Genre labels: How important are they?

I don’t want to pay for books I’m just going to throw against the wall.
I used to feel pretty strongly that the big, broad genre labels are a good thing. Mystery, Romance, SciFi—these each clearly communicate some basic expectations for what I’m going to get when I open up a book or sit down in a movie theatre (though romance means something very different from books to movies). Sure there are books, movies, and TV shows that cross genre or that suffer from being pigeon holed, but for the most part, this systems worked for me for years. Nowadays, though, with cross genre and genre bending books aplenty I am more inclined to see the problems with the system. Especially when you break things down further and start labeling sub-genres.

PNR, SFR, UF, RS, Thriller, Military SF…Ack! Save me from the alphabet soup.
Every genre has sub-genres. If you have all day, check out Writer’s Digest’s list of defined sub-genres! My own reading, TV, and movie tastes cover a pretty broad sweep from Urban Fantasy to SciFi to Historical Romance to Suspense. I have some very clear definitions for each of these, but others don’t always agree or even have any ideas about what these sub-genres are all about. When we aren’t all talking the same language, do the labels cease to be effective? Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, for example. I know a lot of people who read both and don’t really know there is a difference. On the other hand, some romance fans will enjoy Paranormal Romance but hate the ambiguity found in many Urban Fantasy novels. The latter should be shelved in the Fantasy section in my opinion. But it gets marketed with Romance because, frankly, Romance sells better.

Confession: what I really want to rant about is my love of SciFi Romance.
It is probably no secret that I love SciFi Romance. I try to be an advocate of the sub-genre where I can. But some of my favorite SciFi Romance books are labeled as Paranormal Romance. CJ Barry recently launched a new series (which I talk about here) that is about Aliens hiding out on earth. SciFi Romance? Not according to the spine. Christine Feehan has a series about soldiers who are genetically altered, giving them psychic abilities. First and foremost, both of these series are Romance. No one would call them hard SciFi. I’ll give you that. But as far as Romance goes, they sound pretty SciFi to me. Feehan’s series has been labeled either Paranormal Romance or even Romantic Suspense. Apparently, the term SciFi is kiss of death in Romance. If they have to label it that way to sell it, I guess I’m glad they at least found a way, but how will we ever get this sub-genre recognized if we don’t label it that way? There are a lot of great authors out there writing SciFi Romance and Futuristic Romance, but how long can we expect them to work away with slim hopes of earning a living. Maybe the trend in e-books will change things.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Genre labels: How important are they?

  1. Having had my book described by my editor as a romance on the cusp of urban fantasy leaves me scratching my head and saying…huh? (or was it urban fantasy on the cusp of romance)
    Now, having reached a certain degree of maturity, I have only heard the word “cusp” used in an actual sentence maybe twice in my life. Once by an astronomy teacher and once by a psychic who was later arrested for stealing her client’s credit card numbers and selling them.

    I’m not sure if there is a point to this post, unless it’s don’t worry about sub-genres. I figure you can read the cover blurb, the first few pages, a few pages in the middle of the book and decide if it’s a candidate for tossing.

    Of course, that requires a trip to the book store, but hey I’d do that anyway.
    Just don’t patronize the psychic on the way. They let her out after a week or so. Her clients were too embarrassed to go to court.

  2. I don’t look at labels. I read the blurb on the back and decide from there. There are certain words I don’t want to read about. Right now it’s vampires (unless your name is Charlaine Harris), sex slaves, murder or death (unless it’s natural or CJ Barry), and mistaken identity. And not necessarily all in the same blurb.

    And all this might change next month.

    • So you liked the CJ Barry I brought you? And I guess you won’t want to read my new vampire-sex slave, serial killer book in which the heroine is mistaken for her twin who is the vampire-slave trainer?

      • I started the book and liked it, and put it by my bed to read one night, and then forgot where I put it. I finally found it again and will commense reading. Maybe tonight. 🙂

        And I love your blurb! *laugh*


  3. I read the blurbs first and try not to be swayed by labels because they feed into what we think we like or don’t like.

    I’m not so arrogant to think a good story doesn’t transcend genre or sub genre. That said, a good blurb is crucial–even if it has vampires. :~)

    • My only problem with relying on blurbs is that it can be laborious to ‘browse’ for a SciFi romance on a site like Amazon. I’ve tried searching for Futuristic Romance and get very little and most of it from the ’80s. If there is no reliable category, books get lost on the big websites. I think this is why online review sites are really playing a bigger and bigger role in helping readers find the books they will like. The SFR Brigade is on a mission to “tag” books on Amazon with the SFR tag. Bless them!

  4. As an author who is addicted to science fiction and fantasy and loves nothing more than a good, solid, well-written science fiction romance that uses sci fi concepts correctly – yes, it is a struggle to write SFR – science fiction romance. I think many books that are sci fi and fantasy are labeled something else so as not to frighten readers away. It is so frustrating!
    I have one SFR that is selling very well, because the focus is on the relationship – romance readers get that. They don’t necessarily get SFR – the concepts are foreign. Yet look at the movie Terminator – it’s a classic SFR! A love story and science fiction – perfect!

    • I love Terminator, but think it is a great “movie-style” Romance. In the movies, Romance often ends with a sad or tragic ending. Only Romantic Comedies are allowed to end well, for some strange reason. This probably goes back to the traditional idea of romance as Tragedy from theatre, for example Romeo and Juliet. In a Romance Novel, the hero dying would never fly.

      I think when a book is ScifFi with a romantic element it is usually labeled and shelved as a SciFi and Romance readers will have a hard time locating it. If it is Romance with some SciFi it will either be labeled as Futuristic and fail to sell well or be labeled as Paranormal Romance and Scifi diehards won’t touch it. At least as PNR it has a shot at selling well.

  5. Yes, good point. Terminator is a tragedy – it’s also post-apocalyptic! Maybe labeling a science fiction romance a fantasy romance would help – I do think, though, that a lot of paranormal is plain old fantasy in a paranormal cover because the label ‘paranormal’ sells for sure.

    • I think, for romance readers, the label Fantasy can also have a down-side. We too often think only of Epic Fantasty. Few writers do Epic Fantasy well as a romance — too broad of a scope. Though their are notable exceptions. What is selling as Paranormal Romance might also be credibly called Horror Romance. Vampires, Warewolves and Demons have traditionally been in the Horror genre. I think some authors are trying to promote the term Action-Romance which also works for me, but doesn’t show up on the Amazon Browse list. ;(

  6. Charlie,

    Love your blog, especially this post. I have a sci fi/futuristic/paranormal/erotic romance series out with Samhain – The Orion Series. I agree that this genre mashup is exploding and I’m happy to be aboard.
    Never thought I’d end up writing in this genre, but what a hoot. I call my current series ‘space opera’, because the implication is a fun story with action, gadgets and cool beings. It’s like writing westerns, ‘cept with laser guns.
    And I agree with the readers you mentioned – I’ll follow great writing and great romance into different genres than I’ve traditionally read. Just discovered steampunk – hmmm …. might have to write there.

    • Hi Cathryn!

      Thanks for your comment. The blog is only two months old, so I am still learning my way and it really helps to know what posts people find interesting.

      Great analogy, comapring space opera to westerns!


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