What genre am I? This is a question I hear all the time from new writers and even seasoned writers who aren’t seeing sales in the genre they selected. With what appears to be thousands of selection on Amazon, and admittedly close to 5,000 on BISAC it is quite confusing. So, I created a handout for the Foundations class, I teach and I share it with you here with a few explanatory words.
Placing your book into its correct genre is a major component of successfully marketing your book and, if you are a single genre writer, can also help you establish your brand. Genre is a tricky, fickle creature that was born of a technology/metadata parent and a marketing boondoggle parent. That is why it is so hard to define. If you don’t correctly place your book into a fitting genre, people could be upset, disappointed, or confused. You want to present your book as accurately as possible and find the right venues in which it will shine. Once you decide on a genre that also impacts your blurb, your cover, and perhaps the way your actual story works through the plot, beats, and character voices.
The problem is that writers look to genre to define a creative endeavor. However, today genre is really more of a “marketing” term more than a literary term. Depending on which MFA program or English class you take, they may define genres in as few as two: nonfiction and fiction; or as many as 100 when you get down to the subgenres within a genre. On top of that, the definitions change with the times.
What Are BISAC Codes and How Do They Relate to Genre?
The BISG, a group or publisher, library, and bookseller representatives defines the codes (called BISAC) used by publishers and booksellers. As of 2022 they have identified 54 major subject headings and more than 5,000 sub headings which may appear multiple levels down from one of those 54 major headings. One might argue that defines 54 genres. However, I would disagree with that as FICTION occupies only one of those major headings, while the other 53 comprise nonfiction.
Nonfiction has been well defined since the BISAC codes began about 30 years ago. They’ve added only two new major categories for nonfiction. Fiction, on the other hand, is much more difficult to categorize. Which is why 95% of the questions around genre come from fiction writers. In BISAC there is only one main category for fiction. It is called FICTION. Everything else is captured in subcategories and sub-subcategories.
In a time when metadata and search is critical to book discovery, it is understandable that we need a system that defines categories and all agree to use with the same definitions. Unfortunately, when it comes to fiction, that “agreement” is very related to market forces. In fact, the former director of Simon & Schuster data operations, Helene Green, admitted more than a decade ago that “there are in-house discrepancies” as to how BISAC subject codes are handled…It can happen six months ahead of publication, or it can happen the day an ISBN is created,…Sometimes the editorial team assigns one when they first get the manuscript, but marketing can override this when assigning a final code to be sent to trade partners.”
Around the same time, Mary Sunden, a former VP of Penguin International who worked on their systems issues said, “It is the only part of the ONIX system that people complain about … because subject categorizing is subjective.” She attributed its faults to the fact that it was designed by “techies” who probably didn’t have the best grasp of how books are made and marketed. “As a result, people in publishing houses are forcing their books into these categories.”
Both of the above quotes were about ten years into the BISAC categorization development (early 2000s), before ebooks became a big thing and Amazon and other online sellers became a critical part of the book ecosystem and, in many ways, dictate book discovery. I share these two executives’ analysis of the system as a recognition that this is hard, even for experts. There is no perfect way to categorize books or genres. In fact, the way BISAC is used today is as a “suggestion” of coding that is then imported and often selectively displayed by various retailers.
For example, Amazon subject categories are based on BISAC but they display to KDP folks what is known as a “‘crosswalk” version of the actual codes. They don’t show the categories and subcategories exactly like BISAC does. They also leave many out that they have identified as not viable and add others that are not part of the code at all when they see important trends in selling more books. For example, until fairly recently there was no category to select called “teen” fiction. There was only YA. However, if you used “teen fiction” as a keyword and, if enough people discovered your book with that keyword, a category of “teen fiction” could be displayed in your metadata on the buy page.
Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, relies heavily on the actual BISAC codes and doesn’t vary from them. Though, again, as an indie publisher from the drop down selections they’ve only presented a subset. Most traditional publishers upload their books via ONIX which provides a direct crosswalk of all BISAC codes.
Okay, Enough Computer Talk Let’s Get Down to the Definitions
I’m going to concentrate on FICTION genres because those are the ones that seem to be most difficult to define and are also most used as marketing creations that make it even more confusing.
For example, from the 1950s to the 1980s romance was defined as featuring a love story and “generally lighthearted, optimistic, and emotionally satisfying. Even romantic suspense back then was still “lighthearted and optimistic.” If you read Harlequin novels back then you know what I mean. They were also very formulaic with the “meet cute” by page 15, and very specific ways the story would move, climax, and then live happily ever after. That would NOT define modern romance today. The “meet cute” is almost a passe notion. More than that romance has now subdivided into all the other genres as well. Fantasy romance, urban fantasy romance, science fiction romance, mystery romance, thriller romance, romantic suspense, and then those that are really women’s fiction with a romantic element. If Women’s Fiction belongs as a subcategory of romance or a genre itself is even still in many genre discussions.
