Home > Blog > How To Write A Fiction Book Proposal: Part 5 – Defining Your Genre

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In this article, you will learn the importance of genre in avoiding unwarranted rejection. You will also learn how to identify your book’s genre and use this to find an agent or publisher.

In the previous article, you learned how to define the essence of your book using the elevator pitch. In this article, you will learn how to identify your book’s genre and use it in your book proposal.

Before embarking you should have already constructed the first paragraph of your query letter by using a tag line and elevator pitch.

We now move onto the second paragraph…

Why Genre Is So Important

Many writers are uncomfortable with tightly confining their work to one particular genre. A feeling exists amongst writers that for a book to be truly excellent, it must be genre breaking — this is, to be honest, a huge pile of bull crap!

Genre is a tool used by agents, publishers and booksellers, and, therefore, must be a tool that YOU also use. If you are to produce a focused pitch with a realistic chance of winning a book deal it is ESSENTIAL that you accurately define your genre.

I will say this again… Accurately defining your book’s genre is essential to the success of your pitch.

As a book editor, I see a plethora of books, and I can safely say that over the years I have never come across a book that didn’t fit comfortably into a genre. It is true that some books are further towards the edges of a particular genre; it is also true that some even have elements of more than one genre. I have even seen books that are on the verge of redefining their own sub-genre, but I have never come across a book that couldn’t be assigned correctly to a single genre. As you will see, this is a good thing when it comes to pitching your book.

The key to understanding the structure of the publishing world is to think bookshelves. If you start at the point of sale, books are stacked onto bookshelves and displayed to readers. These bookshops are divided into sections (genre) allowing readers to browse the sections of particular interest.

Bookshops, being a business, need to ensure that they fill their precious shelves with books that will sell. Think about it: if you own a bookshop with limited shelf space, which book are you going to put on a shelf? One that will sit for six months before being sold, or one that will be sold within hours or days? Easy choice.

This means that bookshops are looking for books of a particular genre, which will sell well (in other words, the best bestsellers).

Moving one rung up the ladder, we come across the question as to where bookshops buy their books. The answer is booksellers.

There are two types of booksellers, those working for distributors and those working for publishers. Big publishers will employ their own booksellers, whilst a smaller publisher will use a distributor (a distributor is a company that represents many smaller publishers). However, either way these booksellers will be selling books of a particular genre. This situation is easier to grasp when you move up yet another rung of the ladder and look at publishers.

Publishers are based fully on finding writers and publishing books of one particular genre. A good example is Osprey Publishing. Osprey’s core business is publishing military history books and therefore has the in-house editing, design, marketing and distribution expertise for military history.

When Osprey wanted to branch into selling fiction books, they didn’t try to do it in-house, but instead bought a smaller publisher called Angry Robot and brought them under the Osprey umbrella.

You will find that big publishers, such as Hachette, sell many genres of books. However, when you delve into the structure of these companies you will see that they are actually made up of many smaller imprints, each with their own genre expertise.

The final rung of the ladder is the agent. It will be of little surprise to see these are also focused on genre. An agent’s job is to find books that are both of publishable quality and have enough commercial potential, and then place them with a suitable publisher. For an agent to do their job they must have an eye for a good book, but also understand what publishers are looking to publish. This requires an intimate knowledge of genre. This is why you find more than one agent at big agencies.

This means that no matter which way you look at things, genre is essential.

This means that when pitching your book you MUST clearly place it in a genre.

I would go one-step further and say that failing to place your book in a genre will result in rejection.

Agents and publishers are inundated with manuscripts and they are looking for a reason to say NO. If they read your query letter and don’t get a clear indication of the book’s genre, that’s just one more hurdle you are placing in between your book and an agent/publisher’s clear understanding of what you have written. It is also just one extra reason for an agent or publisher to say no, not yes!

How to Define Your Book’s Genre

The steps to defining your book’s genre are as follows:

  1. Pick three books that you feel are similar to your book and will be read by the same readers as would read your book.
  2. Go on to the Amazon website and see in which category these are listed.
  3. Consult the list of genres below to confirm you have a suitable genre.

