Breaking Down Book Categories

I often tell writers that they absolutely need to know the genre of a manuscript. There are many genres: fantasy, thriller, science fiction, crime, romance, mystery, etc. However, there are also different book categories, and while they aren’t confused as frequently as genres, I still receive a few handfuls of query letters each week that have no idea where the story belongs from an organizational standpoint. So I’m going to break it down for you, as simply as I can. Hopefully these brief definitions will help someone figure out exactly where a manuscript belongs.

Your book is either fiction or nonfiction. There are way more category possibilities for fiction, so I’m going to focus on those. But even nonfiction can be broken down further; memoir, pop science, health, cookbook, entertainment, etc. are all examples of different categories for nonfiction books. This is usually easy to figure out for nonfiction projects, since they have a very specific focus. Things can get a little more complicated with fiction, especially when age groups are involved (like when understanding the difference between a middle grade novel and a chapter book). Let’s go from youngest to oldest.

Picture Books: These are often the prettiest books you’ll find in a bookstore. These books are usually fully illustrated, and the illustrations help to tell the story. There are other categories under the picture book heading, easily separated by age group: board books (2-5), early picture books with very short word counts (2-5), and standard picture books (4-8).

Chapter Books: The chapters in chapter books are very short (only a few pages) and have content appropriate for kids aged 7-10. These sometimes have illustrations (often black and white), but they are not required.

Middle Grade: These stories are for readers 8-12 in age. The protagonist is usually 10-13 years old and in middle school (this age group is key—it shouldn’t feel like a high school student or deal with high school issues). 

Young Adult: YA is written for teenagers (but often appeals to a wide variety of readers). The protagonist must be a teenager (usually mid or late teen). The content (despite the genre) must be applicable to issues that modern-day teenagers experience. These books really do emulate the high school experience. 

New Adult: This category is often confused for something it’s not. New Adult is about twenty-somethings going through the events and experiences often attributed to life after high school. NA is also, as of right now, a romance category. Your manuscript may have elements of other genres (science fiction or horror, for example), but in order for it to be considered NA, the plot absolutely needs to have romance. 

Commercial Fiction: Commercial stories have a defined plot and appeal to a wide audience. The prose is easily accessible, and the main character pursues a goal throughout the narrative. There is generally a happy ending (or at least a recognizable conclusion to the plot). When someone uses the term commercial fiction, they are most likely discussing books for adults. 

Literary Fiction: Literary stories focus more on character development than plot (but that doesn’t mean nothing happens in the story). The prose is more poetic than commercial stories, and the storytelling isn’t always straightforward. These stories aren’t for everyone and don’t always have mass appeal. Literary fiction is also a term applied to books for adult.

I hope these brief definitions help one or two new writers (or at least new to the publishing world)—fingers crossed SEO does its job! These are simply guidelines, and it is by no means a comprehensive list, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction in navigating the different book categories available. Remember that there are many genres within categories, and using them helps define your manuscript even more (especially when writing a query letter for a literary agent or editor). For example, Middle Grade or Young Adult manuscripts could be science fiction, horror, or fantasy; Commercial Fiction could be romance, thriller, or mystery. It’s up to you to decide where your story fits and the best descriptors to use when pitching the manuscript.