Do We Really Need Genre Labels?

Once upon a time authors didn’t have to think much about their genre, or their reader demographics. They just wrote stories and never worried about the book finding a slot in a high traffic section of the bookstore. Some of my writer friends still feel this way; they don’t care about genre labels one way or the other, and pretty much think it’s the agents or book publisher’s job to attach the right labels when the book sells. Part of me wishes I could agree with them. It would be amazing if stories didn’t need labels to define them, but I’m a realist. genres

The way I see it, there are billions of books to choose from, and genre labels are more important than ever. For one thing, they help narrow the selection field and give each of us a better shot at finding a book we might enjoy reading.

Now that genre classifications are in such a huge mess, and people are willfully ignoring the boundaries or  arguing over pointless semantics, it’s driving me nuts. I’ve been stewing over this one for quite some time, and here are four things I’m currently watching go wrong with genre labels. Please note a big part of my aggravation comes from the fact that we writers are to blame for some of these problems, and I think we are also the ones who will suffer the most down the road if we don’t work to correct our own mistakes.

1. Authors and publishers misuse genre labels.

Some of this is plain old confusion; and if you’re lost, you’re in good company. The writer blogs buzz with people trying to understand the differences between the different genres, and in many cases the lines separating two genres are narrow. Plus, there are just so many genres and subgenres that we need Cliff Notes to keep track of them all. However, if you’ve done some reading, and you’ve found a few comparable novels for your project, you should have some idea where to start researching your correct genre. Remember, always look into all the subgenres until you find the best fit. I’m willing to bet the number of subgenres will surprise even the most knowledgeable writers. One of my favorite books of all time is from a subgenre called Bangsian Fantasy, something I didn’t know existed. This is a fantasy genre which only applies to the use of famous historical individuals having interactions in an afterlife setting. How’s that for a highly specific genre label? In most cases I doubt you will find such a perfect fit, so don’t be afraid to combine two genres. Just make sure the label you’ve created makes sense and doesn’t add more confusion. I think appropriately categorizing your project shows an agent that you’re industry smart, that you know your competition, and that there is a waiting audience for your book to tap into. It might take a while to figure out the best label, but the good news is you only have to do this once. Per book that is.   

2. The curse of an unpopular genre and the rise of new popular genres seems to breed anarchy.

As writers, we know genre labels can help or hurt a book’s shot at getting noticed. It sucks, but it’s a fact of life. Agents will reject negatively to your work if they think a genre is saturated. Or they might reject your work because it didn’t meet their expectations of the genre you specified. Or they might reject because it didn’t forge new ground in the specified genre. Some writers in an effort to ditch a negative genre, or to catch a rising star genre, will make cosmetic changes to their story to fudge a new label. I’ve seen this happen too often with self published books, and it puts me of as a reader and as a writer. You cannot add a few gritty bits to a YA paranormal book and call it dark contemporary YA. Or drop a steam-powered horse and a robotic maid into your regency romance novel and call it Steampunk. A few touches of this or that are not significant to change the fundamental nature of a book. Instead writers need to make the story the best it can be, and not some superficial copy of what they think might be popular next year. This is a particularly self-destructive practice for all writers. Willfully mislabeling books distorts readers’ expectations and makes it harder for the buyer to find the kind of books they want. Don’t sacrifice long-term reader good will, or risk negative reviews just to gain a few quick sales. There will always be someone who loves your genre and they will not care that it’s popular or unpopular with the crowd.

3. Overuse of graphic sex is messing with every genre.

Where was I when the publishing industry sent out the big memo? You know, the one saying every book regardless of genre must have some obligatory sexual encounter? You think I’m kidding, but while reading a mystery novel the other day, all the action in the story came to a full stop for some frantic up-against-the-wall sex. Honestly, the chapter looked tacked on, as if someone said OMG we need a sex chapter right here, and the writer cut and pasted one in at the last second. Remember Heather’s post about the B plotline–throwing in a random romance that has nothing to do with your story is just not good writing. If your characters are involved in a romance fine, have them do whatever you see fit, but don’t derail the momentum of the main storyline to do it. I know sex sells, and everyone is hoping to be the next writer to catch the mommy porn wave, but if I want to read a romance, I will buy a romance. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thrilled to find a book about a strong female protagonist who’s not looking to hook up with someone. 

I’m sure lots of people will disagree with my views on genre, and that’s fine. However, I don’t think genre labels are going anywhere. You could fight them, yell about what soul-crushing demons labels are and how it’s killing your creativity to force your work into the confines of a tiny category. Or you could use the same energy to learn how to master genre labels. Let them help you pitch your work to agents, find you a host of loyal fans, and market your work in the right distribution networks to help you find success. It’s your call.

Up Next From Robin… What I Learned about Writing from Cookies: A True Story!


Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

One thought on “Do We Really Need Genre Labels?”

  1. Great points! I agree with #2 especially. I’ve noticed this problem with published books too. My big pet peeve is stories that are marketed as YA mystery or horror (a genre I love) only to find the book is nothing but a romance with a mystery/horror premise. It’s like the publishers though the book needed a hook to sell, and maybe it did, but it was misleading and as a reader I was disappointed not to get what they promised. So yes, write and market the book in the right genre. Even if a genre is “unpopular”, a good book will find a home. Like vampires. Vampires are so done, right? Well, The Coldest Girl In Coldtown was published this year – it’s a fresh vampire story and it’s done very well. So bring it on, genre police!

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