The Breakdown: How Books Are Classified
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Hello and welcome back to another blog post from ya girl, Sammie, here on Obsidian Elephant where I talk about everything writing.
If you have spent any extended time on this blog you will know I am on a mission to learn everything I possibly can about publishing, and how I can carve out my niche within this weird and wonderful world.
In this week’s blog I will be kicking off yet another series called “The Breakdown” in which I will be researching the more complex publishing industry terms and (please hold your surprise) breaking them down to help myself (and hopefully you) understand why the industry uses them.
In this series I will cover things such as tropes, character types, elements of fiction, as well as the ways in which publishers and agents categorise fiction for different markets.
In this article I will be covering fiction categories, what they mean, as well as briefly touching on the most popular genres. However, since genre is such a large topic I will be elaborating on these in separate posts.
So, what are the different ways in which publishing categorises fiction? There are Age Markets, Literary Styles, and Genres / Subgenres. All of which are used to place works of fiction into a niche so that they can be directed towards the best markets.
Publishing is a relationships based industry, so in order to understand who to submit manuscripts to, agents and editors need to understand what readers those stories will be most appealing to. This allows them to tailor their marketing efforts towards those people most effectively.
So, let’s dive down into these three intersecting classifications.
Age Markets / Fiction Categories
Age markets are used to refine the market to a particular age group, this is important as readers at different ages will be interested in different things.
Adult readers are unlikely to be concerned with issues affecting Middle Grade aged children, and themes suitable for adults may be too mature for younger audiences. A helpful resource I found to explain this category was from the video posted by the Reedsy channel on YouTube called A Guide to Literary Genres.
The main age markets covered in this video by the lovely ShaelinWrites are:
Target Reader: 8 -12 years old
Main Characters are usually between 10 - 13 years old
There can be violence or heavy topics but in a manner that is appropriate for children
There is more emphasis on action and the way the characters interact with their surroundings rather than the characters’ interiority and emotional journeys.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightening Thief (Rick Riordan)
Young Adult (YA)
Target Reader: 12 - 18 years old
Main Characters are usually between 15 - 18 years old
There can be violence and heavy topics but content should remain suitable for teens
Often covers issues affecting teens (such as friendship or family dynamics, school, etc.) and there is more focus on the characters’ emotional journeys and interiority.
Target Reader: 18+ years old
Main Characters can be any age, but usually the focus is on adult characters
No restriction on content but should conform to expectations of genre or target readers
Finally, there is Children’s Books, which are categorised as:
Target Reader: 8 or younger
Light-hearted, low reading level and usually has more educational element
Often includes illustrations that keep younger children interested
Often designed for parents reading to children
Though Children’s Books are popular, they are not usually categorised with the above fiction genres due to their differing format and target markets. They are not really comparable to standard fiction and are treated differently.
Now we’ve established audience, we have to categorise the type of writer who is delivering the story. This also relates to the type of reader but in a slightly more nebulous way. There is a hard cut off for an age range, whereas the prose preference of those readers is more subjective.
This style is categorised as Commercial/Genre Fiction, Upmarket Fiction and Literary Fiction. The three can be seen as a spectrum with Commercial on one end and Literary on the opposite, with Upmarket sitting somewhere in the middle.
Alyssa Matesic posted a really helpful video on this topic called Fiction Genres Explained, so please check this out to get her take on the topic as someone who works in publishing.
As she discusses in her video the three literary styles are defined as:
Commercial/Genre fiction has a greater focus on plot and readability, with stories that tend to fit neatly within a particular genre. These types of books are intended to be “page-turners” and aimed at the broadest market (including casual / holiday readers) who want suspenseful plot development and a satisfying ending.
Literary fiction is more character driven, with a satisfying or suspenseful “page-turning” plot being secondary to the prose. In these types of novels the enjoyment of reading comes from the beauty of the writing, or the complexity of the subject matter, and they will often not fit into a standard genre. Though these stories can have satisfying conclusions, they are often not concerned with tying up lose ends or providing the reader with a happy ending. These are the types of books usually considered for literary prizes.
Upmarket fiction contains facets of both Commercial and Literary fiction. These are highly readable novels but with a prose style or narrative conventions that elevate them out of the typical commercial fiction category. They can be character driven while still prioritising a satisfying ending and suspenseful plot. These books still fit nicely into a genre while being more subversive or literary in nature.
Finally we come to the main category that people think about when it comes to classifying a work of fiction, and is probably the most helpful when it comes to readers approaching which books they want to read. While the other categories are used to identify books to particular markets, they are more likely to influence aesthetic or logistical aspects of book publishing (such as cover art, marketing choices, which shops sell the books, etc).
Genre is a more front-facing classification used to entice readers to a certain publication based on their story and style preferences. Readers who enjoy Sci-Fi will likely consider a book listed under Sci-Fi, regardless of whether it is literary or commercial fiction.
The main fiction genres that you will want to pay attention to are:
Knowing which of these intersecting classifications that your book falls into is extremely helpful when you are querying agents. Agents and publishers with experience selling to a particular niche, such as Upmarket Adult Mysteries, will likely not be interested in a Commercial YA Romance.
Understanding this will help you to better direct your queries and make it much more likely that an agent or publisher will show interest in your manuscript.
I hope this short overview of book classifications was helpful to you. Please stay tuned for more entries in “The Breakdown” and good luck with your writing.