Is genre still useful in today's book world?
With the advent of self-publishing especially, the old categories are being blurred, and the genre lines are frequently being crossed. As we deviate more and more from the ‘norm' of stories and genre, is the way we categorise books making it harder for readers to find what they're looking for rather than easier?
Genre in the Past
When I think back to my experiences of genre as a child, it seems rather lacking to me. I read voraciously, going through almost the entire children's/young adult section in my local (rural) library. There, books were organised by author, not genre, so I read a huge selection, not really differentiating between romance, fantasy or drama. I didn't think about what genre I was reading (unless it had horses, then it was at the top of my list!), just read the back, and if it was interested, I borrowed it.
Bookstores (at least, the second hand ones I frequented) were the same. It wasn't until I was in my late teens and discovered fantasy that I noticed any genre segregation at all.
Genre in libraries and bookstores
Most libraries are still organised like this (at least, my local one is). Fiction books are arranged by author. They do also have little stickers on the spine that give an indication of genre (like romance, western, mystery etc.), and sometimes there are small display type shelves devoted to a particular genre, but there are a lot of books without stickers.
So I went to check out my local bookstore, to see if they organised by genre. The answer was both yes and no. The fiction section took up one wall, and had sections for ‘Sci-Fi and Fantasy', ‘Paranormal'. Everything else was lumped in together under the heading ‘Fiction'.
So where is all this genre stuff?
Genre, it seems, is at its strongest in the online world. One of the great benefits of the electronic world is its ability to sort and categories data, to perform searches, and to narrow down what we're looking for. This is good, because the online world is filled with an enormous amount of data.
And unlike the physical world, the lack of real ‘shelf' space means that you no longer have to pick one category and one category only for your book. It can be in Sci-Fi and Romance at the same time, and be seen by both sets of readers.
So this is a good thing, right?
Maybe. Genre definitely has it's uses. It enables a reader to find books similar to the one the just enjoyed. It helps them sort through the colossal amount of books, and narrow it down to ones they might enjoy.
It also means that unlike a bookstore, where they had to walk past Sci-Fi to get to Romance, they may never see all those good books that they might have enjoyed.
The trick is to find ways to use this categorising ability to our advantage. We WANT our book to get in front of the readers who are most likely to appreciate it. But we also want to get it in front of as many of these readers as we can.
So what's the problem?
The problem I see is the narrowness of the categories available. When you have a book that doesn't neatly fit into any of the existing categories, it becomes very hard to find your target audience. New categories, many a blend of existing genres, are evolving every day. Urban fantasy. Paranormal romance. And many many others.
But getting them into the right categories on Amazon (the only seller I have experience with) isn't easy. The first problem is the fact that the categories you see on the Amazon store aren't the ones you get to choose from when you're uploading your book! Extremely frustrating. I would have put Reckless Rescue in the futuristic romance category, that's where it belongs, but it wasn't available as a choice.
This makes it harder for readers who want to read books of this kind to find what they're looking for. Sci-Fi Romance books are hard to find on Amazon. When I first started writing Reckless Rescue, I wanted to read other sci-fi romance books, to get an idea of what was out there, and how my book compared, but I struggled to find any!
So what can we do?
As I discovered later, Amazon isn't the only way to find books you're looking for! Goodreads is great. (Yes, I know it was bought by Amazon, but I'm holding to the belief that it isn't going to change, just as Book Depository didn't after they were bought by Amazon.) The lists there are great for finding books around genre, as are the groups.
What do you think? Does genre have a place in today's book world? Authors, have you had trouble getting your book into the right category? And readers, how do you find books that you like?
All this month I'm participating in the A-Z blogging challenge, writing a blog post for each letter of the alphabet, on every day of the month except Sundays. Check back regularly to see what else I have in store for you.
I am seeing authors I know and like branching out into new genres (brand new ones I mean) which I really like and I think this is down to stores like Amazon. However, like you as a child, I too read everything and I think I am still much the same now as an adult reader. If I like the way an author writes then I am inclined to read everything the author has or will write.
That’s true. I know authors who are writing in several different genres, and I also will mostly read all an authors books if I like one. A good way to be introduced to new genres!
I agree that genre-awareness is strongest in the online world. E-tailers, particularly Amazon, want you to check the boxes of your genre, and there are so many readers who stick to YA, or Mystery, or Fantasy. Even some of the biggest discussion forums on the web, like Reddit, are broken down that way.
