To Determine Place
Or, What To Do When Your Book Fits No Category
“...in practice, every organizational schema is a doomed attempt to blanket chaos with order...the clear lines bleed and become wobbly.” -John Sherman
You have books. How do you decide upon your book categories? How do you then choose just where on the shelf to park that book? No matter the categories, there will always be books that defy the system. John Sherman’s humorous essay, “Implications of Shelving Books, Or, the Time I Reorganized the Cook Books at Book Court,” digs into this. “It may be possible to draw a sensible line delineating science from nature, art from design, autobiography from memoir, or war history from American history from Native American history, but to do so is to suggest that any one exists independently from the other. The clear lines bleed and become wobbly.” https://lithub.com/on-the-philosophical-implications-of-shelving-books/
These bleeding lines that bedevil you and the bookseller also exasperate an author. You’ve written a book. But your brainchild wanders between categories. How will a reader find it in a search? In the digital world, there is no place for Duke Ellington’s concept that some things are “beyond category.”
Run a computer search on noir movies or 1920’s diners or houseboats in the San Francisco Bay. Results come up. Lots of them. A million, or more. In order to detect and retrieve all this, search engines compel the use of categories and SEO: search engine optimization. Quite quickly one of those hits in your category will rise to visibility, and you are done. Most of those results you will never see.
Just the same, when book-searching, you have a specific subject in mind. Expectations. You want history or children’s books. To speed your search behind the scene, there is the Book Industry Study Group. They compile the BISAC Subject Headings, a vast list of categories and sub-categories, each one with a code. To be sold through most channels, a book must have at least one BISAC code. This way, distributors and bookstores and you can find it. If you are searching for a Crime Thriller, have confidence that you will not end up with Romance/Billionaires or Science Fiction/Alien Contact.
Authors can find a lot of advice about reader expectation and category selection. They are advised to pick a genre and write to match the convention. Don’t just write a Mystery. Is it a Murder Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Hard-Boiled, Soft-boiled, Poached? Depending on your choice, specific character types, plot points and tone must be included. They say. Otherwise, you will be rowing upstream to a place where You Will Sell No Books.
But what if you wrote your book and then discovered your brainchild doesn’t fit into a simple niche. Such is my struggle. My book, “Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir” is Fiction—but that description is too large and blobby. The story is Noir—but ends happily. Adventure or thriller—there is a big fight at the end, but there are no invincible men stomping about. Yes, there is a Mystery. But I’d hazard a bet that most people looking for Mystery aren’t expecting a rabbit and spider buddy team as the main characters.
One reviewer called it “a hard-boiled children’s tale.” But is it Young Adult? Maybe. But with brandy spicing up the coffee in Chapter 7, a dead body (seen floating at a distance) in Chapter 9, and three cocktails enjoyed (Rabbit Holes: fresh carrot juice, gin and a squeeze of lemon) in Chapter 20, some parents may put it out of bounds for Young Adults. It is hard to say for sure. In a recent YA book review, the reviewer described a scene wherein a young character was fretting because her father was not slitting someone’s throat fast enough. This is OK in YA? I was horrified.
“Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir” has no cute pets, cute humans or cute cafes. Murkey’s itself is a favorite old diner, a hold-out on the once blue-collar waterfront. Search engines unearthed no Cozy Mysteries with diners. I don’t think it is a thing.
Cat-centric and dog-centric stories abound, with real cats or dogs as main characters. They think like humans, but have animal-centric issues added for plot and humor. And they usually share a world with humans. In Leonie Swann’s mystery “Three Bags Full,” the main characters are real sheep. They reason like humans (but have some sheepy issues), as they struggle to solve the mystery of their dead human owner.
There are no humans in “Murkey’s.” I call Bunz and Webbs, my characters, the Guys. IRW, they are called stuffed animals, or #plushies—their category on Instagram. The Guys live in a universe parallel to mine. They talk to me, as many authors’ characters do. They gave me this story. I wrote it down. By chance, it turns out I entered A.A. Milne territory.
My sister pointed this out to me. Milne, born in 1882, was originally known for writing popular plays. Before Milne invented Winnie-ther-Pooh, he wrote “humorous verse and whimsical essays” (Wikipedia), which were often published in “Punch”, a satirical British magazine for adults. He was 40 before he published his first poem about the adventures of a teddy bear. It was not intended for children but was social satire for adults.
And, according to the real Christopher Robin, Milne knew nothing about marketing and did not trouble himself with it. And of course he knew nothing about internet categories. Why write about a talking bear and his friends? Because the story was there.
And that is what I did. I wrote “Murkey’s, A Rabbit Noir” because it was there (well, Bunz insisted). Then I entered the world of marketing and realized I had not followed the rules. Without meaning to, I created a new category: Rabbit Noir. https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/18619988-what-is-rabbit-noir
So what to do? I’m going to suggest that the BISAC humans add it to their list.