What’s Your Genre? A High-Level Overview for Writers

A photograph of several bookstore shelves loaded with books.
by Paulo Slachevsky | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner (@brooke_warner).

Before you can be successful in your genre, you have to understand the role genre plays in the industry and how it drives a successful marketing and publicity plan, which in turn drives sales.

Knowing about the genre you’re writing in starts with reading in your genre. Though it’s not a prerequisite that you be fully educated about the genre you’re entering, reading the best-selling authors who’ve come before you and brushing up on the craft specific to your genre will give you a leg up. I’m astounded by the number of authors who come to me for coaching who admit that they don’t read the genre they’re writing in. Sometimes, especially with memoir writers, they even express disdain for their chosen genre. This stems from judgments people tend to heap onto memoir writing in general, that it’s self-indulgent and, as Mary Karr calls it, a “ghetto-ass genre.” (I’ll get into this a bit more below.)

Are You The Dissenter?

Almost every time I teach a class, hold a webinar, or sit on a panel, I encounter what I call the “dissenter.” The dissenter is the person who believes that nothing I say applies to them because they’re an outside genre, whatever they deem that genre to be. Sometimes that outside genre, per the dissenter’s perception, is something as broad as all fiction. Other times, more reasonably, it’s a legitimately specialized genre, like sci-fi/romance, or children’s. The dissenter is generally well intentioned, and they attend webinars or conferences wanting to gain information. They believe in their book just as much as the next writer. And oftentimes they’re justified in their dissent because there is so much variation among the genres when it comes to marketing and selling successfully. It’s not a problem to be a dissenter; the problem is in defaulting to this position—because you’ve already made up your mind that certain courses of action or efforts aren’t going to work for you.

Sometimes dissenters are super specific and work to call out ways in which their genre differs from industry standards. For example, in 2015 I wrote 3 Reasons to Keep Your Word Count Shorter Than 80,000 Words. A writer of science fiction commented on the post that sci-fi and fantasy books are often longer, commonly 100,000 words, because it takes longer to world-build and because there’s precedent for longer books in this genre in the marketplace. This was a great example of someone understanding their genre and what works in it and not being swayed by a generalization that was not necessarily true for what they were doing.

The genre you’re writing in is like a club you’re joining. You want to know the other members in that club, to learn from them at first, and maybe eventually to teach and mentor them. There are outside parties that cater to your club of choice, and you want to pay attention, when the time comes, to working with people who know something about your club and its rules, values, and tested ways of doing things. You will eventually be building relationships with these outside parties to create a team to support you.

Fiction: Commercial and Literary

We’ll start with fiction because it’s by far the most competitive of the genres.

Commercial fiction is fiction that’s high-concept, meaning easy to explain. It’s the kind of fiction that makes summer reading lists. Commercial fiction includes chick lit, a lot of women’s fiction, and most books that hit the bestseller list. Examples of commercial fiction are books like Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; and Nicholas Sparks’s See Me (as well as everything else Sparks has ever written).

Literary fiction is basically a novel that’s extremely well written. The language is elevated. It’s not a beach read. It’s the kind of novel you have to read slowly to make sure you’re capturing the richness of the language. When you think of the masterpieces of fiction you’ve read, they’re usually literary novels.

“Literary” often alludes to the notion that a piece of writing has achieved an elevated status, something beyond just “good writing.” So it’s a compliment to a writer to be called literary, yet literary work is notoriously difficult to sell. Sadly, I suppose, it’s a commentary on our culture that publishers don’t believe that there’s enough of a readership to put out very many literary works, so they’re loath to take risks on these kind of books, though of course they still do—occasionally. And so oftentimes the most talented authors are left with rejections full of high praise and wondering where they’re going to go next. Literary novels include Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (as well as everything else Morrison has ever written).

Genre Fiction

Genre fiction includes but is not limited to science fiction, fantasy, romance, urban fiction, crime, thriller, horror, and erotica. The reason this is a genre on its own, separate from fiction, is again because the rules for genre fiction are different from commercial and literary fiction. Here—more so than any genre we’ve touched on so far—writers will benefit tremendously from immersing themselves fully and wholeheartedly in the writer communities that support these genres.

Memoir: Commercial and Literary

As with fiction, a commercial memoir is one that’s high-concept, that a person can wrap their mind around instantly. Consider Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir that’s as formulaic as it gets. Her concept is in her title: eating in Italy, praying in India, and loving in Indonesia. And the names of all the countries she visited start with an I. This was a highly commercial and highly acclaimed memoir, and its easy summarization is part of what defines it as commercial. Other examples of commercial memoirs include Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, and Sarah Hepola’s Blackout.

Literary memoirs are like literary novels—they’re often gorgeously but densely written. They don’t have that easy-to- pin-down description, even if they’re highly thematic. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, is a literary memoir; so are all three of Mary Karr’s memoirs—The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit—and Helen Macdonald’s literary masterpiece, H Is for Hawk. What makes these memoirs literary is the level of the writing. The phrasing and craft are sophisticated. The authors may experiment with tense, sentence structure, and style. Just as with fiction, literary memoirists experience a lot of rejection, often from apologetic editors who love the work but can’t acquire it.

