What genre is your book?

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!


  1. Thank you, very nice post.

    But, I’m going to have to nitpick. Firefly is a space opera with western trappings. Those of us raised in the fifties and sixties in western towns or western rural areas were quite often raised with the same or very similar values you find in Firefly. So for us, there’s nothing all that strange in the values expressed there. The values we find in the modern urban settings are what’s strange and unsettling.

    I will agree that it is getting more difficult to stick a story or series in the right genre. I have had some difficulty in deciding where to place my current series, because the Amazon listings don’t place it that well. Once upon a time, there was something called a Heroic Action Adventure Fantasy, the Robert E Howard Conan stories being stereotypical.

    Today, you can’t find that. The closest thing is Epic Fantasy, and mine really doesn’t fit. Think medieval europe meets the old west in western North America three hundred years after the current civilization falls. Instead of the Sharps rifle you have the longbow and crossbow. Instead of revolvers you have swords, sabers and rapiers.

    I suspect the way to help this problem, is with the “Key Words”. I’ve only been published for a couple of months {first five novels}, and hope to learn more on this as time goes by.

    Thanks very much. A lot to think about………..

      1. Thank you for the thought. After reading your response, I did go and look.

        I read much of the Emberverse, actually loved “Dies the Fire” and the first four of the series. It may have been a bit of an unconscious influence on series. The similarities, much of both series takes place in a dystopian Northwest, both use medieval weapons, like swords and longbows.

        But, the emberverse deals with big events, and touches on the individual.

        Mine deals with individuals, and touches on major happenings. The everyday warrior that lives the long range patrols, or snipes long range {long range for a longbow or crossbow}. Or breaks into an enemy’s city through tough opposition.

        One of the main inspirations for it, is the “Black Company”, the first three books by Glen Cook. I prefer dealing with the real people, not the kings, queens, and generals.

        Thanks for the help.

  2. I have recently begun categorizing my own work as “slipstream fiction”. Many of the authors of the Science Fiction New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s that I consider my primary influences are now called “slipstream” since “science fiction” has become so rigidly classified.

    Slipstream has been called “the literature of the strange”. It draws upon imagery from science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but the focus is not on the reason for the unnatural events but the effect that those events have on the characters. The central conflict is Man Against The Unknown (and even The Unknowable–that which is ontologically non-rational).

  3. So I have a book that is fantasy. That is, it feels like fantasy, has a fantasy setting, uses the fantasy tropes, and has a fantasy story arc. Yet there is no obvious magic, nor are there fantasy creatures—elves, dragons, so on.

    If it isn’t fantasy, what is it?

    1. What genre readers would enjoy this book? That’s what it is. Categorize the book where the readers who want it and will enjoy it can find it.

      Selling is about helping the customer find what they want. If a reader looking for fantasy would enjoy it, but readers looking for coloring books or for a treatise on the intraspecies and interspecies variation of polynesian birds or time-travel romance would think it’s not what they wanted at all, where should you put it?

      1. I’ve noticed in the Community section Amazon has for their authors, that several people panic after a month with few to no sales.

        This is just my thought, but I suspect that you can have the genre as close as Amazon allows, have a readable book, and still not sell lots until one’s exposure grows. And I think that takes time.

        Just a guess, but I think that true promotion works best when there’s more than one book on the back list.

        Thanks Dorothy. I’ve enjoyed all of the marketing posts you’ve done here. Hopefully I’ve also learned a little bit.

      2. Okay. Yes, it’s fantasy. (A similar example I have is the YA title Jackaroo, by Cynthia Voight. No magic or odd races that I recall, but definitely fantasy nonetheless.)

    2. I settled on action/adventure. It was to be a fairy tale for children who’s reading ability had passed the usual fairy tale level, but were not ready for more advanced fantasy. But magic didn’t fit the story at all. It ended up a tale set in a Medieval Europe that might have been without being alternate history or a historic novel. What it did have was cliffhangers, action, and a great deal of peril. Right or wrong, figured that action/adventure was the best term.

  4. If you are writing in the genre, you should be reading the genre. If you are reading in the genre, you should know where you go to look for another book in the genre. Same goes for covers.

