Understanding the Market

My cousin has a new job selling irrigation systems. He understands this product and even bought one from the company himself.

I know what an irrigation system is but that’s about it. Could I sell an irrigation system based on this knowledge? Well, I could try; but I’d have to do a lot of research and then only sell it based on abstract knowledge, not experience. My cousin understands the product and, based on that alone, is a much better prospect for irrigation-system sales than I am.

So what does this have to do with book publishing? Nothing and a lot. The point is, when presenting a book proposal, part of the job is to identify your book so marketing people understand how to sell it and before that, the editor knows how to pitch it to the Publication Committee.

For instance, when you say, “romantic suspense,” then Marketing knows exactly what approach to take. If you say, “memoir” then they know what to do.

What if your book doesn’t fit into a niche? Then I recommend using some identifier anyway. You know whether your book is fiction or nonfiction. Then where does it go? Is it a mystery? Women’s fiction? Adventure? Self-help? Try to narrow it down and choose something close, so those reviewing your work have an idea where they’re going before they begin reviewing.

You may say, “But if I identify my book and the editor isn’t looking for that, then doesn’t it make the proposal DOA?”

As an agent, I know what categories where I’m fully stocked and what holes I have on my list. However, I’ll still look at proposals where I’m fully stocked; and if I’m blown away by what I see, I may miraculously find a place for you. This can happen at some publishing houses, too. So it’s better to identify your book clearly than try to lure in your reader with a nebulous title.

When approaching agents, do your best to identify your work even if you’re unsure. Then, once you begin working with an agent, they’ll give you sage counsel.

Your turn:

What category of book are you writing?

Are you having trouble categorizing your book? Why?


85 Responses to Understanding the Market

  1. Avatar
    Brenda January 31, 2019 at 5:19 am #

    Very helpful!

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 31, 2019 at 5:31 am #

    To know what you have written,
    writer, know thyself;
    do not be wishful-smitten
    by its image on the shelf.
    You chose to tell a story
    that had risen in your heart;
    now define the category
    and within that, what part?
    Only you know your motive
    and can thus define
    what might become emotive
    for an agent’s precious time.
    Your eagle’s wings are God’s its true,
    but your story’s flight is up to you.

  3. Avatar
    Steve Watkins January 31, 2019 at 5:40 am #

    If we have non-fiction novels, can we have non-fiction novellas?

    Also, do you foresee a time when memoirs make a comeback in the market?

  4. Avatar
    Terri L Gillespie January 31, 2019 at 6:25 am #

    Great article. I suppose that’s why those elevator pitches are so important — they help us distill our stories to the essence of what they are.

    The category of book I’m writing is women’s contemporary with romance.

    Yes, I’m having trouble categorizing because I don’t know if it’s considered romance. My focus is on the woman learning her identity as God’s daughter first, then girlfriend, wife, mother, etc. There’s always a love interest with the journey they take, but the woman has her own journey with her identity.

  5. Avatar
    Maco Stewart January 31, 2019 at 6:30 am #

    If the story has unfolded as you write it without an outline, it takes reverse engineering (and often some help) to determine its genre. I suspect we pantsers have a harder time determining a genre.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage January 31, 2019 at 7:06 am #


    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 7:14 am #

      Your work probably still fits a broad category, no matter what. For instance, you know instinctively if you are including no romance, that it’s not romance. And you know if you’re including suspense elements or not. So in a broad sense, pansters still have direction.

      • Avatar
        Maco Stewart January 31, 2019 at 1:22 pm #

        With a little help, I learned my genre was [inspirational] romantic suspense, so I’m reading that genre now. Thanks, Tamela.

  6. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray January 31, 2019 at 6:54 am #

    It is the same way with defining audience. If I am writing for “everyone” then, in reality, I’m writing for no one.

    To your question: I have one prescriptive nonfiction complete and one memoir in the pipeline, about 70% complete.

  7. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage January 31, 2019 at 7:12 am #

    I was actually querying my book (now series) for a while before I learned what genre it is.

