How to Pick the Right Genre for Your Self-Published Novel

As a self-published author, you’ve got to do everything you can to give your book an advantage in the market. Whether your goals are to stay on the self-published path or to get attention from a literary agent, you want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. 

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And without a defined genre, your chances of doing just that are pretty low.

Giving your novel a genre is how your book can get attention for the type of story it is and the type of readers it’ll attract. Without a defined genre readers don’t know what to expect inside the pages, which means they’re less likely to take the risk and buy your book.

If you don’t know where your novel fits in, it means you don’t know who your book’s target audience is. And knowing your book’s target audience is the first and most important step in marketing your book successfully.

Why is Genre So Important?

Your novel’s genre is important from both a literary agent/editor standpoint and for potential readers.

Both agents and editors tend to specialize in one or a few specific genres. If your manuscript doesn’t fit within the genre that the agent represents, it’ll end up in their slush pile, never to be read.

And even if your manuscript does make it out of the slush pile and into their hands, not identifying a genre will show the agent that you haven’t done your homework to figure out who your book’s ideal reader is — which will make them think twice about signing you. 

And if you’re worried that choosing a genre will put your complex novel into a reductive box, you need to decide whether you care more about being a “complex artist” than you do about being a selling author. Your call!

Genre Turns Book Browsers Into Buyers

Book readers shop for novels the same way they pick new shows on Netflix or shop for a new pair of jeans. They start with the directors or genres they love (or the jean brands that fit the best), and look for something as similar as possible to satisfy their search. 

If you wrote a psychological thriller that Stephen King fans will likely love, you want to make sure your book is smack dab in the middle of the horror/thriller section where interested readers can find it. 

If your book is mis-genred (yes, we made that word up) as romance because the main character falls in love, your ideal reader won’t find your book. And whoever does read your book will be frustrated that they only got to indulge in a chapter-long romance, and now they can’t sleep with the lights off for a week. 

The main takeaway? Choosing the right genre for your self-published novel helps improve your odds of making a sale.

Main Types of Novel Genres

Although there is no hard-and-fast list of fiction genres, most novels can fall into the following parent categories:

  • Romance
  • Thriller/Horror
  • Mystery
  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Historical Fiction
  • Western
  • Literary Fiction

Each of these categories may have smaller sub-categories or descriptions within them to help you drill down your book’s niche even further. 

For instance, “Mystery” can also have sub-categories like “Noir” or “Humorous.” And general “Literary Fiction” can be subdivided into things like “Mythology”, “British & Irish” “Humor & Satire” — the list goes on. 

 5 Steps to Find Your Book’s Genre

Step 1:

Look at Amazon’s Books page. At the top of the page, you’ll see gray icons that categorize the books into different genres. Although some of these are non-fiction categories, you can quickly see how Amazon makes browsing easier for readers:

You can also do this by strolling through your local bookstore and looking at the main classifications for fiction. 

Step 2:

On the left side of Amazon’s Books page, you’ll see a long list of book categories to choose from. Click on a few of the fiction genres (like Mystery, Thriller & Suspense or the general Literature & Fiction category). 

Step 3:

Look at the top five bestsellers in each fiction genre, and read each book’s description. What does each genre emphasize? 

Once you’ve looked through at least a dozen or so book descriptions, you’ll understand which elements are most important to each genre’s readers.

Step 4:

Now look at your own novel to identify the important genre elements in the story:

  • Does the plot revolve around a love story? A crime? The internal challenges of a family?
  • Are there surreal or supernatural occurrences?
  • Is the protagonist a child or youth?
  • Is the story set in the past, present, or future?
  • Is the story more focused on characters and relationships than it is on the plot?

Stories can have a combination of many different genre-defining elements — love, crime, surrealism, a futuristic setting, etc. But understanding what defines each genre (and the smaller subcategories within them) will help you understand which elements of your story are the main focus, and which pieces are secondary.

Step 5:

Think about the type of reader who would love your novel, and why. By figuring out your novel’s ideal reader, it can help you narrow down the book’s specific genre. 

Try to imagine a specific person. What aspects of your novel would drive its biggest fan completely wild? Is it the tension and mind-bending plot? If so, maybe you’ve got a suspense novel on your hands. 

Or maybe they love the futuristic and detailed world-building, in which case it could be a sci-fi novel — unless the world-building and setting is secondary to the character relationships, meaning it could potentially thrive on the literary fiction shelf. 

Make sure there aren’t any massive twists that change the book’s genre halfway through or at the very end. This will disappoint readers and ultimately lead to lower book sales, which isn’t worth the surprise. 

From editors and potential publishers to readers, picking the right genre for your book is critical for sales. And once you’ve got that nailed down, you can stroll confidently into a bookstore and ask to sell your novel on consignment — in the genre section that will give your book the best attention and sales.

Never sold on consignment before? Never fear. Here’s our guide to successfully selling your self-published book on consignment »

Adam user

President & CEO,
Steuben Press

Adam Ellis has worked in the book industry since 2002, when he was first exposed to the wonderful world of Self Publishing. Over the years he has worked with thousands of authors and helped to produce, print and publish countless books.

Bookcover lin website

Recently, Steuben Press printed my 213 page personal memoir. If you are contemplating having your own story professionally printed Steuben Press is the company for you! They will handle your manuscript with kid gloves and you'll be ever so proud to hand our each and every copy of your story to friends and family.

– Lin Joyce, Herndon, Virginia

Email Lin and purchase her story "Raising My Family Around the World ~ The Adventures of a CIA Wife and Mom in Stories, Snapshots and Letters."