I’ve run into a few interesting miscategorizations lately, so let’s go over this one again.
What is genre? Genre was originally how a bookstore shelved fiction so the readers could find the stories they preferred. Over time, each genre has grown to have its own defining characteristics, based on what its readers want and expect. How you categorize your books, therefore, should be based not on what you think the book has in it, but based on where the readers who want a story like that will be looking.
What are those defining characteristics? They are the setting, the character’s emotional arcs, the type of plot, the pacing, and the theme.
Important Note: if you do not read widely in a genre, chances are you’re not writing a book in that genre. This is a common mistake for new authors. If your book has explicit sex in it, that doesn’t make it erotica. If it has a love story, that doesn’t make it romance. If it’s set in space, it still might not be science fiction. If it has zombies, it may not be horror.
Horror and Romance require an emotional plot arc. A well-done horror starts at a low intensity, then evokes fear/dread/alarm sufficient to stimulate the adrenaline, and creates a catharsis in the epilogue / ending. Similarly, romances require an emotional plot arc of a person falling in love, and that love being returned. (A buildup of tension and catharsis of a different set of emotions, but same process.)
Romance goes one step further, and requires a Happily Ever After (HEA – Rosalind James’s Just This Once) or Happily For Now. If you don’t have a couple deeply in love and looking forward to the future at the end, it’s a love story, not a romance. Dawn Lee McKenna wrote a wonderful, touching love story called See You. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s not a romance. (Don’t read it in public unless you’re good at stifling laughter and tears.) Therefore, it’s “Women’s Fiction”. Similarly, if you’re developing a love story over the course of multiple books, none of them are romances. They’re books with romantic subplots.
Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, literary, and thrillers are plot based genres. Science fiction plots are generally driven by “What If / If this goes on” extrapolation Think: what if our society based voting rights on voluntary military service? (Starship Troopers) What if somebody cloned dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park) What if biotech seed firms wiped out all greenery other than their plants? (Windup Girl). Fantasy plot is generally about letting the reader escape into a different world (John Carter of Mars, Harry Potter, The Valdemar Chronicles, Name of the Wind). Literary is the weird genre here: you can define it by its lack of plot. No discernable plot? It’s literary. (The Glass Castle, The Life of Pi)
Mysteries must start with a mystery, and it must be solved. Attempting to solve it drives the course of the plot. (Katherine Asaro’s Undercity, Kris Rusch’s The Disappeared, PF Chisholm’s A Famine of Horses) Thrillers are fast-paces mysteries or adventures with high stakes and a short timeline. (Kris Rusch’s The Peyti Crisis, JD Kinman’s False Gods).
Cozy mysteries are defined by the investigator(s) being amateur. After the publisher declared the cozy ‘dead’ and stopped buying it, the demand did not evaporate. Eventually, the publishers fed the demand under craft mysteries. A craft mystery is a cozy mystery wherein the investigator is deeply involved in a hobby, and that hobby reflects not only herself but important clues in resolving the mystery. (Cooking, knitting, furniture refinishing, pet rescue…)
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Westerns also can be a setting… and steampunk is a setting. If you set something in space, it might be science fiction. If you set it in a world with magic, it might be called fantasy. If it’s set in the American Frontier West, then it is possibly a western. Settings aren’t just a location, though, they’re also the trappings of that world that the readers of that genre love. A science fiction setting will include fascinating high tech, different races and cultures, spaceships and blasters or rayguns. A fantasy setting will include quests, fascinating lore, interesting magical systems, worldbuilding, and various deities or spirits that participate in affairs. Westerns will have a rough frontier, wilderness, and strong men and strong women who stick to their code of honor, and the good guys win. (Firefly, anything Louis L’amour) Steampunk will have Victorian trappings, gleaming brass, automata that replicate our current technology with steam-powered or aetheric devices, and a spunky can-do attitude. (Parasol Protectorate, anything by Phil Foglio)
The confusion often comes when someone has elements of multiple genres in their book. To figure out which genre your book is actually in: first, does it contains the horror or romance emotional arc? If no, it’s not in those genres. Second, figure out the style of plot. Third, what is the setting? Fourth, and most important, what is the main focus of the book?
