Understanding the genre you want to write in is one of the most important elements of being an author. It helps you craft books closer to what your readers want, it helps you be more marketable and hopefully sell more books. But what do you need to know and where do you go looking for that market information? Today, the Alliance of Independent Authors AskALLi team welcomes partner member Nat Connors from Kindletrends to explain how to understand your book genre.
Understanding Your Book Genre
Nat Connors has been publishing genre fiction since 2016. He’s a fiction writer, medical scientist and dance teacher. Kindletrends started when he got fed up with trying to make sense of the Kindle Store, and wanted a compiled summary of the information important to his own writing. He shared it with author friends, and now he wants to share it with the author community as a whole. Kindletrends is a weekly research newsletter for self-published authors. Each week and month, subscribers get in-depth information summarising every aspect of their genre – blurbs, covers, titles and trends.
In this article, I’ll describe a method for how to research your genre of interest using the most common ebook platforms: Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Books, and Apple Books. These ebook platforms aren’t the entire landscape of the independent author’s market, but they are an immediately accessible and cost-effective way to research a genre, so they’re a good place to start.
There are a lot of different theories about about what a genre is, and how they relate to each other, and you’ll come up with your own definitions as you do your own research. In addition, there are a lot of well-researched and thoughtful books about specific aspects of genre research; we’ll discuss some some of them here, and provide references. The approach described here is one of many, although they are complementary, not contradictory; you’ll find that the things suggested here will fit in well with other ‘how to research’ material you read elsewhere.
Note: I’ve included a cheat sheet summary for download at the end of this article, for you to print out and put on your wall, or include in a folder.
Four Aspects of Research
I’ve chosen to divide research up into four sections, representing four different areas I think you need to master to be on top of your book genre. They start with the ‘innermost’ and most fundamental one – the content of your book – and work outwards through blurbs, covers and genre mechanics. I suggest tackling them in this order so you can see how each influences the other.
- Content: what’s in your book
- Blurbs: what’s on the buying page of your book
- Covers: what’s on the front of your book
- Mechanics: everything else about your genre that isn’t your book
In each section I’ll explain ways you can look at aspects of ebook publishing platforms to identify the key features of books in your genre. I’ll also provide links to other resources that have helped me, and to authors and writers who I think are really accomplished in this area.
Our method begins with content, because I think understanding genre content is the most important part of writing successfully in a genre. This understanding doesn’t imply that you have to copy what others have done, or even be bound by it. But the more you understand what’s in a genre, the better you’ll see how your own work fits into that genre.
Ultimately, the content of your story is what you are delivering to the reader for their time and money; promising it through the cover, developing that promise in the blurb, and then finally delivering when they decide to buy your book. This means that understanding the relationship between story elements in a genre, and the reader expectations they fulfil, is one of the best ways you can spend your research time.
To get started understanding the content of a genre, start by looking at the relevant category in each online store. Here’s a table of links to categories, by platform:
You don’t have to look at every single store in detail; since Amazon has the largest market share, a pragmatic approach is to focus your genre research on the Amazon Kindle Store. Then once you’ve done a little research on the Kindle Store, look briefly at the other stores with the goal of understanding the differences between the way your genre is represented there, and the way it’s represented in the other stores.
Each store is slightly different in structure, and some stores are easier to navigate than others. The books in each store are separated into ‘categories’; by ‘category’, I mean ‘the divisions in a store which you can usually see as a list of names on the store website when you’re browsing books’.
Categories generally have a hierarchical relationship – for instance, ‘Space Opera’ might be a category under ‘Science Fiction’. In a few cases they converge – that is, a single category belongs to two different hierarchies. All the stores share large overarching category divisions, like Science Fiction, Politics, Romance, History, or Fantasy, but beneath those general categories they may differ quite a bit. In addition, the type of books that are on the stores in each category may differ subtly, most often in the cover and blurb.
One of the most challenging parts of genre research is that a store’s division of categories may not match up with our understanding of genre, as authors and readers. As authors we sometimes have problems categorising our books because some genres are clearly and comprehensively represented by categories (for instance, Western Fiction), and others aren’t.