Remember “chick lit?” That genre that became big in the 1990s to early 2000s and then practically disappeared among descriptions of books? It was supposed to target that desirable 18-30 year old female readers market. Some people think it became “new adult.” I think it became “light-hearted” women’s fiction.
The key in defining your genre is to define the PRIMARY genre first and then the secondary and tertiary. The reason it is important to define the primary genre first is because that is the one where you MUST deliver all the reader cookies (reader expectations for a specific genre). It is good to do it with subgenres, too, but it is not as strict.
The other problem with mixing genres in a story is that it creates a smaller pool of people who are likely to enjoy that. For example, my contemporary romance readers did not cross-over en masse to buy my SF Romance. In a poll of my readers, the primary reason was that they didn’t like SF as a genre. Specifically, they don’t like all that “science stuff” ruining the experience of the relationship. As for my SF Fans, they didn’t like romance in their SF books. It takes away from the cool, “science stuff” they wanted to read. (Interesting to me as Heinlein had romance, though not in the deeper relationship way that I write it) Obviously, this was NOT all my fans. A percentage did cross-over. But it was disappointing. My fan cross-over from contemporary romance to SF romance was only 31%. The fan cross-over from my SF readers to SF romance was only 13%.
Below I’ve identified what I believe are the eleven widely accepted genres (marked in red) and their characteristics, as well as some of the sub-genres within them. Remember: If you are writing in a subgenre it means you have to meat all of the major genre expectations first, and then secondarily the expectations of the subgenre.
The first and oldest form of storytelling is Fantasy. It is important to understand this genre as it tends to permeate through all the other genres even when something overtly fantastical is not happening. It is the way we grow up learning stories.
Fantasy: Fantasy is probably the oldest form of literature. It involves a plot that cannot exist in the real world. Its plot usually involves witchcraft or magic or some supernatural being. It can take place on this world in today’s time or an on undiscovered planet of an unknown world. Its overall theme and setting involve a combination of technology, architecture, and language, which sometimes resemble European medieval ages. The most interesting thing about fantasies is that their plot involves witches, sorcerers, mythical and animal creatures talking like humans, and other things that never happen in real life. As one of the first literary forms it has many subgenres that have informed so many other genres today.
Modern folktales are types of fantasy that narrators tell in a traditional tale accompanying some typical elements, such as strong conflict, little description of characters, fast-moving plot with a quick resolution, and sometimes magical elements and vague settings. It is the stories our ancestors told around campfires to teach a lesson. All authors tend to include something like this in their books, no matter the genre it is the oldest of storytelling, derived from an oral tradition. The Brothers Grimm wrote modern folktales. Hans Christian Andersen with Thumbelina or The Emperors New Clothes. Much of Disney movies are modern folktales.
Animal fantasy tells tales about animals, behaving like human beings, speaking, experiencing emotions, and having the ability to reason. Nevertheless, animals in animal fantasies retain their various animal characteristics too. Often, such fantasies have simple plots, and constitute literary symbolism by presenting symbolic expression of human counterparts. Charlottes Web, Peter Rabbit
Magical fantasy, you see a character having magical powers, or a strange magical object becomes the subject of the narrative. Today this is one of the most common fantasy types. A good example of this is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. None of the elements of the factory are ever explained, they simply exist. Today a popular type of magical fantasy is what’s called “Portal” fantasy. Where someone goes through a Portal and ends up in a whole new world that is different from ours. Some people put this in SF, but most of the time it belongs in fantasy. It’s only SF if there is a science underpinning to this portal system.
Alternative World & Enchanted Journeys In these fantasies, you see leading character undertaking a journey to an alternative world, or a fantasy world. Though realistic tales also employ journeys, you would only see magical things happen in fantasy journeys. Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland
Heroic Quest fantasy These fantasies involve adventures with a search, quest, and motif. While this quest could be a pursuit for a higher purpose, like justice and love, or for getting a reward like hidden treasure, or a magical power; the conflict of heroic fantasies focuses on struggle between evil and good. The protagonist struggles with internal weakness and temptations. The Lord of the Rings
Supernatural fantasy One of the most common forms of supernatural fantasy is known as a “ghost story.” Ghosts could be either helpful protectors, or fearsome adversaries. Also, superheroes (Marvel, DC) or any special group of people with special powers that have sway over good and evil in the world that mere mortals can’t control. There was a TV series on a while back called Supernatural.
In contrast to Fantasy is what is highly valued in much of literature today—particularly “literary” novels. That is Realism.
