I had a friend who once described a falafel as the same as a hamburger, but different. While we mocked him ruthlessly for that, the truth is that this describes a lot of things, including categorizing a book.
Agents want a novel they know works in the market, something that’s the same as other books readers are buying, but of course different enough to stand out. I want a book I know readers want, but the next version of that book so readers don’t feel they’ve already read it a million times.
Categorizing however is not just about what agents want to read. It’s what the market is buying. Categorization (choosing a genre) gives readers a certain comfort when they shop or buy books. It gives them some knowledge of what to expect when they buy.
A reader asks:
I came across your literary agency website through pitch madness last year. I did not get any offers. I have a “unique” novel that is hard to categorize in any genre. The Chatterbox Spy (temporarily titled) is set in China and is part spy thriller, part historical fiction, and done in a news writing style as the main character is a journalist. Do you have any advice?
Before going into the heart of your question let me congratulate you on participating in pitch madness. Just entering the fray takes determination. And don’t fret about not getting offers. Querying is still the number one way agents find authors. As long as you’re querying, you are fine.
Okay, now onto your question about genre. If you look hard enough, you’ll likely see a very clear genre for your book. Based on your description I would guess historical thriller. Possibly historical fiction. A lot of historical books contain aspects of thrillers (or romance, or mystery). To me, it seems less like your book can’t be defined, and more like you haven’t set out to really look at where your book belongs in bookstores and who your readers are.
When trying to categorize a book, the question to ask is who are your readers and what are the reading. And then asking, where (what section) do they buy their books? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? That’s your category finder.
You mention “part” spy thriller. Is it or isn’t it? I would challenge you that maybe your book is a historical spy thriller and if that’s the case, maybe it’s not about being part of something, but you going in there and committing to make it exactly what it is. Instead of part of anything, get in there and fearlessly make your book all of something.