The Joy of Categories

From actual query letters…

“I’ve got a novel that’s sort of a historical fantasy magical realism.”

GregsBooks“My new nonfiction is for everyone. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. There’s nothing as good or like it on the market. It should be stocked at the front of the store in the ‘bestseller’ section.”

“The graduation gift book I’m proposing will be the kind of book retail will stock all year around.”

One thing new (and sometimes veteran) authors don’t understand is that every book must have a recognizable category. The queries for books listed above have none. The moment you go outside of a known category, retail doesn’t know what to do with it. They don’t know where to stock it; they don’t know how to describe it to their customers. In short, they won’t know how to sell it. And that’s the point of writing books you’d like people to read . . . to sell them.

It starts with what is known as a BISAC code. It’s those few words on the back of the book that give retail and consumer a clue as to what the book is about. Every book gets a maximum of three. Here are the categories from the Book Industry Study Group:

ANTIQUES/COLLECTIBLES
ARCHITECTURE
ART
BIBLES
BIOGRAPHY/AUTOBIOGRAPHY
BODY, MIND & SPIRIT
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS
COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS
COMPUTERS
COOKING
CRAFTS & HOBBIES
DESIGN
DRAMA
EDUCATION
FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS
FICTION
FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY
GAMES
GARDENING
HEALTH & FITNESS
HISTORY
HOUSE & HOME
HUMOR
JUVENILE FICTION
JUVENILE NONFICTION
LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES
LAW
LITERARY COLLECTIONS
LITERARY CRITICISM
MATHEMATICS
MEDICAL
MUSIC
NATURE
PERFORMING ARTS
PETS
PHILOSOPHY
PHOTOGRAPHY
POETRY
POLITICAL SCIENCE
PSYCHOLOGY
REFERENCE
RELIGION
SCIENCE
SELF-HELP
SOCIAL SCIENCE
SPORTS & RECREATION
STUDY AIDS
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING
TRANSPORTATION
TRAVEL
TRUE CRIME

Handy dandy, but did you notice there are only TWO categories for fiction: Fiction and Juvenile fiction.

When you toddle over to Barnes and Noble, here are the categories you’ll find as you browse the aisles:

Fiction Books & Literature
Graphic Novels
Horror
Mystery & Crime
Poetry
Romance Books
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Thrillers
Westerns

Children
Ages 0-2
Ages 3-5
Ages 6-8
Ages 9-12
Teens

Non-fiction
African Americans
Antiques & Collectibles
Art, Architecture & Photography
Bibles & Bible Studies
Biography
Business Books
Christianity
Christian Fiction
Computer & Technology Books
Cookbooks, Food & Wine
Crafts & Hobbies Books
Education & Teaching
Engineering
Foreign Languages
Game Books
Gay & Lesbian
Health & Fitness
History
Home & Garden
Humor Books
Judaism & Judaica
Law
Medical & Nursing Books
Music/Film/TV/Theater
New Age & Spirituality
Parenting & Family
Pets
Philosophy
Politics & Current Affairs
Psychology & Psychotherapy
Reference
Relationships
Religion Books
Science & Nature
Self Help & Self Improvement
Social Sciences
Sports & Adventure
Study Guides & Test Prep
Travel
True Crime
Weddings
Women’s Studies

Not bad. A little bit more descriptive in fiction, which is helpful, but if you wanted to find “historical fiction,” for example, you have to browse a few thousand books and hope you bump into a title that screams “historical” from the spine.

How about at a Christian bookstore? At a local Mardel, here is what we found:

Bible Reference
Bible Studies
Biography
Christian Living
Commentaries
Counseling
Devotional
Fiction
General Interest
Gift Books
Health
Marriage & Family
Men
Prayer
Seasonal
Software
Spanish
Spirit-Filled Life
Teen Interest
Women

Again, ONE designation for fiction. (Really? Do they really NOT want to sell novels?)

And then there are award categories. Here are the categories for the “Christy Awards,” the yearly fiction awards:

Contemporary Romance
Contemporary Series (sequels and novella)
Contemporary Stand Alones
First Novel
Historical
Historical Romance
Suspense
Visionary
Young Adult

The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) has their own set of categories for determining the “Carol Awards”:

Debut
Long Contemporary
Long Contemporary Romance
Long Historical
Long Historical Romance
Mystery
Novella
Romantic Suspense
Short Contemporary
Short Contemporary Suspense
Speculative Fiction
Suspense/Thriller
Women’s Fiction
Young Adult

The INSPYs (Bloggers Awards of Excellence in Faith-Driven Literature) has yet another set of categories:

Romance
Literature for Young People
General Fiction
Speculative Fiction
Mystery & Thriller

The ECPA has their Gold Medallion Awards in these categories:

Book of the Year
Bibles
Bible Reference
Children
Fiction
Inspiration
New Author
Non-fiction

If all of this seems confusing, well, I suppose it is. When in doubt take comfort that you don’t have to pick from the Amazon.com categories. Just try to find three categories to mention!

The point is, each book gets three known categories on the back. Choose wisely in your proposals, but also try to choose broad categories so your book will get the most amount of exposure. And please, for the love Ernest Hemingway, don’t make up a category and call yourself a “pioneer.” Don’t implore the agent to think “outside the box.” Don’t call publishers “short-sighted non-creatives.” Just pick some categories and color inside the lines. We’ll all be happier.

Have you ever been confused about categories? How did you solve your dilemma?

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9 thoughts on “The Joy of Categories

  1. Haaa! Loved this, Greg. Personality, tons of information, real lists, humor. May I suggest a new category for this kind of post?? A Beyond-the-Queue Real-Agent How-Not-To Post.

    • Now THAT is funny. I could then be an outside the box pioneer real creative!!!

  2. What a helpful, cleverly presented post, Greg. I will refer back to this one when I’m preparing proposals. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Mindy and Cheryl. It’s all so basic and so confusing at the same time. But now we know!

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