Know Your Category

This post is all about how to identify genre and determine which book genre or publishing category you’re writing in. I’d like to preface this post by emphasizing that I’m not trying to stifle your creative genius. I’m really not. But, as I’ve said before, you should probably learn the rules before you break them. At no time is this more true than when you’re trying to decide what age range you’re writing for in children’s books. I’m going through some submissions right now and the writers seem to be confused about how to identify genre. This happens a lot and it just means one thing: you haven’t done your market research.

how to identify genre, book genre, book category, children's book category
You fit in somewhere. The trick is figuring out where, before you write that 5,000-word picture book.

How to Identify Genre in Children’s Books

Now, one thing to clear up. A lot of writers don’t know the difference between book genre and category when it comes to children’s books especially. Book genre is stuff like fantasy, historical, paranormal, etc. Book category is the age range you’re writing for. With this post, I’m going to talk about the latter, mostly.

For example, and this is from my own imagination, not a recent submission: what do I do with a 5,000 word fiction picture book about world politics? Or a 5,000 word middle grade about a baby puppy who goes on a naptime adventure? Or a 300,000 word YA starring a talking salmon? Maybe a 10,000 word YA about a character’s messy divorce?

If all of those examples weren’t immediately funny to you, you need this post. When I speak at conferences, I tell people all the time that booksellers will not build you your own shelf at their stores just because you want to do something different. Learning how to identify genre also means learning the rules of the publishing market.

Take picture books as a fine example. Most editors are very specific about what they want these days (and, frustrating yet liberating, there are always exceptions to the rules, but don’t aspire to be one of them right out of the gate). They want highly commercial character-driven (but with plot!) picture books that clock in on the short side, usually under 700 words for fiction.

How do I know this? I talk to editors all the time.

But how might you, if you weren’t a) me, b) reading this blog or c) talking to lots of editors, know this, too?

Active Tips for How to Identify Book Genre

Go to the bookstore. It’s a master class on book genre. Head to your local indie or chain store and see what’s on the shelves. Don’t worry about muddying your artistic integrity by looking at other books in the same vein as yours. (I’ll have to post on this, I have lots of thoughts as both a writer and agent and they’re pulling me in separate directions!) You’re just doing market research right now. What do you see? I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of commercial, character-driven (with plot!) picture books that are on the short side.

That’s what publishers are buying from creators and that’s what bookstores are buying from publishers and that’s (ideally) what customers are buying from bookstores. That’s the market.

So if you can tell your story in a highly commercial way (know that this is subjective), base it on a strong character and plot, and in 700 words or fewer, why tell it another way? Why try and write a 5,000-word international political drama and call it a picture book? Why write “YA” about an adult character? Why try a 5,000 word “novella” when the MG books on shelves are between 25,000 and 55,000 words? That’s book genre all out of whack.

The children’s market is unique in that the audience is on a pretty structured developmental scale. Sure, there are 4 year-olds who are reading (or being read) Neil Gaiman, like my friend’s kid (bizarre and perhaps inappropriate but she seems to love it). And there are reluctant readers who are constantly frustrated because the books they can read are all about younger characters. But, at least in theory, kids develop on a scale so their books need to have certain lengths, content requirements and vocabulary levels. Not only is there not much precedent for a sociopolitical 5,000 word picture book on shelves in the bookstore, but there’s no audience for it in terms of the target picture book readership (3-5, 5-7). Same for the 10,000 YA with an adult protagonist or the anthropomorphic epic or the short MG about a baby animal.

In Book Genre, Know Your Audience

When you sit down to write, be super clear about what you’re setting out to do. Check out my post on manuscript length. Make sure your manuscript fits guidelines for the age range that you’re targeting. Make sure your protagonist is someone who people in that age range would care about. Make sure your subject matter is equally interesting. You won’t find practical concerns like these in the adult world, but you will find heaps of them when you’re writing for children, just because children are always in flux.

If you feel a bit clueless about what you’re writing and what category it fits into, spend an afternoon at a bookstore. Seriously. It could be the most valuable three hours you ever spend and it will teach you more about the market than I ever could. There’s just no excuse for me to be seeing some of the submissions that people cook up. And I wouldn’t be seeing them, guaranteed, if some authors didn’t take the time to learn their category, embrace it, and write within it. Why? Because that’s what editors are buying. Because that’s what bookstores are buying. Because that’s what readers are buying. It’s really very simple.

