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What Does Genre Mean in a Book: Literary Agent Walks You Through Determining Your Book’s Genre

Excerpt from Get Signed by Lucinda Halpern. All Rights Reserved

Let’s talk about looking at your book’s genre with an open mind.

How certain are you that you are writing narrative nonfiction versus a memoir? Or a literary novel versus commercial fiction? There are nuances to genre, and picking one almost always means making a sacrifice of some kind; parting with what you envisaged your book to be in favor of what it actually is. In my coaching practice, I’ve found that nearly every writer starting out ends up reconceiving their genre by the end of our work together. Even my more seasoned clients have discovered the power of making a switch, and the wider readership they never imagined could be theirs as a result.

While it sounds obvious, many people neglect this detail in their pitches—they believe their book straddles three genres, or they are simply afraid to commit to one. They haven’t done their research on comparative titles that can provide vital clues. As a result, they omit genre from their pitch entirely, leaving an overly subscribed agent or publisher to figure it out for them.

Whether you are making a pitch to an agent or a reader, the best thing you can do is tempt the imagination
but eliminate guesswork. Publishers need an easy “get,” which begins with how to categorize a book to booksellers. Remembering this should help you in any part of the process. If you haven’t labeled your book’s genre, there’s a good chance you’ve already lost our attention.

So many writers ask, “But what if I choose wrong? Will I blow my chances of getting an agent?” Not at all. Here’s a piece of advice that might surprise you. When you are unsure about genre, take your best guess. It’s just like the SAT: you can afford to get the answer wrong, but you can’t afford to leave it blank. While your agent and publishing partners may take a different or more expansive view of categorizing your book later, you must first convince them there is a clear genre for your book in the first place. It’s not as important that you be right as it is that you make a good case.

Years ago, I snatched up a query from my slush pile by a sought-after speaker who teaches evolutionary biology to executives. Her book’s argument was that our ancestral selves give us blind spots in how we manage people. She categorized it as a business book, but based on her fresh and counterintuitive idea, I immediately knew it could reach a wider audience—and command a larger advance— as a self-improvement book. She had given her best shot at categorizing her book, and even if it wasn’t quite right yet, I still reached out to her.

Familiarizing yourself with genre works very much the same way as writing Amazon descriptions. Identifying the key components of your book and searching for books that feature the same components as your big idea is key. Let me share a way to do just that.

Go to Amazon, click on the first book you find, and scroll all the way down to Product Details. Next, check for your chosen title’s Best Seller Rank. Amazon organizes its bestsellers by genre. A title like The Secret History by Donna Tartt is a top seller in psychological thrillers, literary fiction, and suspense thrillers. If your book has similar components to The Secret History, then it should have elements of the thriller genre and will market well to that readership.

Likewise, James Clear’s Atomic Habits was a massive bestseller in the categories of business, social psychology, and self-help. If you are writing a book about habits, you might want to consider attaching your book to these genres. You’ll notice that these books rank and are categorized in multiple genres. For the purposes of your pitch, just settle on the one that best reflects your book. And my advice from above applies again: if you are unsure, make your best guess.

Want more advice for your publishing journey? Preorder Get Signed:  Find An Agent, Land A Book Deal, and Become A Published Author today to receive exclusive bonuses.