I found and fell in love with my local library during a summer reading program when I was six years old. The first day, they showed us the nonfiction section with its beautiful Dewey Decimal System. It was like music to my little “algebra brain” ears –so clean and orderly, so wonderfully efficient. An entire system dedicated to helping me find the exact book I wanted:
700s Arts & Recreation
796 Athletic and outdoor sports
796.5 Outdoor life
796.545 Camping Games & Activities
I arrived the next day, giddy at the thought of seeing how the nonfiction section’s beautiful sister—fiction—would be organized. I envisioned something similar. Maybe: Adventure, danger, villains, historical villains, pirates.
What I got was a three-word lecture: “Author’s last name.”
I raised my hand, and when the librarian called on me, I asked:
I doubt those were my exact words, since I wasn’t sent home, but that was the gist of my question. And this was a small town library in Idaho in the 1970s, which hadn’t even divided itself into broad genre categories the way libraries currently do. The non-genre marketing categories based on age, like Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult weren’t even a thing, beyond there being a children’s section and an adult section. Eventually, the librarian showed me the card catalog and taught me how to search by subject and the kind of book I wanted, which–although I didn’t know it at the time–was my introduction to the concept of genre.
SO WHAT IS GENRE?
I think it helps to think of genre, when querying agents, as something akin to a Dewey Decimal system for fiction. There is a broad umbrella category, for example, commercial fiction. That’s fine, but it also narrows the field down to about 80% of all books sold, so it’s nearly useless as a classification in itself. From there, though, we have a few options. How to use those options to best market yourself is the topic of the next post, but suffice it to say an agent who reps a lot of legal thriller writers may be more interested in your commercial fiction if you specify that it’s fast-paced commercial fiction that unfolds in a courtroom.
The point behind this post, though, is to provide a reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process. So, without further ado, here is…
A reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process
- Action & Adventure
- African American to Zambian American (Frankly, while the drive for diversity makes this classification relevant, you may want to consider using the book description in the blurb portion of the query to cover this aspect. In either event, I would strongly recommend at least stating the narrative-based genre [whatever else on this list the book really is] in conjunction with this—So it’s a Hispanic American Space Opera, not just a Hispanic American novel)
- Alternate/Alternative History
- Biographical (Not to be confused with a biography)
- Black Humor
- Coming of Age (While this is a generally recognized category, this is also something I would make obvious in the blurb and not identify as a genre, because it’s a kiss of death to some agents)
- Commercial Fiction (Another super-broad category, but the content of the blurb should provide the necessary clarification)
- Cultural Heritage
- Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology (including new takes on Tall Tales)
- Family Life
- Fantasy (This is a huge category, and I would strongly recommend adding a more specific qualifier, like urban, dark, epic, historical, paranormal, etc.)
- LBGTQ (Let’s face it, though, there is no hetero normative category, so this shouldn’t try to stand on its own, either. This is another place I would strongly recommend finding the genre within the story’s narrative and adding that, because an LBGTQ epic fantasy and an LBGTQ legal thriller are not the same thing just because the protag isn’t hetero).
- Magical Realism (As a purely personal aside, I recently developed a strong fondness for this category)
- Mystery & Detective (This can work as a straight genre, but look to see if you fall into one of the genre-specific sub categories, like hard-boiled or cozy, which are essentially opposites, noir, police procedural, international, etc., or if another broad genre applies, such as historical or romance or whatever)
- Occult & Supernatural
- Outdoors (This does not show up as a genre on the multitude of lists I consulted putting this list together, but there are some publishers—like the Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot—that specialize in this category. Plus I’m an outdoorsman, some of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened in the outdoors, and it’s my freaking list. So here it is)
- Religious (See the discussion under African American, above. At minimum, identify the narrative genre in conjunction with the religion—an Amish Technothriler is not the same thing as a hard-boiled Buddhist mystery).
- Romance (Also often blended with another genre, such as historical or humorous)
- Satire (I’ll tell you from experience—I write satire, and it’s clear from the first paragraph I have a decidedly satirical bent to my perspective—my request rate in queries using the “S-word” is zero, which makes me think there is a bias against this, conceptually, even if the work itself passes muster).
- Science (I’m listing this as a separate category from Science Fiction, even though we’re discussing fiction about science. This genre specifies novels with hard science at their core, which means a more descriptive genre or very clear statement in the blurb is required).
- Science Fiction (Another huge category, ranging from soft (ten years from now, procreating through cloning is popular, but we still use smartphones) to hard (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) with about a thousand subgenres between.
- Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clean, Safe, Renewable Green Energypunk, Biopunk, Splatterpunk, Dieselpunk, etc.)
- Short Stories (If you’re querying this, good luck)
- Speculative Fiction
- Thrillers (Again, a more plot/story specific tie-in is probably advisable: Crime, Spy, Historical, Political, Military, Medical, etc.)
- Upmarket (Some people think this term is dated, although I’ve seen it on several agent genre listings. This is in the gray area where a plot-driven narrative with literary language usage [which DOESN’T FUCKING MEAN FLOWERY LANGUAGE] is in the blend together in a space between commercial and literary fiction).
- Visionary & Metaphysical (if you wondered why Paranormal didn’t show up in the “P”s, this is why)
- Westerns (similar to mysteries, a more specific classification would likely help)
This list is not exhaustive, and I have intentionally omitted several literary subgenres (e.g., Absurdist fiction, Literary nonsense, Picaresque novel, Experimental fiction, Metafiction) that I am quite fond of, but that will almost certainly never see the light of day through the cold querying process. I’ve also left off age and audience based subcategories, such as YA, NA, and MG, because those are not literary genres. They do, however, relate to use of classifications for marketing purposes, which I will discuss in my next post. I omitted the blatant author/audience based categories (like vile classifications “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”) because I find them offensive and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, it simply means I have no interest in perpetuating them.
Identifying the genre or genres your book falls into is a step in the right direction. But, for our purposes, it is only the first step. The real trick is using genre as a marketing tool in your query. Which is what we will cover next.
Author’s Note and Request to Readers
My goal with this list is to be helpful, and I consulted scores of other genre lists and agent genre listings to compile it. But I am far more interested in being right than I am in thinking I’m right. If I missed something, I would greatly appreciate a comment telling me that. It may be something I have omitted on purpose and for a reason (this post would more than double in size and be far less user-friendly if I explained the decision making process behind every item). If so, a discussion in the comments would be a wonderful annex to this list (or you may convince me I shouldn’t have omitted it, and I’ll amend the list). I may have just left something off, too. And, as my critique partners can tell you, my standard response to showing me I’ve done something wrong is to like you more and fix the screw-up. The point is, I take criticism ridiculously well, so if you see a way to make this list better, FREAKING TELL ME.
Thanks. Next post, we’ll put this list to use.