Understanding Category vs. Genre

By Cecilia Lewis

If you spend a lot of time reading about publishing and writing, you’ve probably encountered dozens of different terms used to describe books—high fantasy, young adult, contemporary, MG, paranormal, NA . . . These terms can get confusing, especially since they’re often used interchangeably or incorrectly. I sometimes see writers mislabel their books in queries, which makes it difficult for me as an editor to determine what kind of book I’m looking at. It can be equally confusing for the writer, who needs to know what other types of books exist that are similar to theirs. So, I’d like to spend a few posts talking about these different types of classifications and defining these terms. To start with, let’s talk about what a category is and how it’s different from a book’s genre.

A category refers to the targeted age demographic of the book, as well as expectations of general themes within the book. Categories are much larger than genres, and contain many different genres within them. The most commonly-used categories are adult (A), new adult (NA), young adult (YA), middle grade (MG), and picture book (PB). You can probably guess from the title what each category represents, as they’re roughly divided by age group.

I see the most confusion when it comes to NA, YA, and MG, so, some quick definitions: New adult is generally intended for college-age readers. Young adult books are intended for teenagers/high-schoolers. Middle grade books span a fairly broad age range from about 8 to 14-year-olds. Because that range is so broad, middle grade is often divided further into different types of books—early reader, chapter books, upper MG, etc. Again, these categories are based on the age range of the intended audience.

Note that I say “intended” audience, meaning that, of course, anyone can read these books. Saying that a book is MG in no way diminishes its value or suggests that adults wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy it. It’s mainly a marketing tool used to determine who the primary audience for the book might be and who the book is written for. Of course, there’s bound to be crossover here. As someone who writes YA and MG fiction, I tend to read a lot of it, and I recommend certain books to adults who I believe would enjoy them. But these books are intended for younger audiences.

Also, it’s important to note here that while the age of a book’s protagonists often coincides with its category, that’s not always the case. Most of the time, if you’ve written a book featuring a twelve-year-old main character, that book is probably middle grade. But adult books can feature young characters too—To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. The most important thing to keep in mind here is who your primary audience is.

Age range isn’t the only way to tell these categories apart, however. There are other differences between them which are important to keep in mind, including tone, voice, pacing, themes, and more. For example, new adult books are most often contemporary romances featuring early-twenty-something protagonists. If you’re writing, say, a dense historical fiction novel that just so happens to feature a main character who’s twenty-one, it probably wouldn’t be considered new adult. Similarly, an epic fantasy series whose cast is primarily adults wouldn’t be considered YA, even if the protagonist is a teenager.

Notice that the descriptors I used in that paragraph—contemporary, romance, historical fiction, epic fantasy—are all examples of genre. Genres are the terms that you’re probably most familiar with—fantasy, sci-fi, romance, thriller, mystery, horror, etc. Each of these genres exists within a given category, meaning, for example, there are YA contemporaries and YA fantasies and YA thrillers, etc. Two books can both be in the same category but be completely different genres, and vice versa. There are too many different genres for me to define them all in this post, so next week I’ll take a look at genre more specifically and break down the most common terms.

If you’re still feeling confused about all of these terms, I’d suggest going to a bookstore and looking at the way books are shelved. They will typically be broken up into categories first—young adult vs. picture books, etc.—and then divided further by genre within each section. Taking a look at where different books fall within these sections may be helpful in recognizing the differences.

What do you think? Do you find any of these terms confusing? How do you recognize category and genre differences? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

Related Links:

-All About Word Count

-Glossary of Publishing Terms and Definitions

-Who’s Reading Your Books? Identifying Your Audience

-Query Letter Red Flags


One thought on “Understanding Category vs. Genre

  1. Lou Grimm says:

    Thanks Cecilia. I’m struggling to understand the category and genre of my MS. I’ve been reading a wide range of books to try to figure it out. It’s almost a lot of things: dystopia, fantasy, contemporary. It’s intended for YA to NA, and it’s comic. You have helped me to verbalize my problem and I’m sure I’ll get there sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

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