    A publisher who takes nonagented submissions told me it’s fantasy. I thought this was just because it features “dragons” (dinosaurs), but they are NOT a major part of the story. I thought the publisher just didn’t “get it.” My story doesn’t have magic or wizards, after all.

    Then I found a great blog about fantasy that had an article on this very topic. Turns out the genre is broader than I thought, and my books definitely fit in it. Thanks, thoughtsonfantasy!

  8. Avatar
    Nicola Cameron January 31, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    Is there such thing as soft Science fiction? My story takes place in a remote Galaxy, and science plays a part in the plot, however there are no ultra techie details. It is a human drama.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:09 am #

      Yes, not all science fiction is “hard” science fiction.

      • Avatar
        Nicola January 31, 2019 at 8:24 pm #

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to all these messages, and particularly mine.

  9. Avatar
    sherri stewart January 31, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    I’m writing one of those books that’s hard to pigeon-hole. It’s a fictional account of a young Jewish opera singer who stays at Corrie Ten Boom’s, falls in love with a young man hiding out there as well, and when they’re caught, how Corrie’s influence helps her endure.

  10. Avatar
    Sharon K Connell January 31, 2019 at 7:40 am #

    The genre for my novels is Christian Romance Suspense, which I think says it all. I do write short stories in other genres, but this is the one for which I’m most known. Even in Christian circles, I always include “Christian” so everyone knows it’s a clean read. Romance is self-explanatory, and Suspense tells the reader they will be on the edge of their seat for at least a good part of the story. LOL

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:11 am #

      Very good — you are right in that some general market suspense can get gross.

  11. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield January 31, 2019 at 8:02 am #

    Is anti-romance a category? 😄 I wrote a suspense novel in which the MC is a short-term missionary who gets caught up in a crime mystery she solves. At the end she realizes her new romantic interest isn’t a man of character, breaks off the relationship and is willing to follow God single. Suspense or women’s fiction? It was based on my own experience in Chile, except I wasn’t able to solve the mystery and I had already been married 20 years when the mystery occurred. Hmm. Maybe a rewrite with a happy romantic ending should go on my To Do list! I just finished writing my first Romance. 100% Hallmark. No doubt about genre.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:15 am #

      Based on that description, I’d classify it as general fiction.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield January 31, 2019 at 2:46 pm #

        Oh, Tamela, I was joking (I really ought to try to stop doing that in print) about “anti-romance” because of the bad breakup between the MC and a SC in my story, but the breakup wasn’t the last thing in the book. After losing the loser, in the last chapter my MC begins seeing a long-supportive friend in a new way, and he had just been biding his time, hoping she would, so the ending is happy and laden with promise. Does the happy ending move it back into Christian women’s fiction? Does it matter?

        Based on your understandable definitions in your response to Lila, I’m afraid that my Hallmark-criteria story might be women’s fiction instead of romance–there’s a theme of redemptive change for both the MC and SC that carries the plot arc forward interwoven with the romance, but it might even stand alone if the romance didn’t happen. I didn’t know that mattered before reading your post today. Sigh. Back to the keyboard, the search engines, and the library. Lifelong learner, here. Thank you!

  12. Avatar
    Lori Altebaumer January 31, 2019 at 8:13 am #

    I appreciate the advice to identify the genre as closely as you can and then rest in knowing an agent can help you fine tune that if needed. Mine novel is a romantic suspense, but then I wonder if there is really enough suspense so maybe it’s just a mystery. Or is there even enough romance? Thanks for relieving some of the pressure to completely nail the genre identification on my own. I think I can be content now to just get as close as I can and then let the professionals give me as needed.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:15 am #

      So glad this post helped you over a hurdle, Lori!

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan January 31, 2019 at 1:23 pm #

      ha ha ha I have the same problem. I am not laughing at you… just commiserating. 😀

  13. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca January 31, 2019 at 8:22 am #

    Great question about genre. My novel is clearly a mystery — there’s a death and the rest of the book is concerned with the MC searching for the truth. However, a secondary theme (actually, a co-primary theme) is a romance. That left me thinking it may fit better into the Romantic Suspense category, even though suspense is a separate genre.

