How to Figure Out Your Book’s Genre

colorfiles“How do I know what genre my novel fits into?”

I see this question a lot.

It’s not that authors aren’t familiar with genres — although with the proliferation of sub-genres cropping up daily, it’s hard to keep up — but often it’s because they feel their books could fit more than one genre.  They don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  They don’t want to miss a potential audience.  At the same time, picking a genre is expected.  What to do?

First:  get familiar with what’s out there.

One of the easiest ways is to look at a bookstore, whether it’s online or bricks-and-mortar, and see how they classify fiction.  This changes a bit over time.  (Anybody else remember when they had a “Chick Lit” section at Borders?  Hell, anybody remember Borders?)

Here are some of the most common umbrella genres.

  • Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence.
  • Erotica — stories of sexual exploration.
  • Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures.
  • Horror — stories that invoke fear.
  • Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc.
  • Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder. 
  • Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery.
  • Romance — stories about love/intimacy.
  • Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds.
  • Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice. 
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth.  Primary emotion:  hope.

There are obviously lots of sub-genres for most of these categories. Also, I’ve left out Children’s/YA/New Adult fiction, simply because you can have these same umbrella genres within those categories — it’s more about the age of the protagonists rather than the subject matter, and the targeted age of the reader.  So you can have YA paranormal romance, or Middle Grade sci-fi, or what have you.

Next, look at the “genre qualities” of your book.

Did you have a genre in mind when you wrote it?  If not, given what you’ve just learned about the genres, and what readers expect from each genre, where might it possibly fit?

Most importantly, which of the above audiences would be the most happy with what you’ve written?

Example:  Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation

It’s a book about two sisters who go to a small town to make a film.  It involves a love story. There is also a mystery.  There is also a decent amount of sex.

That said, it’s not really a mystery, despite the dead body and various machinations as the murderer is discovered. It’s not that difficult to solve, and it’s not the primary focus.  Mystery readers, who are driven to figure out “who did it?” will not be satisfied at the dilution of the mystery with elements that they’d see as secondary: the love story takes up way too much real estate.

It’s also not an erotica.  While the sex is steamy, the focus is more on falling in love and emotional intimacy than sex as a vehicle of character development: there are character development scenes with the heroine and the hero’s child, for example, or the sisters discussing their past.  For someone looking to read erotica, this would seem extraneous, and possibly slow-paced or boring.

It is definitely a love story.  The mystery elements and the sex both serve to reinforce the growth of the love between the protagonists.  So the genre that makes the most sense is romance.

Another example:  Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series.

The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a detective, solving cases that usually involve murder on the mean streets of Chicago.  He tackles a lot of epic adventures, giving it elements of Action/Adventure.

That said, he is also a Wizard.

They are definitely mysteries, taking a page out of the classic noir novels.  It would definitely satisfy a lot of mystery readers… if they were also amenable to the magical/mystical features of Fantasy, which many might not be.  Same with the action/adventure reader set.

Fantasy readers — specifically Urban Fantasy readers — would be very satisfied by the other-worldly aspects, the world building, and the magic and mystical figures.  The action, adventure and mystery all work with the fantasy element.  Harry shoots things with fireballs and magic spells as well as shotguns.  He solves mysteries that may or may not involve fairies, necromancers, or mythological gods.  It’s immersive, with world building so thorough that you are completely drawn in.  Urban Fantasy is the best fit.

Finally:  identify why you want to know.

There’s a difference between choosing a genre for a potential agent, for example, and choosing a category for a self-publishing listing.

When you’re writing a query, you want to show the agent that you have a sense of who your target audience is and where your book would most likely sell.

You might think “but isn’t that the agent’s job?”  and indeed, said agent may have some opinions on how to better position your work.  But if you don’t have any clue, and you just dump a book in his/her lap with the expectation that they will read through it and glean the positioning, it’s a harbinger of things to come.  Tacitly saying “but that isn’t my job” when it comes to something as relatively simple as genre choice suggests that you’re really going to balk when it comes time to actually  market and promote the thing.

For an agent, choose the most likely readership. 

As I mentioned, mystery readers could enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. But they aren’t the most likely readership.  An agent will want to know what’s the most likely readership — who is the mostly likely to seek out this particular type of book, buy this type of book, and enjoy this type of book.  Not someone who stumbles across this book and decides to give it a try on a whim, enjoying it more than he expected.

