes labeled “romance” or “horror” or “thriller” or “self-help” or “theology” or “finance.” We readers reach into that box because we like that category or genre or want to gain something new from a book in that category or genre.
If your book is “mis-labeled” then the reader is confused. For example, pitching your book as YA when it really isn’t YA. Or a mystery when it is more of a suspense. Or a memoir when it is more of a self-help book. Or don’t pitch book on “Cancer Prevention” as something to be “shelved” in the Reference section (depending on the book it probably belongs in the health section).
But you shout “online stores don’t have shelves! Join the 21st century Steve!” Sorry to disappoint, but they do have “shelves.” But instead of physical shelves, the online stores have virtual shelves called BISAC categories. BISAC stands for “Book Industry Standard and Communication.” A publisher chooses which BISAC category to define the content of a particular book. (Those of you who independently publish know that Amazon will only let you use two categories.) A complete list of the categories can be found at this link (BISAC Categories). If you look at the list and click one of the major headings you will see that each is divided into a group of subheadings. For example, the fiction category is further broken down into 142 different types of fiction (that is not a typo, one-hundred-forty-two). The importance of these categories can be found in the online algorithms that say “If you bought that you might like this!” The computer looks at the metadata and makes its suggestion about similar books.
I jumped from simple examples to complicated metadata facts in the above paragraph while trying to explain why getting the genre right in your pitch is important. I’ll go back to a practical answer…I might not be able to sell a Western but I might be more interested in science fiction. I might not be interested in a memoir but I might be interested in a book about dealing with Cancer that is inspirational…they are not necessarily the same thing in the eye of the reader.
If you are unsure? Join a writers group and ask their opinion. Or better yet, go to your local bookseller and ask “what section of the store would my book be shelved?” And know that they can only put the book in one spot in the store. Your novel cannot be positioned a science-fiction romantic literary suspense thriller.
Meanwhile I’m working on writing my own romantic theological finance thriller called The New Beatitude: Blessed are the Purposeful.
Wise words. Thank you, Steve. This is a toughie for some of us.
Great post. However, I get confused about genres because I read all over the spectrum. There’s a big difference in writing quality and thus my level of interest even within a genre such as historical fiction. At what point does a book move from historical fiction to some other category? Is it historical if the writer changes many elements of the history. I just finished Stephen L. Carter’s “Back-channel” which on his website is listed as a thriller. I would have called it historical fiction. How much history is required for it to be historical? How much intrigue to call it a thriller? And when does a novel pass from young adult into adult. Since the protagonist in this novel was 19, it certainly seems like it could be young adult also. I have read novels that were obviously aimed at a 20-30 age group. I read young adult novels and children’s novels which are appropriate for adults. My novel is historical fiction (I think) but one reader said she thought it was YA. Other adults have simply told me they enjoyed it and wanted more. Genre positioning seems difficult and I don’t have any clear understanding. Is there help for someone like me?
Let me try to address some of your questions as a means of helping everyone else at the same time.
Stephen Carter’s example is difficult because all his novels are a mish-mash of genres. But he didn’t have to pitch as a first-timer at a conference or to an agent. He was already a NYTimes bestselling author for his non-fiction and very well known. Thus when his first novel came out it didn’t matter that it was a hybrid of genres.
Thus his book is the exception and cannot effectively be used as an example, at least in my opinion.
More challenging is the obvious phone call exchange I relayed in the post. There you have someone thinking their book is one thing when it really is something completely different.
As for trying to sniff out the subtle differences between thriller and suspense? Don’t worry about it. They are close enough that saying it is one or the other won’t get you rejected.
But the YA or not is better question. Diana, you had someone suggest yours was YA because the character is 19. That is not the only criteria for a book to be YA. If that were the case then A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving would be YA because Owen is a boy.
YA (young adult) is a combination of things. Age of the characters is one. But the style of the writing. The issues dealt with by the characters. The vocabulary used. And even the over all tone of the book is what makes it YA. TWILIGHT can be simply described as “Romeo and Juliet with vampires…written for 13 year old girls.” Okay, that may be unfair, but you get the gist.
In a simple definition, a historical novel is a novel set in the past. (And depending on your age, the 60s could be considered historical!!!)
What becomes more challenging is saying your book is a mystery when it isn’t really. A mystery, by simple definition, is a who-done-it? A “cozy” mystery usually keeps the murder itself off-screen (think “Murder She Wrote” or “Miss Marple”) And then the story is usually someone trying figure out the puzzle.