Realism: Realism is a movement in art and literature that began in the 19th century as a shift against the exotic and poetic conventions of Romanticism. Literary realism allowed for a new form of writing in which authors represented reality by portraying everyday experiences of relatable and complex characters. Literary realism depicts works with relatable and familiar characters, settings, and plots. It tends to be centered around society’s middle and lower classes. I’m not sure why. Is it because the upper classes are not “real.” (I’m kidding, please don’t send me any emails.) As a result, the intent of realism developed as a means to tell a story as truthfully and realistically as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it. This movement has greatly impacted how authors write and what readers expect from literature.
Here are some common examples of those themes and conventions in literary realism:
- close, detailed, and comprehensive portrayal of reality
- emphasis on appearance of what is real and true
- importance of character over action and plot
- complex ethical decisions are often the subject matter
- characters appear real in their complexity, behavior, and motives
- characters appear natural in their relation to each other and their circumstances
- importance of economic and social class, especially “middle and lower” class interests
- plausible, logical events (not overly sensational or dramatic)
- natural speech patterns among characters in terms of diction and vernacular (not overly poetic in language or tone)
- presence of “objective” and impartial narration of story
- subsets include: magical realism, social realism, “kitchen sink” realism, psychological realism, socialist realism
Magical Realism is an important subset of realism that is a 20th century breakout category. Though usually associated with Latin American or Asian authors, it has gained traction with American authors as well. It is a realistic depiction of a story with magical elements that are accepted as “normal” in the universe of the story. Magical realism authors deliberately leave the magic in their stories unexplained in order to normalize it as much as possible and reinforce that it is part of everyday life. Examples:
Like Water for Chocolate– Esquivel tells of a woman who makes confections that relate to what the person longs most to have.
Song of Solomon –Morrison tells the coming-of-age of Milkman Dead, who was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life, Milkman, too, will be obsessed with the need to fly.
Literary Fiction: A work with artistic value and literary merit. This is a difficult one in that it may cross all the genres listed here. What tends to make literary fiction stand out is the writing craft. Examples are more use of description, metaphor, simile, what some people call lyrical writing. It also tends to mean that the reader must be educated in order to appreciate the book the best. Many “genre” readers dislike literary fiction and vice versa. This is a category that is sometimes appropriated by writers and/or marketers who want to be labeled as “a serious writer” because they believe that being a “genre writer” is not serious. Literary Fiction is a genre. Like many of the genres here, every genre has writers who are considered “literary” in the same way that literary fiction also fits into most every genre, depending on the story.
Historical: The plot takes place in the past with balanced realism and creativity. It can feature actual historical figures, events, and settings or made-up ones that realistically reflect the lives of people in that era. Currently, the term “historical” means WW2 and earlier. However, I have seen (again for marketing purposes) people define the 1960s and 1970s as “historical” fiction. In terms of BISAC categorizing, you will often see specific time periods as sub-categories in which to place your novel. e.g., Historical Fiction > Civil War.
Thriller: Features dark, mysterious, and suspenseful plots. It heightens feelings of anxiety, surprise, excitement and anticipation in the reader. It is often described as a “page-turner.” It tends to focus on the external plot rather than the internal. It may take place in the past, present, or future. Subgenres of thriller are psychological thriller, crime thriller, political thriller, mystery thriller, spy thriller, legal thriller, SF thriller.
Horror: Evokes strong feelings of shock, terror, revulsion, fear, or outrage when readers go through such a narrative. It may or may not include a paranormal element. It always looks to manipulate what the reader is thinking to create fear in their minds and elicit a constant sense of dread. Subgenres of Horror include gothic horror, paranormal horror, comedy horror, dark fantasy, Lovecraftian, post-apocalyptic, psychological horror, splatterpunk.
Mystery: The term mystery literally means something that is a dilemma for the public. It could be something as broad as the mysteries of the universe or as narrow as the mystery of a specific murder. The word is a derivative of the old French term, mistere, which means a secret. Today, the vast majority of genre fiction labeled mystery features a detective or amateur sleuth solving a case with a suspenseful plot that slowly reveals information for the reader to piece together. Sometimes the detective character reveals the whole thing in the end. “Literary” novels that have a mystery as part of the plot may also use the detective angle. However, they are more likely to be a larger mystery like about an entire group of people or a society or a cult instead of a single puzzle to solve. Sub-genres for mystery include detective (sometimes a subgenre of detective is “hardboiled”), cozy mysteries, police procedurals, caper stories, noir, supernatural, suspense, thriller, and true crime.
Romance: Features a love story or romantic relationship that ends on a generally optimistic and emotionally satisfying note. A great article on this was written by Jennifer Crusie when the Romance Writers of America (RWA) was debating how to define romance. Check out her article here. To determine whether romance is your primary genre or a secondary one, the question to ask yourself is how much of the book is about the romantic relationship? It needs to be significantly more than 50%. If it’s less than 50% then it’s another genre with romance secondary (as in my example at the start of this article of SF Romance). The romance genre has developed to incorporate most every genre in this article: contemporary; historical; suspense; speculative (can be fantasy or SF); and young adult. Recently, I’ve even seen some books labeled as horror and romance. Personally, I can’t imagine those two together.
