Wait, what type of book have I actually written...? In this extract from Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent — a quick-fire introduction to the process of gaining literary agent representation — James Rennoldson offers pointers to those writers unsure about how to refer to their book, particularly as they approach the process of submitting to literary agents...
Many writers can be quite embarrassed to admit they perhaps don’t really know how they would categorise their book. Is it romance, or historical fiction? Is it for a middle-grade readership or for young adults? Perhaps genre wasn’t of great concern as part of the first draft (because you were concentrating on getting the story down on paper) and now the book falls between two stools, making it problematic to pitch the manuscript and submission to prospective agents. Ask yourself:
- is your book fiction or non-fiction? If it’s fiction, then it will feature characters you have devised. This remains the case if you inhabit a character from history or your book plays out within real-life happenings (see Don DeLillo’s Libra or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). If your writing is a straightforward retelling of events, this is non-fiction (specifically memoir, biography or autobiography);
- if you’re writing for children, is the language and content of your book appropriate for the age group you’re aiming for?
- if you’ve written something you believe could genuinely qualify as more than one genre, while this could turn out to be a unique selling point (‘USP’) of the book in the end – publishers are always looking for titles with potential to become ‘crossover’ hits, as broader market appeal could mean bigger sales – when it comes to pitching to agents, you might need to pick a side. Which is the most dominant genre? Or are you classifying your book within a genre unnecessarily? For example, historical fiction novels often require a romance or crime element to help bring suspense and purpose to the narrative. To describe Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as a piece of historical fiction would technically be accurate, but in doing so would also do a major disservice to the driving force of the book, which is that it’s a love story.
If you’re having doubts about where your book fits in with the genres displayed on Amazon or in a bookstore, you’ll be relieved to know you’re not the only one. It’s quite common for agents to receive submissions from writers who haven’t attached the right label to their book, and from time to time publishing editors and agents can disagree on where a book should be placed, too. This is largely because genre labels, while handy terms to group books together, are subject to opinion. Classifying a book as ‘commercial’ or ‘literary’, for example, is one that often divides opinion. Again, though, becoming an expert in your field by reading widely and keeping an eye on industry trends and terminology should prevent you from straying too far, and could prove to be a real advantage when it comes to pitching your book.
While using a genre label to describe your book is obviously useful, if you still find it challenging, you could always try comparing your book to another. This can make up part of your covering letter, and is a good way of helping the agent about to read your opening chapters get an immediate flavour for what to expect. Are there other writers, particular books, or even TV shows or films that have inspired your writing and you see a kinship with? Referencing these is a valid way to skirt around using a genre term you don’t feel is quite appropriate, and performs exactly the same job as a framing device.
Why is genre important?
Genre terms work for booksellers because they’re quick and understandable signposts. They bring order to the thousands of books vying for the attention of readers, streamlining them into sections they might be interested in. Supermarkets, which would become hugely frustrating places for shoppers if the mass of available items were not grouped into aisles of broadly related products, use exactly the same sort of system. Trends such as ‘vampire teen fiction’ or ‘misery memoir’ obviously come and go, but as a writer you should be familiar with the wider terms booksellers use to categorise (e.g. ‘Crime & Thriller’, ‘Science Fiction’, ‘Historical Fiction’).
Whilst knee-deep in a first draft, genre categorisation perhaps shouldn’t overly concern you. But as soon as you begin thinking about sending your book off to agents, it’s wise to start thinking more carefully about which shelf your book is going to sit on. First, as a tool for reference: What are the books similar to yours like? Are you approaching that level of writing? Is your story too similar to another book that’s recently sold well? Knowing how your work might appeal to readers that have lapped up similar books means you can approach re-writing with this in mind, and also target agents that represent those authors.
And by the way, if you can’t shift that nagging thought telling you not to conform to any of this because you don’t want your book reduced to a mere label (‘My writing shouldn’t be pigeon-holed under a blanket term like “romance”’ ), look at it another way. No one’s going to have the chance to realise the different textures of your book if they can’t find it on a shelf. Only once your book is in the hands of a reader are you able to confound their expectations: your sweeping romance set against a hitherto unknown British political coup; your crime novel that unmasks the fractured psyche of a global icon. One of the key aspects of successful books is they meet reader expectations, and then subvert them. But you can’t do this unless you entice that reader in the first place.
Written in Q&A format, the Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent is an introduction to the process of submitting a manuscript to literary agents, and is directly inspired by popular questions asked by writers that have attended our long-running series of events of the same name. If you're looking for a literary agent to represent your manuscript order your copy here, or to find out about our latest events click here.