Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Categories

Where do you fit?  That's a question a lot of writers have been trying to answer since the dawn of the printing press.

I've touched a number of times on the fact that writing is a business.  As such, where we sell our books is key to getting our message out.  Booksellers need to know where within their stores they should place our work.

You've all seen bookstores and the way they are organized.  There's a mystery section, a science fiction/fantasy section, and a romance section.  When you're looking for something from Alexandra Adornetto, you know you have to head to the YA Paranormal section.  If you want Bad Dog, Marley!, you have to mosey your way on over to the children's section.

Shopping online is no different.  When one logs onto Amazon, one sees a list of book categories on the left side of the screen.  Clicking on these links takes you to the top sellers in those categories and gives you a more narrow search in which to find something that might interest you.  However, all this categorization can be very frustrating.

The reason for this is that what we write can't always be shoe-horned into a specific category, and this can hurt the book's marketability.  We're really left up to the mercy of the bookseller at that point, and sometimes the categories are too broad for us.  The most classic example of this is The Shack by William Paul Young.  Is it a Christian novel?  Spiritual?  Speculative?  Young himself ran into this issue when he tried to market The Shack and found that most publishers wouldn't pick it up since they couldn't figure out how to categorize it.

Even well known authors run into this trouble.  11/22/63 by Stephen King is another example of something that's hard to categorize.  Yes, the main character travels back in time to 1958 in order to try and stop the Kennedy assassination, but the plot uses the historical setting as the main device and says very little about the means(something necessary to place it in science fiction).  Given the pace, is it an action book?  Or, since Jake Epping is trying to determine with certainty that Lee Harvey Oswald is the one who killed JFK, does this qualify as a mystery?  Given Oswald's monster-like appearance in the book depository, maybe it should be in the horror section.

Keep in mind that King isn't some new author who is unfamiliar with the necessity of categorization for sales - he's one of the top selling authors of all time.

When I begin a novel, I think about the story I want to tell, not, "Gee, I'd like to write a western."  Not getting pigeon-holed allows the story room to breathe and develop.
Both Salvation Day and Akeldama will be difficult to place.  Are they horror?  There's an argument to be made based on the mood and certain events.  Or, given the pacing, can they be called thrillers?  Science fiction/fantasy could also fit.  I like to call both "paranormal thrillers," but I haven't found that category on Amazon yet.

This is important because it'll affect sales and how people see it.  There may be people who would love the spiritual aspects behind Salvation Day, but perhaps they're not science fiction fans.  With Akeldama, maybe someone likes a fast paced action novel, but vampires and horror isn't their thing.  Getting pushed into a category could prevent a whole bunch of otherwise interested people from even seeing them.

I've noticed a few books in Amazon, like The Last Policeman, placed in multiple categories, which is what I think writers are going to have to do nowadays.  Subjects tend to stretch across the spectrum, and one category doesn't describe a book.

This is where indie publishing has helped authors.  In the past, a writer had to worry about appealing to the marketing department of one of the Big Six publishers, but with the explosion in the indie market, writers can expand into several categories and only have to worry about pleasing their readers, not some bookworm on the fifth floor of a building in New York.

It's a delicate game we play with this, where we want to get specific enough to draw in readers, but not so specific into old genres that don't fully capture the book's essence that we miss out on potential customers.  A lot of writers can fall into this trap, and it's painful to them and their careers when it happens, so a word of caution - be careful when categorizing and let your readers decide how you can best reach them, regardless of what the old social conventions said.
(Don't fall into the trap - it could hurt...a lot)

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