How Should I Categorize This… | A Discussion on Why Labeling Genres Is Important

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In regards to the question in the title: maybe the right category, perhaps?

Oftentimes I read books that are advertised as one genre, and are actually another. Or maybe they’re supposed to overlap in genres, yet don’t. I understand that books are marketed to capture the best audience, but I don’t think people realize just how detrimental placing it in the wrong category is. I know that “genre” can be a broad term and in a way, no two genres for one reader are the same for another, but there’s definitely a divisive line that can be seen. And I as a reader am influenced by which categories these books are placed in, and my reading can also be affected by it.

The other day MC from Blame it on the Books wrote a splendidly honest review on Ivory and Bone. However, in it she mentions the fact that it was advertised as a historical fantasy, and yet… isn’t. From a discussion on Twitter, many agreed that it was purely a historical read and didn’t contain elements of fantasy. The publisher marketed it as such to probably draw in a large audience. But here’s the thing: when I see the words “historical fantasy,” I think of a historical read that has magic or make-believe… something that adds history with fantastical elements. A book that has pure research on a time period or culture, sans fantastical elements shouldn’t be categorized as such.

For one, I as a reader go into it with preconceived notions of what kind of book I will be reading. And if I am prone to fantasy reads, I will be sorely disappointed at the lack of fantasy in it. If I am a historical reader, I would maybe even stay away from the book because of what seems like an infusion of fantasy, even if there isn’t. And you know what? That can really affect ratings of a book. If I were to be unpleasantly surprised by a lack of fantasy in a “historical fantasy” book, I would definitely be giving a lower rating. This goes across other genres as well, because it can just cause disappointment to readers who came in with those misconceptions.

Two words: false advertising.

But my main, MAIN problem with this particular situation is that it’s not uncommon. Ivory and Bone is supposedly a historical fantasy, yet is encompassed of a thoroughly-researched Ice Age setting that from all accounts does not have fantastical elements in any way. I see this with another book: Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little. Despite being a book set in Mesopotamian setting and has no traces of magic (the closest thing being mentions of religious zealots and their religion), is also categorized as “fantasy” as well as “historical” under Goodreads.

The funny thing is, it seems like it’s a pattern happening with non-Eurocentric historical reads.

I don’t see this addition of “fantasy” as a genre in books that feature European historical time periods. It seems like since the time period and culture is not Eurocentric, it is “exotic” and considered a “fantasy.” Because wow! Mammoths are definitely fantasy creatures right? And a desert setting is only reserved as a fantasy setting. This is extremely disappointing because now readers come in with a preconceived notion on what they’ll expect, and their reading experience will be affected because of it. Someone looking for a unique fantasy will get no traces of fantasy and might be sorely disappointed. Or someone else looking for solely a historical read will gloss over the book because it’s also marketed as a fantasy.

And I see it as a bit of a disservice to authors as well. We see them spending so much time, energy, and dedication researching for whatever time period or culture they’re exploring, and in the end undermining all that by essentially calling it a “fantasy.” I know if I were an author, I would’ve been like, “Okay since they’re marketing it as fantasy, why don’t I make up like half this stuff?” Instead, we see them faithfully standing by actual history. I just feel like not only is this inaccurate labeling affecting readers’ enjoyment of a book, but also undermining an author’s dedication and research towards this particular time period. And again, I just want to stress the fact that from the way I see it, it’s because these unique settings and cultures are so different than the Eurocentric ones we see every day. Because a book purely set in 1600’s England won’t need an additional “fantasy!” to sell it, while one set in 1600’s Egypt may.

In the end, I get that it’s about advertising. I get that marketing probably wants to attract more attention by inserting “fantasy” (because why the heck not? It’s fiction, after all) instead of just a placid label of “historical.” They want the sales and the publicity. But I also think that they need to give readers more credit. We’re attracted by much more than a set of genres and labels, even though they’re important aspects of picking our reads. With an attractive blurb, good writing, and fantastic plot, the genre would be the last thing in our mind. However, if we come in with these misconceptions based on how the book is advertised, that’s when it starts affecting ratings and enjoyment of a book.