Furthermore, genres are subjective, non-exclusive, fuzzy-edged and rapidly changing; for instance, the ‘litRPG’ genre is popular now in self-published fiction, but was not at all popular 3-4 years ago. BISAC codes (https://bisg.org/page/BISACSubjectCodes) represent another view of genre, one that is oriented around the traditional publishing industry, around book distribution and around libraries.
Each of these frameworks is important, but it can be confusing to keep them all in your head. For the moment, though, just focus on understanding what’s in relevant categories on the online stores, and thinking about how they relate to what you write, or want to write.
First, look a number of the top books in the category. The books presented first to a customer on the website are typically the top-selling or top-earning books for that category. Although they don’t always represent the entire category in terms of themes or presentation, it’s still important to understand them. Make notes on how old those top books are: if there are a lot of new books less than 30 days old, that shows that the category is pretty active, and new books are coming out every month. This might mean that it’s easier to get into the top-selling books, but it might also mean that you need to publish more frequently, and advertise more, to stay there.
On the other hand, a low number of new books might mean that you don’t have to publish as frequently in this category, but it might be harder to break into. You can also watch this figure from week to week and month to month, to see if the category is getting more, or less, busy.
Reading Your Book Genre
To get started understanding a genre, you do need to read a lot of books. If you’re in a country which offers Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription program, and if your genre of interest is represented in Kindle Unlimited (check using the links above), then this can be an inexpensive way to read a number of books for research. Otherwise, many authors will offer temporary discounts on ebooks, or price individual ebooks (for instance, Book 1 in a series) very cheap or free; keep an eye out for these in the categories you’re studying to keep costs down.
Choose a few books to buy and read that look appealing to you, and that you would like to have written. Make notes on why those books look appealing, and what you like about them. As you read these books, your experience and your opinions will change, so it’s important to record your initial observations.
Work through the books paying attention to the major story and style elements; make notes on what you read, where it happens in the book, and how each element is linked to the others around it. Reading for research like this is a little different to reading for enjoyment, or for style and storycraft reasons; try to stay high above the story, and focus only on the main elements, and what emotions they communicate to the reader. Plotting and craft books can help this process, and I list a few popular ones at the end of this session.
Next, go back to the store page for the book and read the reviews, both positive and negative. If you see a common element that readers liked or didn’t like about the book, note it down. The details of what readers say are often not as important as the elements about which they say it. A story element which is memorable will be commented upon in a review; so for each relevant comment, think about what would cause a reader to feel that way.
When you’ve worked through a few different books, compare your notes on them. Which elements are the same, and which differ between books? How do the similar or different elements affect the plot? Which elements are commented on – positively or negatively – by readers?
The more books in a genre you read, the more you’ll get an idea of the relationship between story elements and reader expectations; how those expectations are established and then fulfilled by the story in a satisfying way.
In the following sections, we’ll return to the notes you’ve made here, and add to them as you look at how the blurb and cover both work to set reader expectations, and which story elements specifically relate to them.
There are many good plotting and craft books and resources, and I will only recommend a few, from least cost and time to most. I encourage you to read a lot of different perspectives about plotting and craft, and to take the parts which work for you.
- Jami Gold has many useful resources for writers, and her beat sheets are an excellent (free) synopsis.
- Romancing the Beat. A fun and accessible book valuable for all writers; even if you have no interest in romance, these stories are ingrained into all kinds of media, and so studying them is a way to get into plotting.
- Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. This is a more traditional story-structure method and may take a little longer to work through, but is one of the most common you’ll see mentioned.
Blurbs are (typically) the last thing readers see on an ebook store before they decide to buy your book. Writing effective blurbs is challenging, and takes constant practice – but of all the elements we’re discussing in this series, it’s also the one which is cheapest to improve, and the most in your control.
