Genre Categories Can Make or Break Your Book (Pt I)

I recently finished reading Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Even though this book is over a decade old, the advice in it is still spot-on.

In the book’s prologue Rabiner explains the importance of genre classification, and she shares the hard lesson she learned.

Double Shelving

When Rabiner was editorial director of Basic Books, she oversaw the publication of The Physics of Star Trek, a book combining entertainment with high-level physics.

Even before the book was released, it looked liked it was well on its way to best-sellerdom. For one, Barnes & Noble had placed the largest first order for it than any other title in the history of Basic Books.

But then Rabiner hit a big bump in the road:

B&N had decided to shelve The Physics of Star Trek in the science section, on its face a perfectly reasonable place for a title loaded with hard physics. Except that I believed a stronger market would develop among trekkers interested in hard science than among science readers interested in Star Trek.

Rabiner set up a meeting to persuade B&N to move at least half of the copies in the science section to the Star Trek section. She assumed the meeting would be short and sweet—after all, her suggestion would mean more money for B&N—but she discovered that things weren’t as simple as she had assumed.

Over coffee, I raised my complaint. Failure to stock The Physics of Star Trek in the Star Trek section as well as the science section would cost thousands of sales for both of us. Couldn’t they at least shelve the book in both places? To my amazement, the answer was no, they couldn’t. One of the buyers explained the problem.

As each publisher presents its new list to B&N, the titles are divided among the buyers, each buyer responsible for titles that will end up in one particular section of each of the chain’s outlets; for example, the history buyer is responsible for buying, stocking, shelving, and selling all history titles, and the popular culture buyer has similar responsibility for all popular culture titles. . . . But some books don’t slot conveniently into B&N’s system or that of any other bookstore. For example, memoir is a well-established genre among publishers, but no memoir section exists in most bookstores. So depending upon how it is written, one memoir can land in biography, another in popular culture, a third in psychology, a fourth in parenting or even history. [Note: I checked barnesandnoble.com and there is still no memoir section.] Cross-disciplinary titles present another problem. A book entitled The Zen of Computers could find its way into the computer section, squeezed in among thousand-page manuals about using Java Script in designing home pages. Then again, it might end up in New Age or science and technology.

An idea lies behind the system—clear accountability. Each buyer is judged by the performance of titles within his or her own section. Thus, when more than one buyer wants to claim a new release for his or her own, the problem is resolved, I learned that day, by a sort of “arbitration” (their word, not mine). Publishers are allowed no say in the process. Even more important, once that decision is made, the book will be shelved only in the winning buyer’s section . . .

In our case, despite good commercial arguments for double shelving, the book remained in science only. On this point, there was no moving anyone. . . .

I left that lunch more cynical but wiser . . . I understood for the first time why another book I had published just around that time, a controversial memoir written by a strong African-American woman, but critical of her ex-husband, an African-American icon, was doomed to weak sales once the decision was made to shelve it in African-American studies. It belonged in women’s studies.

Rabiner goes on to say that booksellers have since loosened up about double shelving, but the problem hasn’t been completely fixed.

What This Means for You

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to view your book’s genre through the eyes of your potential publisher and your potential sales venues.

It’s not enough to put in your query letter that your book could fit into multiple genres. In fact, saying that could potentially harm your chances if you don’t back it with an explanation as to how the mix would be beneficial. As Rabiner says:

Did a proposed book’s potential shelving ambiguity ever come up at subsequent editorial meetings? Yes. . . . I [asked] more questions of these books than I did of others—in particular, was there a way to focus the title and marketing strategies so as to avoid an expected shelving problem?

What If You Want to Self-Publish?

It may be tempting to think that this problem doesn’t apply to self-publishers, especially since nearly all indie sales come from online rather than brick-and-mortar bookstores, but genre categorization is even more life-and-death for the indie book.

With over half a million books self-published every year, most of them don’t even leave a ripple. The ones that manage to stay afloat capitalize on genre classification. I’ll dig into the nitty-gritty specifics for self-publishers in my next post.

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