A suspense or a thriller is usually more intense, action-wise and the danger is thrust upon the protagonist. They are either enmeshed in the chase or are the chasee.
Realize these are HIGHLY simplified descriptions and not rules.
As I said above trying to differentiate is important, especially when your pitch is so wrong that the agent or editor is confused about what you are pitching.
Hope that helps,
Thank you for the explanation; it was helpful. That was the first Stephen Carter book I had read and I enjoyed it partly because it reminded me of my novels-in-progress. So, if mine is also both thriller/suspense and historical, should I just pick one of those genres? I don’t live in an either/or world but in a both and everything world. Don’t we all? But, if I’m compelled to make that choice, on what basis do I decide to call my novel a thriller/suspense or historical novel? Since these are not mutually exclusive categories, is there some empirical method I can use?
Look for similar books and see how they are classified.
For example, Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST. Is it historial? or is it a mystery or a suspense. The publisher has it classified as a “historical mystery”
Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical > Mysteries
Therefore you can safely pitch your book as a historical suspense novel. It’s larger classification is historical…because it isn’t contemporary (has to be one or the other!).
We see historical romance as a simple category.
And a “Regency” novel has its own definition as does “Edwardian.”
Impress your potential agent or editor with the fact that you’ve studied the market and give them the right “box” to put your book in.
Thank you so very much. I googled Caleb Carr’s book and it’s listed there as Crime, Historical, and Speculative, so I gather that one novel can fit into many genres. Makes me feel so much better that I don’t have to categorize mine as only one.
Grinning at what you’re “working on.” 😉
This makes lots of sense. I guess it gets confusing when a book has nuances of various genres within it. Like Diana mentioned above. Does it simply come down to knowing what qualifies a book as a romance, or mystery, or suspense?
You’ve got my brain moving now. Thanks, I think.
Nancy B. Kennedy
Even with so many BISAC categories, the label attached to your book can be too limiting. My anthologies of inspirational true stories (Miracles & Moments of Grace) are categorized under Religion/Christian Life/Inspirational. I wish there were just an inspirational category, as I feel the stories have something to say to a broader audience. But I don’t see any other possible category. If your publisher is a Christian publisher, do your books automatically come under the Religion label? When I see my books shelved in the Religion section (usually in some dark forsaken corner of a bookstore), it makes me sad that many readers who would enjoy the stories would not come across my books there.
Thank you for this information. Still having trouble with mystery/thriller/suspense differentiation but sounds like we are all struggling with something!
Maybe another post on this topic?
Susan Mary Malone
You had me laughing out loud with the writer/agent exchange, Steve! But I do deal with this every day as well. The “inside” genres of publishing can just baffle writers, although this is indeed how books are bought/marketed.
From the comments here, looks like a series is in order from you!
You brought up a great subject. I have a question for you. You mentioned that “Westerns” don’t sell well. Would you categorize “Western Romances” in that same category, or are those selling better?
Hi Mr. Laube,
I am having genre issues as well. When asked, I tell people my story is a YA futuristic Speculative Dystopian. I know I need to cut it down to just one specfic genre, but I’m struggling. In the secular world is would be YA but it’s too edgy (has violence and sexuality) for the Christian publishing industry to call it YA, however my protagonist is only 14. I’m so confused. I’m not even sure if it should be labeled science ficition, fantasy or romantic suspense.
Also, is Speculative considered an actual genre, or is it a compolation of genres (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, anything ‘weird’), and is it ok to just tell people you write speculative, or do you have to narrow it down?
Thanks for any help, and sorry this sounds so confusing.
I would suggest dropping “futuristic” and “Speculative” from your description. Any dystopian story is already both futuristic and speculative. It is in the fabric of that genre of story.
You problem comes form the YA part. If your main character is 14 it’s likely audience is intended to be YA (Young Adult). But if the themes in the story are very adult in nature, then maybe that is inappropriate for that age group.
It depends on your audience readership. If you are writing to a faith-based audience there is no room for excessive violence (blood splattering) and sexuality…especially with a 14 year old “kid.” There are laws against that aren’t there? Maybe not in a dystopian society.
Novels written for a teen audience that are more adult in their themes, especially with regard to sexuality are now being called “New Adult.” In other words for the 18-21 crowd.
Edgy is defined differently by different people. What I find edgy may be a normal evening’s entertainment for someone else. For example I find the whole premise behind 50 Shades of Gray to be repulsive. But others consider it titillating and “fun.”
As for “Speculative Fiction”? It is indeed an umbrella term that covers all the genres you describe.