G is for Genre

G is for Genre.

Genre is vitally important to authors. Genre allows us to locate agents, publishers, and readers who are interested in the specific types of stories we write. Genre is one of the first markers that classify books. (Other markers might include author’s name, publisher, price, etc.) Specific genres rise and fall in popularity, as readers define what they’re willing to buy. Some genres get re-cast, in an effort to freshen sales. (For example, “chicklit” is generally considered to be passé, but “romantic comedy” is on the rise in popularity. A book that would have been categorized chicklit in 2001 is likely called romantic comedy today.)



It used to be easy to define classify books by genre: Just figure out where to shelve them at the local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Authors (and their readers) could make straightforward declarations: This book belongs in Mystery, that one in Travel.

But bookstore classifications aren’t really that simple.

Should there be a single section called Science Fiction, and a separate one called Fantasy? Or can Fantasy piggy-back on SF? What about Horror, where does it fit in? Should we create a category for movie tie-ins? Should we include card games like Magic? Character-driven games like Dungeons and Dragons with their handbooks and guides and manuals? And what about non-fiction genres, like History? Should History be broken down by geographic region? By general time periods? Solely by author’s last name?

And why does anyone really care?

In the bricks-and-mortar setting, genre is vitally important. Bookstores must decide where to shelve their stock. They can’t sprinkle one copy in every section where a book potentially fits. (The order for most new books is at most three, and “singleton” books often get damaged by handling.) Therefore, physical bookstores rely on genres to cue readers about where to find the books they want.

Obviously, shelf space and physical layout is not crucial to online sales. Books can be classified in multiple genres, with simple electronic links taking potential buyers from one section of the store to another. There’s no danger of lonely single books getting lost or damaged.

Perhaps as a result, genres are fracturing.

All books—print or electronic—sold online are typically organized using codes. In the United States, the industry relies on BISAC (“Book Industry Standards and Communications”) codes, which are promulgated by the Book Industry Study Group. BISAC Codes are organized into 52 major sections.  They consist of three letters defining the broad genre, followed by six numbers defining a sub-genre. One book might be described by several BISAC codes.  For example, my novel Perfect Pitch can be listed as FIC038000 (Fiction/Sports.) It can also be described as FIC027020 (Fiction/Romance/Contemporary).

Similarly, British libraries rely on BIC codes, which are promulgated by a trade association, Book Industry Communication.  Those codes are less specific than BISAC codes; they consist of one to three letters, with longer codes being more specific than shorter ones.  For example, Perfect Pitch is listed as FR—Fiction/Romance. (While FRH would indicate Fiction/Romance/Historical, there is no three-letter code for Fiction/Romance/Contemporary.)

How are these genre codes used?

Online booksellers rely on BISAC or BIC codes as one tool to classify books, adding those classification links that connect buyers to multiple books in a genre.  They also rely on all of a book’s other metadata — the title, sub-title, “back of the book” copy, keywords, etc.  As a result, customers are able to “drill down” to books they are likely to enjoy. Instead of browsing through all the possible romance novels available, customers can search just sports romances. The result is a win-win—readers are more likely to find books to enjoy, and authors are more likely to sell books.

The explosion of metadata associated with books has resulted in narrower and narrower sub-genres. For example, Jennifer Stevenson’s A Hinky Taste of You, which has a heroine who skates in Roller Derby, is classified in the following categories on Amazon:

  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Sports > Individual Sports > Rollerskating & Rollerblading
  • Books > Sports & Outdoors > Individual Sports > Rollerskating & Rollerblading
  • Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Sports

Try to imagine a bricks-and-mortar store with a specific aisle dedicated to books about rollerskating and rollerblading! Also note that the Amazon classification technically considers Ms. Stevenson’s light paranormal novel to be “Nonfiction.” In a bricks-and-mortar store, mis-shelving a novel with nonfiction books would typically destroy any patron’s chance of finding the novel, but online customers are still able to locate the work they desire.

Authors can take advantage of these relatively narrow definitions of genre.  They can join forces with fellow authors of similar books to cross-promote, either in traditional advertisements, boxed sets, or special user communities in social media. At the same time, they can launch separate promotional efforts for their novels in separate sub-genres.  (On a personal note, I can promote my baseball books separate from my light paranormal, without boring or offending any of my readers.)

The splintering does raise a potential problem: It’s possible to define sub-genres on too granular a basis. For example, Perfect Pitch could be placed in a sub-genre of romances set in Raleigh, North Carolina with heroines who are beauty queens and heroes who have blue eyes. In theory, vendors could set up a genre system to pull together all books that meet those specific markers. But how many other books meet those requirements? What use is a genre populated by a single book? Buyers’ tastes aren’t that restrictive. Therefore, it’s not worth vendors’ or buyers’ time to create such detailed systems.

How about you? Have you found your definitions of genre changing over time? Do you classify books in a more general or more specific way than you used to? Are your reactions different as an author (if you are one!) than as a reader?



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