For self-publishing, you’re looking for the most likely category, and the least populated fit.

When uploading a digital self-published release, you’re allowed to choose several categories/genres for your novel.  These are pretty fluid: bookstores like Amazon change their listings of sub-genres all the time, so it’s a bit of a moving target.  But what you want is to choose a broad genre that fits your right reader’s expectations, just like you’d choose for targeting an agent.  Then, you’re also going to choose a niche, preferably one that isn’t heavily populated, that also fits your novel.

If you have a mystery that involves a police detective, you could pick “Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense” as a category.  Looking it up under Kindle Books, however, you will notice that it has 107,974 results offered — that’s how many ebooks use the same category.

The odds of you getting in the top 100, where many readers look for new authors, or anywhere near a “category bestseller” that will kick on the Amazon Recommendation Engine, is pretty paltry.

Look at the sub-category “Police procedurals” and  the number of books specifically categorized as such drops to 4,844.

To really get specific, if you had a “cat sleuth”?  The number of books drops to 23.  You’d be in the top 100 by default!  (Remember, if you don’t have a cat sleuth, don’t select it just to get a better category ranking.  Getting bad reviews from dedicated niche readers who feel mislead isn’t worth the ranking boost, in my opinion.)

Remember, you can generally pick two categories.  Try to hit one broad category, and one narrow niche.

It’s more art than science.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast way to figure this out, but hopefully these tips will give you a simplified approach to looking at what emotional satisfaction your work provides for genre audiences, and how to move forward.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand — and don’t worry if you have to amend your stance later!

What do you think about the genre listings?  How would you categorize your work?

Please leave a comment — I’d love to hear what you think!

39 Responses to How to Figure Out Your Book’s Genre
  1. High Fantasy, I think.

    Great job breaking down the info, and giving clear examples for us to follow. :D

    • cathy

      Definitely high fantasy. :) I’m glad you found the post helpful!

  2. This is a question that’s been on my mind a lot recently.

    I’d like to say women’s fiction – given that I set out to write a book I’d like to read – but my protagonist is a man and it’s about issues of memory, trust and that which is lost when we die.

    Literary fiction would be the other option, but I don’t consider my prose to be more important than the narrative. If anything, the story is at the heart of the novel for me.

    As a result – I’m still stuck. I need to do some more investigating, but this post provides me with a method of doing that and also suggests that my novel might not fit directly under an umbrella term but might be more suited to a sub-genre.

    Thanks for tackling this topic! :)

    • cathy

      Thanks for commenting, Cat.

      I should probably qualify the literary fiction definition. I think that lit fic can (and in my opinion, should) consider the narrative important, but a lot of the time, you hear about the quality of the writing, even if it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. It certainly can ignore the three-act structure that genre fiction generally adheres to.

      If it’s got a man as protagonist, and with the themes you’re mentioning, I’d say mainstream or literary fiction sounds like the best fit. Your next step, in my opinion, would be to look at books that could be considered “comps” — comparable books, ones that people who enjoy your book would love. Then look at how they’re categorized on Amazon. That will get you closer.

      Hope that helps! :D

  3. It seems you taught me to embrace those who would most likely read my work a long time ago. I remember a time when I fretted over my lack of magic and sentient non-humans. And I used to fret that my Right Reader seemed to be female. I think embracing the epic historical fantasy genre has only been a boon. You’re right–it’s all about finding the audience that will be most satisfied. None of the rest of it matters. I wonder now why I ever questioned it.

    Just one of many reasons I’m grateful for your guidance, Coach! :-)

  4. I think I would have to categorize my work as literary fiction, and I’m glad you elaborated on your thoughts about narrative and prose style in that genre, because I was thinking something similar. I appreciate the freedom to experiment with narrative structure, but I do feel structure is important for the type of reader I want to attract. I’m working on revisions now and trying to pay particular attention to this. (I’m finding Rock Your Revisions very helpful, by the way!)

    • cathy

      I love that you say that: “the type of reader I want to attract.” Knowing your audience and making conscious choices for who you want to connect with — not “I want to connect with everyone!” but knowing what you enjoy and who would most likely enjoy it as well — is a crucial part of the revision process, IMO.