Genres and categories are a way for readers to identify what they’re looking for, and reading one thing while expecting another isn’t a pleasant experience all the time. (In fact it might be serendipitous at times while completely the opposite at others.) I just really feel like we should give books a chance to advertise its worth without adding on inaccurate descriptions just to draw an audience.

But then again, sales over enjoyment right? (This line is engulfed in sarcasm.)

What do you think of misdirecting readers this way? Should it continue or do you think books have enough to sell without having to add such labels? What are your thoughts on the fact that such labeling would not have happened if it were set in a European setting? I’d love to know.

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22 thoughts on “How Should I Categorize This… | A Discussion on Why Labeling Genres Is Important

  1. bookstogetlostin says:

    I hate it when books are sorted by the publisher in a genre they do not belong in. And if I encounter such a book, it will always get a lower rating, because you promised me (for example) fantasy and I didn’t get fantasy.

    I know some people who wouldn’t say a book belongs to the romantic genre if the ending is no HEA, but I think that’s personal taste?

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      Exactly, that kind of misdirection really doesn’t help a reader. I really think that marketing should take a step up in that aspect.

      Oh yeah, I do feel like that’s personal taste. There can still be a romance if there’s no HEA, and that definitely is a part of the genre. But I think most romantic readers just prefer a HEA 🙂 (I know I do haha)

  2. ichabod2014ic says:

    Books need to be honest about their content. It does no good to mislead the buyer/reader. This honesty needs to not only be in marketing, but in the cover art.

    I am a writer, and I think that my covers and blurbs accurately convey the content of my books, but I have trouble picking the target audience age. My books do not contain graphic sex, violence, nor strong language. They are whimsical, steampunk adventures. Any ideas on how to select a target age group?

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      So very true!

      I would pick an age group by the maturity of the main characters and how they act. What age are the characters? What kind of scenarios do they find themselves in? Whimsical adventures can go through a whole spectrum of ages! 🙂

      • ichabod2014ic says:

        Hi Aila, thank you for replying and thank you for your question.
        In the first book, the main characters are nineteen. They have now aged two years. Though they are of age, they are rather prudish, even by Victorian standards. Even after having declared their love for one another from the first book, they still refer to each other as ‘Miss Plumtartt’, and ‘Mr. Temperance’. After nine Ichabod/Persephone novels, they still have not progressed beyond innocent smooching. Though an Alabama farmboy, Icky is a gifted engineer and plucky to a fault, but generally a little dim and hopelessly naive. Miss Persephone Plumtartt is a brilliant British aristocrat. The unlikely duo find themselves as Earths only hope of survival in a series of themed, monster-laden adventures. {Lovecraftian horrors in one, vampires in another, etctera…}
        To me, due to the active adventures with a lack of graphic sex/violence/language nature, they are appropriate for ages twelve and up, even though there is some mild innuendo.
        Are you familiar with Terry Pratchett? Some of his work is written in such a way that has a double meaning, or innuendo that can be slid by an unsuspecting youngster. I try to do that. I sometimes make little modern-era/media, in-jokes that the reader does not necessarily have to get to enjoy the humour. Such as, I may base a character on an old movie star. Some people might recognize the character, but it does not take away from the reading experience if they do not. I have a character in one book named Lauri Peters. She is a bug-eyed, hunch-backed mad scientist assistant. I am trying to conjure an image of old film star Peter Lorre in drag. Some people will get it and some people won’t, and it will not affect the readers enjoyment, but, as you see, this does make it difficult to pick a target audience. :-/
        Ageless in Irondale,
        ~Icky.

      • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

        Hi Icky! Wow, thanks for the detailed description.

        I think what you’re thinking is on the right tracks. Certainly advertise the story as 12+ because of its fun adventures and light themes, and if the jokes don’t necessarily affect the readers’ enjoyment, then it shouldn’t be too much of a worry. 🙂 Older readers may find those little bits and pieces (I confess, I wouldn’t have known about it being Peter Lorre in drag haha), but overall it shouldn’t be too much of a worry. That’s how I see it, anyways. 🙂 Hope that helped!

