Shelf Savvy: How Book Categorization Helps Maximize Sales

Book categorization is key to finding readers and maximizing sales. Here’s what you should know.
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Book categorization is key to finding readers and maximizing sales. Here’s what you should know.

If you’re an author—aspiring or published, traditional or indie—you have a lot to think about: the quality of your work, your relationships with the people helping you publish, your book’s typography and cover design, competitive pricing and your marketing presence. Another thing to consider is book categorization.

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If your book is properly categorized in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as online retailers, then it will stand the best chance of meeting the most potential readers. How and why do books get categorized? Who determines the categories and which books belong in them? How can you take best advantage of the system? Read on.

Book Categorization 101

The most basic book categorization was probably decided upon by some tunic-clad Athenian shopkeeper who organized his volumes by the authors’ names. Before long, however, alpha-by-author showed its limitations, and specialty categories were born: fact vs. fiction, secular vs. nonsecular, books about chariots vs. books of philosophy.

It stands to reason. For authors, however, the inclination is to resist categorization. We don’t want to be “pigeonholed” or “marginalized.”

But here’s the thing: Narrowing a category gives us the opportunity to deepen it.

During the 10 years I was a bookseller, we were reminded constantly that, despite potential author resentment, categorization works. For instance, when African-American studies became an academic discipline at many universities, many bookstores created black literature sections to highlight the depth of their inventories and make it easier for customers to browse literature by black authors.

 Guide to Literary Agents 2019

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But some authors and customers felt that was segregation. So one of our store managers yielded and dismantled her black lit section, incorporating all those books into the main fiction shelves. Because the company (Borders) tracked sales by title, we could see that black lit sales plummeted; those authors simply got lost in the bigger pond.

Categorization is imperfect and idiosyncratic. My local Barnes & Noble no longer shelves African-American, LGBT or horror fiction in separate sections. My local Books-A-Million has African-American lit as well as YA, but not Western or horror. Neither of my local independent bookstores break out books by race or sexual orientation, but they do display books by local (Florida) authors separately. One store groups some fiction into a classics section; another does not. Some bookstores have sections of short-story collections, but others shelve collections with longer works in whichever fiction category they reside.

If store inventory permits, some authors are cross-shelved. For example, Toni Morrison’s novels might be shelved in both general fiction and African-American literature. This is useful for well-stocked books, but can’t work reliably for those carried in only ones and twos. (Online retailers, of course, can cross-categorize to their hearts’ content. More on this later.)

The Deciders

Who decides how a book will be categorized? First, you do. You decide whether your book is a memoir or a how-to or a romance or a literary novel. You mention this in query letters when you submit to agents and/or editors: “It’s a locked-room mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie, only with a postmodern twist: The characters are all deaf computer programmers.”

Then, if your book is picked up by a publisher, your editor and marketing team will have a say in how the book is represented to customers. The label your publisher eventually puts on the print version of your book is a blunt instrument: a general category such as mystery or biography. The book will be sold in so many different situations—in stores, online, by you at conventions, etc.—that a narrow category could make for confusion instead of clarity. Publishers generally want to avoid this.

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Buyers for brick-and-mortar booksellers use a blend of experience, sales history and common sense to refine the categorization of books. Usually all goes well, though sometimes mistakes occur. Richard Brautigan’s novella Trout Fishing in America still occasionally finds its way into the sports aisle. Moreover, in a physical store, categorization can go only so far before reaching a point of diminishing returns: Shelf labels must be physically moved as sections expand and contract, which requires extra labor. Errors result in lost sales and unhappy customers.

Amazon and other online booksellers have changed the way books are categorized by permitting publishers and authors to create ever-narrower categories and to experiment for optimal matching of books with readers. Because their shelves are virtual, cross-shelving is a matter of a click or two. Fans of cat sleuth novels can now find books of interest to them as easily as can enthusiasts of French cooking or seafaring adventure tales.

Online, categorization can be deep and broad. A book categorized as Fiction / Suspense / Psychological might also be categorized as Fiction / Thriller / Espionage, thus catching the attention of disparate yet sort-of-kindred readers.

Changes are easy online, too. A novel can be switched from hard-boiled to noir, for instance, and sales tracked.

Your Role

When categorizing your own book, here’s how to do the job:

  1. Go from general to specific. Unsure whether your book is chick lit or romance? Genre definitions can vary depending on who you ask, but do some research anyway. Check virtual and physical shelves. Browse reading lists and discussion groups. Where does your book seem to fit in best? Keep it simple.
  2. Resist the urge to come up with your own labels. Look at books like yours that are currently doing well in the marketplace. What categories are those publishers and authors using?
  3. Consider your audience. How would your ideal reader relate to your book?
  4. Select at least one major and one specialized category. If you’re going to be published, talk these over with your editor. If you’re self-publishing an e-book, make your best guesses and see what happens. You can always refine as you go.
  5. Don’t stretch the truth. If your book is a Western, categorize it as such—but don’t also label it erotica unless it is.
  6. Don’t stress about any of this. Get back to writing your next book.
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