    Not that this keeps you from going astray, necessarily, when suffering from too much blood in the caffeine circulation. I had great covers for my mostly mil-sf series all outlined. Then a week later I took a second look, and they are great covers – for romances with a tiny soupcon of mil-sf…

    1. . . . assuming you have time to read away from work and book research. *sigh*
      Genre is one of the things I’ve had the most difficulty sorting out. The Cat series is sci-fi, but once you get past that . . . mil-sci fi? Alien contact (um, not always)? Space-opera (no, that’s easy)? Ditto the Colplatschki books – not fantasy by the current standards, not exactly alt-hist but alt-hist readers seem to like finding the twists, not quite mil-sci-fi although several people have said that the Elizabeth books are mil-sci-fi. I’m glad Amazon has the colony worlds tag, but that still leaves the larger genre a bit of a challenge. It’s as much “rule out Romance, rule out Urban Fantasy, rule out Thriller” as it is “this book is a [genre].”

      1. Sigh. I know the feeling. I’m about 10% into The Ninth Euclid, and haven’t even opened Pixie Noir as of yet. Those would have been done with by the end of the long weekend when all I had was a 60 hour a week job. This domestic godding schtick and writing seriously cuts into any other time…

  5. Those Who Classify love slicing things into ever-finer bits.

    The line between “science fiction” and “fantasy” isn’t all that sharp; beyond that I don’t worry about micro-slicing into sub-sub-sub-genres.

    1. Where do you put a story that has a curse attributed to quantum mechanics (with much hand waving?). Said story centers on the curse more than the mechanics, and felt that made it a fantasy.

  6. All though I am not an author, when I am bored I’ll let my mind wonder and think up bits of stories that bend genres. Tangentially related, I often wonder how far could you push a genre before it would not be considered part of that genre any more. For example could you write a tale set in modern times using classic western tropes and have be consider a western? A veteran of the Iraq war and blames himself for his best friend being killed. Trying to put the past behind him by riding his motorcycle across country with no destination. He stops at an old bed and breakfast in a small mid western town that has slowly been dying. The town is being run by a corrupt mayor secretly trying to make a land grab because it secretly very valuable, and a biker gang has been terrorizing the few remaining residents. The Hero carries a replica Peace Maker that had had been his friend’s and winds up getting involved after protecting the woman who owns the bed breakfast from the outlaw gang.

    That story could hit many of the common tropes in westerns other than time period, could such a story be considered a western though?

    1. As long as you stayed out of “historical”, I’d put it on the Western shelf. Louis L’Amour was the Heinlein of Westerns, and his definition of the genre was pretty flexible.

      “Quigley Down Under” was a Western as far as I’m concerned.

      I’m still wondering where all the “Australian Outback”, “British Raj”, and “Canadian Expansion” books are. Or even stories about the Confederados in South America.
      I’ve actually seen a few Australian novels, but either they’re rare or my search-fu has been weak when I’ve looked.

  7. Truthfully, I like genre mixes when they are done deliberately and with finesse. Six Gun Tarot and Territory both come to mind. Both are Weird Westerns with a good dollop of horror. Another very good recent mix is Pyramids of London. One of the problems I have with straight genre fiction is it is too easy to lapse into “same-old, same-old.” If you read a lot, like I do, it gets old very fast. Having said that, none of the above mentioned books violate their genre “must haves.”

  8. Interesting. There’s also other genres, of course. Christian, for one, where Christian theology is front and center, and action/adventure.

    I quibble with the Western classification. To that end I give you the real life Land Troubles of post-Civil War Georgia. The conflict centered on deeds held by a defunct lumber company, which passed into the hands of the State of Illinois, IIRC. This came to the attention of one of the William E. A. P. Dodges, who got some investors, bought the deeds off Illinois, and formed the Georgia Land and Lumber Company.

    There were two problems. One, there were no taxes paid on the land, and some parcels were sold at tax auctions. The other was that squatters had taken residence on other parcels and held it about two generations. Neither were going to leave because the GL&LC said “get.”

    There were lawsuits and trouble. Trouble as in cutting off the heads of raft hands, spiking logs, wrecking tram lines, shots exchanged, a prominent manager killed in his home; a suspect killed on his front porch by the Pinkertons, and the guy who fingered the suspect killed one Sunday on the front steps of his church. There were also boom towns, rowdy behavior on pay days, and a couple of outlaws dropping by to hide out for a spell.

    Written as a straight historic account, the entire thing reads like a violent Western, except it happened hundreds of miles east of the Mississippi.