    What to do? The book is marketed as a Mystery, but I think I’ll invent the Romantic Mystery as a new genre. 😊

    • Avatar
      Lila Diller January 31, 2019 at 8:38 am #

      Kay, I would love the idea of Romantic Mystery! I don’t personally read suspense, so hearing Romantic Suspense would cut it out of the running for me immediately. But I might take a chance on a romantic mystery. <3

    • Avatar
      Lori Altebaumer January 31, 2019 at 8:49 am #

      Yes! I think that might solve some of my confusion as well. A Romantic Mystery.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:16 am #

      Try it and get guidance at the time of submission.

  14. Avatar
    Lila Diller January 31, 2019 at 8:36 am #

    I know my Biblical fiction is a Biblical fiction. There’s no other category it could be placed in. But my romance series is a little harder to categorize. I have been marketing it as a contemporary Christian romance. But I had a fellow author advise me to try to market it as Christian Women’s fiction. What’s the real difference?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:17 am #

      Romance novels will fall apart without the romance, which is the center of the story. Women’s fiction may include romance, but there is still a story without the romance.

  15. Avatar
    Sally Bradley January 31, 2019 at 8:46 am #

    I’ll confess that I have trouble knowing exactly which category my books are in. I think–emphasis on think!–that they’re a blend between women’s fiction and romance because they tend to be very deeply character driven and focus on the difficulties our culture brings to our relationships. My readers seem to love my work–one book hit the USA Today bestseller list as part of a box set!–and I’m compared to some of the biggest names in Christian fiction, who wouldn’t be classified as straight romance novelists, I don’t think. But all of my books are about a couple and their journey, which is never light-hearted or Hallmark-worthy, if that makes sense. I’d really, really, really love to know exactly what genre I’m in! Sigh. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Lila Diller January 31, 2019 at 9:26 am #

      Yes! My books are character-driven, too, also following a couple, with a much heavier faith thread than Hallmark accepts. 😉 I would really like to know what genre publishers would stick my books in, too.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:18 am #

        Lila, I would also guess women’s fiction.

      • Avatar
        Sally Bradley January 31, 2019 at 10:39 am #

        Lila, I like to say that I write women’s fiction and that’s what I tell people. And then I joke that there’s lots of drama and angst and that I always write about male/female relationships. 😀

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2019 at 10:18 am #

      Sounds like women’s fiction to me, Sally. Congratulations on your success!

      • Avatar
        Sally Bradley January 31, 2019 at 10:40 am #

        Tamela, thank you! I will stick with using that genre description. 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson January 31, 2019 at 8:52 am #

    I know my genre. Romantic suspense. 🙂 Praying for open doors with editors.

  17. Avatar
    Carol Ashby January 31, 2019 at 9:22 am #

    It was actually the ratings/reviews of my first novel that helped me understand my market. I write Roman-era historical/Biblical with a romance that is important, but the spiritual arc of one of the characters is essential to the plot. I had thought the novel would appeal mostly to women. When I saw men reviewing and rating, I had to rethink that. (Almost a quarter of the ratings for number 4, which is a quest with a romance woven through it, are from men.)

    I now ask my designer for covers that will appeal to both men and women, and I conducted a survey of an assortment of my male and female friends to figure out what made a cover say “historical” (attractive to men) versus “romance” (repellent to men). The results are at my website.

    So I call what I write “romantic historical” because the romance isn’t the main point of any plot, even though each delivers an “Aaah” for the couple by the time I type “Finis.” A Roman novel should end with a Latin word.

  18. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 31, 2019 at 9:30 am #

    Is the category of dystopian romantic Christian zombie fiction full? Or would ‘full of’ be a better way to begin the description?

    For those who are vitally interested (and for the vast multitude who are not), I’ve achieved a long-term goal…working ‘zombie apocalypse’ into a romantic Valentine’s Day sonnet for my wife.

    Writers can do ANYTHING, and I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.

