Why You Need to Figure Out Your Book's Genre

Authors bristle at having to fit their books into neat boxes according to genre—yet the industry and readers continue to demand that we do so. Katrin Schumann explores why, and how best to find your genre.



Personally, I've found it quite challenging to figure out the genre of my novels. It seems overly simplistic to categorize my own work according to genres, and differentiating between them can be hard. What is the difference between literary and upmarket, for example? What about thrillers and suspense? We're so close to our own work, we sometimes lack the ability to see it the way the industry demands. 


When I was pitching agents, I was calling my book, The Forgotten Hourspsychological suspense. It deals with a girl's interior struggle (psychological) and it has a suspense element (high stakes/mystery). Sounds about right, doesn't it? But, no—my book is less Ruth Rendell than Lianne Moriarty: it's actually "book club fiction," also known as "upmarket fiction."


But isn't it suspense if it has a driving question (in this case, one of innocence or guilt) that creates suspense? Former agent Nathan Bransford explains it this way: Thrillers have action; suspense has danger, but not necessarily action; and mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end. My book has danger, but it's not physical—this is a distinction that matters.


It's funny, because as someone who often handles other people's work and makes connections between authors and book professionals, I can tell pretty quickly if someone thinks their book is literary and it's actually book club (or vice versa), or thriller when it's a mystery. And even though I chafe against this categorization with my own work, when reading fiction manuscripts I definitely find myself wanting to know: what genre does this inhabit? I need this information in order to be helpful. 


These categories are necessary because they set up expectations in the reader. It's the rare reader who happily picks up a new book with zero idea about the kind of book it is—that's just not the way our brains work. We want to approach new material with some anticipation and excitement and we can't generate much curiosity if we have no idea what to expect. This goes for your average reader browsing in a bookstore or online, and your average agent or editor on the hunt for new talent.


Not to mention logistics: books need to be sorted and stored. Where should your book go in the bookstore? How will people find your writing if they search online for "cozy mystery" and your book is labeled something like "unique hodgepodge"?


I've found this graphic by P.S. Literary Agency to be by far the best in terms of helping writers figure out, in a broad sense, which category their book fits into. This post by Brooke Warner on Jane Friedman's blog also offers a useful explanation.





As for the genre distinctions within these broader categories, Writers Digest has this breakdown, which helps a bit. Your agent and/or editor will help you figure out where you belong—that's what happened with me. Knowing The Forgotten Hours is "book club fiction" lets it rest on a shelf where it really fits—when someone picks it up, they won't be expecting Mary Kubica or Jonathan Franzen.


If you need to figure out your genre without professional help, you'll find lots of great resources online. Also, find other books to compare your work to and see what category they fit into. The bottom line is, while identifying your genre can be tricky, it will help you find your readers in the long run.



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About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

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