Defining Genre

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 20 2022

We get questions all the time asking us to define genre. I’m going to be honest. I’m not sure I fully have the answers. Putting words to a description that can be fluid is difficult. Personally, I find the best way to define genre is to look at how bookstores or publishers are marketing books. That’s how we in the industry are currently defining things.

Some of it is based on the way a book feels, but mostly it’s based on who the market is or the audience. What books are they reading and how are we defining them.

Now that I have you frustrated and confused let me tell you that it doesn’t matter if you label your book perfectly. It only matters that you get it right enough to tell us whether or not we’re the audience for the book. Suspense and thriller can be used interchangeably and usually are. A book labeled as women’s fiction has sometimes been sold as a romance. Things can change and mean different things to different publishers. You don’t have to tell them exactly how to market the book. You just need to be close enough.

Note before I move forward that I’m focusing on genre and not age groups. In other words, a mystery will be universal across YA, adult, and middle grade. I’m avoiding defining those since they are age groups and not what I consider genre.


Three Major Fiction Categories

There are three categories that define a book, the areas where all fiction will fall into–commercial, literary, and upmarket. Some can be used alone to describe your book (this is a work of literary fiction). While others might include the addition of a genre (Literary Suspense). In commercial fiction, you can usually use genre on its own since most genre universally falls under commercial fiction (this is a romance).

Commercial FictionFiction written to appeal to a large or mass-market audience, often with an emphasis on plot. Commercial fiction is typically thought of as including genres like mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy, although more recently there are more books considered literary in these genres. Popular commercial fiction writers include Nora Roberts, Alyssa Cole, and Colleen Hoover.

Literary Fiction: Fiction that appeals to a more intellectually minded, smaller audience. Literary fiction tends to have a stronger focus on writing, atmosphere, and style than commercial fiction might. Popular literary fiction authors include Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Elizabeth Strout.

Upmarket FictionI consider this to be the baby of Literary and Commercial Fiction. Books tend to have a stronger focus on writing and plot together. They have a hook like commercial fiction, but more atmosphere similar to what is expected in literary fiction. Books and authors I consider to be upmarket are Melissa Payne, Kia Abdullah (upmarket suspense), Chemistry Lessons, and When Women Were Dragons.



Originally I wrote this with the intent of defining each genre, but I’m going to leave you to do a Google search on that. Instead, I’m going to generally discuss the major genres in publishing. They are mystery, suspense, thriller, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and women’s fiction. The reason I’m generalizing is that I’m certain I’m missing something, or even ignoring certain genre trends that tend to come and go like chick lit or new adult.

While I know there are nuances that authors struggle within these genres, like what exactly is the difference between suspense and thriller, I think we can all read this list and have a basic understanding of what those genres are. We all know what a mystery is, right? We understand that by the mere use of the term thriller that book is going to have more of an edge than something we describe as a mystery.

The truth is, you don’t need to have an understanding of every genre. You only need to know the expectations of the genre you are writing in. If you’re not writing romance, don’t worry about romance and all the subgenres therein (paranormal, historical, category, inspirational, etc). But if you are writing romance you need to be reading a lot of romance (as well as books in other genres) to understand what readers will be looking for and expecting and then, of course, how you can make yours stand out.

If you’re unsure of what you’re writing, you need to be reading widely to have an understanding of the genre, because the truth is that I can give you the definitions, but you don’t really know the genre unless you’re reading in it.

I think the reason publishing professionals struggle to define genre when asked is because we just know. We read enough across genres all the time. We also learn a lot just by talking about books, reading deal notices and reviews. PW reviews can tell me a lot about what the market is selling in what genres. I read them weekly. Authors should be doing the same. Knowing what you’re writing, what the “rules” are and how you can (and cannot) break them is an important piece of success in this and any business.





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2 responses to “Defining Genre”

  1. Thanks for this post. I have heard the terms but didn’t have good definitions in my mind.

  2. Avatar Veena Nagpal says:

    I’m still not sure, I understand genres, but thank you for addressing the issue. Amazon categories make it even more difficult.