P.S. — Yes, my punk rock teenage self would rail against this recommendation to stay inside the lines, category-wise. But I figure that getting published is hard enough. Why stack the odds against you by turning out that 5,000-word PB or that adult protagonist YA?

Struggling with book genre or publishing category? I’m a manuscript editor with deep experience on the publishing side of things, and I can help you hone your pitch and your project to the market.

Unconventional Writing: Are Publishers Taking Risks Anymore?

I’ve gotten some interesting questions from readers about unconventional writing. The first is from Jeni:

Am wondering if you think the world of children’s books is getting more conservative? Are publishers taking less risks? Are authors being positioned so that they have to play it safe?

Publishers are still taking risks, but the risks they’re taking will be based on story rather than a writer’s raw talent, I find. Publishers are much more willing to try a brilliant book about a strange subject, unheard-of paranormal creature, situation, or whatever (like Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (read my review), a book about a crazy mad cow disease road trip, but executed with ridiculous genius, which went on to win the Printz), than to take a risk on a book that’s good but a hot mess by a writer whose craft they’ll need to develop in the editing process.

That’s why it’s so much more important, now than ever before, to have impeccable craft, breathtaking storytelling skills, and a marketable idea. Publishers are still taking risks… but they’re smarter risks, and they’re risking on more quality material than they might’ve been before. They’re also buying things that scream “commercial” or things that fit the trends as they see them. And those are the two main drivers of acquisitions decisions today.

Why Good Writing Gets Rejected

I know you’re all wondering, dear blog readers, so here we go — I’m going to address why good writing gets rejected. It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it? This, my friends, is why manuscripts get rejected — even when agents love them.

why good writing gets rejected, why manuscripts get rejected
Why good writing gets rejected: even if it’s good, does it have market viability?

In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?

Why Good Writing Gets Rejected: Is There a Market for Your Story?

And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. This is one reason why manuscripts get rejected — the inability to predict unpredictable market trends. If agents had crystal balls, Stephenie Meyer’s first manuscript would’ve been snapped right up.

Since I don’t have a crystal ball, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.

Even if I Love a Manuscript, My Job is to Sell Books

The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes the “why good writing gets rejected” question so difficult. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.

A Different Agent Might Connect with Your Story

The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. So if you’re trying to crack the code around why manuscripts get rejected, the answer might be to just query another agent. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.

It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor regarding why good writing gets rejected is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently. (For more on this topic, check out my post on how to write a book that sells.)

Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. 🙂

When you hire me as your novel editor, I’ll push you to produce a piece of work that balances emotional resonance with commercial appeal.

How Do Bad Books Get Published?

“How do bad books get published?” When I give advice and say that a manuscript has to be amazing to get published, this is the first thing people usually ask. Believe me, I’ve let myself think this plenty of times, usually when a fantastic manuscript from one of my clients gets rejected. (Yes, agents get rejected… We submit manuscripts to editors and they reject our submissions, too…)

how do bad books get published, crappy books
“How do bad books get published?” Instead of stewing over this question, focus on filling up that blank page with your story.

How Do Bad Books Get Published?

But the simple fact of the matter is, there’s no accounting for taste. And there are a lot of readers out there. Publishers have to cater to specific audiences and specific interests. If a paranormal NASCAR romance novel isn’t for you, it very well could be for plenty of other people (in fact, the sad truth is, it’ll probably find more readers than your achingly beautiful literary masterpiece, but such is life). That doesn’t make the paranormal NASCAR romance crappy. It just means you have standards. (Just kidding!) And if the writing on a bestselling vampire series, let’s just say, cough, isn’t up to snuff, that’s probably because the idea was so commercial that it came first and the literary nature of the writing came second.

Focus on YOUR Writing

There’s a time for writers to be very aware of the marketplace. It’s when they’re reading analytically or researching comparative titles or getting to know what’s getting published today and what the trends are. There are other times, though, when a writer needs to shut the marketplace out, stop comparing themselves to other books and writers (many of who are more successful, simply because they’re further along in their careers… by the same token, though, all the pitfalls and struggles they’ve had aren’t exactly written on their cover flaps for all to read, so you never know) and focus on the work of writing. Because let’s face it, “How do bad books get published?” is a question for the bitter. It’s usually uttered after a rejection or a critique. And who wants to be bitter?

