Posted On August 20, 2010 by Print This Post

Ask An Editor: Positioning Your Book

This month, we’re looking at a question that comes up frequently in the mailbag, though it takes many varied forms. The upshot: a writer is sitting on a completed manuscript. It belongs in a genre which isn’t a strong seller at the moment, or it straddles genres, or she isn’t entirely sure what genre it belongs to. How should she describe it when pitching it to agents or editors?

First, and most important, don’t lie. For example, if your book is clearly a western, don’t pitch it as a general historical in an attempt to overcome any current market bias against westerns. Lying about the nature of your manuscript will only irritate the very people you’re trying to court.

You might think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who violate this simple rule. I’ve had queries for books pitched as romances that had no heroes, for erotic romances that had no sex scenes, and for paranormals that had no paranormal elements. Yes, I read at least part of these manuscripts based on the deceptive queries. And then I rejected them. Yes, even the ones that were written competently, though in my experience, writers who must resort to such tactics generally don’t have publishable manuscripts. These kinds of deceptions are generally desperation moves.

Second, if your book straddles genres, say so. Again, this might seem like a no-brainer, but there have been plenty of times I’ve heard pitches for straight-up contemporaries that ended up having a dash of time travel, magic, or other non-niche elements. This always strikes me as a lesser crime than lying outright about the genre, mainly because a dollop of cross-genre influence is not always enough to pull a book out of its main niche. Nevertheless, you’re better off describing it accurately: “My Awesome Novel” is a contemporary romance with a dash of urban fantasy. Or, “My Awesome Novel” is a hot Regency historical influenced by alternate-history paranormals. See how easy that is?

What do you do if you legitimately don’t know how to position your manuscript? Go to the bookstore. Wander the aisles until you find the book that most nearly resembles yours. Where is it shelved? Let’s say you have a murder mystery plot with a traditional romance arc. If the similar book was shelved in mystery, pitch it as a mystery. If with romance, pitch it as a romance. (But don’t forget to tip off the agents and editors that it straddles genres. Truth in advertising.)

Maybe you already know it’s romance but don’t know what type of romance. What kind of cover does your similar book have? Subgenres often share cover characteristics: flowery covers for sweet single titles, half-unlaced ballgowns for hot historicals, tight black costumes for urban fantasy, and so on. If you can’t quite figure it out, find books with covers that resemble the cover of your similar book. If, for example, they’re all light Regencies, then you know your similar book was branded a light Regency, and you can safely describe yours as a light Regency, too.

When questions about positioning a book come into the Ask-an-Editor mailbox, they often include a plea for advice on how to find a good agent. Good agents are not hard to identify. Watch the deals reports from Publishers Marketplace. They have a marvelous paid service ( and a free daily newsletter that’s well worth a few moments of your time.( Other online databases such as can give you a glimpse at client lists and past deals, also very useful. Spend some time searching the web and you’ll find plenty of similar resources.

But the best resource for agent and editor information is (and probably always will be) your writing network. Build it and nurture it, and become a resource within it. Be friendly and undemanding with your peers. Encourage people to come to you with information, and give them a reason to do so by being open with your knowledge and time. But always protect the reputations of the people who trade with you. One of my personal rules — and it’s iron-clad — is that I never reveal my sources. Sources can share information with me knowing that their identities will be protected, and they can come to me for information knowing that I will reveal as much as I safely can.

A well-developed network will be able to tell you things that can’t be written in online databases. They’ll tell you which houses are slow pays, which agents don’t answer email, which editors have restricted power, what are current advances at various houses, and so on. You’ll have to learn to separate the sour grapes from the facts — learn, for example, to ignore most of the generalized grumbling about how agents don’t do enough for their clients or how editors take too long and expect too much. There may be a grain of universal truth in those complaints, but that’s probably more a systemic problem than a sign of weakness in any individual professional.

So, if you want to know how to match your unique book with an agent and editor who will love it, it’s really a three-step process. Know your work. Know the industry. And tap your network.

* * *

Thank you, Theresa for the great tips on ptiching multi-genre manuscripts.  

RU Crew, one lucky commenter will win a spot in Theresa’s September workshop (see details below) on structure. Let’s see those comments!

Workshop Details:

 Good structure is the basis for a well-told tale. In this workshop, we’ll look at classic and modern structure theories and analyze structure on three levels: large scale (the book as a whole), mid scale (scenes and scene sequences), and small scale (sentence and paragraph level).

 Class Begins: September 1, 2010

Class Ends: September 14, 2010

Signup Deadline: August 28, 2010

Class size is limited! Don’t delay!

Cost: $50

Instructor: Theresa Stevens

Join us on Monday when writer Edie Ramer shares some of her favorite industry tid-bits.  

Theresa’s Bio:  

Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.