Here’s a list I use. This has been based on the listing of sites such as Amazon, plus genre lists used by publishers and agents.

  • Action and Adventure.
  • Chick Lit.
  • Children’s.
  • Commercial Fiction.
  • Contemporary.
  • Crime.
  • Erotica.
  • Family Saga.
  • Fantasy.
  • Dark Fantasy (probably still a major sub-genre!).
  • Gay and Lesbian.
  • General Fiction.
  • Graphic Novels.
  • Historical Fiction.
  • Horror.
  • Humor.
  • Literary Fiction.
  • Military and Espionage.
  • Multicultural.
  • Mystery.
  • Offbeat or Quirky.
  • Picture Books.
  • Religious and Inspirational.
  • Romance.
  • Science Fiction.
  • Short Story Collections.
  • Thrillers and Suspense.
  • Western.
  • Women’s Fiction.
  • Young Adult.

Example of how to define your book’s genre:

As an example, we will look at Lord Of The Rings.

Imagine you had written this book but didn’t know into which genre it fitted best. The first step to finding the book’s genre is to make a list of books that are similar to Lord Of The Rings. In this case, I was able to list three books that are similar to Lord Of The Rings.

These titles are:

  1. The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks.
  2. Redwall by Brian Jacques.
  3. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.

The next step is to go onto Amazon. Type in the title of the book and find its Amazon page. Once there, scroll down about three quarters of the way until you come to a title that says, ‘Look for similar items by category’. The information below this will tell you the book’s category, which relates to its genre.

In our example we found the following:

  • The Scions of Shannara = Books > Fantasy
  • Redwall = Books > Children’s Books > Fiction > Science Fiction & Fantasy AND Books > Fantasy
  • A Game of Thrones = Books > Fantasy > Epic, Books > Fantasy > Series AND Books > Science Fiction

Looking carefully at these results it becomes clear that all three books fall into just one category (genre) and that’s FANTASY.

If we consult are own list of books we see FANTASY is on the list — yeah!

Just one word of warning here, Amazon is neither a book publisher nor a traditional bookseller. Amazon allows publishers and writers to list books in multiple genres. It is essential to remember you are writing a book proposal to an agent and that agent will almost certainly represent just one genre. Please don’t confuse Amazon’s category listing policy with the book genre model of the traditional book publishers and agents.

What happens if it is not clear to which genre your book belongs?

It is possible that you will choose three titles that seem similar, but are in fact spread across a few different genres. If this happens, pick another three titles and repeat the process. If this still fails to resolve the issue than the problem may be that you are not being general enough in your genre choice.

Many writers are instinctively drawn to sub-genres, but this should be resisted.

For example, William Gibson’s Necromancer is, strictly speaking, cyber-punk. However, if I were pitching it today I would class this book as Science Fiction. However, this is a rule of thumb and can be broken.

The litmus test is this: are there agents and publishers openly representing the sub-genre in which you are interested? If the answer is no, then go for the parent genre. If the answer is yes, then the sub-genre will be fine.

For example, Dark Fantasy (a sub-genre of fantasy) has recently started to gather a considerable following. You can now find sections of bookshops dedicated to this genre. This is a good sign that the sub-genre is strong enough to stand alone. Another sign is that we are seeing agents and publisher specializing in the sub-genre. This means, for me, that you would be safe to declare your book as Dark Fantasy, rather than just fantasy.

However, one final word of warning.

The tighter you define your genre, the smaller the number of agents and publishers that will be open to you when you come to pitch. The flipside is that if you have correctly defined your genre (or sub-genre in this case); this small group of agents and publishers are far more likely to say yes, since your book may be just what they are looking to publish.


  • If you are to produce a focused pitch with a realistic chance of winning a book deal it is ESSENTIAL that you accurately define your genre.
  • Use similar titles to define your genre.
  • Avoid sub-genres.

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