How Genre Labeling Keeps Some Books from Being Discovered

Guest post
by Sylvia Engdahl

Fans of my past novels are sometimes surprised to learn that I have become an indie author. I’m known to librarians as the author of six successful Young Adult science fiction novels, including an award-winner, that were first published by Atheneum in the 1970s and have all been reissued in hardcover as well as paperback by different publishers in the 21st century. They are enjoyed by adults as well as teens, and three of them were reprinted by a small press as adult science fiction. So why did I publish my recent adult science fiction trilogy, now concluded with Defender of the Flame, myself?

In the first place, my books don’t meet the marketing requirements of the science fiction genre. The editing and marketing of Young Adult books is very different from that of adult novels; this was the main reason I chose to publish in that field to begin with. YA editors are not genre specialists, nor are YA books categorized into subject-oriented genres; and I knew from the start that my novels would appeal more to a general audience than to avid science-fiction fans. They are character-driven rather than focused on adventure. Furthermore, they are not “far out” enough in terms of the culture and concepts portrayed to suit people with extensive SF background, for I feel speculation about the future should be intelligible to all readers. Thus they don’t fit SF publishers’ criteria. Some science fiction enthusiasts do like them, but not enough to give them mass-market potential, which to commercial publishers is the only thing that matters.

But apart from this, indie publishing has many advantages that are important to me:

• It enables me to have a book appear exactly as I want it, without interference by an editor;

• It eliminates the long delay between completion of a book and publication;

• I enjoy book production—page layout, cover design, ebook formatting etc. (I do everything myself, as I have desktop publishing and professional copyediting experience);

• Both paperback and ebook editions will stay in print forever without action on anyone’s part, even after my death (which at my age is a significant consideration).

To be sure, there are also disadvantages. Chief among these is the difficulty of making potential readers aware that my indie books exist—since they are set in the future on hypothetical worlds, they have to be listed as science fiction, yet general readers don’t look at the science fiction section of announcement or review sites. And it’s hard to get reviews because most SF specialists consider them too close to reality, while mainstream reviewers aren’t interested in reading anything labeled science fiction.

Also troubling to me is the fact that it has proven impossible to get my indie books into libraries because libraries won’t buy books they can’t get from their regular distributors—not even those by authors whose other books they already have in their collections. And most won’t accept self-published books as gifts, presumably because they don’t have staff to evaluate them. Since library circulation is the best way for an obscure book to become known, this is a serious handicap.

Finally, despite excellent reviews I don’t sell many copies, and I probably never will. This is more because my books aren’t genre-oriented than because they are self-published. Authors who write fiction tailored to popular genres such as romance are making money from indie publication and acquiring large followings. I can’t expect this because mine not only break genre conventions but are long novels that cannot be called light reading.

But even if they don’t gain a large audience, my recent books are available to readers who like my personal style and outlook, from many of whom they’ve received high praise. If they couldn’t be self-published they would not be available at all, so I am thankful for the technology that now makes it possible.

I wish, however, that there were some way to publicize books that aren’t typical of a specific genre. Genre labels are often damaging; a book that doesn’t conform doesn’t appeal to readers who see it where it’s listed, and isn’t seen by anyone else. I realize that there are so many books being published that they have to be categorized in some way at large websites, so I don’t know of a satisfactory solution. But it’s frustrating to be invisible to my largest potential audience when so many of the people who like my novels tell me that they don’t usually read science fiction.


Sylvia Engdahl is best known as the author of the Young Adult novel Enchantress from the Stars, which was a Newbery Honor book, a 2002 Book Sense Book of the Year runner-up in the Rediscovery category, and winner of the Children’s Literature Association’s 1990 Phoenix Award. She has also written five other YA novels and three adult science fiction novels. Currently she works as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies for high schools. Learn more about Sylvia from her website and her Amazon author page.

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18 thoughts on “How Genre Labeling Keeps Some Books from Being Discovered”

  1. This is exactly the problem my books present and for much the same reasons. They do not fit neatly into a pre-existing category but have features of several. I call them Fantasy because it is the closest and because I must have a label. Then there is the added disadvantage that no one has ever heard of me because I have never been traditionally published. But I struggle on because it is what I love and I must remain true to myself.

  2. The plight of every indie author; getting noticed and then getting people to take a chance on you. This drives me nuts on a daily basis. I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten my book into a few libraries via donations, but I’d have to say a large portion of my day is spent wondering what more I can do to make my book visible to readers, and the more limited your budget the more difficult the task becomes. Can’t tell you how many times I wonder why someone visits one of my listings and doesn’t take a chance on me.
    In the end, indie publishing has distinct advantages and its disadvantages are just as remarkable. We just have to keep our chin up, keep plugging away and hope for the best.

  3. I only have one book published, but I have the same problem with it. It’s listed as a thriller, but it’s more a romantic suspense, though it can’t be categorized as that either. The one I’m writing now is going to be even more of a problem categorizing. It’s historical, a historical romance, and paranormal. But as Yvonne says, we have to stay true to ourselves.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Since it seems that quite a few people have books that don’t fit into genre categories, I wonder if sites could start including a separate category called “cross-genre” or “multicategory” and encourage everyone to look at it. Readers who like fiction that departs from standard majority preferences can’t possibly look through many categories to find it, or recognize it from among the brief description possible in listings — there are just too many books. In fact that’s the main problem with getting any book noticed; there are now so many thousands of indie books that no one has time to look all the way through any listing, let alone read more than a tiny fraction of those that look appealing.

    1. That would definitely be a start. The other issue with all of this is that many readers look for new books to read on-line by using key words. Another suggestion would be for on-line sites to expand the number of these we may include.

  5. Great post, Sylvia. Books that just don’t quite fit into one neat category find a hard time getting attention. With all the books out there, it is really hard to get noticed anyway. If your book is in a category that doesn’t quite fit it, it’s doubly hard, I’m sure.

    I’ve heard people say you just have to play around with the category until you find the one that gets you the most reader exposure. But that’s not the most confidence inspiring answer.

    1. My worst problem is that there is no category other than science fiction in which mine can be put — most sites don’t have sections for fiction that is of greatest interest to general readers who don’t ordinarily read genre fiction.

  6. I was dared by a horror author friend of mine to write sci-fi. So I gave it a stab and 4 books later, I think I have a handle on it. But my sci-fi does cause some problems. It’s part character and part action driven, the worlds are different, yet just similar enough readers won’t be utterly turned off by total strangeness. I put the first book (a prequel) out for free and have had several thousand downloads. The next book has done OK, no record breakers, and the third will be out next month sometime. I do market some, but most I rely on word of mouth. Keep plugging at it and it will eventually take off. I’m hoping a screenplay of the second book will sell and then everything will speed up. Until that, I plug along…

    Wonderful post.

  7. Sylvia, it sounds like what you’re writing might be called speculative fiction. There’s been a fair amount of cross-genre melding between sci-fi and fantasy over the past few years. Not that Amazon conveniently offers a “speculative fiction” category, but…. 😉

    When I tried to write sci-fi, I was told my stuff wasn’t far enough out there. I never thought to aim it at a YA audience — good for you for thinking of that. And good luck!

    1. Yes, my books are definitely speculative fiction, but sites that review books don’t have a section for that. Writing YA novels worked for me, but that was in an era when there were more YA books for “special” readers being published than there are now; mine have many devoted fans but don’t appeal to mass audiences of middle-school kids, which is what the market now demands. And my latest trilogy isn’t suitable for YA, as it has more mature themes and older characters, and the books are much too long and controversial. I got tired of being typed as a YA author, as I had ideas I wanted to present to adults. Indie publication was the only way I could do it.

  8. Thanks for the thought provoking article on genre and its limitations. It can be a bit like a prison sentence for some. I’ve never understood the genre purists (especially in music) who bemoan the cookie cutter approach only to howl hatefully at anyone who dares cross or blur the lines between the various defined expectations.

    Somewhere in my cluttered collection of books I have a signed copy of The Far Side of Evil. I must dive into the stacks to retrieve and re-read. I think you must have gifted it to me in the mid eighties amid a spirited discussion of the SDI. I remember enjoying it immensely.

    1. You might enjoy my adult novels if you liked The Far Side of Evil. The ebook edition of the first book in the trilogy, Stewards of the Flame, is free at Amazon, Smashwords and all other retailers (that seems to be the most effective way of getting people to buy the other two).

      1. I just realized that you probably have the original (1971) edition of The Far Side of Evil. An updated hardcover edition was published in 2003 and a paperback in 2005. Both are now out of print again, but there’s an ebook (which I issued myself via Smashwords & Amazon, as the rights had again reverted to me). If you reread the old one you may feel that my theory of the Critical Stage is outdated because getting into space didn’t end the danger of nuclear war. The new edition, published after 30 years of neglect of our space program, emphasizes that it’s the effort to permanently settle space, not the mere development of space travel capability, that matters, and that nuclear war is not the only danger that exists during the Critical Stage. The story action hasn’t changed at all, however.

  9. Exactly the dilemma I’m facing with my soon-to-be-published trilogy. I’ve had more than one beta reader claim they liked it, even though they’re not an avid reader of science fiction. How do you market something that falls into the “gray area” of genres?

    1. I wish I knew! I’ve often felt that there should be a blog focused on science fiction for people who don’t usually read science fiction, as I’m sure there must be other indie books besides mine that would fit. But I wouldn’t know how to publicize it in a way that would attract readers.

  10. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party, Sylvia; been busy for a few days. This subject gets a raking on a regular basis here at IU, and for a very good reason: it affects a lot of us. There doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight; particularly in regard to ePublishing, where your listing choices seem to be, ‘Is it black or is it white?’

    Excellent article, Sylvia.

  11. Well stated Sylvia, it is a dilemma many of us face, but hopefully with time, the barriers can be broken the pecking order rehashed. Despite our works being black and white, our audience is not. Change takes time.

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