  19. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks January 31, 2019 at 10:43 am #

    Hmmm … how about “Sarcastic and humorous contemporary YA with a few unexpectedly deep moments and the occasional attacking squid.” I”m also working on “a rowdy puppy ownership MG tale with a rampaging squirrel and messes of apocalyptic proportions within the home of a tidy interior decorator who expected the puppy to be 20 pounds smaller than she is,” which is perhaps a bit too long. I’ll have to work on it, ha!

  20. Avatar
    Linnea January 31, 2019 at 11:06 am #

    My first novel was a pretty straightforward historical, although I’ve seen it categorized as romance or women’s fiction as well as historical. My second novel hasn’t been so easy to nail down. Once again my WIP is historical but it also involves a kind of time travel. I played with a number of options to have my MC find herself in ancient Babylon but everything I tried put it into the fantasy realm and I was looking to make it plausible. I’d always loved Michael Crichton’s work and his use of science so I looked at near death experiences, comas and genetic memory. None of them would do what I wanted them to do. Finally I brainstormed with my son, a real science geek. He put me onto something that would work and place the story firmly in the area of science fiction, so historical science fiction it is. Whew.

  21. Avatar
    Lillian January 31, 2019 at 11:32 am #

    Amazing! This article comes on the day when I was rewriting a proposal for my non-fiction book about health care. After reading the article, I revised the second sentence. Thanks for posting the article, Tammy. It was
    tailor-made for me. I also have my eye on “Book Proposals I’d Like to See by Tamela Hancock Murray. (LOL)

  22. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan January 31, 2019 at 1:36 pm #

    Great post. I struggle with it, too.

    Clearly, fiction. Clearly Christian (though my fMC is not a Christian and taunts her love interest by telling him she doesn’t get it). She has retrograde amnesia. Realistic. However she has Jason Bourne-ish capabilities –not so much realistic.

    How about Christian/romantic/Jason Bourne? Or John Wick? In a cozy mystery? With suspense?

    It’s done, cleaned up, made more realistic, but I wonder, how much belief can we suspend to make our mysteries work? I mean, research galore has taken me into interesting realms.

    Should I make it dystopian zombie Amish to allow for that total suspension of the brain to move the cozy into the realm of someone hooked up to a gazillion devices to keep the brain alive and activate muscles? How many books do we read that are wrong? I mean, bleach does not clean blood BTW so we have moved into suspension of that belief… oh gosh. See, if I put that in there how many FeeBees will land at my doorstep saying I just gave the bad guys the real means to clean up DNA?

    Should I make my homicide detective Amish carrying a gun? Well.

    You can see my dilemma.


  23. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 31, 2019 at 1:38 pm #

    Tamela, I have been working on a contemporary romance suspense novel series that is set in Annapolis, Maryland. The fly in the ointment is that I have angels and demons in it, which seems to make it speculative. There’s the rub: trying to categorize that!

  24. Avatar
    Melissa Henderson January 31, 2019 at 3:26 pm #

    Very helpful. My children’s book was published last year. But, I continue to write Christian romance and also, non-fiction. I am a multi-genre writer. 🙂

  25. Avatar
    Martha Rogers January 31, 2019 at 3:30 pm #

    Good post, Tamela. All my stories are romances, either contemporary or historical. I’m trying my hand at cozy type mystery with older characters ala Ben Matlock and Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple. Because I’m a senior citizen well past 55, I like to add older characters to my stories because I know them. Too many people stereo-type seniors. I think it would be fun to have a senior citizen category for MC’s past the age of 50. But then, the audience for that would be rather small. l

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan January 31, 2019 at 3:38 pm #

      I like that concept. I’m well over-aged.. however my younger (ie 35-40) protags use similar concepts in at least one of my novels. I do know of a Christian writer who has a series with amateur sleuths of 60 and older.

      • Avatar
        Jennifer Mugrage January 31, 2019 at 8:46 pm #

        Hey. I’ve got a leading man who’s 130 years old, but that’s kind of cheating because the story is set in early Genesis and everyone is living past 200.

