Agent Monday: Know Your Genre

As both a writer and an Associate Literary Agent, I completely get it.  As a writer you have an idea, you fall in love with that idea, and you obsess over that idea as you write and write and write until that idea is a book, and as perfect as it can be. Then you approach an agent at a pitch session. Suddenly they are asking you how long is it (in word count, not pages)? What genre is it? What is it similar to? Who is the readership for this novel? Um, huh?  You know your characters and your plot, but what agents are trying to find out is: Do you know your genre? And where does your book belong in the marketplace?

At many pitch sessions I’ve attended as an agent at various conferences, I’ve found myself trying to pin an author down on her book’s genre. And I’ve gotten blank stares, blinking eyes, sometimes downright terror in response. Folks, I’m not trying to put you on the spot when I ask you stuff about your genre. Instead, I’m trying to position this book and see if it fits with a certain readership.

If you’ve done your writerly job beyond the writing part, then you’ll know what other books in your genre look like, what your competition and audience is, and you’ll already know you’ve created something just right for those readers.  I’m actually pretty amazed at how few writers take this extra step. Ideally, you as the writer should have this market info in your brain right as you begin to develop your novel.

I’ve seen novels that are far too short or far too long for their genre. I’ve seen subject matter that was inappropriate for a middle grade reader, characters that are too young for a YA novel, books that are copying what is already on the shelf.  All these really hurt your chances of getting your novel to print. Sure, you can argue that artists break rules and that there are exceptions all over the place, but if you don’t even know what the rules are and don’t have a solid reason for breaking them, then you are surely shooting yourself in the literary foot. Just sayin’.

So you’ve got to read in your genre, not only as a fan, but as a writer doing market research. Figure out where your book would really sit on a bookstore shelf and see how it compares to the other books beside it on that shelf.  If you can tell me what it has in common with those popular titles, plus what it brings to the marketplace that is new, then you are going to raise my interest level. And don’t use books from 50 years ago, use new stuff please. Sure, you can say “in the gothic style of Poe,” but also show some savvy about today’s market by referencing today’s books too.

Sometimes I get writers who say “there has been nothing like this ever before! It’s a brand new genre!” As my buddy, author Jonathan Maberry likes to point out in his informative talks to writers, last we looked, there is no “Brand New Genre” shelf at the local bookstore. That’s not a selling point.  But if you were to say something like, “This book will appeal to readers of Anne Tyler who are also looking for a dash of fantasy…” Well, then maybe I’ve got the beginnings of a pitch to an editor.

When I pitch projects to editors, they too are trying to figure out where a book will fit on their list as well as on bookstore shelves. It is the business end of writing, after all.

So I encourage writers to do a bit of homework while they are shaping their novels. And again when they begin their querying process, so they can refine their book description and pinpoint their genre and pitch. Because after all that hard work, you do want to sell.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

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8 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Know Your Genre

  1. And now I’m imagining a “Brand New Genre” shelf. How crazy would that be? It would be like mystery meat–you’d never know what you were getting into until you sampled it. While I like surprise plot twists in my reading material, I do prefer to know what genre I’m reading.

    • Hi Joan!

      And what would the covers look like? Zowie. I agree with you. I also like to know what I’m buying into somewhat when I settle down to read a book. And that leads onto another topic…that writers must deliver what they promise the reader in that opening chapter.

      Thanks for popping over!

  2. Good solid advice from the acquisition and sales standpoint, Marie. From the developmental editing standpoint, you have to know your genre so you can meet reader expectation by raising and answering the right questions with your story. There’s a fine line, for example, between a genre mystery and mainstream fiction with mystery elements, and that distinction will help you structure your story. A well-structured story is much easier to boil down to a pitch from the writer’s end, and thus clearer for the agent to “place” in her mind.

    All that said, after years of struggle to define my own genre, I gave several pitches where the agent said, “If you call this literary, I’ll just say, ‘Oh yeah? Prove it.’ And if you call it women’s fiction, you’re just narrowing your market. You might as well just call it a novel.” !!! Thus undoing my years of work. Not to mention the constant evolution of genre names! It can definitely be frustrating.

    • Hi Kathryn!

      This is definitely not an exact science, and books that defy genres can be much harder to place, though not impossible. I think you have to stick by the genre you believe in and let the chips fall where they may, since it never helps to mislabel something for the sake of sales (though novel is a catch-all for many things).

      If (or rather, when) an agent falls in love with your manuscript, they’ll then take over the labeling and pitching, but it starts with the writer and the writing :).

  3. This is great advice, and alas, I was one of the writers who didn’t go to the bookstore. I do read a lot of horror, SF and zombie novels so I can point to a novel and compare, but I didn’t think of where it would sit in the bookstore. Next time I go to the Writers’ Coffeehouse, I will take a walk through Barnes & Noble and learn something.
    I appreciate your post.
    Barbara of the Balloons

  4. Another great post, Marie! I write ‘women’s fiction’ … but it’s a broad genre, and can be further broken down into subtitles, like ‘upmarket’, ‘commercial’ etc. Also, since the term ‘chick lit’ has fallen from favour, it seems a lot of those books are now being called ‘women’s fiction’…but they are really different styles. I honestly didn’t think much about any of this with my first manuscript until after it was written (I didn’t plan to write a novel – it sort of just happened!). But now with book #2 I’ve done a lot of thinking about my genre, and comp titles. I’ve even read a number of titles I thought could be similar, just to make sure I’m on track. So now I’m calling my WIP “Women’s Fiction, with a dash of magical realism …”
    That was a long way to say “Thanks!” : )

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