For example, Larry Correia initially thought that Monster Hunter International was a horror story because it had all the bad-B-movie tropes and monsters he could fit in. (It had a luska, and can anyone even remember what horror movie that’s from?) Horror, as stated above, requires an emotional arc that evokes dread/fear/panic/alarm. MHI is a rollicking good story about killing monsters and getting paid for it. No emotional horror arc, not horror. What’s left? It’s a fantastical tale, where magic works and monsters are real, set in an alternate modern day. That makes it urban fantasy.
If you have two different plots, which one is the main focus? If it opens with a dead body, it might be a mystery… but if you have The Awkward First Meeting (A very romance standard) over the dead body, then follow the detective and the main suspect getting together, with lots of attention paid to their emotions toward each other, it’s a romance. What’s more important: Will they end up together, or Who killed the victim? (If they don’t get together, the romance fans will throw the book at the wall. If they never figure out who killed the victim, but they go off together happily at the end, the mystery fans will blacken your name with malice aforethought.)
Now, we come to setting. Firefly is set in space, with travel to lots of different cultures and exotic settings, with bits of fascinating tech. It’s also set on ragged frontiers, with strong men and strong women who live by their codes of honor. This makes it a western. (Unsurprisingly, Joss Whedon mentioned one of the sources of inspiration was the confederate army veterans who went west after losing the war between the states.) Right now, scifi is a huge market, and Westerns are tiny… so it makes perfect sense to market it as scifi. Go where the market is!
Michael Crichton has Science Fiction plots – What if we cloned dinosaurs? – with thriller pacing and stakes, plot twists and reversals. Thrillers are a much larger market than Science fiction (and were so even more when the book came out), so his work is marketed as thrillers.
On the other hand, Lois Bujold based the Vorkosigan series on a “What if…” (How will biotechnology and the availability of artificial wombs change the definition of family and our societies?) It’s set in space, across several planets, and unashamedly marketed as science fiction. Each, by its different take on different aspects of biotechnology’s impact on humanity and culture, is a very good science fiction tale. That didn’t stop her from also writing romances (Shards of Honor, A Civil Campaign), a mystery (Ethan of Athos), rollicking adventure (The Warrior’s Apprentice), and a thriller (Diplomatic Immunity), all in the same science fiction series. Keep in mind that with a strong setting, you can try many different plots into the same series, and it’s still all together where readers can find it.
On the gripping hand, if you only have a thin veneer of setting without any respect for the standard characteristics of the genre, it’s not the genre you set it in. “Bonded to The Alien Lord” is romance, not science fiction. It’s completely unfettered by any deep worldbuilding, high tech in the background, or “What if?” in its plot. In fact, it’s completely free of what many science fiction fans would recognize as a plot, being entirely an emotional plot arc. (Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back, they live Happily For Now.)
Similarly, if you have a horror story that is set in something resembling the west but not acknowledging the western tropes, it’s a horror, not a western. If you’re using fantasy tropes, you can actually file it under “Weird West“. It’s a very, very tiny subgenre, often lumped in with steampunk. (Cthulhu attacks the builders of the Colorado River Dam! Zombies, not indians, are attacking the cowboys! Shootout with a vampire in the streets of Dodge City!)
To sum up, when looking where to place your book, define the genre by what the readers want. What is the book’s focus? If it’s focused on horror or romance, and primarily aimed to satisfy the readers of those genres, then market it there. If it has a deep focus on science fiction, fantasy, or western setting, with lots of the details and characteristics that satisfy the readers of those genres, market it there. If it is most focused on the plot, be it science fiction, mystery, fantasy, literary, or thriller, then market it there.
However, if it is part of a series based in setting-heavy worldbuilding, market it to that genre as well. If you can satisfy readers of both… aim for the biggest market, but also promote in the smaller one!