A simple look at the definition of "genre" might cause confusion for any writer seeking to understand the difference between genre and category. According to Merriam-Webster, genre is:
"a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content."
So if genre is a category of literary composition, what's a category? And why does genre matter? A post on agentquery.com articulates a great response to "why genre matters" with the simple statement that genres are "a staple of the publishing world." This characterizes what genre is better than the actual definition above because it speaks to something universal in the world of publishing: If it matters to publishers, it's important, even if you don't fully understand why.
Genre is a classification system, subject to change over time and based on trends. For instance, right now we're witnessing the rise of a new genre called "New Adult," a fiction genre that's different from Young Adult (YA) because it skews a little older (ages 18-24), whereas YA has typically been targeted toward young people ages 12-18. This came about because authors and publishers saw a market for New Adult (older readers reading YA) and felt that YA wasn't representing what they were doing. And so they needed a new genre. And that's how it happens.
Now let's turn to category, which Merriam-Webster defines as:
1. any of several fundamental and distinct classes to which entities or concepts belong
2. a division within a system of classification
In book publishing, #2 is a more apt definition. We're talking about a division within a system, and that division happens to be sliced and diced hundreds of different ways once you start to drill down. At a very high level you have two categories: fiction and nonfiction. These are like the X and Y chromosomes of all written material. It's pretty much either/or, with a handful of experimental authors throwing a wrench into this binary (just like actual biology). Within these two big categories, you find your identity, your self-expression. This is your genre, and there are a lot of genres to choose from. Some people have genre identity crises that create confusion, just like in the real world. A writer might call their book a "fictionalized memoir," for instance, because they're riding between memoir and fiction. Another writer may have written women's fiction, but the book is also a thriller and has hints of romance. These writers, and I've met them, are tempted to explain the ways their books defy or cross genres, but they shouldn't. Publishing, after all, is not particularly progressive when it comes to futzing with their classification systems, and you're not a rebel because you're trying to be clever, or straddle three genres; you're just an amateur.
After you choose one (yes, just one) genre, you'll come back to category. To continue our analogy, this next level of category is comprised of your identifiers, the things that tag you as part of a group--like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, where you grew up, your level of education, etc. If you think about these kinds of identifiers as ways you connect in the world with other like-minded people, you'll understand how book categories are similar. You're looking to tag your book with identifiers (categories) that will draw interested readers. There's an old saying in book publishing that writers should not try to be all things to all people, and there's good reason for that. You cannot appeal to everyone, and you don't want to. Identifying your book specifically, drilling down to the essence of what it is and naming it, is actually going to increase your chances of being read--because you're articulating for your readers what your book is, what it aims to do, and exactly who it's for.
In book publishing today, there are two categorizing systems, one for traditional publishing and one for self-publishing. On the traditional side you have BISACs. While the acronym technically means Book Industry Standards and Communications, this means nothing. In the industry, BISAC is a noun. When industry people talk about a book's BISACs, they're talking about its subject codes, or categories. The list of BISACs is massive and frustrating at times. (For instance, there is no BISAC for memoir.) You can browse it on BISG.org. There are 150 fiction BISACs alone. Some of these line up with genre classifications. For instance, you'll find:
FIC028000: FICTION/Science Fiction/General
But many others are so specific that you'll see how they fall beyond the scope of genre alone. For instance:
FIC059000: FICTION/Native American & Aboriginal
There is no such thing as a Native American and Aboriginal genre, or Christian/Futuristic genre. But for novelists writing on these topics, it's comforting to know that you can find these identifiers and mark your book so that readers drawn to these subjects will be able to find it.
If you are a self-published author, you won't ever deal with BISACs. Instead you'll deal with the individual and various platform categories you're uploading to. When you self-publish, you upload your own files (or someone does it for you). You can work with an aggregate, or you can choose a self-publishing platform, like CreateSpace or Ingram Spark, and then upload your ebooks separately. Having control of your categories (and beyond that, your keywords--which are basically the final piece of the identity puzzle, like your favorite color, or what you like to eat) directly through Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon's digital self-publishing solution) is reason enough to maintain a direct relationship, and not hand it over to CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. Amazon's Kindle browse categories are similar to BISACs, but they're more intuitive, more precise, and there aren't as many to deal with, so most authors who have to suffer under the archaic BISAC system are understandably frustrated. However, one thing traditionally published authors need to keep in mind is that Amazon's categories are just Kindle categories, and they're only one piece of the bigger picture. Authors tend to get myopic about Amazon (a subject for another blog post), and while they're the biggest game in town, they're not the only game in town.
Regardless of what categorizing system you end up with, pay close attention to what categories (and keywords) you choose. (Here's a helpful post from Amazon about keywords.) Ask your publisher, if you're traditionally published, what your BISACs are. You can tell if your BISACs or categories are off if you find yourself in bizarre company on Amazon. If this happens, make a change. Even if you're traditionally published, research BISACs on your own. Don't be afraid to ask about making a change. Categories are incredibly important to searchability on search engines like Amazon, notably, and other online retailers as well. There are marketing experts out there who offer strategy services designed to get your book to #1 in its category. You start this process by trying to drill down and figure out just how niche you can get while still being relevant. At the end of the day, the fact that people pay good money for these services proves my earlier point--that you can't and don't want to be all things to all people. Choose one genre, and then let your categories do the job they're supposed to do. You get to choose two to three, depending on your platform, and then usually up to seven keywords. Each piece of data you provide paints a composite picture of your book, so spend time thinking through what you have and how you want to present your book to the world. Genre, category, and keywords impact both how you talk about your book and your readers' ability to find your book. Good luck!
*image courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.