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Why Worrying about Genre is Holding You Back

by Nick Stephenson in Books and Writing

I get a lot of emails from other authors who are struggling to gain momentum on their titles. Some of these authors have dozens of books out for sale (one industrious chap even had 70+) but sales aren’t where they’d like them. The main reasons I hear about?

My book is in an unpopular genre.” Or, “Advice about book marketing doesn’t apply to my books. They’re too obscure.

I get it, I really do. You’ve written something totally outside of the traditional idea of BISAC codes (the genre categories the ISBN companies use) and you’re not sure there’s a market. You’re more interested in writing for yourself first. And that’s cool. But it doesn’t mean there’s no audience.

Hell, if you can get ONE person to read your book, there’s nothing stopping you from getting a thousand. Or ten thousand. Or a million. I’m yet to see a genre of book that doesn’t have an audience large enough to sustain a decent income. But you’ve got to make it easy for readers to find out about your work. And this is where the 80/20 principle comes in. Here’s what I mean:

The 80/20 rule in a nutshell: what’s the 20% of effort that leads to 80% of results? What’s the 80% of effort that leads to 20% of the results? The exact percentages are flexible, but you get the point. Here’s an example:

You spend hours on Facebook and Twitter each day. That’s the 80% of effort. You don’t sell many books on social media – that’s the 20% of results. It’s probably more like 99% / 1%. The next day, you make your book free and email a few popular book blogs or sites to get promoted. You get a ton of downloads and pick up some paid sales. It took you ten minutes to set up. That’s the 20% of effort leading to 80% of results.

Which approach do you think is more scalable?

This same principle can be applied to where your books are listed for sale and how you get readers to check you out. The 80% of effort here is taking a book in a narrow category and attempting to find a large audience. That’s not going to happen.

So let’s switch it up. Going out and finding readers is hard. You’ve got to make it easy for them to find YOU. If your genre is too narrow, pick a new one. Your book doesn’t necessarily have to be in the genre you originally planned. Here’s what I mean:

  • Carl Hiaasen’s books are funny. They’re comedies. But guess what? They’re also mysteries. They sell a ton.
  • Same with Joe Konrath. His books are described as “humorous” in the blurbs. But he’s one of the most successful indie authors on the planet – because he doesn’t limit himself to that genre. His books are listed under mysteries and thrillers.
  • Douglas Adams writes comedies. Weird comedies with a very British slant. His books are science-fiction bestsellers.
  • Micheal Bunker wrote a story about Amish “plain” people. How many people do you think are actively searching for Amish fiction? But the book was placed in several science fiction categories and has since gone on to be an Amazon bestseller.
  • What about indie superstar A.G. Riddle? His books are a mixture of genres and don’t really fit comfortably into any one label. But he’s had amazing success with his “Origin Mystery” series.
  • What about Post Apocalyptic Dystopian Young Adult Science Fiction? That’s about as narrow as you can imagine. But it’s one of the biggest-selling genres on the planet thanks to authors like Suzanne Collins and James Dashner thinking outside the box.
  • Or how about Amish Vampires in space? Yup, that’s been done. The concept proved pretty popular. Same with Dinosaur Erotica.

Are your books more obscure than that? I doubt it. But even if they were, that’s not going to stop you from finding an audience. But you aren’t going to find readers if you make things difficult for yourself. Let Amazon and the other retailers do the heavy lifting for you – pick the most effective category that attracts the largest audience without giving yourself too much competition.

In other words, choose the 20% of effort that leads to 80% of results. Written a comedy? See if it fits in “Mystery”, “Thriller”, “Suspense”, “Romance”, “Horror”, “Science Fiction”, or somewhere else.

I can see the tagline now:

“The newest Thriller from Joe McScribbles is a laugh-out-loud riot!”

“Jane Spelling’s latest Science Fiction blockbuster will have you in stitches!”

“Terrifying and hilarious!”

