If It Looks Like a Duck …… by Nicole Kimberling

Picture this: you go to a restaurant and you see on the menu an item called “pie.”

You ask the waitress, “What kind of pie do you have today?” (For the purpose of this thought experiment, let’s say you are a big fan of pie and may very well buy a piece of it, depending on how the waitress answers.)

“It’s hard to describe,” the waitress says. “It’s kind of a tangy, creamy, sweet dessert. It’s layered and really complex. Part of it is yellow. It’s totally sick.”

Your heart sinks.

“What ingredients does this pie contain?” you ask, mainly out of curiosity. Your chances of buying under-defined “sick” pie are virtually nil.

“It has an all-butter pastry crust, with lemon curd filling and meringue topping,” she says. “You can see it in the case right there.”

A quick glance confirms suspicions that you have been harboring about the mysterious pie. “Isn’t that just regular old lemon meringue pie?”

The waitress looks down at you with slight weariness, “yeah, that’s what some people call it but the chef here doesn’t believe in defining his creations in bourgeois marketing terms.”

Unable to stop yourself you ask, “But ‘lemon meringue pie’ isn’t a marketing term so much as a well-accepted name used to describe the contents of a particular kind of pie. Don’t you think the pie would sell better if diners understood what it was?”

“Maybe,” the waitress replies, “but it’s important to our primary vision to avoid pigeonholing something so expansive and indefinable as lemon meringue pie into one tiny little category. You can’t put labels on art.”


Ah, if only that were true. The fact is, though, that if one is going to engage in the business of selling art, it eventually becomes necessary to define what this thing that you are selling is supposed to be.

As a writer of fiction that could often be best described as “interstitial,” I struggled and fought and wept and shouted long and endlessly into the unforgiving night about the stupid need to define my stories in terms of pre-existing genres. It’s very fair to say that this inability to accurately describe my own work delayed my being published for at least ten years. Why? Because without being able to summarize or label my work, I couldn’t write a query letter.

It was only after I became an editor and started reading other people’s terrible, dismal, baffling query letters that I realized how important it is for an author to be able to accurately define their own work. It all comes down to this: being able to describe one’s work is not only a sign of maturity, it communicates to the editor that you (the author) have enough grasp of publishing markets and their salient genres to roughly know where your story falls in the great, three-dimensional continuum of narrative. It means that you understand that there are different types of story with different structures, aims and goals. It means you have the critical capacity to compare your stories with the stories of others and see where they are similar and dissimilar and make a judgment about where this thing you have written should be categorized, and put it all together. It means that you have a grasp on the larger purpose of marketing—which is to connect readers with stories that they will enjoy.

And when I say buyers, I don’t mean just editors, but readers as well. In these days of easy self-epublishing, authors interact directly with readers more and more. Accurate marketing is crucial so that readers do not feel as if you’ve attempted to deceive them into buying something that they don’t want. Labeling a 100 page piece “erotica” when it contains only three paragraphs of sex will lead to readers who rightly feel cheated–like you’ve pulled a bait & switch on them.

Okay, so I think I’ve beaten the idea that labels help buyers understand your product home well enough.

But understanding that labeling is important doesn’t really help with the problem of defining your own work in the first place.

Here are some tips that can help you better describe your stories. I suggest that when you’re trying to define a piece first just come up with some words that convey the separate elements in play. One way that’s worked for me is to look at the individual parts of a story: the plot, characters, setting and tone and then come up with some terms that describe the various parts first.

Words that describe plot include (but are not limited to) romance, mystery, adventure, thriller, comedy, coming-of-age, quest, space opera, family saga and horror.

Character words can be things like gay, detective, mother, teen, alien or vampire.

Setting includes words like paranormal, contemporary, historical, science-fiction, or fantasy.

Finally we have tone, which can describe either the style of the writing, or the themes explored or both. These are descriptors like literary, hard-boiled, inspirational, epic, erotic or humorous.

One note here: some terms describe a very specific kind of story structure that includes a particular tone. These are words like noir, gothic, steampunk or regency. If you use these descriptors, be careful that your story fits all the criteria. Just because a story is set during the regency of Prince George does not mean that it contains witty banter and comedy of manners. Conversely, if the tone and story progression are right, a story can be rightly called a regency even if it takes place in outer space, as with  JL Langley’s My Fair Captain.

Once you’ve got a few accurate words, putting them in order can be tricky. Is your story a romantic mystery or a mystery romance? Here it becomes useful to look at proportion. Does your primary protagonist spend 75% of the pages solving a crime and 25% accidentally falling in love in the process? It’s a romantic mystery.

