It’s been over twenty years since I started ordering fiction for the public library where I work. We divide adult fiction into four basic collections: mystery, western, sci-fi/fantasy and fiction (which encompasses everything that doesn’t fit into the first three). In the past, cataloging, or deciding where to shelve a book, was pretty simple. Occasionally there were questions about whether a book was suspense, which we shelve in fiction, or a mystery. Traditionally a mystery is a book that features a private detective or amateur sleuth, or a police procedural, but gradually we started adding crime fiction to the mystery section. Then the thriller category exploded, and some of our patrons thought John Grisham and James Patterson books should be mysteries. (We resisted and kept them in Fiction.)
But that was only the beginning. Charlene Harrison started the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse series, and we cataloged the books as mystery because that’s the genre she’d been writing in previously. But they weren’t mysteries, really. They had vampires in them. And where do you catalog vampire books? Anne Rice’s vampire books were in fiction. But other authors, like Laurell Hamilton, wrote vampire books that had a lot of supernatural elements and those books seemed to fit better in sci-fi/fantasy. And then Jim Butcher started a fantasy series featuring a detective, and where do you put those?
Dystopian fiction has traditionally been cataloged as fiction, probably because classic dystopian novels like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale are considered literature, which meant they’re shelved in fiction. But if a dystopian novel has zombies, does it really belong in fiction? Wouldn’t it check out better in sci fi/fantasy?
In the end, that’s what usually drives my decision: Where will the book check out best? Where will the readers searching for that kind of book most likely look for it? That’s why the question of what genre your book fits into is so important to you as a writer. Readers have to find your book. If the people who would love your story don’t find it in the area of the library—or more importantly, the section of the bookstore, digital or otherwise—they usually browse in, they’re never going to discover your book.
You can’t control where your book is shelved in libraries or bookstores, but you do have some control over how it is marketed. And that process starts even before you the sell the book to a publisher. It may even affect how you write the book, as in which genre rules you decide to follow or which ones you decide to break. When you make a pitch to an editor or agent, you should be telling them things about your book that help them categorize it so they can see how it fits into their company’s marketing plan.
If you’re indie-publishing your book, you have total control over the cover, the blurb and the category/genre it’s listed in. Which means you really can fine-tune where it’s going to be “shelved”, in either a digital bookstore or physical building. So think a lot about where your book fits in the market. What are some popular books that are like yours? What categories are they listed in on-line? What do their covers look like? How are they described, both in blurbs and by readers?
It can be overwhelming, but ultimately this is your baby. You want to make sure your book ends up in the right place so people can find it and fall in love.