To understand a genre through blurbs, it can help to work on a blurb for your own book. Even if you haven’t finished a book, you can still think about writing a blurb; many successful authors start writing a blurb at the same time as they start their book, and continue to polish and perfect it as they write.
Let’s imagine you have a book, or a book concept in mind, and you want to understand more about your genre by working on a blurb for it. Start by going to the store of your choice, and looking for books that are similar to yours. Taking just the blurbs, rank the books in order of their appeal to you. Try not to think too much about this, just do it quickly; the goal is to try and adopt the mindset of a reader who is browsing looking for something to read.
If you can, see if you can enlist someone else who isn’t a writer to do this as well; comparing their ranking with yours may tell you about things you’ve missed.
Take the top three blurbs in order, and write the blurb for your book in the style of each of those top three. If they’re similar styles, then go further down your list until you have three different styles. Don’t worry if they don’t quite fit; you will rewrite them soon, and the purpose of this exercise is to get a feeling for different ways you can write your blurb.
Next, go back to the notes you made in Part 1: Content, and compare the blurbs for those books with the story elements you identified. In a good blurb, every single sentence is there for a reason, and every single sentence indicates something about the book. For the books you have read, what story element or elements does each sentence in the blurb indicate to the reader? Pay particular attention to elements mentioned by readers in their reviews; these are good targets for emphasising in your own blurb.
Based on this knowledge, go back to your three different versions of your blurb and edit them. Your goal is to make each sentence in each of your blurb versions tell the reader something about your book – specifically, something that is a popular story element, and/or is mentioned by reviewers of other relevant books. This is quite a challenging exercise, and you will probably find one of these blurbs more appealing to you than the others. This is understandable, but don’t give up on the others just yet.
When this is done, try to find an audience on which to test your three blurbs. This can be colleagues, friends and family, or a genre-specific readers’ or writers’ group online. Present all three blurbs and ask people to rank them in order of their appeal; I find this gives me more useful feedback than just asking people whether they like a single blurb. If you get a clear winner in terms of style, go with that; if you don’t, ask people what they like about their favourites, and try to combine them into a single blurb.
- The successful romance author and former copywriter Rosalind James has an excellent post about her blurb writing formula; this is the formula I start with for writing blurbs in all genres.
- Nicholas Erik (more recommendations later) has a ‘blurb cheat sheet’ which is invaluable, and a good general approach for all genres. In particular, his method of hand-copying blurbs, writing your own and then reading it aloud is very powerful.
- My current favourite book about blurbs is ‘Book Blurbs Unleashed’ by Robert J Ryan. This has a lot of useful insights about different types of taglines, and good examples of applying them to different genres.
Your book’s cover is usually the first thing that potential readers see — in a newsletter, blog post or online advertisement. Just like the blurb, covers make a specific set of promises to the reader about what they will be getting in the book — in particular, covers usually tell the reader about the genre and subgenre of the book. They also play an important role in author branding, making sure readers can identify two books by the same author, even at thumbnail size.
To learn about covers in a genre, start by scanning the covers relevant to that genre, every week for a month. You’ll typically see two or three different major types of cover in a genre, with a sprinkling of other covers that don’t fit any group. Make notes about the groups which persist from week to week, and about what you think is in each book, based on the cover elements.
When you’ve got an idea of the major types of cover in your genre, start making some notes, looking at the following elements:
- People: their presence or absence, framing (face only, in close-up, whole body), angle, dress style
- Objects: how are they relevant to the story?
- Colour: what are the dominant colors and shades? The colorboard in the weekly newsletter can help with this as well
- Typography: font size, type placement. Relationship between the author name and the title – are they in different fonts?
- Other cover elements: taglines or devices (for instance, badges or medals)
- Series and author similarities: for books in a series or by the same author, what are the consistent elements which make it clear that these books are related?
Next, go to the blurbs for the books you’re looking at. Look for specific elements in the cover which are linked to key words or phrases in the blurb. Just like with blurb research, your goal is to understand what each element in the cover tells the reader — something about the genre, about this specific story, or about the author or series.