  3. Fiction Over Reality says:

    I absolutely agree with all of this. It’s misleading and can affect someone’s reading because they could read a book of that genre and it end up not being apart of that genre, then they no longer like that genre. It completely cancels out a genre that they didn’t even actually read.

    As a reviewer, it’s really disappointing when that happens; if you are going to give me a book that is fantasy, I’m expecting fantasy. Misleading genres is terrible, especially since the author worked so hard to get the book to where it is. But is it the authors fault? Where they the ones to direct the genre in the wrong way?

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      I agree with your sentiments exactly. It really discredits the author’s work and disappoints the reader. I think that marketing should be stronger for books especially for the young adults, because we’re at an age where we’re easily gullible and easily disappointed as well.

  4. Wren says:

    I agree. If a book is labeled as a certain genre that is it not, that’s a huge problem. Even more so for non-Eurocentric settings. Adding the label ‘fantasy’ is rude to that country’s culture and people. It’s downright insulting. Not everything has to be magic to be interesting

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      YOU GET ME WREN! I was so disappointed when I found out that those two books I mentioned weren’t very fantasy at all. Like okay, you’re just going to make this Mesopotamian history labeled as “fantasy”? Get out right now. It’s also sad because they’re both great stories that have infinite amounts of research put into them.

  5. Temecka @ Library of Tomes says:

    THIS POST IS SO ACCURATE!!
    I think it is extremely disappointing when a book is marketed toward one specific Genre, but then the book doesn’t feel like that genre. I have that problem with vicious. It’s labeled as an adult book but it doesn’t feel like an adult book.

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      Yeah Temecka I know that was a problem with books like ACOMAF (going very close to NA category there haha), and many readers had issues with it. I think labeling has the opportunity of being very effective for the audience but when not done well, it leads to certain expectations, and being disappointed because of them.

  6. Fatima @ NoteablePad says:

    This a great discussion post! I wholeheartedly agree with your argument. It’s also really interesting that you’ve pointed out it’s a problem with non-Eurocentric historical reads. The idea that beliefs and culture that aren’t Eurocentric somehow automatically classify as fantasy. It’s completely misleading and serves no purpose other than to boost sales. It’s really dishonest too. I mean, can you imagine? Picking up a book labelled fantasy only to realise it has absolutely no fantasy elements. I’d be cautious about any historical fantasy I pick up after that.

    • Aila @ One Way Or An Author says:

      You’re very right Fatima, and I can definitely imagine 😛 (After all, that totally happened to me haha). I think it really discredits the author’s research too, because now they’re saying that it’s “fantastical” even though it was from ACTUAL HISTORY. Like, boo hoo it isn’t what we automatically think of with Victorian elements or the Old West – it dates way past those years.

  7. Cyn @ Bookmunchies says:

    Hmm, I think you hit this nail right on the head! I don’t think I’ve thought about it as false advertisement, but you’re totally right! I feel like the labeling provides me with the expectations I should have for the book. Labeling non-Eurocentric books as fantasy when it’s not fantasy is definitely silly and a bit inappropriate!

    Great post, Aila!

  8. Claire Wells says:

    What a great discussion, I think it is so wrong for publishers to do this. I never realized what they do until you mention it. Yeah, labeling a book wrong could definitely get someone to read a book, but at the same time I feel like that is so unfair to the reader community like us who work so hard to read, review and promote a book. It’s almost like they are cheating us into the whole thing.

  9. Peach @ Rebelle Reads says:

    Yesss. I hate seeing books placed in their incorrect genres. I saw a book that was obviously NOT YA Contemporary being considered YA C on GR & I was like: “Uhhh no?” Maybe it’s just me, but I hate in blurbs when books are advertised as laugh-out-loud hilarious! unforeseen conclusion! and they really offer provide none of that. Seriously, false advertising. Great discussion post, Aila! ❤

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