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August 25, 2009

genresHere are a handful of questions you might ask yourself after a trip to your local megabookstore:

  • Why is ALL of Stephen King in General Fiction (or Literature depending on what chain you’re browsing)?
  • If the Vampire novels of Anne Rice are in General Fiction, why are the vampire novels of Charlaine Harris and Laurel Hamilton in Sci-Fi/Fantasy?
  • Why isn’t Christopher Moore is Humor?
  • For that matter why isn’t Douglas Adams in Humor (or Terry Pratchett)?
  • Why isn’t Jasper Fforde in Sci-Fi?
  • Why do Charlaine Harris’ Novels get broken up between Sci-Fi and Horror, while Stephen King gets lumped together, either putting stories like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in Horror, or Putting It in Literature?

The answers to all of these questions are the same: Because they’ve got to be put somewhere.

Ultimately it’s a business decision as to where these books get shelved. Splitting Stephen King up between 3 or 4 sections (discounting On Writing) would likely hurt sales of Stephen King books. When someone on a King kick comes in looking for something they haven’t read, they want to walk a few feet to find all his books, not all over the store.

But too often these decisions are made without any real understanding of the work being categorized, or even of the category itself.

Neal Stephenson provides a reasonable case study. Stephenson’s early works fall rather solidly in the sci-fi arena, often being described as an irreverent version of cyberpunk. However, in recent years his novels have focused more of cryptography during World War II, and Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution. By almost any conventional definition the Baroque Cycle doesn’t belong in sci-fi, but that’s where it gets shelved because Neal Stephenson is the crown prince of Geek fiction.

This habit of forcing genres can lead to angry authors, confused readers, and confusing genres at the book store—all of which can hurt an author’s sales. This habit has tricked down to the internet as well. Though it baffles me why, when bookshelves do not exist, that Amazon sticks to the same broad genres.

However, what bothers me most about genres isn’t how existing book get shelved, as much as the effect it has on unpublished stories and unpublished authors. By having a set of standardized genres, it forces authors, to varying degrees, to write to the genre’s expectations instead of their ideal story. The effect is lessened somewhat as an author becomes more established, but innovation often comes from the newest authors.

Sure it’s convenient to go to Borders and see a selection of books that would likely appeal to me collected all in one place, but I’m not sure it’s worth having someone else determine what they think I’d like to read.

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Dale lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fiancée and four step-children, and spends a good portion of his time trying to locate an absent muse. You can read about him, his family and his struggles at Rough Draft.
  1. August 25, 2009 4:50 am

    After our discussions last week regarding this article I had a good look when I was cruising around Borders the other day – especially in regards to the humour section.

    I’m not sure if it is an Aussie thing, but I found the humour section stocked with books other than joke books or comic strips. I immediately recognised comediennes Gretel Killean and Judith Lucy’s books there. Killean’s is a new release and Lucy’s was published last year.

    There is also a horror section – very close up to the front of the store – which houses Stephen King. My favourite section is in QBD – where they have at least a third of their wall given over to “Vampire Fiction” – or vampire porn as my best friend puts it.

    As for Neale Stephenson – he did win the Arthur C Clarke award in 2004 and was credited with “reinventing science fiction” – so I think the Baroque Cycle does belong in the Sci-Fi section – though if there was a historial fiction section he could equally have books housed there also. I agree that something like Snow Crash doesn’t fit with the Sci-Fi genre (though it is a great read for budding sci-fi/fantasy/spec-fic writers on how to world build!) but as you point out – it is easy to bundle an author’s works together.

    My case in point is Max Barry whose books are classified as sci-fi, when to me they should most definitely be in the humour section. I wonder too – if we rewrote the genre of humour as humour/satire. When asked what genre he wrote in originally he had no idea … he knew it was funny, he knew he wrote for younger readers. And he thought the only reason they wanted to know the genre was so they could shelve it in the right place of the library. At that time he had no idea of the marketing etc implications of genre.

    Genre – and the almost inifite branches of sub and sub-sub genres which come from the most common ones, is definitely I have been mindful of when considering different publishing projects for the future. I believe digitial publishing (not the Amazon empire) will emancipate so many writers and their unique genres.

  2. August 25, 2009 12:19 pm

    I had a rather… interesting experience with genrefication when my debut novel first appeared for pre-orders on Amazon – listed as a children’s book.

    I’m so going to be getting angry letters from parents when their kids reach the bit where one of the characters has finally had enough of being chased and shot at and decides to have a rant.

  3. August 25, 2009 1:24 pm

    This is a great article! Wouldn’t it be more logical to simply organize all books in alphabetical order by authors’ names? Won’t happen in my lifetime. This is a great article. Perhaps it also has to do with how certain publishers are able to have their books selved at the mega-bookstores. Thanks for sharing this article.

  4. August 26, 2009 7:57 am

    So, I’m left wondering what the solution to this issue is? Should the books be shelved only by author? This would allow for the genre to not be limiting to authors, but it would fail the readers who want to go in and “check out what the newest science fiction authors are doing” (or whatever). Is it by genre? If so, then we end up with the issue of which you speak — where an author is lumped into only the section that he or she is either most famous for or is most recently famous for. I think libraries still group by genre, but they do not group an author’s works all together, meaning that you might find Asimov in science fiction but also in humor or mystery or science, depending on the book.

    Overall, this is one problem that I think can be solved with technology (people who know me know that I am not a big fan of technology in general, so it’s interesting that I’d bring this up!): We can keep the bookstores organized as they are, by genre, if we want, but then there could be digital indexes available that allow me to search by author or title or whatever I need. So, if I want to find a specific author or book, the index can tell me where to look on the shelves. This is where online stores like Amazon have an advantage in my mind: I don’t search by genre on Amazon, I search for an author or a book. If I search for the author, I get all of his or her works on one screen, regardless of the genre. Of course, it makes discovery of new authors harder, so in the end even Amazon fails me.

    I do think, though, that techonlogy can help in this problem at the brick and mortar stores, giving us the best of both worlds to a degree.

    As for Jessica’s comment about her book being genred as a children’s book — it makes me wonder if it is the publisher that categorizes the book into a genre or the store. It appears that it is not the author that gets to do that. Jessica — I hope you get that straightened out!

  5. August 26, 2009 3:37 pm


    I’m not sure what the solution is, though I think you’re right when you say that technology can certainly help. When it comes to online retailers it’s a relatively straightforward solution…one that Amazon has dabbled in, but not fully embraced.

    If you’ve ever used Pandora, I would think that the concept could be easily applied to the written word. When I look at a book, don’t just offer me 1 you-might-like-this-too link. Offer me a dozen. After all, there’s no reason why a book can’t belong a hundred genres and sub-genres.

    However, to me there’s nothing quite like browsing though a book store, and when I don’t already know what I’m looking for, Amazon just can’t compete.

    But there must be solutions for the physical world. Maybe bookstores could make up some small placards that can be placed on the shelves in lieu of certain books….for instance, go ahead and put all of King in general fiction, but in horror, where King would go, indicate where his stuff is located.

    Or split his books up, and put placards to indicate that more books by this author are in section X.

    That’s an off-the-cuff idea that I’m sure is full of holes, but I think we’re advanced enough that we don’t have to rely on book shelving practices that date back decades, especially when more and more authors are trying to blur the lines.

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