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A Reader’s Guide To The Different Book Genres

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Margaret Kingsbury

Contributing Editor

Margaret Kingsbury grew up in a house so crammed with books she couldn’t open a closet door without a book stack tumbling, and she’s brought that same decorative energy to her adult life. Margaret has an MA in English with a concentration in writing and has worked as a bookseller and adjunct English professor. She’s currently a freelance writer and editor, and in addition to Book Riot, her pieces have appeared in School Library Journal, BuzzFeed News, The Lily, Parents,, and more. She particularly loves children’s books, fantasy, science fiction, horror, graphic novels, and any books with disabled characters. You can read more about her bookish and parenting shenanigans in Book Riot’s twice-weekly The Kids Are All Right newsletter. You can also follow her kidlit bookstagram account @BabyLibrarians, or on Twitter @AReaderlyMom.

Genres are ways of categorizing books to make them more easily found by readers. Categorizing book genres is a necessity with any large collection. Whether it be at a library or bookstore, readers need to know where to find a book, and also find similar types of books they might enjoy. But categorizing books also comes with its headaches. Some authors write across multiple genres, or a single book can be considered multiple genres. And some people have pet peeves about categories and/or category names. Be that as it may, book genres are still the most practical and efficient way to tag books for readers.

What does genre mean to me?

I used multiple methods for choosing and defining fiction and nonfiction genres and sub-genres. In addition to my 11 years of experience as a book buyer, I looked at the websites of a couple large bookstores, a few publisher websites, and the library of congress categories. The following book genres are an amalgamation of these sources.

Side notes: These categories apply to all age groups, thus, young adult, middle grade, etc. are not included as separate genres. Young adult books exist for every single one of these book genres, for example. Similarly, I don’t include graphic novels, because there can be graphic novels in any category. Graphics are a way of presenting a genre vs a separate genre.

A Reader's Guide to Book Genres

Fiction Book Genres

Books that describe imaginary events and people, or tell a story about real people and events using imaginary details.


A book or author that’s stood the test of time and has continued to inspire meaningful discussion and thought across generations. As gruesome as it sounds, I argue that the author needs to be dead for a book of theirs to be considered a classic. For example, Toni Morrison continues to write and to be an active member of the literary community. While I have no doubt her books will be classics, for now, they’re literary fiction.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Literary Fiction

Books deemed as having artistic qualities. Often subtle in theme and contain some kind of social/political/personal commentary on what it means to be human. Can contain other genre elements, but the author uses those elements not to be parts of that community, but to highlight an important theme in their work.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

  • Magical Realism: Surreal elements set in an otherwise realistic setting (without a magic system explanation) used artistically to make a point about reality.

General Fiction

These books offer fun, engaging stories in a contemporary setting. They’re more approachable than Literary Fiction, and contain none of the genre elements in other categories.

32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

  • Chick Lit: A lighthearted story centered around the personal growth of a female protagonist, usually including a romance and a happy ending.
    • My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

Circe by Madeline Miller book coverHistorical Fiction

Books that take place at least 30 years before the time the author writes them. Subcategories are often broken up by time frames.

Circe by Madeleine Miller


A book where the primary plot involves falling in love (of the romantic variety) and has a happy or emotionally satisfying ending. Because this is a category with many sub-genres, the examples listed are by sub-genre.

  • Contemporary Romance: Takes place in the author’s contemporary time period.
  • Historical Romance: Takes place at least 30 years in the author’s past.
  • Paranormal Romance: Contains fantasy elements.
  • Erotica: Plot revolves around sex.
  • Romance Series: Large series of numbered romances by multiple authors that can be read in any order.
    • Harlequin Romance


Death by Dumpling cover imageNovels where the plot revolves around solving why something has happened or will happen.

  • Detective/Private Investigator: Classic mystery novels where the protagonist is either asked to or volunteers to solve a crime or series of crimes.
  • Cozy Mystery: A low stakes mystery set in a small town.
  • Police Procedural: A police detective following the law to solve a high stakes crime. Typically graphic in its descriptions of violence.
  • Psychological Thriller: Features a high stakes plot that elicits anxiety where the goal is often to prevent a crime versus solve a crime.
  • Noir: A stylized mystery with a cynical protagonist.


