Genre Equality

word cloudIn NewsBites on Wednesday, one of the stories was about a petition to address gender labeling in books for children. The argument is that publishers should not assume that boys want one type of book and girls, another.

But of course, identifying the target market is a long-standing tradition in the publishing biz. The idea is to facilitate sales by helping consumers narrow the field to books which appeal to their particular areas of interest. As data collection and analysis have become more sophisticated, the numbers of genres and sub-genres have multiplied.

Ironically, as more of these helpful labels have come into existence, it has become more difficult to classify some works. Many books do not fit neatly into an existing category. Some books might fit as well in one as another. At some point, the system becomes too elaborate. When that occurs, it is more of a hindrance than a help. It begins to impede discovery because consumers do not find the book they are looking for within the genre they were searching.

The issue is accelerating because, not only are the number of classifications and categories increasing, but search engine algorithms also use that kind of information to assist browsing book-buyers. “Also bought” or “similar to” are directly the result of this technology.

Yet, there is another, perhaps more insidious effect of labeling. Because each genre has certain characteristics, a story has to contain those characteristics to wear the mantle. This means that on some level, the labels also influence and shape the writing. Part of this is because readers of certain genres have certain expectations that must be fulfilled. The other part is that writers write what they write because they have read what they have read. Our minds are shaped to the story paradigm of the specific genres we read.

Anything new and different that catches on becomes a genre unto itself, spawning imitators and crafting its own set of rules. Paranormal romance is a case in point. It didn’t even exist until a few years ago.

But mostly, anything that doesn’t fit pretty neatly into an existing genre is doomed to die a death of obscurity. It just falls off the conveyor belt. No one knows what to do with it. No one knows how to market it. Maybe people would like your book if they’d only read it, but they won’t, because they will never find it. It is libris non grata.

In this industry, conformity is rewarded and uniqueness is punished. That’s why the Big 5 put out the same sameness over and over. The books produced by traditional publishing houses set the bar. If we want our books to be found alongside those titles, our books must  be something like those titles; at least similar enough for a computer algorithm to think so.

The book categorization system is approaching critical mass. It is fracturing and faltering before our very eyes, splintering into smaller, more specific genres that still manage not to capture everything. Labels never can.

The good news is that this is only the short-term picture. As search engines become more sophisticated, they won’t rely on categories anymore. They will know from scanning the whole text of your book how closely it matches the query. Oh, categories may stick around in some form, but they will not dominate the scene the way they do now.

That is going to change everything about book discovery and will throw the doors open to creativity in writing. So, don’t be afraid to color outside the lines, my little indies. Our time is coming.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Genre Equality”

  1. The restrictions of genre conformity vex me.

    My focus is to tell the story, not force its round peg into an arbitrary square hole. But I also want my (potential) readers to find my stories, so I put them (the tales, not the readers) into buckets because that’s where fans go looking. But the stories are a slippery bunch and try to crawl up and out of their genre pails.

    There are no easy answers to classifying certain fanciful fiction. Excellent post, Stephen…

  2. In protest, I’ve always wanted to publish a line of Plain Brown Novels. They come in a plain brown paper bag cover, have no titles; are published under pseudonyms and are sold entirely by category. Mystery, Romance, Action, Western, Erotica. And oh yeah and there’s one called A Book for People Who Like to Think.. 🙂

    1. When generic products first became the rage, I bought my father (a renowned penny-pincher) a generic western. The word “Western” was stenciled on its plain white cover.

  3. Hmm. I’ve got a post coming up the end of April on genre and I kind of disagree with you. (Kind of agree too, at least with the last part.) I seem to be making a habit of posts contrary to the EM. I better be careful. 🙂

    1. Al, your disagreements with me are always thoughtful and well-considered. I have no problem with vigorous exploration of all sides of an issue. I’ll look forward to your post. 🙂

  4. Hmmm, good to hear EM. I’d rather cut my arm off than write something derivative, which “just like” something else. Like you say, the problem is it’s going to sink without a trace precisely because it isn’t “just like” something else.
    I’m book-marking this one. Thanks

    1. I just don’t know if I can write something that’s just like something else. I don’t think my brain is wired that way. I am always hybridizing. Upgrade is what I imagined a romance would be if it were written by Rod Serling. Those sorts of things always intrigue me. What would Harry Potter have been like if it had been written by Doug Adams? But, how do you label stuff like that? They often fall short of legitimate inclusion in all the categories within which you might be able to cram them.

  5. I like this idea and it is something to look forward to. Like so many others I have no idea where much of what I do belongs.

    The interesting point you bring up is the newness of many of our genres now. Most didn’t exist until fairly recently.

    Technology is changing how we perceive information at an astounding rate right now. It will be interesting to see where we end up a few years from now.

  6. I’d call this a specific example of a cultural norm. What percentage of American restaurants are fastfood places that are all alike? (I have no idea… but it’s a LOT) I think it’s natural for tastes to fall in a bell curve, big bulge in the middle watching mainstream TV, drinking Miller beer, reading best sellers, driving production family cars.
    Out on the long tails you get your Ferraris and jalopies, your art flicks and snuff porn, your beers carefully crafted in some basement to taste like musk, your indie books, both great and awful.
    We’re long-tailers. Even the ones who become best-sellers, like Hugh Howie, are “outlyers”… SUPER long-tail on other graphs. We life with that. Like a friend of mine said recently, “Just because I’m a five-footer doesn’t mean I don’t play basketball.”

  7. Well said, EM! As a foodie as well as a reader, I’d love to be able to search for ‘fetta, basil, caramelized onions’ and get a list of recipes containing those ingredients. Wait, I can already do that. Why can’t I do that with books?

  8. I write what moves me. Then the challenge of categorizing it hits me. There is no neat genre, or better yet, sub-genre that works well. But I refuse the work inside someone else’s boxes.

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