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Ask Gigi: How Do I Sort Out the Genres of Books?

How does one define a book’s category in a query letter so that a potential agent will like it?

genres of books
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Dear Gigi,

Could you please explain all the various categories or genres of books? For instance, I’ve just learned that speculative fiction is science fiction focused on the future. How do you define book club fiction as compared to adult fiction, women’s fiction, contemporary, or commercial? Is the opposite of “upmarket” something lower on the scale and probably not worthwhile? Can a manuscript qualify under two or more of these categories? How does one define a book’s category in a query letter so that a potential agent will want to read it and possibly represent it? Should I keep it to one category or be more honest and use more than one? 

—Lots of Options

Genres of Books & Questions

Dear Lots,

This is a pile of good questions and a couple of really terrible ones. Let’s start with the good ones, shall we?

Yes, a manuscript can “qualify” – more on that slippery term later – under more than one category. Most manuscripts are several things. For instance, you might have a historical romance. You might have space opera set in the near future. You might have contemporary upmarket fiction that is also book club fiction.

Your next question ties into that: One doesn’t really “define a book’s category;” a book either is a thing or it isn’t. We look at these book genres as being ways to guide an agent or an editor into understanding what you envision the book as. For instance, in a query letter, you might say that your novel is “YA historical,” which will give the agent an idea, and then the rest of your query letter will fill in the specifics: It’s set in the Old West, for instance, and it has some speculative elements, say.


Defining all the Genres of Books

Now, the harder questions: Can I define all the genres for you? No, for two reasons: First, a great number of people have already done this really, really well. A quick Google search will help you to find some definitive guides. And second, answering this question would eat the entire magazine, and they are not about to pay me to write the entire magazine.

Next, you ask about book club fiction. Book club fiction can cover several categories. It is, briefly, fiction that you could see being discussed at a book club. So it could be literary commercial fiction, say. Or women’s contemporary fiction.

Regarding your question about upmarket fiction: Friends, let me make something crystal clear: Every book is worthwhile. It has value to someone. In Melanie Brooks’ Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, the writer Monica Wood says, “If a hundred thousand people read your book, it means that you’ve written a hundred thousand books, because it’s different for every single person.” The same sentiment applies here. “Upmarket” is just a category. And upmarket books may not sell as many copies as “commercial” works or as genre works – horror, romance, sci-fi – so whose yardstick are we using here? The sales and marketing team’s or the writer’s or the person who reads the book that sold 5,000 copies and whose life was irrevocably changed by it?


Now, onto speculative fiction. You say you learned it’s about sci-fi based in the future. That’s wrong: Speculative fiction can encompass sci-fi, but speculative is work that embraces elements that don’t exist in nature, history, or work that exists outside the realm of “reality” as we know it. Like ghost stories.

I said I’d answer all of your questions regardless of whether or not I thought they were good, and here’s why: I think one thing we must consider when we look at creative work is whether or not we’re slapping unreasonable boundaries on ourselves. When we ask if fiction “qualifies” to be one thing or another or whether or not a certain genre is “worthy,” we need to also ask why we’re placing our creativity on a hierarchical scale. Who’s to say we should value one type of work over another?

Salty, so salty, and ever yours,