Genre — reader expectations

A recent piece of advice I heard from a successful author was for new writers to focus their attention on their chosen genre. But what does that mean?

I think it means to be successful you have to give your potential readers what they want. The problem however is discovering your potential reader base and what they like. At a broad level this is genre related, but it also goes a lot deeper into sub genres and styles that are author related.

Readers tend to follow authors they have already read and will choose new authors only if they are persuaded by the cover, marketing blurb and reviews that the new author might provide the same kind of experience.

So let’s first look at the main broad genre categories for fiction using Amazon’s Best Seller listings:

  • Romance (17)
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy (35)
  • Mystery, thriller & suspense (42)
  • Literature & Fiction (19)

The numbers quoted are the Amazon sub-categories within the genre. For example, for Science Fiction & Fantasy there are 16 categories for Fantasy and 19 categories for science fiction. Many of the categories cross-over. For example, under Romance there are categories for science fiction, time travel and action & adventure. And there are also further sub-sub-categories.

If you look at Science Fiction best seller listing, Amazon lists 19 categories:

  • Adventure
  • Alien Invasion
  • Alternative History
  • Anthologies and short stories
  • Colonisation
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dystopian
  • First contact
  • Galactic Empire
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Hard Science Fiction
  • Metaphysical & Visionary
  • Military
  • Post-Apocalyptic
  • Space exploration
  • Space opera
  • Steampunk
  • Time travel
  • TV, Movie, Video Game Adaptions

Amazon permits authors to list their books under up to ten different categories although they only identify three categories in the description of the book. My own novel, Collision, is shown on Amazon under the following categories:

  • Time travel romance (a Romance category)
  • Time travel science fiction
  • Time travel fiction

Collison is largely based in today’s world, but the time travel element puts it into the ‘science fiction’ genre. It’s described by my own readers in their reviews as a fast action-story and therefore it also fits into action & adventure. And there is a strong romantic B-story between the main lead characters and so it fits into the time travel romance category.

If you are a new author, finding where you fit your novel into this complex category matrix can be difficult, particularly if the scope of the novel crosses different genre. A good place to start is to look at novels of authors similar to your own and how they are categorised on Amazon. But don’t be surprised if you get some odd results. I’m sure other authors have found difficulty properly categorising their novels for Amazon’s system.

I would also suggest you check out the types of books that Amazon lists under each category or you might be surprised by the nature of the category. Originally, when I published Collision I used the “Romance Science Fiction” category. It was a mistake as many of the books in that category weren’t a good fit at all — most have covers with beefy semi-naked alien males.

So finding authors with a similar ‘feel’ to your own books is really what understanding genre is all about. The “Customers who bought this also bought” and “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” sections on Amazon’s site is also good place to find similar books to your own. If you use Sponsored Advertising on Amazon, then you can find which “Keywords” work best on Amazon’s sales pages. Book titles and authors names make excellent keywords. And from this information you can see which sales arise from advertising on a particular author’s book page on Amazon.

Taking Collision as an example, the author keywords that work best for me are Jodi Taylor, and Philip Peterson both of which are great time travel writers. But there are other sci-fi writers which the connection is less obvious and some writers that you might expect there to be a connection but there just isn’t. Finding those authors for which you share a common reader interest and studying them is perhaps the best way to understanding your own genre. That doesn’t mean you need to follow the approach of these writers, but you need to understand it.

At the end of the day every writer wants to produce a unique story experience. It just has to be the type of emotional experience your reader is expecting.

Choosing Genre

Genre is not something I had really thought about until it came to the time for publishing my first novel on Amazon. Then I had to categorise the genre and sub-genre of my novel for Amazon’s classification purposes.

Of course, genre is important. It’s one of the first things that influence readers’ choice of books. In a physical bookshop it’s the category of shelves where the book will be displayed. On the internet it’s much the same, except it’s possible to use sub-classificaions and use key words to search for the type of book you want.

Genre offers a promise to the reader that the novel will abide by the expectations of the genre and it’s one of the first filters of readers’ choice. The other key influences of choice are the book cover and title, and the back cover marketing blurb. So if you want the right readers to find your book, it’s quite important to get the genre right.

