This past fall, I came across an essay published by Literary Hub in defense of genre labels. Author Lincoln Michel argued that, while genre labels are fraught, they are “highly useful” and we “actually need them more than ever.”
This point of view intrigued me because it’s rare, especially coming from a fiction writer. Many novelists, especially those who consider themselves literary novelists, are loath to define their genre. Why reduce their work to a label or box? Doesn’t confining oneself in this way impede the very process of creating art? Some writers wouldn’t mind dissolving genre altogether.
As it turns out, publishing executives also have reservations about labels. Earlier this month in Poets & Writers, Dutton editor-in-chief John Parsley said that one of his biggest pet peeves is “the pressure to classify a book as either literary or commercial.” This also surprised me since, as Parsley notes, it’s generally those within the trade who encourage such classifications. It also made me wonder if “literary” and “commercial” could be considered genres.
To get a better understanding of what genre is and how much trade book publishing relies on this concept, I spoke with literary agents T.S. Ferguson of Azantian Literary Agency and Laura Zats of Headwater Literary Management, both of whom have spent several years working in the book industry in various capacities. As with all my Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions below. Interestingly, their answers overlapped on several levels.
Let’s start with a broad question: What is your definition of “genre,” and how would you differentiate it from other literary terms that are often used in conjunction with it, such as “category,” “form,” and “audience”?
T.S. Ferguson: For me, genre is about setting an expectation with your reader. For example, when you tell someone a book is a “fantasy” they are going to expect some magic or otherworldliness, if a book is labeled a “romance” there’s an expectation that there will be a Happily Ever After at the end. It helps the reader wrap their heads around what kind of story they’ll be getting if they choose to read this book. Category does something similar, but in nonfiction, for instance, your book could be a wellness book, a memoir, a travel guide, etc.—but can also indicate the book’s target age (young adult, middle grade, etc.).
Form and audience are just other ways to give an initial sense of the best way to position your book in the market and in the minds of the industry professional you’re asking to read your book. And they can work together. For instance, maybe your book is a science fiction (genre) short story (form) that will appeal primarily to women in their twenties and early thirties (audience). Your book may find appeal beyond those labels, but it’s good for an agent, editor, or bookseller to know where to start. Who are the readers who are most likely to want to read your book?
Laura Zats: Pretending nonfiction doesn’t exist for the moment, I find it easiest to define the broad term “genre” starting with what publishing calls “genre books”—that is, thrillers, mysteries, romance, science fiction, and fantasy. Genre books are books that are writing to specific rules, things that a reader will expect to be there. This includes worldbuilding, settings, tropes, and even beats to the story. For example, you know a romance novel will always have an HEA (Happily Ever After) or at least an HFN (Happily for Now). From this, genre becomes a little more general, as there are fewer rules to follow, but still seeks to describe, succinctly, what the book is. An historical book will take place in an historic time period, for example. Genre is what the book is, compared to a term like category, which describes only the age range of who the book is for—this is why you have categories like middle grade and young adult and adult, but each category can have fantasy books in them.
Do you expect writers to indicate their genre in a query letter, or is it just as effective to leave it open ended, so that you can make the final call? Are you impressed when a writer deems their work “genre-bending” or “hybrid,” or is this too vague of an assessment?
TSF: Genre is very important to include. The purpose of your query letter is to intrigue the agent enough to want to start reading your work. Being able to give a sense of what type of book you’re asking them to read is a crucial part of that. It also shows you know your market.
I do love when a writer calls their work “genre-bending”—if that’s what it is—but I want to know specifics. Don’t just leave it there. Genre-bending in what way? Take a classic example in film. If I knew nothing about the movie “Alien,” calling it genre-bending or a genre hybrid would do nothing to tell me what I was getting into. But if you told me it was horror/science fiction, I’d be intrigued enough to want to read on.
LZ: Personally, I love working with books that are cross-genre or genre-bending, but crucially, every book still has a primary genre. Naming one primary genre tells me that you understand genre, that you’re a reader, and that you know where your book fits in the market. When I sell books that cross the boundaries between literary fiction and fantasy, for example, to literary fiction editors, I’ll call it a “work of literary fiction with speculative elements,” and to sci-fi & fantasy (SFF) editors I’ll call it “literary (literary being a quality mostly describing writing here) fantasy.” If a writer has a crossover, I encourage them to use the same technique for querying, with the caveat that stretching a description of your book to fit a genre will end up being a waste of your time.
Continuing this line of thinking, if a writer takes a granular approach to identifying their genre, does this give them an edge? A self-publishing writer who chooses an obscure enough genre often becomes a bestselling writer, at least in that genre. Could this same thinking apply to traditional publishing? Or is there a limit to the number of genres, subgenres, and other descriptors they should use when searching for an agent?
TSF: This is a difficult question because I think every agent and editor is different in what they’re looking for. I think the best thing to do is look at their websites and see what kind of information they’re asking for when you query them. For me, personally, if there’s a snappy marketing way of saying it (“this is an enemies-to-lovers, one-bed-only sci-fi/rom-com set on a spaceship orbiting Mars”) then I’m into it. (I’m not looking for a sci-fi/rom-com, but there’s a ton I am looking for and I love a well-done genre blend). However, if you need to go into more detail, it’s probably better to work it into the description of the plot or in a separate paragraph after you describe the plot.
