Go Categorize Yourself: The Frustration of Describing Your Book

You’ve started up a conversation with a [friend/acquaintance/stranger/parole officer], and the [conversation/ice breaking/flirting/shouting] naturally develops to the point where you can mention you [wrote/published/dreamed/stole] a manuscript without sounding like a self-absorbed doof. Naturally, you spring at the opportunity, letting the title of your book roll off your tongue with just the right degree of nonchalance. It’s exhilarating.

And then the trouble starts.

“Oh,” this person says, “that’s [cool/exciting/nice/typical]. What kind of book is it?”

Uh oh.

How do you distill tens of thousands of words into a single category and still communicate the drama, the exciting conflict, the compelling characters, and the sheer awesomeness of your crime-fighting, laser-gun slinging, extraterrestrial, vampire-werewolf-hybrid protagonist? Every time you try, it hurts your little ink-stained soul.

Brooks Sherman, who is a literary agent you should respect, admire, and possibly fear, recently wrote a post about how important it is to correctly categorize your work when it comes time to promote it. You’ve got to know what to tell people when they ask this question. Finding the right category, and more importantly target audience, is imperative to getting the right exposure for your book.

Every writer wants to believe that their book is pan-categorical, that anyone and everyone will love and connect with the book. But frankly, there are very few books that get that kind of attention, and when they do it has nothing to do with proper categorization and everything to do with marketing and momentum. Many people didn’t read Harry Potter because YA fantasy was their favorite. They wanted to know what all the fuss was about. They didn’t read 50 Shades of Grey because they always read erotica. They did it because they wanted to know what the fuss was about, and it involved sex instead of teenage wizards this time.

For the other 99.999% of books, you don’t get much attention outside of your target demographic, and that’s okay! You write books for people who like the same things you do (the ghostwriters are shaking their heads right now, but they are a different beast). Making sure you get your book categorized correctly will mean that it’s more likely to get in the hands of people who will appreciate it. Brooks points out that sometimes, your story doesn’t belong where you think it does, and it takes some careful thought (and probably outside opinion) to make sure it lands on the right shelf.

However, authors are worriers, so let me point out a problem that may be obvious to you, and may the illustrious Brooks Sherman forgive me for my dissent (he has a horde of rabid otters trained to do his bidding, and he is not afraid to punish the unworthy by way of otter tooth and claw). The problem, which every author has dealt with at some time or another, is that every category means something different to each person. This holds true even in the publishing industry (if you ever want to see editors and agents fight, ask a group of them what “New Adult” means; just make sure you bring a poncho to protect your clothes from blood spatter).

For instance, my book is pretty obviously science fiction. But it gets foggy from there. I was told by several people in the industry that my book felt like YA, even though the themes (death, obsolescence) and characters are all traditionally adult. Of course, other people think it’s adult, and there is probably at least one person out there who could argue that it’s New Adult, even though I have no idea how.

Then we get into subcategories of science fiction. There is an old sub-category called “hard science fiction” that used to mean a story focused on technology that is very detailed and based heavily on existing scientific knowledge. In other words, Star Wars and Star Trek were not considered hard science fiction because the stories were more about character and drama dressed up in a futuristic background. They didn’t bother to explain how blasters and warp engines work because that wasn’t the point.

I was sure that my book wasn’t hard science fiction because I threw in plenty of science fiction tropes (including the aforementioned blasters and faster-than-light travel) without bothering to explain much. The technology is merely the vehicle for telling the story, not the purpose of the story itself. Imagine my surprise when several agents categorized it as hard science fiction. I still don’t understand the reasoning, but as best as I can tell, anything that isn’t YA dystopia is tentatively classified as hard sci-fi at the moment. The book could also possibly fall in the adventure and space opera subcategories of science fiction, depending on who you ask.

In some ways, the labels aren’t important to me because people like the book regardless. But as Brooks pointed out, the category can make or break your novel, and the nebulous definitions of the categories means you inevitably alienate potential buyers. If my book is classified as YA, it might confuse many readers expecting a 15-year-old protagonist, and repulse others who don’t like YA. If it’s categorized as hard sci-fi it will disappoint some readers expecting a more technical tone, and it will certainly turn off the majority of readers.

So what’s an author to do? Do what Brooks suggests (and hopefully this recommendation will save me from an otter whipping, though I don’t know if that’s done by otters with whips or with otters used as whips …). In other words, do your research, share the story with people who read prolifically, and make a wise decision. Ultimately, you’ll lose a few readers, but if you play your cards right, you’ll gain more than you lose.

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