      And I’m very glad you’re finding Rock Your Revisions useful! :)

  5. Zana Hart

    I began my first novel some months ago, and had great fun just writing and seeing what happened. After some 20,000 words, I stepped back and realized I had no idea where it was going and also that it was part mystery, part romance, part dystopia, and maybe some other things too. Began researching sub-genres by drilling down on Amazon and by websurfing, and bingo! I discovered a sub-genre called cozy mysteries, which I had never heard of but was a perfect fit for my characters and my own approach. Not my plot, though, and that’s how I found you. So now I’m starting a series with some of the same characters and the same setting, but a totally new plot. Thanks!

    • cathy

      Good job researching, Zana! Are you keeping the dystopian elements? I’d never heard of a dystopian cozy… interesting concept!

  6. William wilson

    Hi,
    I found your information very helpful and I will try and categorise the book under 2 different genres. My problem is that my book is a passionate, sexually explicit romance, all accompanied and mirrored by an equally passionate love for fly fishing.
    Try pigeon holing those two themes, not easy!

    B

    • cathy

      It does seem a bit disparate! :) That said, it becomes a matter of audience. There’s a difference between a book with romance elements, and a romance. For example, there is a romance in The Da Vinci Code but the main focus is not on the romance. The main focus is on solving the mystery under violent pressures (a thriller.) Romance readers can and do enjoy it. Taking the opposite tack, if you take a romance with suspense/thriller elements, you will find true thriller fans disappointed because “there’s too much love story” getting in the way.

      So the question becomes: Will fly fishing aficionados be irritated by the amount of love story? Will romance readers be satisfied by the arc and focus of the love story? I’d strongly recommend choosing one, the most likely buyer, and focusing there.

  7. Thanks for a compelling article. I’m writing a series of mysteries where the CAT DOES help solve the crimes. http://www.mindcandymysteries.com. I’m Still looking for a publisher. Seems that the addition of the ‘cat sleuth’ character puts off the agent or publishers. Any recommendation of who or where I might query? Sounds like, if published, I’d have a fair shot at sales.

    • cathy

      Question: since it is so niche, why not simply self-publish? You would have a fair shot with a very select niche, and could build from there — and nothing says you can’t switch to a publisher with actual numbers for proof. They’re saying KDP is the new slush pile… it’s worth mulling over.

      • It is something on my mind and as the time passes without success, I’m thinking more about it. Just so wanted to go the traditional way. Still have a couple of publisher ‘looking at the manuscript,’ so there is still hope. Thanks for your post and I’ve subscribed to your blog.

  8. Great post. Thank you so much. It gives me a better insight as to which audience my story will target.
    Blessings.

  9. Marissa

    I liked this! Even though there *is* a romance in my novel, and the girl is a nice character, the romance isn’t the main plot. The book is mainly about a young soldier living in a civil war, trying to fight the other, eviler side in a small militia army, so I decided it must be more of a thriller. I think the lesson is that even though the two sides of the country are fighting, in the end, nobody is the winner. My main character convinces them of this.

  10. Elisabeth R.

    Thank you for the insights. I still need help identifying my novel’s genre. My main character’s a ghost, narrating beyond the grave. In the last five chapters, he does return to haunt the living, looking for revenge. The majority of the book, however, is his narration on how he came to die. There aren’t other supernatural elements along the way. It’s an intense, dark tale of incest, suicide and murder. Not really horror, not really mystery. What do you think?

    • cathy

      Is the reader aware that the character is a ghost? What is your main character’s goal for the majority of the book? It doesn’t sound like traditionally genre fiction. Is he trying to solve his own murder? Is he working his way towards vengeance? Otherwise, it feels like most of your book might be backstory — intriguing backstory, but I’m not getting a sense (just from your small description, mind you — I’m probably totally wrong here) that there’s forward momentum or a driving plot question, which makes the genre harder to pin down.

      • Elisabeth R.

        Hmm, yes the reader’s aware that the narrator’s a ghost. His main goal throughout the book is to stay with the woman he loves, while she tries–to the point of killing him–to be free of him. His goal after death is to take revenge on the friends who helped her plot his murder, and to simply remain with her, “haunting” her. The supernatural elements are 1) the narrator; 2) some of his spooky vengeance; and 3) his remaining with his love after death. But it doesn’t feel quite right labeling it fantasy or supernatural, and the murder isn’t a mystery nor is it the focal point of the story. I deeply appreciate any advice on genre you can offer me!

