Which Box Do You (and Your Book) Fit Into?

book-genreLately I’ve been thinking a lot about the proliferation of genres in the publishing world. When did we get so freaking many and why has it gotten to this level of craziness?

When I was young, there was fiction/literature, mystery, western, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, children’s, teen (which was barely one shelf, not its own section like it is now), and non-fiction (which of course had its subsets by subject).

For the reading public, I doubt those have changed much.

But if you’re in the industry, oh Lord, that is just the beginning. Now we have (in addition to those mentioned above) suspense/thriller, women’s fiction, chick lit, steampunk, literary fiction (I STILL don’t know what that is), historical fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal (sometimes romance, sometimes not), dystopian, cozy mysteries, middle grade, picture books, chapter books, new adult, new fiction (a new one to me as of a few days ago; apparently it covers the 25-30 age range between new adult and adult), and on and on. And for writers, each one of these comes with specific parameters your book has to meet in order to be classified as such.

monk-weirdIt all makes me want to yell: “FFS! (For f***’s sake) STOP!” I realize that publishers have to know how to target their audience and market a book, but this is has gone beyond that to OCD levels even Monk would find weird.

It’s also really hard on writers. Most of us don’t start out saying, “I’m going to write a steampunk space opera with paranormal elements and some romance targeted at the new fiction market.” (And even if we did, we’d have problems because that doesn’t fit into a nice, neat little box. More on that in a minute.) We start out saying, “I have this story in my head and I’m going to put it down on paper so other people can enjoy it.” Period. End of story. We probably know its general genre, but that’s about it. It used to be an agent/publisher’s problem to deal with how it was classified. Now, if we write a book that isn’t easily put into a marketing template, we risk it not selling to a traditional publisher.

Why am I harping on this? Because I have a book that doesn’t fit nicely into any of the traditional descriptions. It is a love story – plain and simple. I call it a romantic comedy because that’s what it would be if it was a movie (and it is pretty darn funny, if I do say so myself). I wrote it for myself and for others like me who are over 30 and have yet to find our happily ever after, not thinking too much about whether it was a romance, women’s fiction or chick lit. Here’s the feedback I’ve gotten from publishing industry professionals on those categories:

  • Romance – It doesn’t follow the usual structure or tropes and is written in first person, so it’s not easy to put in that category.
  • Women’s fiction – It may not have enough “other” subject matter beyond the love story to qualify as women’s fiction.
  • Chick Lit – It’s light and fun, but it’s also smart and deals with issues beyond sex, shopping, etc., (namely education and how we make books and writing relevant for the next generation in a digital world) so it may not fit there.

books in boxesGuys, I’m scared  to death this book won’t ever get published because it doesn’t fit into a nice, neat little box. I know I can always self-publish it, but I’m not ready to consider that yet and I really want to get it out there traditionally.

Then I look at the next contemporary book I want to write and it’s got paranormal elements (but no creatures) and a strong love story, yet deals with issues of mental illness and drug abuse. How am I going to market that?

(Even historical fiction has some of these same questions, but with that genre it depends what time period is currently selling. If you write a book set in an unpopular location or time period, you’re going to have trouble selling it.)

In some ways, this quandary isn’t new. When Diana Gabaldon sold Outlander in 1991 no one knew what to do with it. It started out in present day, but was primarily historical, but also had time travel in it and a romance. The publisher who eventually took a chance on it couldn’t decide where to shelve it. Eventually they stuck it in romance. Now it is acknowledged as blurring genre lines.

I don’t know about the rest of my fellow writers, but I can’t make myself write books that fit into neat categories just so they are easy to market. I guess this is my plea to the industry to please ease up on the specificity of genre restrictions when you’re deciding whether or not you know what to do with a book. As authors, we aim to give you a great story and try to make your marketing life easy, but sometimes the lines aren’t as clear as any of us would like.

I know everything in life is getting specialized from the content we’re served on the Internet to the TV programming we watch, but there is such a thing as going too far. Sometimes, fiction is just fiction and love is just love. Sometimes not everything needs to fit in one box.

Thoughts? Reactions? Comments? Please share!

4 thoughts on “Which Box Do You (and Your Book) Fit Into?

  1. I look forward to the day your book DOES get published and sells fabulously and all of a sudden everyone is looking for “SMART” chick-lit, “without the heavy emotional subplots of women’s fiction,” and a “refreshing, strong, first person narrative.” Hang in there. It’ll happen.

  2. livrancourt says:

    Great post, Nicole. You raise a valid point – what do you do when your story doesn’t fit into a box. Mine seldom do, and even when they follow a more-or-less standard romance plot, they’ve got non-standard elements like a heroine who’s over 40 or naughty music teachers or an odd-ball time period (1955). I just hope that if I keep doing what I’m doing, eventually people will catch on to what I’m doing, because the alternative is to be like one of those cool alternative bands who suddenly gets famous because they recorded a pop album.

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