When you’ve worked through this exercise a few times, you’ll be in a good position to choose a few specific covers as a basis for your own. When you’re working with a cover designer, this exercise will allow you to send them relevant examples of covers in your genre, and also to be specific about the cover elements you want in your own cover, and why.
- I don’t have specific recommendations for cover designers, because they will vary a lot from time to time, and genre to genre. When you see covers you like, try checking in the acknowledgements in the book (which may be visible from the Look Inside) to see if the designer is credited. If not, consider emailing the author and asking them; most authors are happy to support their cover designers with more work.
AskALLi Notes: Don’t forget that as an ALLi member you have access to our trusted partner directory. Log in to the member site allianceindependentauthors.org and navigate to APPROVED SERVICES> SEARCH FOR A SERVICE to find approved cover designers.
By genre mechanics I mean ‘everything else to do with your genre which isn’t specifically about your book’. That can be a lot of different elements, but I have chosen to separate it from the three previous parts (content, blurb, cover) because I think it’s valuable to learn how elements in each of those are linked to the preceding one.
The mechanics of a genre are closely related to the content of your story, but they aren’t the same; in principle you could write a great story, with a great blurb and a killer cover, but if it weren’t attuned to the mechanics of your genre, it wouldn’t perform as well as it might otherwise.
In addition, your understanding of genre mechanics might affect the type of story you choose to write because of the amount of time you have available, or because of your preferred work style.
To learn about genre mechanics, look in the stores of your choice for the following:
How frequent are new books in your genre? When you do ongoing research, keep track of how long books persist, and how quickly they drop out of the list of the top books.
Traditionally-published books may have a different lifespan to non-trad (that is self-published or small-press) books in your genre, so it’s worth looking at both groups to get a sense of the differences. If you’re not sure whether a book is traditionally published or not, look up the publisher name on Google; if it’s an imprint of one of the big commercial publishing houses, it will almost always come up as the first result when you do so.
Standalone vs Series
Some genres heavily favor writing books in a long series, to maximize read through. ‘Read through’ is the process of writing your books to make it easy for readers to binge them — so that when they finish one, there’s another one right there tempting them.
If you’re planning to do this, you may want to do specific ‘series research’ in your genre: make a special trip identify the books which are in a series. This is particularly relevant for planning covers: cover design for a series can be challenging, because you need flexibility to substitute in different elements for each book, while retaining other ones to maintain obvious series branding.
Most stores will show the page length for each book on the store page for that book; note down 10-20 of these, and take the median to get a sense of the length of a ‘typical’ book in that category. As with other elements, you don’t have to write to the same length as other writers in your genre – but be aware of reader expectations in this area, particularly at a specific price point. Estimates of the number of words per page reported by ebook platforms vary quite a bit, but I have used 200wpp as a lower estimate, and 250wpp as an upper estimate.
Some categories will have a wide variety of prices in them, so it’s a good idea to look at the books at high and low price points to understand why they’re different. Trad-published and wide books may often have higher price points than non-trad and/or KU books. For some more insightful discussion on pricing, consult Nicholas Erik’s ‘Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing’, linked below.
Two recommendations here, both of which cost money but are well worth the investment:
- Chris Fox’s ‘Write to Market’ series. These are short and full of solid advice on all aspects of genre mechanics and research. Chris Fox’s approach to branding also emphasises integrity and being present where readers are to find out honestly what they want.
- Nicholas Erik’s ‘Ultimate Guide’ series. Nicholas Erik’s material is all very high-quality, actionable and valuable. I also recommend you bookmark the resources page on his site and keep coming back to it. Everything on there is worth money, but it’s not charged for.
Understanding your genre allows you to decide how you want your work to sit next to other books. Is it longer or shorter than average? Higher or lower priced? Faster or slower paced? If in a series, how long is the series?
As with the content of your books, there are no binding rules, but understanding what other successful authors do, and the norms of your genre, will allow you to make informed decisions and ‘change your course’ as you go along in your writing career.
Thanks for reading; you can find a cheat sheet summary of this approach here.