Patience, Young Grasshopper

If you follow the logic of “How do bad books get published?” then… you’re saying that you want someone to publish your bad thing? Because that’s what it sounds like: I know my manuscript needs work but so many crappy things get published so someone just publish this hot mess already so I can get the book deal and the millions of dollars and wah wah wah!!! Why would you want to publish something for the lowest common denominator? Just having a publication credit won’t change your life. Then you’ll have a book out — a crappy book, by your own admission — and you’ll have to worry about sales numbers. And if your first — crappy, let me remind you — book doesn’t sell, you won’t be able to interest anyone in a second one that might be better quality (the one you should’ve waited for and published first).

So stop getting impatient, stop chasing publication for publication’s sake, stop looking around and getting bitter, and focus on how to create a story and producing the best, most polished, most anti-crappy manuscript you possibly can. How’s that for writing advice?

I would love to be your fiction editor and help you learn how to create a story. I work with writers of all levels, from those who are just beginning, to those who are polishing a finished manuscript.

The Importance of Reading Like a Writer

Today’s post is about reading like a writer, but here’s a little backstory to start. A few summers ago, I had a cringe-worthy conversation with an executive editor from a very large publishing house. I was at this conference as a writer, before I entered the industry from the business end, and blathering about a manuscript I was working on, a YA about a girl whose sister died.

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Reading like a writer: Reading more will improve your writing.

“There’s Nothing Like That Out These Days” — Are You Sure?

As one of the only children’s writers at the conference, I definitely had a lot of this editor’s time. On this particular occasion, I used my limelight to open my big mouth and blab something along the lines of the following:

There are so many books out there like THE CLIQUE, ya know? All fluff and no substance! What I really wanna do is, like, write a book that’s deeper than that. One about real emotions and stuff. There’s nothing like that out these days.

Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahaha! Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Boy howdy was I ever young and ignorant.

I think the word I was groping for is: “literary.” And, if you’ve been in a bookstore lately, you know that it’s impossible to turn around without bumping into a highly literary, emotionally charged YA book or two thousand. Death, drugs, divorce, heartbreak, YA has it all.

Now that I’ve been on the other side of the table and reading slush, I’ve seen ignorant statements like mine repeated by many authors. “There are like, totally no books about (insert totally common and well-represented theme or topic here).”

That’s called not reading like a writer. There are so many books out there that it’s impossible to read even a thousandth of one percent of your way through the shelves at a bookstore. More of them come out every day. While the average adult has abysmal reading habits, a writer has no excuse.

Published Work by Others is the Best Textbook

Ideally, when you read like a writer, you should read often and widely. In kidlit, writers shouldn’t just stick to fantasy or historical or literary, or even their age group, for that matter, but experience all the wonderful offerings on the shelves.

There are those writers who think their work will be corrupted by reading while they write. That makes little sense to me. More often than not, it’s these kinds of writers who convince themselves that there’s never been a YA book about a main character grieving over her dead sister. I guess I can understand this attitude if you’re reaching for something experimental with your manuscript, but not if you have commercial aspirations, like a lot of writers do. I can say for certain that my writing has improved immeasurably since I started reading like a writer.

Ditch the Competition Mindset When You’re Reading Like a Writer

Instead of feeling intimidated and viewing already published work in your genre as “competition,” view it as a learning exercise. Read like a writer, make note of what other authors are doing. If you spot things than could’ve worked better in a story, boy howdy, you’ve got material for your own manuscript! It will make you look even savvier if you can query an agent or editor and mention some “comp titles,” or works in the same vein as yours. Because all editors and agents know that a book like yours exists out there, somewhere. No idea or book is absolutely, completely unique (See “Someone is publishing my idea!” for more reassurance on this front). And that’s a good thing! Even better, if previous books like yours have has sold well, that’s great news for you and your project.

So read a lot, read widely and read like a writer. You’ll pick up new ideas, realize things about your own writing and feel like you belong in a community. And unless your novel concept is way, way, way, way out there, like zombies in the world of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE*, for example, keep your mouth shut in front of executive editors until you know what the real market for work like yours looks like.

* Just kidding! Someone already did that. Introducing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

Hire me as your novel editor and publishing consultant, and we can figure out how to position your novel in a competitive marketplace.