By Pamela Nowak
I feel as if I fell down a rabbit hole. But instead of Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee, I encountered a score of similarly-dressed fiction sub-genres. They were nearly identical. Here and there, one had a sash or hat or tie or button that was a different color. Looking closely, I could see each was subtly different from its cohorts but my head ached from trying to sort out the minute variations. They advanced on me, grinning like evil Cheshire Cats, insisting I recognize their individuality. I lay there, confused, as they morphed into a gang of lurching zombie look-alikes from another genre altogether.
During the past month, RMFW Colorado Gold contest committee volunteers have been busy clarifying and redefining sub-genre categories. We were challenged by the need to keep up with the industry while avoiding excessive complication—a task that was nearly impossible. Editors want submitting writers to know where their manuscript belongs and writers who are self-publishing must know how to market. A good contest provides a tool to practice that categorization. Because it had been awhile since the contest sub-genres were last reviewed, we started looking at current sub-genres (our sources included marketing sights, professional genre organizations, blogs by industry professionals, and author input, among others). As we near the end of the process, I am picking my jaw up from the floor and shaking my head.
I never knew there were so many!
When I lived in rural areas and shopped in a small bookstore, there were two adult fiction sections: romance and everything else. In bigger cities, I discovered mystery and sci fi/fantasy had their own sections. Then, thrillers were given shelf space as well. Horror, women’s fiction, literary, historical, action were all shelved with mainstream, alphabetically by author. Within the genre sections, there was no breakdown by sub-genre. That’s as complicated as shopping got.
Years ago, querying my first manuscript, I could easily classify my novel as a romance. Most editors and agents also wanted to know a sub-genre. That was easy, too: contemporary category, contemporary single title, or historical. That was it. Over the years, things changed. Paranormal, inspirational, and erotic sub-genres appeared. Contemporary suddenly had multiple variations. Historical was separated by time period or locale and category historical was created. Other genres such as fantasy and suspense were blended with romance. Authors needed to be able to define their work in order to submit to the appropriate lines.
Still, nothing prepared me for the explosion of new variations that seems to have occurred since we began the shift from print books to digital. Sub-genres have changed immensely.
What used to be sci-fi/fantasy or horror is now blended and called speculative fiction. When this shift occurred a few years ago, it seemed understandable, given the increasing number of paranormal novels. At first, the sub-genres were simply sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and paranormal—pretty cut and dried. Today, we discovered the following sub-genres listed by varying sources: alternate history, dystopian, post-apocalypse, epic fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale, horror, new age/spiritual, science fiction, steampunk, urban fantasy, near future technical/science fiction, urban-supernatural fantasy, new age-steampunk, tie-in, futuristic, anthropological sci-fi, contemporary fantasy, magical realism, epic historical fantasy, ghost story, historical fantasy, mainstream time travel, weird west, cyberpunk, paranormal, supernatural, superhero, and high fantasy.
Action/Thriller—the old action/adventure—was a bit less extensive. Here we found action adventure, bio-tech/biological, legal, political, psychological, spy/international, archeological, art, military, serial killer, techno, historical suspense, private eye, crime, disaster/survival, martial arts, and noir.
Romance sub-genres are complicated by the combinations that occur and the use of multiple terms for the same thing. Among them were traditional, category, long, short, single title, suspense, paranormal, regency, time travel, futuristic, fantasy, historical, futuristic/time travel, kink/bdsm (usually but not always classified under mainstream erotica), lesbian, male/male, paranormal/supernatural, sensual/erotic, small town, sweet/traditional, western, contemporary, inspirational, highland, medieval, and YA.
Mainstream, too, has expanded. Included are chick lit, comedic, coming of age, contemporary, historical action based, historical character based, magical realism, multicultural, western, women’s fiction, fairy tale, literary, and erotica.
Mystery, once just a handful of subgenres, now has suspense, cozy, private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, suspense, new adult, character, crime, paranormal, medical/forensics, and whodunit/traditional.
Young Adult can be extremely complicated. A relatively new genre itself, it can have all the sub-genres found within fiction. Most common seemed to be action adventure, contemporary, epic fantasy, urban-supernatural fantasy, mystery, sci-fi/futuristic, coming of age, sci-fi, historical, comedy thriller, dystopian, fantasy romance, romance, low fantasy, magical realism, middle grade, steampunk, new adult (sometimes listed under mainstream), new age/spiritual, paranormal/supernatural, and urban fantasy.
As authors, we are presented with the challenge of trying to define our works in this current world. At times, it might be great to select a very specific definition for our stories. Yet, there are those novels that fit into multiple sub-genres and others that still must cleave to broader definitions for lack (lack???) of an appropriate specific sub-genre. There are cross-genre books that require an author to make difficult choices.
For the reader, finding favorite authors is still fairly easy, especially in brick and mortar stores where there are limited genre sections. We need only remember that one store classifies our favorite author as thriller and another shelves him with mysteries. In online stores, we simply plug in the author’s name and search.
The nightmare of the rabbit hole, though, occurs when readers are browsing for new authors. Among all these complicatedly different-yet-not sub-genres, how do they plug in the right words to find us? How do we (or our publishers) select the appropriate sub-genre that will unite us with those searching readers? And what will keep us from becoming Mad Hatters, one and all?
Pamela Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as president. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent two dogs and a cat.