I taught at WANACon in February, and in my session, I asserted that genre does still matter—despite self-publishing, despite books that seem to cross genre lines, and despite superstar literary agent Donald Maass proclaiming that genre is dead (I’ll return to that in a minute).
I’m about to start a new series to walk you through some of the main genres and their sub-genres. I hope it’s a topic that will interest many of you. I know “what genre do you think my book is?” is a question I receive from at least half my editing clients.
But whenever we talk about genre, it seems like we first have to have the argument about whether you should be “forced” to pigeon-hole your book. No one is forcing you to artificially categorize your book, but here’s why you should try to figure out where your book fits.
Five Reasons Genre Still Matters
Genre still matters regardless of whether you plan to self-publish or traditionally publish.
#1 – If you pitch to an agent, they want to know genre because most of them only represent certain genres and most publishing houses only publish certain genres of books (or they have lines devoted to particular genres). If an agent only reps urban fantasy, for example, and you send them your epic fantasy, you’ve wasted their time and yours.
#2 – If you self-publish and upload your book to Amazon, what category are you going to put it in? If you manage to get into bookstores or libraries, what shelf will it belong on? It has to go somewhere.
#3 – Your chances of making a sale increase the more accurately you can identify your ideal audience. Genres and sub-genres help you do that by helping you find books similar to yours. People who read those books are likely to enjoy your books as well.
#4 – When the average person asks you what your book is about, they’re really asking first to know what genre it is. They want to know if it’s a mystery or a fantasy or a romance. Only after that do they want to know the plot. Because if you give them the plot before the genre, the first thing you’re going to hear is “so it’s a mystery?” or “so it’s a fantasy?” People need to categorize to make sense of the world around them.
#5 – If a reader comes to your story expecting one thing, and you don’t give it to them, they’ll be disappointed. If you’re craving chips and someone tricks you into eating a piece of cake instead, you’re probably not going to feel satisfied. You need to know what readers expect so you can either meet (and exceed) those expectations or so you can help them adjust their expectations.
Why do we fight so hard against genres and sub-genres?
I’m sure many of you will think I’m wrong, but here’s my theory. We don’t fight so hard against classifying our books into a genre or sub-genre because we truly believe it’s the one book ever written that defies genre classification. We do it because we’re confused by how many different options are out there and we’re either too lazy (sorry, I know it’s true because I’ve been there in my earlier days) or too overwhelmed to try to sort them out. Hopefully this series of posts will help erase both those excuses for you.
But…what about Donald Maass saying genres are dead? Surely he knows better than almost anyone else?
For the answer to that, I’m going to direct you to a post I wrote all about the “Death of Genre” chapter in Maass’ book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.
Basically, “the death of genre” is a misnomer. It’s not about the death of genre at all. It’s about the evolution of genre, the next leap forward the same way our world experienced a technology boom in the late 90s.
Maass isn’t so much saying that genre is dead as he is that genre writers need to push themselves to not be satisfied with the status quo for what’s “good enough” for genre fiction.
Genre writers need to learn beautiful writing from literary writers, and literary writers need to learn captivating storylines from genre writers. Story and art become equals rather than adversaries.
Maass writes, “A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It’s the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works” (13).
When the two come together, whether you call the book genre fiction or mainstream/literary fiction, it doesn’t matter because you’ve laid the foundation for what Maass calls high impact fiction. The kind that stays on the bestseller lists for months rather than weeks at a time.
What genre are you writing in right now? Do you hate the idea of needing to classify your book?
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