Western: This can fall into two categories, historical westerns and modern westerns. Historical westerns tend to feature cowboys, settlers, or outlaws of the American Old West with settling the frontier as the primary theme. Modern westerns still often feature cowboys, ranchers, and farmers. The only difference is they have modern systems of management and both the convenience and difficulties of using those modern systems.
Science Fiction: Also called speculative fiction are stories that use science of today or extrapolated for tomorrow to look at, question, or uphold scientific discoveries, innovations, inventions, or misuse of the science. Though traditionally SF has been about space or time travel, it also encompasses environmental issues, social sciences, and cultural and religious futures. A strong sub-genre of SF is Dystopian which portrays science gone awry or a setting that appears dystopian but as a darker, underlying presence that creates havoc with the society.
Women’s Fiction: This has become a rather contested genre in the past decade, again created in reaction to market forces. It is common knowledge within the publishing industry that women constitute the biggest book-buying segment. Agents and publishers would say that “Good women’s commercial fiction” is supposed to fit into that space that specifically touches women readers in ways other fiction cannot. However, there are people who rightly ask: “Why a women’s fiction category when there is not a men’s fiction category.” Or, “Why is men’s fiction that is about relationships called Literary Fiction, but when the relationship involves women it is Women’s Fiction.” And finally there has been a debate around if women’s fiction can have a male protagonist. In fact, the “genre” has changed to include men as the protagonist.
A great article about this dilemma and identifying women’s fiction placement within genre expectations was written by Lidija Hill and I highly recommend it to get a sense of the complex meanings around genre and identifying other aspects of it for yourself as an indie published writer or for a query to an agent or traditional publisher. She also tackles the concepts of “commercial,” “upmarket,” and “literary” within the Women’s Fiction genre.
Here is how the Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines their genre. Bolding is mine. “Our stories may include romance, or they may not. They can be contemporary or historical and have magical, mystery, thriller, or other elements. Whereas the driving force of a romance novel is a love story, a mystery’s is the exposure of an event, a thriller’s is a fear-inducing chase or escape, etc., the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self.”
Great, This is Clear as Mud
Yes, I know. It is a bit mushy. The key to remember is what promise you are making the reader at the beginning of the story with your words, also reflected in your cover and book blurb. Then ask yourself how you are delivering on that promise throughout the book. Does it fit within one of the eleven genres mentioned above for the majority of the book? That is your primary genre. Then you can add, as a subgenre, whatever your crossovers might be.
Though it may not be clear to the average reader, BISAC would argue that a listing of Literary Fiction > Romance is very different from Romance > Literary.
In the first instance the promise being made is that the expectations of a literary fiction book are primary–writing craft, leaning toward realism, likely complex ethical decisions, etc. And the romance is secondary to the plot. In fact, the romance may not end happily (think of Nicholas Sparks where the romantic partner dies in the end) at all and the book becomes about grief.
In the second instance the promise is being made that this is primarily a romance and it follows all the expectations of romance with that relationship being central to the story and constituting more than 50% of the plot. It also means the romance ends in a happily-ever-after or happy-for-now. The “Literary Fiction” designation is secondary to the primary genre. The writing craft, realistic problems, complex ethical decisions, etc. are part of this Romance book.
Finally, the good news is that you can choose both when loading your book. Depending on the vendor/distributor, you initially get to select between two and five categories. So you can cover your bases and reflect two or more different genres as your primary genre and play with the subgenre categories. In addition, you don’t have to stick with them. If six months from release you realize your genre selection wasn’t right, you can change it. For books you’ve loaded to Amazon KDP, after your book has been out for a month or so you can ask support to add up to a total of 10 genre categories for searching your book.
For those who are traditionally published, different publishers may agree to change your genre categories if they agree that you aren’t reaching your audience with your selection. The larger the publisher, the less likely they are willing to do this as category selection is often a group decision that involves editorial and marketing. For those publishers, once the categories are set you’re stuck with them. For some publishers those categories are more an aspirational suggestion (wanting to catch a trend) than they are a realistic one. I would suggest trying to be part of that discussion before release, even before ARCs are sent out.
Also, whether traditional or indie published, keywords can capture additional genres. You can use those in blog posts, audio interviews, on your website to begin associating certain keywords with your books that provide a more nuanced representation of the genre and subgenres that best reflect your work
Want to understand the role of keywords and metadata better? Sign up for my course on SEO For Authors to get a better handle on how all of this works, as well as your genre selection in BISAC.