Not sure which genre your novel is? In your mind, hey, it’s a hydrid! Maybe a science fiction/fantasy, or a romance/thriller/time-traveling mystery. Maybe you think that’s a good thing.
But if it’s more than one thing, in terms of genre, that’s a problem.
Specifically, a marketing problem.
Why? Genre is basically a label. It assigns a book to a category. New writers might think this is intrinsically a bad thing, one that somehow limits or restricts them.
But pause and think why a label might be helpful for a customer browsing in a book store. It’s a finding aid. They go to a section where the shelves are filled with the kind of books they like to read or are looking for.
For a fiction reader, a genre label means even more than just a spot on a shelf. Calling a book a Romance or Mystery or Fantasy or Thriller is an assurance to the customer of some sort of basic, familiar, time-tested form for the story.
Very few readers want to hear: “It’s hard to categorize.” Yikes! They want to know it’s within a category they like.
This problem flows all the way down the chain. Booksellers won’t know where to shelve it. Publishers won’t know what to call it or which category buyer to pitch it to. Agents won’t know what to call it in a brief conversation with an editor. And that’s a problem – for you.
Sure, they could figure it out for you. But that’s not their job. They instead will turn to other books that are more solidly centered in a known, popular genre. By and large, they prefer to work with writers who know the right labels to use in summarizing their book in a brief, succinct pitch.
Within any category, there’s lot of variety. So it doesn’t limit literature; it’s just a label, not a definition.
I encourage writers not to quibble. Don’t say “it’s hard to categorize” or “it’s sort of [this] with a bit of [that].” Bite the bullet, show your confidence and experience, and pick the main category it’s mostly in – the one that will put it in the bookstore section you want the book to be shelved in. If it’s a fantasy that involves some sort of mystery, it’s probably still a fantasy. Call it that. Then, in the description, you can mention there’s a mystery involved in the plotline.
If, as a beginning writer, you’re mixing genres so much that you can’t pick one – or you’re intentionally mixing genres – it may reflect a serious underlying problem of not knowing why genres are so popular and satisfying to readers.
Yes, you can mix genres; no one says you can’t. But it will be harder to find an audience. The fallacy for beginning writers is to imagine that mixing two genres will double your audience.
The hard truth: The real audience for a mixed genre work isn’t the sum of all readers in both genres . . . it’s the (much smaller) subset of those readers that like both. (I.e., if you draw two overlapping circles, it’s not the total area of both circles, but only the small section where they overlap.)
For ideas on how to label your work, visit this Wikipedia discussion of types of genre fiction.
Or AgentQuery.com has this description of fiction genres, from Chick Lit to Commercial Fiction to Literary Fiction to the main genres of Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller/Suspense, and such.
Also, here’s a good article by Anna Genoese on genre.
So, what if you pick the wrong label? If it’s done with confidence, and it’s generally in the right ballpark, an agent or editor will correct the label if they feel it is helpful for marketing. But it’s better to show confidence and pick one, then let the story speak for itself.
If in doubt, rely on this rule of thumb: go to a major bookstore, and pick the category with the books that are similar to yours.
If it’s not in any of the so-called “genre fiction” categories (mystery, fantasy, etc.), the safe choice is General Fiction. But what if the person you’re pitching to prefers the term Literary Fiction, for instance. How to tell? Check their website. If an agent says they represent Literary Fiction or Women’s Fiction, for instance, those are good choices for labels – if they fit your story.
Are there books that cross genres? Sure. Take one like The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffeneger. “A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion . . .” starts the publisher’s (Harcourt) description.
It continues “this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant.
“An enchanting debut and a spellbinding tale of fate and belief in the bonds of love, The Time Traveler’s Wife is destined to captivate readers for years to come.”
For marketing categories (in its catalog), Harcourt picked: Fiction – General, and Fiction – Romance/Time Travel
Note: no mention of science fiction (the classic time-travel genre). Instead, Harcourt went with General Fiction. With a hint of Romance, but probably not to be shelved there.