LZ: While a granular approach might be helpful if an indie author wants to hit an Amazon bestseller list, being too specific with your genre will actively hurt a writer querying their book to agents for a few different reasons. First, listing hyper-specific subgenres can communicate that the writer doesn’t understand how traditional publishing approaches genre (which can be extrapolated to mean that they don’t understand how genre relates to larger organizational structures like imprints). Second, a lot of those online retailer subgenres say more about theme than subject, and theme is not an effective way to pitch a book! And finally, focusing too specifically will more than likely mess up your agent research—you might end up querying too broadly (because no one lists your specific subgenre), which is a waste of time, or you might end up eliminating agents based on broad wish lists without giving them a chance to look at your book. As a rule, stick to well-known and well-established subgenres and let your plot paragraphs do the heavy lifting!
If a writer finds success with a certain genre, they will probably be encouraged by their publisher to stay with it to grow their audience. But if you have a client who wants to flex other writing muscles, what is the best way for them to balance their creative impulses with their contractual obligations? Should they use a pen name for any new works that don’t fit into the genre in which they are established? Self-publish?
TSF: I’m a big proponent of “write what you’re passionate about” so if my future clients want to write outside of the genre they’re currently publishing in, I’ll support it. What that looks like I think depends on the contract, the publication schedule, and how fast the author is able to write. If you can only write a book a year and you have Book 2 in your contract due next year, you should focus on that first and then write the book idea that’s been in the back of your mind while you’re waiting to hear about the next contract. If you’re a more prolific writer and you’re capable of it, you might be able to get that book written before you need to focus on Book 2 in your contract. It’s definitely a matter of balancing business with art, and when in doubt, talking to your agent is always the best course, in my opinion.
Whether to use a pen name is a personal decision you should discuss with your agent. There are many good reasons to use one, but it may not be necessary. Same with choosing to self-publish vs. finding a second publisher for your new stream.
LZ: The bulk of the authors on my list write in multiple genres or categories, often concurrently! Individual strategies vary a ton depending on what an author is writing, but here’s my general advice: spend a few years creating a base in a single genre and category—once you have 2–3 books out, that’s the time when an agent can start pursuing publication for your other works. It may make sense to switch just one thing at a time (for instance, if you write contemporary YA and want to write adult science fiction, it may be easier to sell a contemporary fiction or YA science fiction work first than to switch completely over at once, all while returning occasionally to your original genre). Think of individual projects as steppingstones to get you to a place where you are branded in such a way that you can pivot effortlessly between genres you want to write. For some people, this might take 5 years. Others, much longer. But lots of fun books get written in between! Pen names are best used to separate out readership groups (using a pen name for erotic romance is pretty necessary when you also write kids’ books!), but some authors like to use them to indicate a change in genre, or subject.
On the flip side, if one of your clients has reached a plateau with general fiction, for instance, would you encourage them to try their hand at genre fiction? Since genre fiction tends to follow a formula and can be very lucrative, would making this switch be a viable way for the writer to continue to publish and stay in the game, so to speak?
TSF: I think this is entirely dependent on the author. I wouldn’t dream of encouraging an author who doesn’t like or understand genre fiction to move in that direction just to make more money. If they’d reached a plateau with general fiction (or whatever area they were writing in) and wanted to break out, I would sit down with them and look at their career holistically. Is there anything they can do to push their writing to the next level? Is there an idea they’ve been sitting on because they were worried it’s too ambitious? Is it that their current publisher hasn’t been pushing their books as much as we’d like, and is it time to consider shopping their next book around to other houses, etc.? A good agent will always be willing to strategize with you about your career and will want to know about your concerns, your priorities, etc.
LZ: Oh goodness me, no! Genre fiction is formulaic and can be lucrative, but it is a HUGE INVESTMENT. First, a lot of genre fiction runs on much shorter publication timelines and work best as series, so unless you can commit to writing 1.5–2 books a year, you’re going to be considered a slow producer. Plus, I think a lot of writers mistake formulaic for easy. Genre books aren’t just plug-and-play; their magic comes from how a writer innovates and twists the common tropes while simultaneously giving a genre reader the beats and themes they expect a genre book to have. You simply cannot write a successful or even good mystery or romance or thriller without being an avid fan and reader of those genres and understanding intimately the pacing and tropes that make them so popular.
Can you think of any genres that editors are increasingly reluctant to acquire? What are some newer genres (or themes or trends) that have caught your attention?
TSF: Oh gosh. Well, my area of expertise is young adult and middle grade, so keep in mind that’s where I’m coming from. I’m constantly hearing whispers about what’s in and out of style. It made sense when people said there was vampire or dystopian fatigue after Twilight and Hunger Games, not because readers weren’t clamoring for it anymore, but because gatekeepers weren’t. And now vampires are making a comeback! I’ve heard things like “YA fantasy is a tough sell” while I was acquiring and successfully publishing YA fantasy. And I saw the article saying literary agents predict joy will be a big trend soon, but as someone who processes the world through art and media that is dark and edgy and sometimes disturbing, I’m not personally jumping on that bandwagon just yet.
