GeneralNovel writingTraditional publishing

The genre trap: classifying your book

From Rick:

Recently I’ve had several questions regarding how to figure out how to classify a book genre-wise. Some of these questions have dealt with the differences between biographies and historical fiction as well as some interesting misconceptions when it comes to fiction and nonfiction and what novels are.

A novel, by definition, is FICTION. Calling a book “a fiction novel” will immediately show your ignorance to anyone in the publishing business. If you are looking for a publisher and refer to your book as “a fiction novel,” then you’ve immediately branded yourself as someone who hasn’t bothered to do any homework before submitting.

However, if you’re querying a Vanity Publisher (one that you pay to publish your book, they’ll be counting on your ignorance of the publishing business to suck you in with sweet promises that will amount to nothing but disappointment and a reduction in the amount of money in your bank account.

One of the reasons that genre is important is for bookstores to know where to shelve the books. It’s somewhat useful to the publishers so they can give the book the right kind of cover (but we’ve seen that go wrong too many times). Genre would be more important to publishers if they did actual direct marketing to readers—but they don’t. They rely on bookstores and others to handle that. In the end, genre classification supposedly helps publishers pigeonhole a novel, which is what leads to problems, as we’ll see in a moment.

Genre classification is relatively easy when a book falls neatly into one category, such as romance, horror, mystery, science fiction. The problem is that far too many books fall into multiple genres or don’t fall cleanly into any genre.

What about a romance set on an alien planet? Well, publishers often brand those as “futuristic romances.” Remember that for a book to be called a “romance” it must have a happily-ever-after ending (because that’s what romance readers expect).

But what happens when you mix the genres more completely? Take a look at the description of the novel HEAVEN’S FORGOTTEN by my good friend Branden Johnson.

Read the description on Amazon and try to decide—if you were a bookstore owner—which shelf you’d put it on. This one truly is very difficult to classify. I would be willing to guess that different bookstores (were they to stock it) might shelve it in different location. Given its subject matter, one might consider it an inspirational or religious novel, while another might shelve it elsewhere.

When publishers encounter a book that they cannot fit into a neat classification, they are inclined reject it simply because they have no clue how to market it. I’ve actually heard of this in rejection letters. This means they have no idea who might read it, and because they aren’t sure of the market, they throw it aside.

Publishers seem to be blind to the fact that readers often like to read something new (and this blindness is a perennial fault that publishers will likely never overcome). Many books that ended up doing well fell outside the established categories and expectations at the time and were rejected by one or more publishers because of it. Publishers like predictability and sure things, not untried and untested. They look at sales across genres and match those sales up to new books they’re looking to acquire. This is where problems arise. When they can’t classify a book, they don’t know how they’ll market it, and they don’t like to gamble, especially nowadays. Ergo, that something new often gets rejected.

Harry Potter was one of those semi-new things that didn’t seem to fit with existing books, and John Grisham, who pioneered a new genre with the legal thriller, had a bumpy start. Later, when Grisham decided to write a novel that was not a legal thriller (Skipping Christmas, which went on to become a huge bestselling novel and was made into a movie), his publisher humored him only because he was had already become one of their bestselling authors and figured they’d at least make back their investment. It has sold extremely well since then.

Books that are difficult to classify have always tended to be ignored by publishers, and that’s even more true today. What this means to you is that figuring out your book’s genre is unimportant, even more so because your book is likely not to find its way into bookstores. You should therefore focus on writing a great book and not worry about how it will get classified. Maybe you’ll be like John Grisham and invent a new genre.

Now let’s look at the nonfiction side of things and put that into perspective.

Nonfiction is a very broad category. It encompasses not only everything that is not fiction (including dictionaries, reference books, cookbooks, textbooks, travel guides, and books on every subject that doesn’t involve telling stories), but it also includes biographies and books on history. These latter two categories are where I also received a number of questions. Some writers were unsure of the differences between biographies and historical fiction.

A biography is the true (or mostly true) story of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is a biography written by the person whose life story is being told.

A biography is nonfiction. However, sometimes, when the exact details of the person’s life are unknown or unclear (or otherwise unexciting), the biography may dip into the realm of creative nonfiction, meaning some of the details may be embellished. A biographer does need to be careful when doing this and should make it clear what parts may not be as they actually happened.

This leads us to the category of “historical fiction.” When is a book considered historical fiction? That’s a tough question to answer because it asks us to decide when something can be considered history. In theory, if it’s something that happened in the past, then it’s history, but if you investigate the definition of “historical fiction,” you’ll find it’s a murky area.


If I write a story (fictional) about the life of a person who merely lived in the time of World War II and whose father fought in the War, would that be historical fiction? Maybe yes, maybe no. What if the story delves into the actual events of WWII while including fictional elements? That probably could be termed “historical fiction.”

But let’s move more into the present. Would a fictional account of someone who uncovered the conspiracy leading to the 9/11 events, and who tried (but failed) to stop the disaster, be considered historical fiction? Another of my writer friends (E.J. Findorff) published the novel Kings of Delusion, a murder mystery set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I’ve talked about this novel in previous blogs. Could that be considered historical fiction?

WIKIPEDIA has this to say:

Definitions differ as to what constitutes a historical novel. On the one hand The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described,” whilst on the other hand critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.” Then again Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written”, she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775–1817), as if they were historical novels.

Here’s the link to the complete article:


Even though E.J. did considerable research for his novel, most would consider these events to be too recent and at least in part in the memory of the author to be “history” yet. I’m pretty sure that E.J. was not writing this as a historical novel because Hurricane Katrina was the backdrop and not the main story. Likewise, the 9/11 novel would not yet be considered historical fiction.

The point here is that before you decide to label your novel as historical, you should determine whether it falls into the accepted definitions of such a novel.

How about historical and fictional biographies?

Consider the novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Is this historical fiction? I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot comment intelligently on it. I’ll leave that to your interpretation. Supposedly the author melded historical facts with his fictional elements. Based on the reviews, I see interpretations going both ways. But this novel is also a good example of one that could fit into multiple genres. Where would a bookstore shelve it, in historical fiction, or horror?

There is supposed catch-all category called “mainstream fiction.” I have mentioned this in at least one blog a while back, but here’s a link to demonstrate how even that category is fraught with problems.


Of course, there’s also literary fiction, but that’s an entirely different matter because “literary fiction” is sort of anything that doesn’t fall into “genre fiction.”

If you’re confused by all this genre talk, not only are you not alone, but it also demonstrates the futility of trying to fit your novel into a particular genre. Two things should comfort you (or not):

(1) The latest figures show that roughly 70% of all book sales occur online, so the odds of your book making it into bookstores (and suffering from the indecision on where to place it) is not high.

(2) Online stores (especially Amazon) allow you to list your book in at least two categories. How often do bookstores shelve copies of a book in two different places? (And I’m not talking about those exceptions where bestsellers can be found on a separate table in the front of the store as well as in a normal shelf spot.)