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42 Responses to “Ask An Editor: Positioning Your Book”

  1. Theresa,
    Thanks for the great post. A couple weeks ago, I was in B&N looking for romantic thrillers/horror. When I couldn’t find their thriller/horror section I started looking for Stephen King. Couldn’t find him. Finally, a store clerk told me he was shelved in fiction, as they didn’t have that section. This puzzled me, because I knew Borders had the horror/thriller section. The clerk went on to say if a thriller book contained romance it would be shelved in romance.

    I found it interesting how the two different stores shelved their books.

    Thanks again,

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | August 20, 2010, 7:30 am
    • I hear you, Tracey. Many of my favorite authors are shelved in what seem like random locations, and it’s only going to get more unpredictable as subgenres continue to cross-pollinate.

      But the “if it has romance, shelf it in romance” rule might be interpreted as a sign of the ongoing strength of romance. Romance readers love darn near any kind of story as long as there’s the promise of a happy romance ending.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 9:40 am
  2. Hi Theresa. This is a timely post for me because I’m about to tackle a query for my women’s fiction/romance/mystery. I’ve been hearing a lot about cross-genre books on my loops, and I’m wondering if the market for them will become more accessible.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 20, 2010, 7:32 am
    • Adrienne, I think the answer is yes, it will become easier. It already is easier. Twenty years ago, we would not have been having this conversation at all. Now, it comes up at nearly every gathering of writers. Sign of the times, sign of the evolving marketplace.

      I would suggest you only pitch it as romance is there’s the traditional HEA. Otherwise, think WF/SRE with a mystery plot. Or mystery/SRE aimed at a primarily female readership. (Actually, that might be the better option, based upon what I know of your story.)

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 9:44 am
  3. I especially appreciate Theresa’s emphasis on the value of building trusted writing networks. The vast amount of “sharing” that is open to the working writer — as well as to avid readers — demands that we maintain the highest bar of respect for every aspect of our industry.

    Posted by Molly Swoboda | August 20, 2010, 7:50 am
    • Hi, Molly. I’m glad to have you in my network, and have watched you work it with a big smile. You’re great at it! You maintain your professionalism without ever forgetting that our industry is supposed to provide fun and entertainment for readers.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 9:45 am
  4. Hi, everyone. I just want to warn you that I’m traveling this weekend and might be slow to respond to comments, but I promise I will check in when I can.

    Don’t forget – one commenter gets a free spot in the structure workshop!

    Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 20, 2010, 8:09 am
  5. Morning Theresa..

    Great post! i too have wandered into bookstores and tried to find various authors only to find them in mystery when I totally expected romance! And vice versa. Do you think the lines are blending a bit more these days as writers struggle to write “something different?”

    thanks for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 20, 2010, 8:43 am
    • Hi, Carrie. It’s not just that writers are looking to write something different. It’s that readers are restless, too. The genres will never break down completely, mainly because people still gravitate toward certain kinds of stories or story elements, and genres are built around those common elements. There will always be “pure” romances, but the influx of other kinds of genre elements keeps us all awake. 😀

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 9:53 am
  6. Hi! Another great post!

    Thanks, Theresa and RU.

    My book is a contemporary romance set primarily in Chicago, but with Indian American characters — and I have found absolutely nothing in the romance genre that is similar, in any library or bookstore. I’m trying to pitch it as a Multicultural/Bollywood Romance, which again, isn’t really an existing genre.

    Right now I’m searching the databases for agents and publishers who have an interest in multiculturals or ethnic romances. But it looks like the term ‘multicultural’ indicates African American or Latino romances.

    There’s a lot of literary fiction out there that’s based in Indian Culture, but this is an out and out romance, where the culture is basically a backdrop.

    I can see a huge market for this, considering how popular Bollywood is becoming around the world and considering how many Indian women read romance.

    Any ideas on how to sell this? Where does it land in the genre definitions?



    Posted by Sonali | August 20, 2010, 8:48 am
    • I would pitch it as multicultural romance. Mention the Bollywood thing in the cover letter. It’s interesting.

      But the bottom line is that you’re better off comparing it to other multicultural romances (which can have broad cross-appeal a la Bollywood) than to the type of Indian genfic/litfic written by Jhumpa Lahiri &co. Structure and content are romance, and that will count when it’s time for shelving.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 20, 2010, 8:53 am
  7. Thanks, Theresa! Great post! 🙂

    I have a question regarding my last book. I see the story as a suspense (bordering on a suspense adventure) with a romantic element–others see it as a romantic suspense. Yes, it has a happy ending. The romantic plot is not the main plot–can easily be removed–and the story will stand on it’s own. The story also has two other sub-plots.

