Mystery! Suspense! Thriller!

When I pitched my first book to a publisher, I described it as a mystery. “Tell me about it,” said the acquisitions editor. After hearing the the storyline, she asked to see the full manuscript and gave me her card.

 Glancing at the card, I noticed that the publisher she represented specialized in romance novels. I repeated that the book I had written was a mystery.

“Sounds like romance is a substantial part of it,” she countered. “Send the manuscript and let us decide.”

Long story short, her company published The Body Business as a Romantic Suspense novel. Thus began my initiation into the wacky world of genre madness and the marketing issues that plagued the book for the duration of the publishing contract.

Fast forward to the day the contract ended. At last, I had more control over how, when, and where the book was advertised.

Thankfully, the new edition took off and led to the launch of the Samantha Newman Mystery Series. As published authors know, trying to slide your novel into the perfect preset niche that book retailers and other marketers require can be daunting. My books tend to cross genres, so picking a single category was like aiming a fistful of darts at one teeny tiny target and hoping the right dart would hit the bullseye.

Mystery? Thriller? Suspense? Which one suits the stories best?

Here’s a simple way to differentiate them according to best-selling, multi-award winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan: “I always think a mystery is ‘who-done-it?’ A thriller is ‘stop it before it happens again.’ And suspense is ‘what’s going on here?’

These simple guidelines help me define the books in my series, even though each one fits into a different category.

Reviewers describe The Body Business as a “roller-coaster ride” and a “page-turner.” In other words, it reads like a thriller. As for The Body Next Door, some reviewers have called it a cozy. Like a cozy, there’s humor and a quirky character or two, but the absence of cats, crafts, or a charming village could risk the wrath of traditional cozy fans. It’s also been described as “full of suspense,” which is how I wrote it, straight-up.

Romance runs through the series as a subplot, due to my fiercely independent-minded main character, who continues to deflect the happy-ever-after ending romance readers crave. The romance continues into the next book, but the main plot is a true who-done-it.

To label a book as a mystery, suspense novel, or thriller is purely a marketing game. What an author really cares about is that people enjoy reading it. When our readers share a book they really like with their friends, they can describe it however they want.

Readers, do you rely on a bookseller’s categories to choose a book?

Writers, have you struggled with labels, too? Tell us about it.

Gay Yellen is the award-winning author of the Samantha Newman Mystery Series, including The Body Business, The Body Next Door, and the upcoming Body in the News.


20 replies
    • Gay Yellen
      Gay Yellen says:

      Can’t deny that we’d like all our books to be best sellers, Debra. Although, I’ve read a best-seller or two that wasn’t as good as as it was cracked up to be. I’m with Saralyn on this. A good story IS a good story, no matter how much money it makes.

  1. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Gay, not only is it confusing, it can be maddening. My Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series was pitched as amateur sleuth because my sleuth is a profession, not a shop owner, and the series takes play in and around NYC. After buying the series, the publisher decided to market it as a cozy because (in their words) “books marketed as cozies sell better than books marketed as amateur sleuth mysteries.” Only I had broken a few cozy rules, which didn’t bother the publisher but really annoyed some readers. Sometimes you can’t win!

    • Gay Yellen
      Gay Yellen says:

      I feel you, Lois. Back when The Body Business was marketed as Romantic Suspense, one of my favorite reviews complained that I shut the door to the bedroom just when when things were heating up. On the opposite end of the spectrum, after a couple of reviewers called Book 2 a cozy, I toyed with trying to tap that lucrative market. However, I decided not to rile the tea and crumpets set.

  2. Donnell Ann Bell
    Donnell Ann Bell says:

    Funny, I can boil another author’s book down, but my own? I know all the ingredients/plot points that went into it and I become so tongue-tied I simply throw up my hands. Gay, I absolutely love your graphics on this post, and I feel your pain on where our books absolutely belong!

  3. Lynn McPherson
    Lynn McPherson says:

    Great topic, Gay. And I agree with Kathryn and Saralyn–Hank knows what she’s talking about. She came to speak at a Sisters In Crime Toronto meeting years back. A wonderful speaker with great advice.

  4. Kaye George
    Kaye George says:

    Oh, to be in England, where everything is called a “crime” novel! I write flat-out cozies, but I also write series that are not cozy. That seems to confuse people. (sad face)

Comments are closed.