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Friday, January 03, 2014

Know Your Cubbyhole

Today on Twitter I happened to catch an interesting series of tweets. The first comes from well-known literary agent Sara Megibow (the Nelson Agency). The followup tweets are from romance writer Cassandra Carr. Take a look at the tweets (below). Pay close attention if you're a fiction writer working on a novel.

This is how people working in traditional publishing think. I'm not saying it's good or bad; it is what it is. It reflects the current economic reality of book publishing. Publishers, in order to know how to promote a book, need to know what category it fits into. Booksellers, in order to know what shelf to put your book on, need to know the same thing. Put yourself in their positions for a moment so that you know what their problem is. You've just written a dystopian time-travel romance set partly in the past and partly in the future. Quick: What shelf does your book go on? Is it sci-fi? Is it romance? Is it fantasy? What is it?

If your book cannot be quickly cubbyholed, you won't get much attention from literary agents, nor traditional publishers, because (can you blame them?) they don't know what to do with your work. Their heads will explode.

What are the popular genres, and how popular are they? Here's a possible answer, from BookBub. The table below shows the categories of books "stocked" by e-book purveyor BookBub along with the number of customers on their various mailing lists pertinent to each genre (results are not sorted; I simply grabbed the data "as is" from BookBub's site):

Contemporary Romance580,000+
Historical Fiction450,000+
Historical Romance450,000+
Biographies and Memoirs390,000+
Erotic Romance170,000+
Religious and Inspirational320,000+
Women's Fiction410,000+
General Nonfiction280,000+
Action and Adventure350,000+
Literary Fiction320,000+
Advice and How-To240,000+
Paranormal Romance210,000+
Science Fiction260,000+
Romantic Suspense160,000+
Children's and Middle Grade130,000+
Teen and Young Adult150,000+
New Adult and College Romance60,000+

Notice, incidentally, there is no humor category. If you're writing a comedic novel, it sure as hell better also be a romance, or women's fiction, or action and adventure, or sci-fi (or whatever), because otherwise BookBub isn't going to know what to do with it. (Note: When I looked up certain bestselling humor titles on BookBub, I found they often fell under Literary Fiction.)

In the best of all possible worlds, good fiction wouldn't need to fall into neat categories. Indeed, great fiction often defies categorization. (How often have you heard the term "genre-bending"?) Surely there is room in the literary world for another China MiƩville, another Thomas Pynchon? The standard answer you get, when you pose the "genre-bender" question to traditional-publishing types, is: Yes, there is room for genre-destroying fiction; all it has to be is great. In other words: If what you've written is good enough, it'll get published, no matter what it is (or isn't).

We'd all like to think that's true. I don't know the degree to which it is. Maybe that's something each author has to decide for himself or herself. But I think there's a certain validity to the general advice: If whatever you're writing doesn't fit neatly into existing sales-and-marketing taxonomies, it better be so good, it dares agents and publishers not to champion it. Because otherwise, it'll get slapped down. That much, we know.


  1. Thanks for this. The rebellious side of me keeps bucking at agents who see only marketing and whatnot, but as you say here "put yourself in their shoes." I need to do what I don't do best and walk the road of least resistance. This helps.

  2. Coincidentally a day ago this interesting article came out at The Atlantic under the confusing title "How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood" ( The main point is that Netflix has broken out tens of thousands of separate sub-generae, among which "erotic romance post-apocalyptic suspense thriller" would in fact be perfectly suitable (and probably exists). By tagging every movie they stock with detailed properties they are able to recommend "films you might like" with great precision.

  3. And there is no Poetry category!!
    Also what surprises me is the kind of vocabulary, which is used in modern books! and how they manage to become best sellers is a mystery!!


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