Written about Victorian candlemakers developing a new wick technology in the slums of Liverpool? Put it in Historical Fiction. If there’s a love story, put it in Historical Romance. If it’s scary, put it in Horror or Suspense. Don’t list the book under “candle manufacturing fiction” and expect people to find it.

I’m not sure “candle manufacturing fiction” exists as a sub-genre, but you get the point.

Written an obscure Literary masterpiece? There’s nothing stopping you from listing it in “Coming of Age” or “Christian Fiction” or “Comtemporary Fiction” or “Women’s Fiction” if the storyline fits. It’s not about the style of writing, or the tone, or the plot structure. You could have a six-hour academic debate over whether a book is a “thriller” or a “technothriller”, or a “mystery” or a “suspense” story.

But readers don’t really care about this level of detail. Not so long as they know what they’re getting (that’s what the product description is for). It’s not about whether your book has jokes in it, or obscure references, or whether or not you’ve set the story in the future or the past or the present. Those are things ISBN companies and Big 5 publishers worry about. Readers care more about getting a good story that meets their expectations.

This is true whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or cave paintings. If something’s not working, switch it up a little. Go to where the readers are, instead of expecting them to come to you.

My advice? If your book is proving difficult to classify, think about the subject matter and find a different (popular) genre or niche that fits. You can use keywords and sub-categories to narrow down that audience further.

It works for Douglas Adams. It can work for you.

Now, I want to hear from you! Have you found certain genres are better sellers than others? Have you tried switching up categories to reach new readers? Leave a note in the comments section below!

If you want a step-by-step guide to getting started on your email list, go download “Reader Magnets”. This free ebook will show you how to put this process in place and start building your email list – click below to grab your copy:



  1. Elyse Salpeter says:

    This is a great idea – I keep getting my novels shoved into a metaphysical and visionary category – who in the heck is looking for that? Time to hit it squarely in thriller and adventure. Or even romantic thriller!

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Go Elyse! I think that could work really well 🙂

  2. Maureen O. Betita says:

    Ah, if only paranormal pirate adventure, with sexy romance, was a genre…

    I like your advice and will start juggling with the many descriptive words I see as relevant to my series. Do some experimenting with genre.

    Maureen O. Betita

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      If only! I’d totally buy that.

  3. I’ve recently changed my keywords, Nick and added more keywords to the series titles, but I’m still seeing no improvement. They’re British procedurals but as they have a lot of humour rather than gore, I think of them as Cozy Procedurals. In desperation, I’m thinking of changing one of my keywords to ‘Women’s Fiction’. After all, I understand cozies — of any sort — are more of a female read! Do you think that might be a good idea? Or at least worth a try?

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Have you tried Mystery -> Series? That could be a good category / keyword to focus on if you’ve not already. Otherwise, give it a shot! So long as there’s an audience you can carve out a nice niche.

      1. Thanks, NIck. Maybe I’ll give the series and women’s fiction keywords a go for a few of the books and see if there’s any change. I don’t remember seeing mystery>series as an option before. Just shows, it’s worth keeping an eye on the categories Amazon offers.

        1. Nick_Stephenson says:

          Good luck! It’s definitely a category in the US, but not sure about the UK. They tend to be a little different

  4. David says:

    Great post,

    Right now I have some fiction that has chapters of nonfiction book-ending the story. Still looking for a genre that combines fiction and nonfiction in a way readers are eager to find.

    So far, I’ve put them in the inspirational fiction category, but may narrow down sooner like I have with some of my newer books.

    Couldn’t tell from the title of this article whether genre was supposedly holding writers back from completing their book or marketing it, almost didn’t click through even though I read this site frequently.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Nice idea, David! I like that concept.

      It’s not necessarily genre that’s the issue – it’s worrying too much about labels. My point is basically, “go where the audience is” and leave the academic debates to the scholars and ISBN companies 🙂

  5. Kay Hadashi says:

    Hi Nick. Good info. Selecting a category has always been troublesome for me and I’ve shopped several of my books through various genre categories at Amazon. The main character is Asian American, so I figure the books belong there. Several of the books have done quite well, even reaching #2 and #4 at the same time, and consistently in the top 20 in that category.