My advice has always been “don’t write to trends.” If you’re chasing trends, by the time you go through the entire process of selling the book, editing it, and publishing it, you’re likely to have already missed it. Instead, what I’m always looking for is something that feels unique and special, that stands out in some way amidst the noise of so many books being published.
LZ: I’m asked this question all the time! I’ll explain why it’s actually the entirely wrong question to ask an agent or editor. When I first became an agent, vampires were on their way out for all the regular reasons—there had been several years of vampire books and a lot of them were huge hits and so publishing more books with vampires had less of a return on investment because there were already bigger, more popular ones published recently. So everyone stopped publishing vampires! Well guess what’s popular again? Vampires! All trends, big and small, are cyclical. Additionally, as an agent, I’m already selling books into late 2023, so if an author asks what’s hot and goes to write it now, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll miss the trend entirely. It’s much more effective to just write the book you want to write and be patient if it’s outside of trend when you finish it. It’ll come back!
A few more sweeping questions: Is there such a thing as “women’s fiction”—or is this too fraught a label? Can “upmarket fiction,” “book club fiction,” and “commercial fiction” be considered genres—or are these marketing terms that should be reserved for the publisher? Is “literary fiction” a genre—or does it defy or transcend genre?
TSF: As a cis gay man who loves a lot of things that are considered traditionally feminine, I hate the idea that there are girl books and boy books. That said, I do think there are certain books that are more likely to appeal to women, if only because of the gender conditioning our society instills in all of us from birth. So while I do think there is such a thing as “women’s fiction,” the concept is a bit fraught and I also would love to see men picking up “women’s fiction” and enjoying it without shame.
And yes, I do think upmarket fiction, book club fiction, literary fiction, etc. could be considered genres, I usually think of them as sub-genres of contemporary realistic fiction, though I do believe you can also have a literary fantasy or an upmarket horror, etc. Like the other genres mentioned above, those terms come with a certain promise to the reader. They’re also marketing terms, in the sense that all genres are marketing terms.
LZ: I constantly interrogate my own definition of literary fiction—usually, I circle back around to the belief that literary fiction really only exists when one also discusses commercial fiction. I think it’s easy to be glib and say that literary fiction books win awards and don’t sell, and commercial fiction books don’t win awards but do sell, but these are not economic terms! They are simply content descriptors! Both literary and commercial fiction are catch-all terms that describe what a book isn’t (or isn’t only): it’s not genre fiction, it’s not just women’s fiction, it’s not just historical. Where the distinction is, then, is voice. There is no singular literary voice, just as there is no singular commercial-style voice, but the terms help readers determine the way they might ingest the story—will they be more likely to rip through it in an hour because the plot is expertly handled and pulls them through? Or will they luxuriate over the prose? The former is more likely to be commercial, the latter literary.
Assuming there is no definitive list of genres, how do you suggest that writers narrow theirs down? Do you have any other advice on why this does (or doesn’t) matter?
TSF: Ultimately, on top of helping industry professionals position your book, it’s also important to show you know the market your book will be competing in, to understand the fans of that genre, to be well-read in that genre, etc. The more you know about the areas you’re publishing into, the easier it will be for you to reach those readers, both with your work and with your marketing efforts to promote your work. And knowing those things, and having a wider reach, will also make you more appealing to publishers.
LZ: Stay as general as you can while still being descriptive! “Fiction” doesn’t cut it as it’s too vague, but “commercial fiction” is fine! “Women’s fiction” is fine! If you’re writing genre fiction, you’ll have more access to common subgenres (for example, urban fantasy, military science fiction, domestic thriller), but if you can’t pick one or are having trouble deciding, it’s okay! Just zoom out a ton and make sure your plot paragraphs in your query are doing their job!
T.S. Ferguson (@TeeEss): Before joining Azantian Literary Agency in 2021, T.S. Ferguson worked for 16 years as an editor for some of the top children’s and teen book publishers in the business, including Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Harlequin Teen/Inkyard Press (an imprint of HarperCollins), and JIMMY Patterson Books. He has worked with New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors such as Sherman Alexie, Sara Zarr, Suzanne Selfors, Pseudonymous Bosch, Robin Talley, Hillary Monahan (writing as Eva Darrows), and Adi Alsaid.
Laura Zats (@LZats): For over a decade, Laura has worked with books in every way from bookselling to editing to self-publishing. A literary agent since 2014, she finds the most joy in working closely with authors to build their long-term careers in ways that contribute positively to their financial and mental health, as well as the greater community. Since 2016, Laura has hosted Print Run, a publishing podcast, with Erik Hane and is increasingly passionate about teaching, mentorship, and the role books play in the fight for social justice. In her spare time, Laura plays tabletop role-playing games, cooks elaborate meals, follows long-distance dogsled racing, and drinks a lot of tea. Learn more at the Headwater Literary Management website.