Monday 21 October 2013

Genre: Why is genre important?

By Iola Goulton

As a reviewer and editor, I read a lot of fiction, mostly Christian fiction. I see a lot of the same mistakes over and over, especially from first-time authors. My intention with this series of articles is to address one of the most common issues I see in writing: lack of a clear genre. This was addressed in a recent post by Rachelle Gardner on minimising the obstacles to publication. One obstacle was not being able to name a genre for your book, while another was related: not understanding your audience (hint: your audience buys by genre).

The concept of genre was introduced in a post last month from Narelle Atkins and Jenny Blake. If you haven't read it, I suggest you read it now (and make sure you read the comments as well). You can find it by clicking here.

Back? You read all the comments as well? What did you think?

My view of the conversation is that as readers, Jenny and I have clear expectations of what we want from a novel. If the novel doesn't meet those expectations, we feel let down. It wouldn't matter if the novel had just won a major prize—we'd rate it badly because it didn't meet our expectations.
Where do those expectations come from? Very often, those expectations come from our perception of genre.

Don't judge a book by its cover (but we all do)

What can you tell about these books from looking at the covers? Are they likely to be romance, action, speculative or general fiction? Which book looks the most lighthearted? Which one looks edgy? Which one looks more serious?

Most importantly, which of these books are you interested in reading? Why? And which books aren't you interested in reading? Why? (Share your answers in the comments.)

Chances are that you've just judged each of these books based on your perception of the genre based on the cover. The front cover is often our first exposure to a book, and it is designed to give us an immediate view of the genre of the book. This should be reinforced by the back cover copy. So if you don't like speculative fiction, you won't like the look of Dead Man's Journey - and that's before you read the blurb.

Of course, sometimes publishers get the covers wrong. Here's an example of a book I was disappointed in because I misjudged the genre. Bright pink cover. Eiffel Tower. A girl's name in the title. It's screaming 'romance', isn't it? But it's not romance. And for that reason, I didn't like it. It wasn't that it was a bad book. It was that I picked it up wanting to read a lighthearted romance, and that wasn't what I got.

What genre are you writing?

Before you begin writing your novel, you should know what genre you are writing in. The number one mistake of beginning writers in this area is to not consider genre at all.

Karen Baney maintains the importance of defining your target audience before you begin writing. It is tempting to say ‘my story is targeted at people aged 8-80’ (yes, I’ve seen that). What is more likely is that story isn’t designed to appeal to anyone. A good book may well appeal to people outside the target market, but first you need to meet the needs of a target reader. This could be defined as some or all of:
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Geographic location
  • Educational level
  • Occupation
  • Hobbies
Can you describe your target reader in these terms? If not, try. If you can’t define your target audience, how will you sell your novel to a publisher? Or to readers?

It's also worth remembering that Christian fiction isn't a genre. It's a market segment, like Young Adult. Within Christian Fiction there are books across a range of genres, including romance, historical, mystery, suspense, speculative and thriller. So it's not enough to say your book is Christian fiction. You can read more information on targeting the general market vs. the Christian market on my website.

Whatever genre you write in, make sure you are widely read in that genre so that you know you are following the rules of the genre—and meeting the expectations of readers. Over the next three weeks, I'm going to take you through the principles of three major genres in Christian fiction, starting next week with Romance. I hope you'll join me.

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog.


  1. For some reason I cant see any covers in Safari but in Chrone I could. The First one I look at as being romance, the next two look like mystery/suspense and the last one heavy suspense. In saying that I am not a big suspense reader although I am starting to read more lighter suspense books. I think its the use of colours that makes me thing that. Jo-Annes its cos the main features seem to be silhouetted and looks like there is a mystery there. Iola Is right when I have been given a book to read and told its a romance and it is infact another genre like womens fiction I have been disappointed. I have wondered where is the romance. The blurb even eluded to it being a romance but it wasn't. Covers really do have an impact on readers and if the reader doesn't like the cover or think its not there genre they will often not even read the blurb. I have to say I have done that with books.

  2. Not reading the blurb - that's something I've done as well. Or reading the blurb when I borrow or buy it, but not checking it again before I read the book (and then finding it wasn't what I wanted to read at that point in time).