    My trouble is which other categories to choose. Even though not strictly mysteries but more intrigue, I’ve listed them in intrigue, suspense, mystery, women’s contemporary, action/adventure, even women sleuths (although the main character is a surgeon, not a detective). One doesn’t seem any better/visible than another.

    My question is if it is helpful to switch categories around periodically anyway? Maybe once sales begin to settle after the initial discovery, switch the categories a bit to catch some new notice?
    Just curious.

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Switching things up every now and then can help – and if “Asian American” is a high-traffic / low competition category, that could work too.

      I don’t think readers are too bothered about the distinction between intrigue / mystery / suspense / etc, so long as it’s a good read 🙂

      Basically, if there’s a crime in it somewhere, you can list it pretty much anywhere under the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense heading. Well, maybe not under Suspense -> Ghosts… but you get the idea.

  6. Richard says:

    I’m writing historical fiction that is also a WWI novel, heavily based on the life of a real person. There’s also a heavy military aviation and PTSD aspect to the book. I can pick two categories, and I’m leaning towards Historical
    Fiction > European
    and Genre
    Fiction > War

    Is it better to go with more granularity for genre or more broad?

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Hard to say without doing some testing – but there’s plenty of genres to choose from. Outside of Historical, you could choose a Military Fiction category, or maybe even Adventure / Men’s Adventure. You can also use keywords to add extra visibility, rather than just sticking to Historical. Certainly worth a little research! Good luck with it 🙂

      1. Richard says:

        Men’s adventure, why didn’t I think of that? You, sir, are the wind beneath my wings. Many thanks.

        1. Nick_Stephenson says:

          my pleasure!

  7. Lindsey Pogue says:

    I haven’t figured out which genre listing sells best, but for my Ending series it fits into so many categories that I think it helps with the sucess we’ve had in a short amount of time: 3 books in 2 years, one more in the series to go, and it can be listed under sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, new adult, romance, dystopian, thriller/suspense, adventure/survival…I think in the long run it’s really going to help. I guess we’ll see 🙂

    1. Nick_Stephenson says:

      Same with my series – it can go in Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, Action, Private Investigator, Men’s Adventure, Crime, Political Thriller, Financial Thriller, Conspiracies, Assassins, Serial Killers, International Mystery, etc, etc, etc. Very flexible 🙂

  8. The majority of my books have a *lot* of sex. For the first two years, I placed my work in “Erotica” – period. I thought the honor system meant I needed to do that. Then I had a few readers who commented that “this is sexy but…god, I feel like this is drama, psychological, even self-help…I feel wrung inside out.”

    The “genre” question continues to perplex me but these days, I choose “Romance – Erotica” as one category and use the other one to drill down closer to the book. My book “Love of the Game” is 5 erotic novellas about athletes, so I chose “Romance – Erotica” and “Fiction – Sports.” I recently used your reader magnets to tweak the keywords to highlight the drama and deep emotional aspects.

    My learning curve has been ludicrous. I feel as if I’m “just starting” and I’ll be at three years in May with erratic results on the business side (incredible results regarding reader satisfaction). Still, better late than never, and I learn something from every post, book, video, or podcast you distribute. Thanks, Nick!


  9. proboscis says:

    I actually wrote a blog post with the opposite logic: how to filter out readers that may leave bad reviews, instead of “how to attract readers”.

  10. Martin Haworth says:

    If you have a favourite, is it worth checking where they show up and using their sub-genre? Let’s say I love to read Lee Child. If I look up the Amazon sub-genres they are listed under, and then I’m able to write to that, will that work? Or are you saying that you can be even more creative than that. Nice 10K concept; nice ebook; nice videos BTW. Thanks

  11. 97Burton says:

    I must say you have very interesting content here. Your blog can go viral.
    You need initial traffic only. How to get it?
    Search for; Etorofer’s strategies

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