    How does an editor, agent etc., choose which genre best fits a book like this? I find the romantic suspense genre very confusing. lol

    Kim 🙂

    Posted by Kim Cresswell | August 20, 2010, 9:32 am
    • Well, the nice thing is that you have some flexibility in how to position this book (assuming you’re willing to edit to spec). As you describe it now, it will probably be seen as romantic suspense if it has the classic HEA. That’s one of the strongest defining features of the genre. And this isn’t a bad thing for you because romantic suspense tends to sell well (though it’s a tough market to crack as a new writer).

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:00 am
  8. Hi Theresa!

    Great post! Loved the part about a well-developed network. This is so true.


    Posted by Murphy | August 20, 2010, 1:33 pm
  9. I suspect writers have trouble positioning their stories because really good stories often have a little of this and some of that, and writers don’t want to lose out on an opportunity by pigeonholing their work. Could Harry Potter have been pitched as a romance because of the increasing focus on the relationships among Harry, Ron, Hermione and the rest of the cast?

    Take Gone with the Wind. Clearly a romance but maybe a sweeping mainstream saga too?

    I’m not a Twilight fan but I hear it’s YA, romance, paranormal and maybe a bunch of other things.

    From a reader perspective, I hate when I think a book is one thing based on the marketing and it turns out to be a different animal.

    Posted by PatriciaW | August 20, 2010, 2:36 pm
    • HP a romance? No. There’s no romantic HEA. It takes more than budding teenage sexuality to make a romance novel.

      As to GWTW, — rant alert, as this is stepping into one of my pet peeves — though most people would call it a romance, it’s not a *genre romance* novel. Not all romances are genre romances. Bridges of Madison County is another great example of this. Lots of romance elements, tight focus on the developing story, and no HEA. For my money, if there isn’t that HEA (or at least, a “Happy Together For Now” assurance), then it can’t be genre romance.

      Feel free to disagree with me. Plenty of people have. 😆

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:04 am
  10. I really appreciate your emphasis on honesty. I’ve been working on my query and have been so focused on paring it down to the bare essentials, I think the receiving agents would be surprised about some of the cross-genre content. Now, I feel more confident about adding a few words to make sure I’m not over-simplifying to the point of dishonesty. 🙂


    Posted by Taylor Mathews Taylor | August 20, 2010, 3:27 pm
    • Hi, Taylor. It can be a tricky line to walk, but even a hint of cross-genre influences in the query will generally be enough to tip us off about your book’s content and market position. Remember, the people you’re querying are very adept at scanning queries for these kinds of clues. It’s important information for us.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:09 am
  11. I love to blend genres when writing but it can make it harder once it comes time to write the query letter. Great post!

    Posted by Nicole Zoltack | August 20, 2010, 3:30 pm
  12. Hi Theresa,

    Sadly, the bookstore I visited this morning would not help with positioning. It had the likes of Nora Roberts, Michael Connelly, Greg Iles and Christine Feehan shelved boldly under NOVELS 🙂

    To give them their due, the books were organized according to genre, just not so labelled.

    For good or evil, I decided on its positioning before I began my wip. Perhaps it’s the influence of my ‘real’ life in which targeting is critical, but with the odds so against ‘getting the call’ I believe you have to stack the deck where you can.

    Which is not to say ‘the book of my heart’ won’t throw me into a quandary one of these days… then I’ll remember your advice.

    Meanwhile, I’m trying to build my writing network.

    Thanks. Great post

    Posted by Jean | August 20, 2010, 3:58 pm
  13. Ahh the cross-genre novel. I had one of those once. It was a combination mystery/horror/paranormal novel with just a tiny hint of romance. I loved that book. Couldn’t find a publisher (except for one) who was interested and one of the biggest hurdles in the remarks was that it didn’t fit neatly into any one category. Such a disappointment, but I learned a lot from that, and knowing how to accurately present the book it definitely key… even if it does get a rejection.

    One of the other things I appreciated about this column was the touch on honesty. I don’t know where it started – or why – but writers telling other writers its okay to knowingly misrepresent their work (be it mis-labeling in genre or a more blatant lie of marking requested material on a submission that’s a cold pitch) isn’t going to do you any favors with the editor or agent. I mean, who wants to start a relationship built on a lie?

    An author once told me, “Be professional above all else. That alone will help you stand out.” Best business writing advice I ever got.

    Posted by Julie H | August 20, 2010, 4:01 pm
    • Julie, don’t give up on that cross-genre novel. After you get a few successes under your belt, you might gain enough clout to publish it as it is written. Lots of writers have walked this path ahead of you. The sales results for these kinds of projects aren’t always in line with past results, but sometimes it can lead you in a new direction toward a new fan base. A strong writer with a good track record can afford a risk like this every once in a while.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:15 am
  14. I must admit, your post has made me question my go-to genre. I always say only, “young adult”, and I was told to keep it that way in my query letter (one genre only! no mixing, no matching — pick one!). Is it actually better, though, for me to say, “young adult steampunk”?