But it’s not always easy to pigeon-hole a book by genre. For example, my first novel, Collision, has an underlying plot dependent on time travel — a classic sci-fi trope. And time travel is one of Amazon’s 19 sub-categies of Sci-Fi. So you may think it’s easy to catgorise and sub-categorise Collision as Sci-Fi/Time travel. But Collision also has a strong love story theme, and a thiller action plot where the protagonists are trying to escape the clutches of MI6 and the CIA. So Collision might be classified for genre as Romance/Time Travel or even Thriller/Techno.

This got me thinking about just how useful these broad genre categorisations are to readers. To many people, when they think of Sci-Fi they tend to think of strange new futuristic worlds, aliens, and space travel. Collision is a long way removed from those worlds, with most of the action taking place in the current world. It’s technically sci-fi, but not as we know it.

But Collision is not alone with this problem. There are many other examples of popular stories that cross genre. Defining genre by readers’ expectations is therefore quite difficult. Take Star Wars. Not many would disagree that this is from the Sci-Fi genre, but actually the story-line has much in common with fantasy quest stories. Only the swords and magic are replaced by light sabres and the force. Similarly, Alien is quite clearly a Sci-Fi movie, but it follows the typical ‘monster in the house’ story-line used in many horror movies. So the Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror genres can easily overlap, and they do.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Speculative Fiction’, an umbrella term to cover most of the ‘what if’ genres. It’s a term originally attributed to Heinlein for describing the nature of science fiction, but nowadays it’s used in a wider context to embrace not only science fiction and fantasy, but also the fantasy elements of some horror, mystery and history stories. What distinguishes Speculative Fiction from Literary Fiction is that the worlds, people, or technology are different in some important aspect from the real world.

Not everyone likes the term, and some would argue that Science Fiction & Fantasy caption used in most book stores is broad enough to cover most aspects of Speculative Fiction. But for me, the broader caption of Speculative Fiction captures all the types of stories I like to read, and the types of stories I aspire to write. It’s for that reason I have adopted the term in the recent update of my website banner. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious.

What is science fiction?

Recently, we (the family) were hunting through our DvD/Blu-ray movie collection for one of my favourite sci movies of all time: Blade Runner. Eventually, after going through our collection several times, we found it. But I knew after all the effort of searching that it was time to put our collection into some kind of genre order. After some debate we agreed on the categories: sci fi, fantasy, horror, action/adventure, chick flick, comedy etc. The only problem was that we couldn’t agree on what movies fell into which genre.

My view was that if the plot line crucially depends on some speculative view of the future or some speculative scientific breakthrough then it’s sci fi. ‘Back to the Future’ – time travel – therefore sci fi. “No” was the response I got; “it’s family comedy”. ‘Terminator’ – time travel- therefore sci fi. “No”, was the response I got, “It’s an Action/Adventure movie”. Frankenstein – medical science – sci fi. ‘No’ was the response again; “it’s a’Horror’ movie”. Well, maybe they’re right on that one.

My family’s view was that sci fi is ‘space travel and that weird dystopian stuff’. My view was sci fi covers a much wider range of speculative fiction than just space opera and dystopian futures. Of course, sci fi stories often include elements from other genres: action stories, horror stories, love stories, military stories and even fantasy. What makes sci fi so much fun is that these different types of stories can be told against the backdrop of a speculative new world. It might be a world a thousand years in the future, with aliens, androids, teleportation and mind control. Or it could be something that could happen tomorrow; first contact with another world, or some awesome scientific break-though in artificial intelligence.

The problem is that it’s quite difficult to define the boundaries of science fiction. One of the best definitions of science fiction is Heinlen’s. He defined science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of scientific method”. But even Heinlen’s definition is not sufficiently wide to capture all the sub-genres of sci fi today. The following is a list from Wikopedia:

  • Hard SF
  • Soft and social SF
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time travel
  • Alternate history
  • Military SF
  • Superhuman
  • Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic
  • Space opera
  • Space Western
  • Anthropological
  • Biopunk
  • Comic
  • Feminist
  • Steampunk

Even this list doesn’t seem to cover everything such as romantic sci fi.  So perhaps, it’s just too difficult to try to define the sci fi genre.

Oh, by the way, we decided to put our movies in alphabetical order by leading actor. It seemed the easiest solution. At lease all the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sci Fi’s will be together.