As a writer you’re creative and experimenting and as such you defy the stiff boundaries of social norms and tradition. You don’t want commerce and convention stifling your creativity and so you flaunt your chimerian ways, weaving an air of mystery and intrigue.
But, you want to get published right? I’m also guessing you’d like to sell some of those books and maybe even one day make some money at it. If you ever hope to achieve that you have to reign in your transmutable tendencies and pick a genre (at least for the particular book you are pitching).
Let me share with you a mock up of a conversation I frequently have with writers.
Me: You’re writing a book? What kind?
Writer: It’s a dystopian lovecraftian mystery romance western that takes place in the near future in a land far far away.
Me: *Snoring* What, huh, romance that’s cool.
Writer: No it’s a cross-genre, maybe even a new genre. I’m thinking of calling it bebopacidlove.
Me: *Did I leave the stove on? I think it’s time for a haircut* Huh, oh, sure, good luck getting that to stick.
The problem with playing coy with your genre is that as a reader I have no idea if its a book I like, as a book seller I have no idea where to put it on the shelf, and as a publisher I have no idea if its a genre I represent or if there’s enough of a market to justify the time and money it takes to publish your book. Publishing is a business. In order to make it easy for bookstores, wholesalers, publishers, readers, and writers to all play the book business game together they had to agree on how to classify and track things.
The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) helps keep everything together. Every year they publish an updated list known as the BISAC Guide. This guide lists all of the BISAC categories agreed upon by publishing professionals. If its not listed then its not a recognized genre (funny enough, Young Adult is not a recognized category). If you want to play the game you need to choose a genre that already exists.
Choosing a genre is also important for many other reasons:
Knowing your genre helps you write a better book. Each genre contains a specific set of elements that differentiate it from the next. In order to be successful within a genre your book needs to conform to those core elements. For example, a romance requires that the hero and heroine end up together in the end. A murder mystery requires a perpetrator. Science fiction requires scientific principles. You can stray and experiment in many ways, but defy the core guidelines of your genre and either you are writing in the wrong genre or trying to write across genres, which leaves your story weak.
Knowing your genre helps you identify appropriate writer’s groups. Writers of a particular genre often band together. It’s a great way to get feedback and inside information as you pull your resources with others writing in the same vein.
Knowing your genre helps you identify the right agent and publisher. Publishing is a subjective trade. Agents and publishers like to represent work that they would read personally. They are very forthright and particular about what genres they represent. You need to know your genre so you can find the right person to champion your book to the trade.
Knowing your genre helps you market your book. Fans of a particular genre have a great deal in common. They often congregate around certain forums, blogs, and organizations. Knowing your genre lets you identify who your reader is, and more importantly, where they are so you can connect with them and promote your work.
So how do you figure out what is the primary genre you are writing in? Linda Rohrbough has a handy little document that can help you start identifying your genre. I also suggest you go to the local bookstore (you should already be a regular there if you have any desire whatsoever of becoming a published author one day). Scan the shelves. Look for authors or titles like yours and see how they are labeled. Check out fan sites for genres and connect with other writers.
As you’re going through you may argue “but my book has elements of many genres!” Yes, there’ a little romance in fantasy and there may be some mystery in middle grade but there is a single, primary genre that represents your work. You need to figure out which one it is if you ever want to get published.