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.