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Expert Editorial Tips for Writers

Ask a Book Editor: Why Category Matters

Photo by  Fahrul Azmi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Fahrul Azmi on Unsplash

When it comes to successful publishing, category is king. Yes, it may sound unsexy or restrictive, but a category does not to take away from your work’s uniqueness. It’s a necessary beacon. There are A LOT of books out there—a vast backlist and constant new entries—competing for readers’ attention. Even the best works can get lost in a crowded marketplace. Here’s why knowing your category is critical to reaching an audience.

Determines where bookstores should stock it

No one has the time or patience to scour an entire bookstore to see what’s new or personally enticing. If you’re not lucky enough to be on the prime front table or New Releases wall (and even if you are, these carry limited timeframes), you want to be found where your audience goes to look for likeminded books. Most readers go to bookstores—brick and mortar or virtual—to satisfy an itch for a great mystery or a memoir or a cookbook or a self-help manual etc., not to go on a random scavenger hunt. Like a library, if your children’s book is mis-shelved between gardening guides, it’s unlikely to ever be checked out.   

Helps readers to find it—plus know what to expect

Related to above, most readers have a pretty good idea of what they like (or currently wish) to read. If you’re in alignment, category steers the ready reader to you. It also signals what they can expect to find (Romance! Suspense! Advice! Knowledge!), which makes their selection process easier.  

Foretells how agents will pitch it (and to the right editor)

A fundamental part of a literary agent’s job is to get a publisher excited for your book’s potential in the marketplace. They have to know the category to determine its projected value and readership. Also, many editors or publishers/imprints specialize in specific categories, so it helps find the best fit—and increased odds—for your publication.  

Lets Amazon and other retailers know how to group and compare it (for bestseller rankings and marketing)

Readers who like a particular category are often hungry to find comparable titles. Whether it’s shared marketing, “Readers who enjoyed X, may like Y,” or categorical bestseller rankings, retailers like to keep their customers aware to boost purchasing opportunities.    

Caution: A Few Categorical Traps

- I’d advise against the shortsighted ploy of “cheating” the system on Amazon. By “cheating,” I’m referring to choosing a super obscure or very specific primary category in hopes of selling enough copies to be crowned a “Bestseller” (of whatever duration). While you may succeed if the bar is low, the victory won’t help readers find you (aka, obtain sales) in the long-run because very few will search for the obscure category.

- You can—and should—have multiple subcategories that reflect the work, but pick a single primary category. Odd hybrids will likely have you lose an audience versus gain two. Most readers prefer to stick to a single lane.

- Category-wise, it’s better to start broad (for the widest audience) and then let your subcategories become more specialized. Unlike SEO, you don’t want to be too specific.

- Unless your work is a collection of jokes or you’re a known comedian (and it’s not a memoir or anything other than stand-up), be extra mindful of choosing Humor as the standalone category. It’s one of the tiniest and most overlooked sections. Instead, let it indicate tone (as a subcategory), not category.