  3. Iola, great post! I read A Simple Mistake and Beyond Resolution knowing they were contemporary romances. The cover art combined with the back cover blurbs defined the genre. I like to know what I'm buying. I recently looked at a book that had cover art suggesting it was a romance/love story. The back cover blurb was vague and didn't define the genre. One online vendor labelled the book romance, another labelled it contemporary fiction. I could have read the reviews to try and discern the true genre (if one existed), but it was just easier to not buy the book. If the book was a romance, the author lost the sale because they failed to clearly market the book as a romance.

    Jenny, I can see the covers in Safari, but Safari won't let me sign in after I type in my comment and select preview. Thankfully I'm in the habit of copying my comments and I can sign in at the top RHS of the page before entering comments.

  4. Iola, I have Daring Chloe on my shelf. I picked it up from an op shop with the same expectations as yours. You mean to tell me it's not a lighthearted romance? How misleading.

    1. Part of my problem was I misread the title - I thought it was Darling Chloe, not Daring Chloe. But it's funny that you made exactly the same mistake as me! I suspect the reason it was in the op shop was because the person who donated it also assumed it was a romance.

      It's a good book - as long as you are wanting to read something other than a romance.

  5. Narelle is that on the computer or phone i use safari as my main browser but no photos.

    paula. I read one of the others in the series and its possibly chick lit but it is a lighthearted story but then I read one of the other books in the series. I now often avoid chick lit.

    1. Jenny, it was on the computer. My iPhone and Blogger are not friends... It usually takes 5 minutes to leave a comment using my phone.

  6. Thanks for that Iola. Helpful and insightful input, as usual. As I'm not into reading light romance, I always look for something in the cover which indicates a deeper story - historical dress, suggestions of mystery or crime. But knowing how difficult it is to get the right cover images to portray a novel, I ALWAYS read the back cover and it's usually the element of story that I find there, that sway me to buy/read a book.

  7. I would have instinctively chosen A Simple Mistake and Beyond Resolution, but that's a cheat answer since I have read them both. The covers you have shown do send a message and I decided I wouldn't read Dead Man's Journey before you said Speculative fiction (I genre I generally don't choose). I guess with or without realizing it, readers do choose based on their favorite genre. Its so important to keep in mind as writers. Great post Iola.

  8. I get the vast majority of my books from my local library so the first thing I see is the spine. Ok, so sometimes there's a big fat red heart sticker on the romantic ones, but even so, if I don't like the look of the spine then I won't bother.
    Such a great post, Iola. Very informative. Like everyone else, I find it frustrating when a book doesn't provide the story you're expecting from the visuals. It' s even worse when the author doesn't stick to the guidelines.
    Looking forward to your next post on this subject. And thanks for featuring 'A Simple Mistake' (which of course I think has both a great cover and a great spine! )

    1. Well, it's no surprise that you have a bias towards 'A Simple Mistake' (it is one of my favourite covers).

      And yes, the hearts and crosses on the books at the library are a huge clue.

    2. Thanks Iola - I'll tell my daughter :)

  9. It was the cover of a book which lead me to find Siri Mitchell. She's one of my favourite authors and I would buy her books if they were wrapped in hessian... but a good romance delivers to the eyes before any words are read. And this one, Love's Pursuit, did just that.

    I've noticed when I announce author interviews for my blog on facebook, I get more hits if the covers (and I nearly always stick with historical romance) are appealing. Warmer colours and a picture of the heroine are a sure sign romance will be found once the cover is lifted.

    Having said that, I personally know great romance authors who have secretly hated their covers. Not sure how cover art drifts so far from an author's expectations, but I can only imagine how disappointing it is to have one's baby wrapped in an ugly blanket.

  10. We really are in the hands of our publishers with cover art. Thankfully, some allow author's input. My first book was kind of a historical /searching for identity/ romance. How's that for a mix? So the cover wasn't helpful at all. We live and learn. But I go further than reading the back cover copy, I actually begin at page 1 and see if the writer hooks me.

  11. I'd read all those books - even without knowing their genre - because I like all the covers and the titles. After checking them out and reading the blurbs, I'd read them in the following order Dead Man's Journey, The Inheritance, Beyond Resolution I'd read the other two as well, because the blurb on Daring Chloe reminded me a little of the Sister Chicks books and I'd read A Simple Mistake because the reviews were very positive.
    - Lyn Churchyard

  12. Another marvellous post, Iola. It is interesting how genres are being joined (?) so, eg, romantic suspense or is it suspenseful romance. And sometimes it's difficult from the cover to ascertain whether it's coming from the suspense genre (suspense with some romance) or the romance genre (romance with some suspense).

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this in your next 3 posts if that's possible.


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