        • cathy

          It sounds like it could be mainstream or “literary” fiction, since you don’t really want it to be fantasy or mystery. Otherwise, could be mainstream “thriller” pretty effectively — it all depends on the tone.

  11. These novels often blend elements of other subgenres—including suspense, mystery, or chick lit—with their fantastic themes.

  12. Chelsea

    I was having problems knowing what to classify these couple books as, if I ever have a chance to publish them, but I still am having an issue. See just from default they seem to go in suspense/thriller category or mystery, but that’s mostly because they don’t fit anywhere else and I don’t think i should just put them somewhere because they don’t seem to belong anywhere else.

  13. Enjoyed the article Cathy; clear, concise thought process and guidance. All that’s left is for you to suggest what categories apply. Joking, of course…well maybe not. If you’ve introduced a few sub-genres, identifying the most appropriate one could use some outside suggestions. Thanks for the well written article.

  14. Annabelle

    Your article was very helpful – especially when I’m at a stage where I need to establish my genre. (Who knew this would be harder then actually writing the book???) I’m about to self-publish with Creatspace, where they allow you a choice of ONE genre. (for the BISAC category). My story fits perfectly into two categories – both very broad: (All their BISAC categories are broad) I find it hard to decide between “Fiction/contemporary women” or “Fiction/romantic suspense”. There are about the same number of book on Amazon for both categories. How do I decide???
    Thanks,
    Annabelle.

    • cathy

      Hi Annabelle,

      Contemporary women’s fiction and romantic suspense are very different categories, actually. Women’s fiction, as opposed to romance, tends to be more about a woman’s journey. I’m thinking Sarah Addison Allen, Jodi Piccoult, Barbara O’Neal, just to name a few. Romantic suspense is a lot more narrow in how it’s defined. The romance plot needs to be integral (for example, “The Da Vinci Code” has a slight romantic element, but it’s not romantic suspense) and of course there needs to be a suspense/mystery element that’s similarly strong. Reading something like Jennifer Crusie’s “Crazy For You” might have a small mystery, but it’s not a suspense by any stretch. Think about the person who would most love your book, based on other books she reads. And then I’d look on Amazon… look under “Literature & Fiction” under “Women’s Fiction,” and look at the top titles, then look under “Romance” in the subcategory “Romantic Suspense.” See which one feels more like your book. Hope that helps!

      Cathy

  15. Annabelle

    Thank you Cathy for your detailed and thoughtful response. Yes, you really helped! From your description of the difference between the two genres I was able to decide which of the two was a better fit. (Contemporary Women) Since my story is more of a woman’s journey and the romance and suspense aspect weren’t dominant enough.

    Thanks again,

    Annabelle.

  16. Artly

    what is the genre of,
    The Harmonica by Tony Johnson and The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult?

    • cathy

      It looks like they’re both being categorized as Literary Fiction, Picoult is being categorized with the subgenres of “Psychological” and “Mystery/Thriller.” Tony Johnson’s “The Harmonica” is being sub-categorized as “historical fiction” with an emphasis on Holocaust/Europe.

  17. Mali

    Hey, I still need help as to which genre my story could fit into, the beginning is below.
    Holding my tattered old teddy bear close to my heart, I stumbled down the road looking for a safe asylum. The streets were empty and the eerie scene didn’t in the least bit help calm my nerves. Bringing my tattered bear’s buttoned nose to touch the tip of my nose I let silent tears fall. I knew it was stupid to have an emotionless plush toy try and console me but that doll was all I had left. I had nowhere to go; no one to call and no one was about to swoop in and save me like in the cliché romance movies I loved. Ignoring the searing pains shooting through my right shoulder and fighting the urge to give into my fears of lost hope, my feet pushed me ahead. Placing one in front of the other in a confident stride they disregarded even the possibility of giving way to let me crumble to side walk in the shaking sobbing mess I wished to be.
    The streets were filled with an unfamiliar silence.
    Thank you for reading, please let me know what you think.
    Mali

    • cathy

      Hi Mali,

      I can’t really tell just from an opening, although I like your voice. What is the story about?