    Thanks for the great post, Theresa.

    Posted by Susan | August 20, 2010, 5:08 pm
    • Hi, Susan. Yes, YA Steampunk is a great way to characterize a story. YA is a very broad category with many internal divisions, same as mystery and romance. And it’s growing fast. Two years from now when your book might be hitting the shelves, those shelves might look very different from how they look today.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:18 am
  15. This reminded me of when I first was reading the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books (this was before the show came out and thus before everyone and their moms knew what the books were about). I found the books listed as SciFi/Fantasy (in American at a chain of bookstores), Romance (at a small bookstore in London), and YA (at my local library). Never have I seen them in the Mystery section, even though at the time they were going by the series name “Southern Vampire Mysteries.”

    Posted by Melissa | August 20, 2010, 5:16 pm
    • Melissa, so true. And it just goes to show that no matter how much advance positioning work we do, a true genre-blender will wander the bookstore shelves. We can recommend to the booksellers that they shelf it here or there, but in the end, they do what they think is best for their particular customers.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:20 am
  16. Thanks Theresa!

    I’ve had a heck of a time trying to pigeonhole my story. I tried calling it just plain paranormal but had too many people tell me that genre doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have enough of a romance in the main plot to be considered that. It doesn’t have the kick*ss physical battle of UF, but it has most of the other elements. In many ways, it *feels* like a paranormal women’s fiction, but that’s not a real genre either. 🙂

    I think depending on the preferences of the agent, I’ll either call it a women’s fiction with paranormal elements or an urban fantasy with a women’s fiction tone, but I’m open to suggestions. 🙂

    Posted by Jami Gold | August 20, 2010, 5:40 pm
  17. Theresa –

    What terrific advice today! I’m curious about when a contemporary romance tips over into romantic comedy. For example, would Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s books be considered RomCom? And does the humor have to be overt to be RomCom? I tend to label my manuscripts as straight contemporary, especially with the current thoughts on romantic comedies not being hot sellers (whether true or not, I don’t know).


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 20, 2010, 5:41 pm
  18. Great post. How do you find the time for all this?? I’m always a little confused as to where my book should be counted. To me, life is about the relationships we have, including lovers. Sometimes when I’d categorize my stuff as say “mystery” is romantic suspense or something else with romance. I’ve finally given up and if it looks like the couple’s relationship is going to be important, I throw the romance in there, even if it hadn’t been part of my original idea.

    In this way, being a pantster really helps 😀

    Posted by Leona | August 20, 2010, 10:57 pm
    • Hi, Leona. Sleep is for wimps. 😆

      If you’re pantsing your way through the early drafts, then I would say, don’t worry about market position just yet. Get your discovery draft down. Then figure out what’s in it. You may have multiple options for revision, and as you’re making those decisions, you can consider market position then.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:33 am
  19. I’m working from a different angle; I’m writing a fantasy that incorporates a romantic plot thread, but I’m taking care not to mention the romance in the pitch. This may be a mistake, but it seems to me that fantasy is taken more seriously when the romance is inferred, or low key.

    Posted by Vic K | August 20, 2010, 11:22 pm
    • Hi, Vic. Romantic fantasy is another tricky terrain. The romance market has been shying away from fantasy so you’re probably better off aiming for fantasy and downplaying the romance elements. But don’t ignore them. If they’re important to the plot and tone, then they’re important to the pitch or query.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:35 am
  20. Hm, I should have clarified… that’s because I’m writing straight or high fantasy, as opposed to urban.

    Posted by Vic K | August 20, 2010, 11:24 pm
  21. But, what if it has more than two crossovers? Will it look *too* complicated? The best way I can describe what I’m working on right now is ‘Merchant Ivory does epic fantasy’. Would that work as a description, or would I need to be more precise?

    Posted by Melanie | August 21, 2010, 10:41 am
    • Well, Melanie, I don’t know about anyone else, but “Merchant Ivory does epic fantasy” sounds like a damn good read to me. Bring it on. Let me tell you my interpretation based on this log line: Young untried youth as protagonist, amazingly evil antagonist, a lush and richly decorated world, quiet conflicts between characters who are essentially teammates, a “save the world” plot, maybe a bit of romantic yearning with a courtly love tone. Am I right? Sounds delicious.

      Posted by Theresa Stevens | August 24, 2010, 10:39 am
      • That’s exactly it. *whew* I’ll stick with that, then.
        I really, really hope it’s delicious when I’m all done. The plotline is pretty complicated… and a little bit dark ;p
        Thanks for your kind words and encouragement!

        Posted by Melanie | August 24, 2010, 1:07 pm

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