        • Avatar
          claire o'sullivan February 4, 2019 at 2:44 am #

          love it. It would be interesting to see a Biblical fiction from Enoch’s wife, when he went missing… okay, j/k there.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks, Martha! You are ageless!

  26. Avatar
    Robin E. Mason January 31, 2019 at 7:45 pm #

    Hullo Tamela,

    Your article makes so much sense! As for what I’m writing, after 7 women’s fiction novels, I’m changing it up and giving it a go with contemporary romance. Of course, I have to complicate it with double MC’s – identical twin sisters!!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:12 am #

      Twin sisters can be very compelling, especially when written by an author who knows at least one set of twins!

  27. Avatar
    Nick Kording February 1, 2019 at 10:16 am #


    Love this… learned at ACFW in Sept that while I thought I was writing contemporary (a modern day bible story- Ruth), I was actually writing a romantic suspense loosely based on/inspired by Ruth. I am also working on romantic suspense series I’ve decided has elements of speculative (a supernatural element) but I wonder if it makes sense to say this when mentioning it?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:13 am #

      Yes, you need to say what you’re writing. I don’t know of an agent or editor who’d want to think they were settling in with a romantic suspense novel, only to find it’s speculative. Or the other way around!

      • Avatar
        Nick February 4, 2019 at 10:16 am #

        Thanks Tamela-
        I think it is more romantic suspense, but will include the small speculative nature. Would never want to mislead anyone. Thanks for the insights as always.

        • Avatar
          Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:19 am #

          Of course! I realize you would never want to mislead anyone. But the appearance of any otherworldly beings is likely to place it in the spec category, in my view.

          • Avatar
            Nick February 4, 2019 at 10:21 am #


            Good to know… maybe I keep them this worldly then. I think Romantic Suspense is my sweet spot so I’d like to stay there. Again, you’re the best – thanks!

  28. Avatar
    Susan LeDoux February 1, 2019 at 2:10 pm #

    I think my novel would be considered “contemporary literary fiction.” Is that genre specific enough? My protagonist is confined to a monastery as he is forced to come to terms with his daughter’s death, his guilt for killing the man he believes is responsible, and other issues. This non-denominational “monastery” is unlike the any monastery we would know and the reader follows the protagonist’s arc from nominal belief, to belief, to totally trusting God.

    A writer friend thinks it is dystopian because the monastery is so unusual, but I disagree. While unique, it is not outside the realm of possibility in this world.
    Not a thriller, not a mystery (although there are some questions about these “monks.”) We follow the spiritual journeys of two other “prisoners” in the monastery. I have no idea what genre this would be other than literary fiction.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:14 am #

      I would label it contemporary fiction unless you are targeting literary houses. The story sounds marvelous!

  29. Avatar
    Christine L Henderson February 3, 2019 at 11:49 pm #

    Good points to remember as they go with knowing how to do an elevator pitch. Which brings me to a question for Tamara and others…What is your impression with twitter pitch parties? Two writers I know have received agent representation for their picture books, but I don’t have any feedback for full length novels.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:15 am #

      If a company is running a Twitter pitch and they are looking for what you write, go for it!

  30. Avatar
    Regina Rudd Merrick February 4, 2019 at 9:58 am #

    My last book in a CR series releases tomorrow, so I feel like I’m starting over with new characters and situations, which is tough, I’m finding! I recently pitched my current WIP and was told that my story seemed to straddle two genres – Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense. Too much romance and fun for suspense, too much mystery for CR. Is this just the case with “category” romance publishers, and will mixing a little bit of both (without going full-on cozy) acceptable in general?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 4, 2019 at 10:16 am #

      It’s best to define the genre clearly and stay in those boundaries when writing strictly genre.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield February 4, 2019 at 11:42 am #

        Clearly identifying the genre makes so much sense, but isn’t intuitive, is it? As writers who create with words, I think it’s hard to set aside our creativity enough to stay within genre boundaries; after all, life isn’t that cut and dried, so why must our stories be? But sometimes doing that is exactly what is required if we want our words to ever reach readers. It’s part of the art/business dichotomy. Thanks for making it so clear.

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