That awareness exists elsewhere (WorldCon, naturally), but it’s always refreshing to me when an author will take the leap outside of where they’ve been placed. Much of my beloved Stephen King’s best work was built outside of his Horror nest.
I didn’t even know Stephen King wrote anything besides Horror/thrillers! Cool.
It is interesting that genre can define an author so completely, that we don’t think they can write anything else. I’ve heard of this with actors, but hadn’t stopped to think that it can define an author too. In face, some authors write under a psydonym if they write a genre that is drastically different to their first.
Good post, Rinelle. I agree that genre is useful online and is a necessity in terms of being able to find anything, but I do find it frustrating that everything (writing, music, film) now has to be pigeon-holed in to a neat little category just for the sake of marketing. In fact, this is the subject of my ‘P’ post ‘Pigeon-hole’.
When I think back to reading as a child and look at Roald Dahl, for instance, his books frequently crossed many different genres until it simply became ‘a book by Roald Dahl’ – like John has mentioned with Stephen King and Dee talks about with other childhood authors. As a writer or musician I think it can be limiting to have to tie yourself to a particular genre. Anyway, rant over! Good post.
Roald Dahl is a perfect example. I don’t even know what category I’d put his books in? So many possibilities.
What I find funny, is that the genres in film are so different to books. I don’t think there’s a book genre for comedy, though there should be! And lots of sci-fi movies (like Jurassic Park) often just get called adventure. It makes things doubly confusing. Can’t wait for the pigeon hole post.
The limitations of Amazon’s category list are frustrating. Like you, I never really thought about genres when I was younger. I read whatever book seemed interesting at the moment, and books involving horses were always my top pick too! My local library is kind of funny. They have most fictional books listed alphabetically, except for science fiction. If you want to read science fiction, you have to go over to the kid’s section of the library. I’m not sure who devised that set up. Of course there are authors such as Dean Koontz who also get a little scifi-ish at times, but his stuff is still in the alphabetized fiction section of the library instead of the kid’s section.
Sci-fi was in the kids section? How weird? I’m surprised at the things they do in libraries/bookstores. I guess experimenting helps them figure out what sells more books, so it’s worth trying something new, but that still seems a bit strange.
A very well written, informative post. I’m enjoying getting an inside look at the book publishing world. I’ve illustrated a couple of book covers for different authors and I’m always curious about the challenges they must face to get their book published. I’m looking forward to future posts.
Thanks Dan. Glad you’re enjoying the posts.
I haven’t thought much about genre, but it seems some books are hard to categorize, like books that are graphic novels but also for adults not just children. I’m not sure what Maus would be categorized as. It seems that if the readership is wanting more specific categories or clusters of categories, that Amazon would respond? I didn’t know they bought goodreads, but had heard they bought abebooks.
Yes, some books are really hard to categorise. I think graphic novels might have their own category? Amazon also seems to be very bad at seperating young adult fiction from children’s fiction.
I don’t know how responsive they are to reader requests. I guess if they had enough they might consider something? But considering how many books Amazon has now, I’m not sure they notice if some aren’t selling as well as others?
This is a very informative post on many levels….especially for a reader not schooled in the fine points of categorizing and who often wanders the isle and picks a book by:
Title is Short, Descriptive and easily Read
Author’s name not the Biggest Print on cover
The print can be read without a magnifyer
Captivating excerpt on the back cover.
First impressions count…..great post!
AtoZ LoneStar Quilting Bee
Hi Sue, thanks for stopping by.
Yes, first impressions are important! I think cover illustration and title sell more books than the category it’s in! And excerpts are really important. You can be in the picture perfect category, and if any of those aren’t up to scratch, then the book isn’t going to sell.
The good thing about ebooks though, is that you can change the print size. 🙂
I think the problem with Amazon is that it limits you to only two categories. And for me one of the biggest problems is that they don’t have a “Young Adult” category, but instead call it childrens…so all the YA books are in childrens, which is misleading.
Yes, I find that really strange. Especially since Young Adult is so popular with all ages. It really needs it’s own category.
I think genre definitely has its place, both as a reader and a writer. I’m not a fan of obscure genre hybrids, to be honest, I prefer to read the synopsis of a novel, then the first page (if available) and I’ll choose whether to read it or not from there.
Yes, I mostly go by the synopsis and ebook sample too. That said, I do find that knowing the genre gives me a good idea if I’ll like the book or not. I usually skip romantic suspense, but then again, maybe I miss some good books I’d enjoy that way? It’s hard to say.