publishing business

Category Confusion

As part of the idea of finding a lane and sticking to it, I’ve been taking a look at the various categories that books are sold in, primarily at Amazon. And that gets confusing because there’s no actual definition for any of the categories. Authors and publishers can select the categories themselves, and Amazon may select other categories based on similar audiences. The best you can do for figuring out the definition of a category is look at the books that are in there, and that’s not always consistent.

For instance, in fantasy, there are categories like “action and adventure,” “epic,” “historical,” and “sword and sorcery.”

Action & Adventure seems like a catch-all. Most traditional fantasy has some kind of action and adventure in it, and the category is full of the common bestselling fantasy series, like A Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time, and stuff by Brandon Sanderson, as well as a lot of Dungeons and Dragons game manuals. So maybe you could classify this category as “fantasy for people who play D&D.”

The Epic Fantasy category has pretty much the same books as Action & Adventure, plus the Lord of the Rings books (which may have also been in the A&A category, but further down, as I didn’t drill too deep).

If you asked me to guess which books would be in “Historical Fantasy,” I’d have gone with books set in a defined point in history, but with the addition of fantasy elements, such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is about the Napoleonic Wars but with a magician as part of the British forces, or the Temeraire series, about the Napoleonic Wars but with an air force consisting of dragons. I guess you could also call that alternative history, but I tend to think of alt history as where history has gone off in a very different direction because something different happened, like my Rebels books, while those books have more or less the same history playing out, but it does so with fantasy elements. We’re not seeing what happens if England loses to Napoleon at Waterloo, just England winning at Waterloo with the help of a wizard. So, fantasy set in the history of our world, vs. secondary world fantasy.

And yet, I remember the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz being called “historical fantasy.” They were secondary world, but that world was based very closely on our world. Kurtz was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and was a stickler for getting the details right. There might have been people with magical powers in her world, but aside from that, she wanted the clothing, weapons, and technology to be historically accurate for the period in which she set her books. In one of the books, there’s an author’s note apologizing for using a kind of boat that didn’t come along for another hundred years or so after the period she was writing about, but she needed a boat with particular capabilities for the plot to work. Her land was roughly based on Britain, but with a somewhat different geography and very different politics, but did have Christianity. So I guess “historical fantasy” could also be about a secondary world based closely on a particular era of our world instead of being wildly different and having races like elves and dwarfs.

Looking at what’s actually in the category, it’s a lot of the same things that were in the other categories, plus the Outlander books and Erin Morgenstern’s books (The Night Circus, etc.).

I’ve thought of Sword & Sorcery as being something like the Conan the Barbarian books. But I’m reading a fantasy series now that has a blurb on the cover calling it “one of the best sword and sorcery fantasies in years,” or something to that effect, and I’m not sure I’d ever have looked for something like it in that category. There are swords, and there’s magic, but the focus of the series is on the relationships among the characters. On Amazon, that category is almost identical to Action & Adventure and Epic.

You get very different results if you look in “books” instead of “Kindle e-books” since the Kindle Unlimited books dominate in e-books, and those tend to go after a very different audience. They’re very trope-driven and are very much in that “find your lane and stay with it” way of writing. You also see different things if you look at the bestsellers vs. just browsing in the category (the bestsellers are a current snapshot, but there’s some kind of consideration of sales over time in browsing, apparently).

I find all this a bit frustrating as both a reader and a writer. It doesn’t help in finding books if the same books are in every category. Why bother having such narrow categories at all if they all end up being the same, anyway? When there’s little difference between the books you see in plain-old “Fantasy” and the books you see when you break it down into smaller categories, and there’s little difference between categories, there’s no point in having the smaller categories. You might as well be like the big bookstores and just have a general “Science Fiction and Fantasy” section. Yeah, you might have some books that are historical, epic, action & adventure, romantic sword & sorcery, but all of them? Maybe what we need are more specific categories — secondary world, quest stories, non-grimdark (or shove grimdark into its own category without it also spilling over into all the other categories). And maybe separate categories for romantic urban fantasy (that’s really just paranormal romance) and “traditional” fantasy with romantic elements. I guess you can drill down into some of that with keyword searches, but I haven’t had a lot of luck. I even have software that lets me look up how a particular book is classified and what books you get when you search for a particular keyword, and that hasn’t helped me find books. Yeah, the software’s supposed to be for self-published writers to figure out which keywords and categories will be best, but I find it’s also useful to look up a particular book I like to see what categories it’s in, so I can then look there for other books like it.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t make it any easier to figure out which “lane” would be the best fit when they’re all more or less the same. I’ve got a virtual conference starting this weekend about the business side of publishing, so maybe I’ll learn something there that will help me.

Comments are closed.