In Your Corner: Know Thyself (& Thy Genre)

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent some time looking a few of the many choices authors have to make during the self-publication and marketing processes, starting with the Big Whopper (“Choosing a Self-Publishing Company“) and then moving into choices regarding the text itself (“Choosing a Trim Size for Your Book“).  This Thursday, however, I’m writing less about making a choice than I am about detecting past choices you may not have been aware you were making … and then totally exploiting them for marketing purposes.

Let me explain.

You Don’t Choose A Genre So Much As Discover It:

It Probably Only Matters for Marketing Anyway

Thinking back over the history of publishing, I can’t begin to count the number of times a book has been rejected as “too weird” or “too out-there” when really, the issue at hand was the fact that the book in question didn’t fit neatly into one of the prescribed genres (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Western, Biography, etc).  And the marketing folks at a traditional publisher know: it’s hard to market something that doesn’t fit neatly into a category, because doing so requires flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking.  Hybrid thinking.  Opinions are changing, slowly, but not fast enough within the Big Five traditional publishing houses.

Self-publishing gives you a third way. You don’t have to pick a genre while writing, but you can take advantage of a book’s genre or genres plural by approaching genre as a diagnosis after the fact, and an expedition in search of what the Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky calls “a ‘web of resemblances’ created by intertexual references” that are “constituted basically by social and cultural agreement,” quoting John Rieder and Jason Mittel.  It’s a hunt for markers that point you toward certain resemblances … resemblances you can capitalize on for their social currency.


The diagnosis process is simple:

  1. What books have you read that influenced your work in a measurable way?
  2. What books on the shelves in bookstores now bear resemblance to yours in style and content?

Once you sketch out a couple of lists to answer this question, it’s time to hit the bookstore and your library.  Libraries tend to scale the number of genre sections they stock according to how much shelf space they have, so bigger libraries will have finer distinctions between genres, while bookstores tend to pick the genres they’re going to stock according to what’s popular.  If you survey both your local Barnes & Noble, Tattered Cover, or (*gasp*) actual real-life physical Amazon Bookstore as well as your local public library, you’ll pick up on some of the more common genres out there, including:

  • Action/Adventure
  • Biography
  • Fantasy/Sci-Fi
  • Horror
  • “Literary” Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Thriller/Suspense
  • Romance
  • Self-Help
  • Westerns
  • Women’s fiction

But the list could be a lot, lot longer.  I haven’t, for instance, mentioned more obscure genres like Steampunk and Grimoire.

Once you’ve found the shelf or shelves on which you could picture your book sitting in a bookstore or library, you’re ready to start integrating genre into your publishing and marketing processes.  Now, your book may have “resemblances” to any number of genres, but for simplicity’s sake it’s a good idea to pick just one or two that have left very clear thumbprints on your text.  You can take a quick poll of your early readers, or consult the professionals, for what they find most striking about the style and tone and voice of your book if you end up stuck for answers.  And before committing to your genre or genres, you’ll want to consider your readership.  What are they likely to connect to the most in terms of language?

Genre safely discovered and stowed away for future use, it’s time to start putting it to work.  The language of genre is rich with possibility in terms of “buzzwords” for marketing purposes, so sow them liberally amongst your back-cover blurbs, your press releases, your Amazon and Goodreads listings, your website and blog posts, as well as your social media interactions.  (Genres like #biopunk and #horrorlit make for great hashtags, don’t you think?)

There are lots of ways to use genre once your book is already written and ready to meet the world…but remember, it’s all a matter of timing.  You don’t need to write your entire book to meet a genre’s proscriptive requirements…just your promotional materials.  Genre can be confining, so it’s best to bring it into play only after the creative work is already done.  In my opinion.

You are not alone. ♣︎


ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 18 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, pre-production specialists, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

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