  18. Nicki

    Fabulous article! Okay, my turn for some advice, please. :) Here’s a brief synopsis of my novel:
    ‘Rumors exist of a secret government base buried deep under the Archuleta Mesa in New Mexico. The main character is Josh Hawkins, a feature writer for a major newspaper in Texas. In his quest to discover what became of his uncle (formerly a social fringe, UFO hunter type), he stumbles upon online accounts of an alleged secret government facility: ‘Dulce Base’. He and one of his friends take a road trip to Dulce, New Mexico to find his uncle, but also to write an article about the base where purportedly heinous genetic experiments are conducted utilizing humans and extraterrestrials. They find his uncle and also evidence that our government is indeed creating human-alien hybrids for nefarious reasons. The final experiments before the base was overrun were designed to create the perfect biological killing machine and resulted in lethal hybrids with a driving desire to kill humans. They have overrun the base and escaped. Six months later, Josh spots one in Dallas which was inadvertently caught in a non-related TV news story. He and his friends know the invasion has begun.’

    So it’s definitely a suspense thriller but there is an extraterrestrial element and a large dose of ‘ancient alien’ theories in the content. I wouldn’t classify it as science fiction though and I honestly don’t know who my audience is…people like me, I suppose; but my reading preferences are all over the board.

    Any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

    • cathy

      Hi Nicki,

      Sounds like an interesting novel! If you’re trying to query agents, I’d simply call it a suspense thriller, as you say. I think your best comp would be Dean Koontz’s suspense — they tend to have a paranormal element. If you’re self-publishing, I’d categorize it under thriller — government conspiracy and suspense — paranormal, just off the top of my head. Good luck!

  19. Deb

    Thanks for the information. I’m in the process of self-publishing the first book in a series, and I wasn’t sure how to categorize it. It deals with a young woman just a few years out of college who goes on her first ghost hunt (Paranormal). Things get pretty intense, and she realizes that the team is dealing with a malevolent spirit who took an extreme dislike to the protagonist, putting her in danger (Adventure). Also, she has a major crush on one of her teammates and an unwilling but persistent physical attraction to another teammate, which leads to a lot of romantic fantasies (Romance). The romance will figure in much more in the coming books, but for now it’s just under the surface.

    • cathy

      Hi Deb, thanks for the comment. Since the romance is a secondary plot that doesn’t “pay off” or have a focus, it’s not paranormal romance. Given the paranormal element and the adventure, it sounds like it may be Urban Fantasy, especially for a series. Since you’re self-publishing, and I don’t know what level of intensity you’ve got, you might consider a subset of horror. Look for a broad based category that closely matches, and a less-populated niche category that really nails it (and where you have a chance of making a bestseller because there’s less competition.) Good luck!

  20. Isabella

    Thank you this has helped!
    I think fantasy/Adventure.
    ~Isabella~

  21. Rin

    This article was SO helpful in helping me weed out some of the genres that my novel does not fit into, but I’m still having trouble deciding where it fits in exactly. The plot involves a lot of romance that does pay off in the end, but the two characters involved are apart from each other for a good chunk of the story through a misunderstanding in their past, and they pine for each other for a while before finally reuniting. I’m fairly certain I can still categorize it as romance, but the tricky part is that it is a novel about superheroes and I’m not sure what genre that fits into. Action/adventure? Fantasy (since some of the heroes have unnatural powers) or sci-fi (since others’ powers involve the use of advanced technology)? It is definitely high-stakes, and the romance part is consistently woven through, however, the big payoff is saving the world, not the romantic resolution.
    Any thoughts and opinions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for this helpful article!

    • cathy

      I can’t be sure without reading the full synopsis, but off the top it sounds like an Urban Fantasy. Have you read Carrie Vaughn’s “After the Golden Age”? Kindle also has a specific sub category: “sci/fi fantasy — fantasy — superheroes.” So I’d say it fits there. At a stretch, it could be considered paranormal romance, but since there’s more pining than interplay between your hero & heroine, I think romance fans would be disappointed… you’re better off targeting fantasy fans who like a liberal dose of romance. Hope that helps!

      • Rin

        Thank you so much!! I hadn’t even thought of urban fantasy as a possibility but now it just makes sense. And it of course fits more specifically into the superhero category. Thanks so much for the help!!!

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