Nonfiction: Commercial and Noncommercial

People often ask me how memoir is different from nonfiction, and my response is this: all memoir is nonfiction, but not all nonfiction is memoir. So I’m distinguishing nonfiction here as its own category, separate from memoir, but this is not to suggest that memoir is not nonfiction, because it is; it’s just such a big genre, with its own specific rules, that it merits exploration on its own.

Here, I’ll call out two strains of nonfiction: commercial and noncommercial. This is because nonfiction is one of the few genres where specifically noncommercial books are desirable to readers, and therefore to the publishing industry.

Well-known commercial nonfiction writers include Malcolm Gladwell, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jon Krakauer, and Mary Roach. These are authors who’ve executed multiple nonfiction books on topics that transcend a given niche. Commercial nonfiction often makes best-seller lists, because, it seems, the whole country is reading the book, or at least knows about it. Sometimes a book that’s not particularly commercial, like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, rises above the fray because it’s so important and because even though it’s hyper-niche and might have been less commercial at another point in history, it’s published at the right time, hitting a particular nerve and coinciding with a specific zeitgeist, movement, or cause.

Noncommercial nonfiction books are generally published by university presses or small, mission-driven presses. These are books that are important in some particular way even though their audience is known to be small. Sometimes they’re art books or cookbooks that are geared toward readers at a particular level of expertise, so they’re priced in such a way as to make them noncommercial. Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a five-volume hardcover set, is priced at a cool $625, for example. But these kinds of books find their way because there’s a readership willing to pay that kind of money to have them. Modernist Cuisine is an example of true artisan publishing, too, and many independently published authors are doing this kind of book on their own because they can’t find a partner in the industry willing to support their projects financially.

Nonfiction: Self-Help/How-To

This differs from memoir and other nonfiction in its specific, prescriptive orientation. The dictionary definition of prescriptive is “giving exact rules, directions, or instructions about how you should do something,” which is precisely what self-help and how-to aims to do. Many prescriptive books have list titles, like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. There is such a thing as a prescriptive memoir, but a book like that would still be a memoir if the story drives the book. If the story parts are supplemental, as is often the case in self-help books, where the author is using personal examples to illustrate a point, the book should be categorized as self-help.

There are many variations of the self-help book—from spiritual to business/leadership to crafting to writing. In this popular genre of book, experts share advice and knowledge with their readership, both for the purpose of educating, but also building their own expertise. Today, given the popularity of self-publishing, self-help and how-to books are exploding onto the marketplace. Most of the indie authors entering this genre are authors who have businesses and who want to publish a book as a calling card, or to attract more business.

Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult

These genres are all about the age of the readership. Middle Grade (MG) is for readers 8 to 12; young adult (YA) for readers 13 to 17; and new adult (NA) for readers 18 to 24. This is one of the fastest-growing markets, due to the success of series like Twilight, Divergent, Ender’s Game, and Hunger Games.

As is the case with genre fiction, MG/YA/NA writers will do themselves a huge favor to get cozy with their fellow writers in this genre, and research the genre they’re entering into. Content and voice are critical in this genre, and the wrong storyline or language can land you with a finished book that’s not really appropriate for the target readership you think you’re writing for. I’ve seen writers veer outside of what’s deemed “appropriate” on both sides of the continuum, writing unsophisticated YA that felt like it would have been much more appropriate for a sixth-grader; and writing far too sophisticated YA, with sexual content and cuss words that seemed a bit too advanced for a thirteen-year-old, even if their seventeen-year-old counterpart might seek out a book like this.

If you have an idea for a MG/YA/NA book, read about the genres, and then read in your genre. If you’re entering this genre blind, read at least ten books in your specific age range before you even get started. I’d recommend this for all genres, actually, but what’s at stake here is greater because you might end up with a book that turns out not to be a fit for your intended audience.

Children’s: Picture Book

This is one of the most difficult genres to break into, which is ironic in some ways because people often have a perception that writing a children’s book is easy. It’s not. A children’s book, after all, is as much about the story as it is about the artwork. Children’s books are also expensive to produce, both because of the layout and the four-color printing. Though every genre has its share of self-published success stories, you seldom hear about them where children’s books are concerned because the best ones really do rise to the top. They’re easier to judge and be judged because they’re short, fast reads, and because readers determine quickly whether the art passes muster or not.


The cover for Green-Light Your Book

A book is an outlier if it doesn’t fit the industry’s understanding of how a book should be categorized. Authors of outliers are in a tricky situation because the very nature of being an outlier means your book will be more difficult to sell. Agents and editors, as well as readers, want to put you into a mental category. Readers are looking for a certain type of book based on what they like to read, and so if your book resists being “typed,” it’s less likely to be discovered.

Some authors may not realize that they have an outlier until they start to think about publishing options for their book. If you have a book that no one knows what to do with, it might be because it’s an outlier, or it might be because it’s trying to straddle two genres. For instance, a “fictionalized memoir” is not an outlier. It’s just a novel. You may find that a simple tweaking of your language, or a willingness to conform, can make the difference here.

For more from Brooke Warner, check out Green-Light Your Book or visit BrookeWarner.com.

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