High-stake novels with frequent scene changes, where the protagonist is constantly being put at risk.

  • Adventure: Features far flung locales and exploration.
  • Military/Espionage: A soldier or spy as the protagonist, with plots involving the government, politics, and/or military operations.
  • Western: Set in the United States Frontier West.
    • Doc by Mary Doria Russell


Novels set in either a completely fictional world, or set in a version of this world that includes magic.

Science Fiction

Books that imagine a current possibility’s impact in the future. This category has more subcategories than any other. I chose 5 commonly used ones to illustrate its many facets.

  • Hard SF: Includes detailed descriptions of factually possible science in a provable scientific field (as opposed to the social sciences).
  • Soft SF: Characterized by its focus on social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and folklore.
  • Space Opera: Books set in a fictionalized space.
  • Dystopian: Set in an undesirable social and/or political environment worse than the present.
  • Steampunk: A historical setting where steam-powered technology plays an important part in the narrative.


A novel where supernatural elements create fear and terror, both within the novel and for the reader.

Nonfiction Book Genres

Books that utilize factual information about a topic to the best of the author’s ability.


Books which examine past true events. These can be broad surveys of a specific country, region, and/or time period, or they can focus on a specific event or set of events. They’re often heavily researched and can utilize academic language or be highly narrative.

The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss

  • Prehistory: Creates a history of pre-literate or early literate societies using archaeological evidence
  • Military History: Relates the history of a war, battle, or some aspect of the military.


cover-of-ida-a-sword-among-lions-paula-giddingsRelates the story of a person’s life.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings

  • Autobiography: When a writer relates their entire life story.
  • Memoir: Often written like a narrative, focuses on a specific aspect or theme of a writer’s life, as told by the author.
  • Collections: A themed collection of short biographies.
  • Letters: A collection of correspondence from an individual, or between multiple people.
  • Diaries: The diary entries of a person or persons.

Fine Arts

Books where the information is primarily concerned with the aesthetic vs the factual.


you can't touch my hair by phoebe robinsonBooks meant to illicit laughter.

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain by Phoebe Robinson


Books which examine a specific religion, the history of religions, and/or the practice of worshiping a deity/deities. Includes holy books.

The History of God by Karen Armstrong

Folklore Studies

Collections and studies of fairytales, legends, storytelling, and folklore.

From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner


Study of the nature of knowledge, existence, and being from an academic perspective.

The Psychic Life of Power by Judith Butler

New Age & Alternative Beliefs

Books that examine nontraditional spirituality or non-mainstream belief practices.

Health & Wellness

Books that describe ways of staying healthy: how to prevent or fight a specific medical issues; nutritional ideas; alternative medicine; nursing textbooks; sex, etc.

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup


Books which explain physical or natural science concepts, including mathematics, technology, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and more.

Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved by Marcia Bartusiak

Social Science

So You Want to Talk about Race coverBooks that analyze societies and social relationships.


Books that examine mental and emotional functions and well-being.


Books that look at the education system, including teaching how-to guides, curriculum guides, lesson plan collections, homeschool guides, special education, and test prep.

Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks


Books which provide basic, objective information, like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and books of quotations.

Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory by Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace

Business & Economics

Books about managing and creating businesses, job skills and career advice, personal and business finance, investing, and how money works.

Creative, Inc.: The Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business by Joy Deangdeelert Cho andMeg Mateo Ilasco


Books about the ways communication occurs, communicating in other languages, the best ways to communicate, and the technical aspects of types of communication.

Home & Garden

Books about designing, organizing, taking care of, decorating, and otherwise loving homes and gardens.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Animal & Pet Care

Books about taking care of and loving animals.

The Chicken Chick’s Guide to Backyard Chickens: Simple Steps for Healthy, Happy Hens by Kathy Shea Mormino

Recreation & Leisure

Books about activities and hobbies done or consumed primarily for enjoyment.


Collections of recipes and the history of food.

I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook by Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad

True Crime

Books that tell the story of a specific crime or criminal, collect stories of various criminals, or tell of a historical crime.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich


And hey, book genres can be funny too.