Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

I talk about book categories and book genres all the time, especially to urge writers to know well the categories in which they write. That’s because, in order to allow readers to find your work, it’s essential to know where in the publishing landscape your book fits.

But, from time to time I come across a writer who seems puzzled when asked which category they’re writing in and doesn’t seem to believe it matters. They are sometimes the writers who think their book’s audience is ‘everyone’, but not always.

Sometimes writers seem confused about the whole concept and purpose of book categories and book genres, and they don’t get why they’re being exhorted to pay so much attention to this aspect of publishing and bookselling.

(Probably not helping the matter is the way in which the terms ‘category’ and ‘genre’ are used almost interchangeably by many, and that they can be overlapped when describing a book. Category is a broad term referring to general aspects of the book’s content and audience, such as fiction, non-fiction, children’s, or YA books. Genre is a type of sub-category which tells you more precisely about the book’s content, examples being science fiction, crime, history, memoir, and so on.)

I was thinking about this recently because, not for the first time, a self-published author told me that all the advice he’d been given about category and genre was ‘complete rubbish’ and he’d ignored all of it.

When I looked up his book I found that, far from divorcing itself from the concept of category and/or genre, his book clearly inhabited a definite, well-defined (if somewhat narrow) sub-genre. What’s more, it had been explicitly placed within its category and that sub-genre. He hadn’t categorised it as a fiction book and left it at that. He’d followed the sub-categories down to the book’s niche, so its category string was quite lengthy. However, he’d only placed it in that one sub-category.

So, the metadata was sparse. Maybe this was the real point of confusion – the M word! If metadata is something you are a bit hazy about, think of it as a digital version of something like a card index, whose purpose is to link common categories and keywords to help you find a relevant book, even when you only know broadly what kind of book you are looking for and don’t have a title or author name for which to search. My self-published author hadn’t made full use of the metadata possibilities offered by the retail platform, but instead stuck to that one sub-category that probably described the book best.

The problem with this approach is that it makes it so hard for a potential reader to come across one’s book via general searches: the only way for them to come upon the book is to search for the book’s title or author, or be sent to the purchase page by the author’s own marketing efforts. So, based merely on the well-written and evocative description, I would have suggested some additions to his sub-categories, because at present that book is certainly not reaching all of its potential audience.

I think the source of this and other authors’ confusion about book categories is a misunderstanding of the purpose of book categorisation and how it works in practice to help the algorithm (or bookseller, or librarian) throw up relevant possibilities. There’s a reason why publishers and agents are always talking about it, and maybe that reason doesn’t always filter through, especially to the self-publishers trying to make use of the metadata options offered by retail platforms.

Book categories and book genres help an author find representation and a publisher

Agents and publishers specialise. They don’t represent or publish all fiction or all non-fiction – and trying to do so would be a complete non-starter. They tend to work with the categories and genres they know well and like best.

When I worked for a small indie publisher of non-fiction, one of the perennial questions at an acquisition meeting or when discussing a submission was ‘where in the bookshop does it go?’ An alternative question was often ‘who is the audience for this book?’ Both questions sought to accurately describe the book under discussion.

Accurate categorisation is important so the publisher can label the book accurately in its metadata. Categorisation is for the readers, so the book can be put in front of the people who will buy and read it, but it’s also for the wholesaler and for booksellers. When the copies finally show up at a bookshop, they can be shelved correctly – that is, with other books of a similar type.

So, these matters of categorisation are absolutely real questions that agents and publishers ask, and if the author hasn’t given them a clue or they think the author might not be quite right, the agent or publisher themselves will need to figure out the answer – that is, if they decide it is worth representing or publishing the book.

Authors – whether they seek traditional publishing or an independent route – who can clearly and accurately explain which categories and genres their work falls into are therefore already able to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Of course, there may be debate in some cases, such as where the publisher believes the author has missed a trick by going for a less successful sub-genre than the book could realistically be placed in, or the publisher wants the book to be revised to more accurately fit a sub-category the publisher believes it could do well in.

That is, book categories and book genres can be mutable and subject to judgement, but they are always highly relevant to the business of publishing a book.

Book categories and book genres help to describe the book to its audience

Books, even in the same genre, can be wildly different, and so are their audiences. Book categorisation is about describing an individual book and differentiating it from other books.

This is particularly apparent in big genres like crime or romance, where the many sub-genres mean that the potential audiences for two different books may not overlap much, or even at all.

Let’s use an example: one book is a graphic police procedural about a detective pursuing a serial killer who hunts for his victims online and operates on the east coast of the United States, and another is a cosy mystery featuring a glamourous middle-aged spinster and her pet ferret who are solving the theft of an opal necklace, rumoured to be cursed, in 1960s London.

Both these books are fiction, and both are in the crime genre, but they inhabit radically different sub-genres. Chances are, there aren’t many readers of either book who will also be interested in the other.

Furthermore, those two books and their authors are likely to be represented by different agents and published by different houses. In a physical bookshop, they will be on different shelves, possibly in different sections of the shop, and on a digital retail platform they will not be served up as possibilities to the same readers.

You’ll notice that my brief description of those two books includes references to sub-genres and keywords that readers could use to look for a new police procedural or cosy mystery to read. A properly categorised book would show up in response to their search. Without that categorisation, they would need to sort through thousands of irrelevant books to get to something they might want.

Book categories and book genres matter

It’s not possible, or wise, for any modern author to ignore book categories and book genres. All that advice about thinking about where the book goes in a bookshop is still highly relevant, and ignoring it is, in most cases, a sure way to tell publishing professionals and readers that you don’t know what you’ve written, or who should read it.

I have written an article, exclusively for my newsletter subscribers, about how self-publishers should go about choosing their book categories, sub-categories and keywords when setting their book up on Amazon. It’s not just relevant for self-publishers, though. The purpose and method of accurate book categorisation is essential information for any writer in the 21st century.

You can access that subscriber exclusive article by signing up to the Inbox Edition, and if you feel a bit lost when talking about book categories, sub-categories or book genres, I highly recommend you do.