Although I do astrology, I no longer ask people “What's your sign?” As an acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press, I now ask authors, “What's your genre?”
The worst thing a writer can do is give me a blank stare. “Genre” is an essential part of the lingo in publishing lexicon. It's how we classify a book and decide if it fits our line.
Labeling books has practical reasons. Bookstores (when they existed) found it useful to put books of the same sort together on one shelf. That's why there's the romance section, sci fi, fantasy, horror, Westerns and mystery. Sometimes the classifications were wrong because of all the crossovers. But, anything's better than dumping the titles under General Fiction, which is the kiss of death.
The genre I write in is mystery. My Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries are defined by several sub-genres: police procedural/amateur sleuth/paranormal. Crossovers in all genres are widely accepted. It's a great way for authors to expand their fan base.
For years, literary writers looked down on genre writers. The word conjured up cheap reads for the mildly illiterate. Also known as “popular fiction,” these are books average people want to read. Call it commercial fiction—books that sell and make money.
On the reverse, genre writers have tagged literary works “A whole lot of words about nothing.” Pretty words, insightful, meaningful, intellectual. But, we ask, where's the plot?
Don't get me wrong: genre writers can get a little literary. I love to let readers coast along with the plot I've woven before slipping in a sentence or paragraph to make the astute reader sit up and pay attention. I know my craft. Elizabeth George and P.D. James can certainly be called literary. Even Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, noir hacks in their time, are now respectable. With time comes veneration.
When I received mystery manuscripts from two profs on both sides of the USA, I noted the terrific prose but wondered: Where are the bodies? Personally, I like a corpse to show up on the second page to get the ball rolling. Long intros and endless description went out with the Bronte sisters. Tough to reject these teachers, but that's what I did.
Both instructors not only listened but brought my novels to the classroom to teach genre fiction. In New Jersey and California, students are learning from my books. I was invited to speak at Mt. San Antonio, the largest junior college in the states. Reality meets the Ivory Tower. I left with several student submissions and rewrites from the teacher.
I recommend authors define their intent before writing. Whether you write Steam Punk or Zombies, hold your head high and claim your genre.