    1. That is a Western, and not that far from the center of the genre, all things considered. I think I’m on the same page as Celia Hayes in saying that there is a wide variety of North American history suitable for Westerns that is underutilized. Georgia immediately after the war works very well because of political instability at the local level. Too long later, and you can’t set a western there without it becoming a sermon on the evils of Jim Crow. When the western market was large, you would alienate the Democrat half of the market by doing that.

      The northeast was heavily populated, and the crime ridden cities attracted a lot of the storytelling attention.

      Elements of the wild west can be found in America as late as the sixties.

      1. Elements of the wild west can be found in America as late as the sixties.

        True. I’ve seen a honest-to-goodness posse form up about 1980, under local law enforcement, after a supposed carjacking.

        I think it’s worth mentioning, though, that it may be economics and not things like political instability that dictates a Western setting. The GL&LC didn’t start getting into full swing until about 1870, and the Georgia Legislature welcomed them like a modern legislature in an economically depressed state would welcome a major manufacturer. They even made a county in William E.A.P. Dodge’s honor. Sometime after this, a Georgia politician would say “A Yankee is worth more than a bale of cotton, and is twice as easy to pick.”

        In any even, county level Georgia, circa 1870, was different than the chaos of 1864/65, when so many men were away at war that there weren’t enough to form jury pools. In fact, county governments tended to side against GL&LC, especially in court, which is why GL&LC ended up taking their claims to Federal court. That’s why GL&LC ended up hiring Pinkerton men for security.

        All of which seems to point to economics as the “Western” factor – boom towns; conflicts over land; Lumber barons instead of cattle barons and locals instead of sod busters, but the same mechanics.

        1. I meant political instability in that there were still carpetbaggers in the area. During Reconstruction and the transition period after, the factions would have been in flux. Once the carpetbaggers were gone and the scalawags mostly pacified, someone who wants to turn a profit by violence needs to be in with the local Democratic Party establishment, or give it up. If they are in, that is a lot of force to kill or intimidate.

          The Western genre, I gather, promises results. It seems like it would be more challenging to deliver on that if the other side can just ask the next town or county for help dealing with a troublemaker.

          I guess I’m arguing that it is about nascent authority and rule. Maybe also isolation. It doesn’t matter how much money you can make, if the risks don’t give you some chance of success.

  9. Of course, one of the tricks with Amazon is that the categories and tags you can apply to your books do not jibe exactly with the categories and tags in the amazon store. So perfectly targeting your genre is not always possible.

  10. “Life of Pi” has a plot – boy sets off with family for a new life, is caught in a storm and escape ship in a lifeboat, find himself having to survive on lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker. Simple test of plot: is it possible to write proper spoilers? If yes, then it has a plot. If no (i.e. revealing details doesn’t spoil the novel) then it doesn’t have a strong plot.

  11. What a great article! Loved your descriptions of the genres. Genre is difficult. Back when I worked in the bookstore, authors would get annoyed if we put the books in the “wrong” category. Just as with your advice, we put them where our buyers would expect to find them, which meant occasionally putting mainstream fiction in science-fiction (Harlan Ellison has a few books that could go mainstream, but no one would ever buy them there.) Nowadays, if you have a work that crosses genres, like ARTC’s “Throne of Shadows” (is it supernatural romance, or alternative history? It starts out as historical fiction and then goes strange…) you can market it as both which is really great. I love tags for this reason.

    1. Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” and Robert Harris’ “Fatherland” were both alternate-history SF, but I always saw them shelved in the spy/adventure stuff.

  12. Mainstream love story – but I hate using the term ‘Women’s Fiction’ when the writing has been done intentionally to appeal to men and women. Men supposedly don’t like reading something marketed specifically as Women’s Fiction. But men are true romantics – some of my best commenters as I posted Pride’s Children live were men.

    The way these things work on Amazon, I will use those categories and keywords, INCLUDING Romance (we have a Happy For Now ending for Book 1 and Book 2, and as close as mainstream gets to Happily Ever After for Book 3), and hope I don’t get flattened. Because, though PC is NOT a Romance, because it does not at all follow the requirements for the genre, it is possible that people who read Romance may also like it.

    ‘Mainstream’ – what used to be simply called ‘a novel’ – doesn’t even get its own category on Amazon.

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