Sometimes you’ll need a string words to get the gist across. For example, I would describe my hardest to define the story, The Red Thread of Forever Love, as a gay, paranormal romantic-comedy. Ginn Hale’s Rifter series could be described as a fantasy epic with a gay protagonist. Because of the proportion of intimate scenes to total page count, Josephine Myles’ Barging In could be considered a gay contemporary erotic romance.

And so on.

If all else fails you can always do what I did–ask your savviest friends to help you. Then—and this is the tricky part—believe what they say. Sometimes it’s very hard to separate your own favorite parts of the story, or what you’re proudest of being able to write, from what ended up being most prominent on the page. Maybe you thought you were writing a hard science-fiction story but what you ended up with was a M/M futuristic romance. Go with it. No matter how it’s described to buyers (so long as that description is accurate) it’s still the same manuscript to you. And labeling it correctly will give it a fighting chance of reaching the readers who will love it.

Good luck!



  • This is a great post on a subject that applies not just to authors but to publishers as well. Readers want to know what to expect when they buy a book, and disappointed readers don’t keep buying. That can hurt both the authors and the publisher. I say that as an author who worked with a publisher that gave every single book five peppers (top heat rating) and called it all erotica when many of the stories were much tamer and less emphasis on sex. Readers who wanted 5-pepper books got upset and people who didn’t want 5-pepper books didn’t buy them. Everyone lost out.

    The same issues apply with regard to genre and tone. A happy, up-beat blurb shouldn’t be used on a dark, angsty book, no matter how good it sounds from a marketing perspective. Blurb-writing should be a collaborative process to best define the book for a prospective reader within pre-defined boundaries for heat and content.

    Thanks for tackling the subject. At least if authors can be more mindful, they may be able to help their publishers be both more accurate and more precise.

    • Hello there, EM!

      Oh heat levels…. Is there anything more subjective? I completely agree, though, that both authors and publishers tend to exaggerate the level of “hotness” of any given piece.

      I personally like the guidelines given on All Romance Ebooks regarding their flame rating system. I found it useful and easy to understand.

  • Hi Nicole I had read your post when it appeared – always do 🙂 but decide that your very good advice this time had been mostly for the writers and I did not think I had anything to say. But my fellow reviewers made a very good points about blurbs not reflecting the story correctly, mislabeling, etc so I wanted to ask a question. Say you have not described your story accurately but the publisher decided they still want it and they made you see the light 😉 . They explained to you in which genre it really should belong,etc. So at the end the publisher really should market it correctly right, if they understand what the story is about? And if the story is a mystery with a smudge of romance, tiny smudge or none it really should not be marketed as romance, right? Thanks Nicole.

    • Hey Sirius! It’s always good to see you.

      Well, in an ideal world, authors and publishers would be able to agree about what to call a story, but alas…

      The trouble is, I think, that the author and publisher have different motives for the labeling. The author wants the label to be accurate, but might not be able to figure it out because of being too close to a story. A publisher might be trying to squeeze a story into a more popular category so that it will get more exposure and sell better, which benefits both them and the author.

      So in some cases neither party might be actually right and in some cases having a story categorized badly will doom it’s sales because no appropriate readers will ever find it.

      I personally feel that the term “m/m” should be liberated from the romance genre and be a category of story all in itself, in the way that yaoi is. I mean, not all yaoi stories are romances. A lot of them are horror stories, for example.

      An m/m story is also not a automatically a gay story, though some qualify in both categories. So within the m/m genre there are romances, mysteries, thrillers, humor pieces, science fiction etc.

      I think readers of m/m would be better able to find what they’re looking for if there wasn’t an automatic notion that all m/m stories must be romances at their core. It might also broaden the range of m/m stories published to include more than just romances, which would enrich the field.

      I mean, as an author I can say that none of my titles are actually romances, though they all contain strong m/m romantic stories. They are undeniably m/m stories. But if they were removed from the romance category, no readers would ever find them, right?

      Anyway, so that’s why I think that in an ideal world m/m would get to be a category all its own.

      But that’s just my ideal world, I suppose. 🙂

      • Nicole wrote: “I personally feel that the term “m/m” should be liberated from the romance genre and be a category of story all in itself, (…)”

        Funny you should say this. Only a couple of weeks ago I seperated my m-m-romance bookshelf over at Goodreads into m/m and romance because I found that a lot of the books I read lately didn’t actually fit in the romance category. Or at least the romance took a backseat and it wouldn’t be fair to the book to use it as the sole lable.


Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: