Genre: the one word that sells millions

As writers, we like to believe that our stories are timeless treasures that defy all attempts to classify them. We think readers who despise fantasy, horror, or romance will love our version of fantasy, horror, or romance because our books are special, and things like genre biases are only to be taken seriously if one is a panderer and sellout.

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Then, reality bursts our rose-colored delusion bubbles with that one, long pinky nail she keeps sharpened for just such an occasion, and we accept, with heavy hearts, that we’re not the demigod-esque wordsmiths we thought we were.

The annoying truth is that no matter how painstakingly we assemble the 50,000 words  with which we aim to spellbind our readers, without that one word summing up the genre under which our books will be placed in the bookstore, the other 50,000 aren’t going to matter.


If you said, “Right!” or even, “Duh, Lady,” good for you. You were easier to convince than I was / sometimes am (I still get contrary about this, and have occasionally been known to bellow, “Okay, Omnipotent Book Biz Governors, if we’re not permitted to stray from genre norms, how are we going to get new ones?”).

The effect of genre bias isn’t one we always think about, especially when when we pick out books or movies at Barnes and Noble. We like to think we have sound, capable minds that judge for themselves what is / is not a well-told story based on the content therein.  But consider the following movie scenes in which what would have traumatized folks in a drama makes them giggle in a comedy:

In the Francis Ford Coppola classic, The Godfather, a man wakes to find a decapitated horse in bed with him, compliments of “The Mob.” Could that scene have gotten laughs with some subtle score changes and the audience who’d been told in advance they were watching a comedy? The Hangover III decapitates a giraffe in a traffic accident on the freeway, and the object of the scene is humor, not horror. Similarly, American History X and Eurotrip both contain scenes in which a young man gets raped. People laughed at the circumstances surrounding the young man’s rape in Eurotrip. In fact, some of them laughed – forgive the expression- hard.  Not so in American History X.

One of the most influential comedy writers of the 20th century is a short, Jewish man with voice like hail damage, known to his fans and critics as, “Mel Brooks.”

*for more information and a better-than-average article about Mel Brooks, click here

One of my go-to quotes from Mr. Brooks goes as follows:

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Like the graphic?

Well, it’s no Mona Lisa, but I think it’s pretty grate. Buddup-bup!


After giving the matter more thought than it may deserve, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Brooks was so right. Pain in the first person, “The cut on my finger,” is not funny. Pain in the third person, “His or her tragic ‘sewer-cide’, ” is terribly funny. Neither is funny if the genre label you’ve given his/her/my story is not “Comedy.”

Three years after Mel Brooks and company released the Alfred Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety, Brooks was the executive producer of a critically acclaimed film called The Elephant Man. It may or may not be common knowledge, now, but at the time, Brooks chose not to put his name on the film, lest his reputation for irreverent comedy undermine what could otherwise prove to be a powerful piece of cinematic history.

His instincts were absolutely right. Had Mr. Brooks not had understood his audience’s potential for genre bias, I believe generations of movie lovers would have grown up either never having heard of The Elephant Man or thinking it was merely one of Brooks’ weirder comedies:

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The moral of the story, if there is one, is that genre biases matter. And sometimes, they’re bogus as hell. But understanding that they exist can be a crucial step in getting your story in the hands of consumers who are bias in favor of your chosen genre.  Convince readers your book belongs in a category they care about, and they will be automatically inclined to give your book the attention and the open mind it deserves.

So how do you figure out what marketing genre your story falls into?

Good question, that.

Lots of books fall neatly into well-defined categories (i.e. if your story is similar to The Hunger Games, it is likely dystopia or if your story was inspired by The Martian, it is likely sci-fi) while other books’ place on the bookstore shelf is a little…nebulous.

For instance, common rule of thumb for finding  your book’s appropriate age group is “If child protagonist, then kids book,” but Good Omens is religious satire that kicks off with the birth of the anti-Christ child and chronicles much of his life story.  Is it still a kids’ book?

Another rule employed pretty frequently by the genre-setters is “If less than 30,000 words, then mid-grade,” but if we treated that rule as unbreakable, we’d have a bunch of depressive cynics reading Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men in the 5th grade.

If you find the genre is of your book is hard to define, try one or both of the following:

  1. Poll your beta readers. If you show your story to a variety of readers of differing age groups / reading tastes, and the 30 and over crowd is the one most excited about your book, it probably isn’t mid-grade. If you reliably get feedback from readers you trust saying, “This reminds me of Robert Heinlein,” you might have an action adventure sci-fi title on your hands.
  2. Ask an editor. If you’re not ready to shell out more than a hand full of dollars on an editorial overhaul of your manuscript, you can shop around for an editor who can peruse your query and your first 1-3 chapters, then give you some expert opinions. Even if your book is disobedient to multiple genre norms, it’s likely similar enough to one or another book that has come before it that an editor can say, “Okay. Here’s how I would pitch this book to the pros,” and the genre in which it belongs should become clearer.

So that’s all I got for you today. I hope this was helpful. I’m afraid I’ve met my thinking quota for the day, and I cannot conclude this article with the grace and wit any readers of it deserve.

Remind me I had this random conclusion, and we’ll talk about how to write better ones henceforth.

G’bye, now.

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