Category Killer

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In honor of Halloween, here’s my favorite insider book publishing expression which represents the most desired property of any publisher, The Category Killer.

Two Category Killers, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, NYC Circa 1971

What it means is this:

When a book (or author) hits on all cylinders and is absolutely way above the standards of its genre—be it fiction or non-fiction—it has the potential to become a category killer. When it does, the book and the category become synonymous.

Oftentimes the killer sells at least twice as many copies as the next bestselling title in the category.

But just as often, the category killer is one of those titles that the inside publishing community references more than the regular Joe.  The reasons why the insiders know about these gems and the public doesn’t has more to do with the publisher’s failure, not the writer’s.

These gone but not forgotten books live in the publisher’s backlist, but because they never got any love from the marketing or publicity departments, they remain steady but not incredible word of mouth underground category killers more than those of the “Million Copy Bestseller” variety.

But trust me, editors know these titles by heart.  Especially those that fall inside their editorial specialty.  They throw them out at editorial and acquisition meetings with aplomb.  I don’t want to jinx it, but this could be the next _____.

Here are some of my favorite category killers in no particular order:

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel: Baby-birthing’s Bible.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Represents the Great American Novel…whether you agree with that assessment or not. I do.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: Writing’s go-to advice book.  Now simply known as STRUNK AND WHITE.

DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS by American Psychiatric Association:  Is this a sexy title?  No.  But is it a gold mine for the publisher? Yes.

LIAR’S POKER by Michael Lewis: No one, not even The Wolf of Wall Street can outdo Michael Lewis in his element.

FINDING THE WINNING EDGE by Bill Walsh: Anything/Everything you wanted to know about football. Seriously.

MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING by Julia Child: So ubiquitous it inspired JULIE AND JULIA and my favorite performance by Meryl Streep.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee: So you want to write a Coming of Age novel?

PERMISSION MARKETING by Seth Godin: The playbook for anyone who wants to blend art and commerce without cynicism. It gains in relevance every single time someone publishes a blog post.  Don’t forget TRIBES either.

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell:  Southern historical romance, anyone?

GATES OF FIRE by Steven Pressfield: War as art.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen: The Love Story. Period.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris: The Serial Killer Story. Period.

DELIVERANCE by James Dickey: So you want to write a book about a group of guys communing with Nature?

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill:  Domestic drama about family secrets anyone? Do you think Sam Shepard or Tracy Letts or Jonathan Franzen or Judith Guest ever heard of this one?

A FAN’S NOTES by Frederick Exley: So, you want to write about how important sports are to the male ego?

THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath: So, you want to write about a woman losing (or not) her mind?

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST by Ken Kesey: So, you want to write about a man losing (or not) his mind?

THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo: So, you want to write a novel about organized crime? Fuggedaboutit…

THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell: So, you want to write a book about business, but you want it to be Story driven and entertaining?

SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand: So, you want to write a book about a horse but not really about a horse?

THE PRINCE OF TIDES by Pat Conroy: So, you want to write a book about Southern family secrets?

THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield: So you want to write about the individual artist’s inner Resistance to meaningful work?

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST by David Halberstam: So, you want to write about how deferring to “geniuses” just because they went to Harvard may not be such a good idea?

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl: Can’t be pithy about this one.

BLACK HAWK DOWN by Mark Bowden: Welcome to 21st Century combat…

CARRIE by Stephen King: So, you want to write about what High School feels like to anyone who wasn’t in the homecoming court.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY by Robert Ludlum: The first existential thriller…when it’s probably for the best when you don’t know the answer to “who am I and why am I here?”

PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow: A treatise on guilt in all of its myriad manifestations stuffed inside a narrative fastball.

So if you target a category/genre that already has a killer, wouldn’t it be a good idea to read and analyze that book so that you know what you are getting into before you get into it?

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  1. Ken Davis on October 31, 2014 at 5:54 am

    Very surprised that the “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” didn’t make the list. Also, Patterson seems to be missing. Any reason these are not considered “killers”

    • Shawn Coyne on October 31, 2014 at 8:05 am

      The titles were off the top of my head. Tom Clancy and James Patterson are obviously part of the discussion.
      All the best,

  2. Mary Doyle on October 31, 2014 at 6:03 am

    A great list – thanks! Would add “Lonesome Dove” as a category killer for the Western.

  3. Erika Viktor on October 31, 2014 at 6:32 am


    I’m running into this phenom a lot. My children’s fantasy is compared to Harry Potter, my rhyming picture books are too Seuss-like. If it’s too close they call it derivative. If it’s not close enough it’s too weak.

    Oh well. I persist.

    Happy Halloween!

  4. Paul C on October 31, 2014 at 6:47 am

    A new season of college basketball is about to begin, so in the spirit of bracketologists everywhere (Shawn is kind of like the Seth Davis of publishing), I have to agree that Gates of Fire is a number one seed in the publisher’s March Madness brackets. But a Final Four showdown looms with Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Seth Godin is also looking at a tough Final Four with another number one seed, Tom Peter’s Search of Excellence. I have James Stewart’s Den of Thieves getting the W over Liar’s Poker. Crime novels at the street level, Richard Price’s Clockers and George Higgins’ Friends of Eddie Coyle are tough outs. The ultimate Cinderella category killer- John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, A Year with Bobby Night and the Indiana Hoosiers.

  5. Jeff on October 31, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Great stuff, Shawn. One of the blogs I check out fairly regularly (vs. religiously) is Alec Nevala-Lee’s and in it he pretty regularly talks about, as a writer of thrillers and action novels, intensely studying The Day of the Jackal and his overall admiration for Forsyth and his novels. In other words, he’s studying what he considers the category killer and the master of his genre. So it’s great to get a list of category killers like this. It makes a pretty good list of must reads. Thanks.

  6. Alex Cespedes on October 31, 2014 at 8:24 am

    I was pleasantly surprised to find two Pressfield books on the list. Not because it’s not accurate, but just because I figured you guys would be too modest to tell the truth. If you got it, flaunt it!

    Thank you for this bucket list of books, my reading list just got some cool new additions.

    • Joel D Canfield on October 31, 2014 at 8:48 am

      I too appreciated the lack of false modesty. (Though, admission time: I have not read Gates of Fire. Will remedy that promptly.)

      Know thy genre. This is why I have Chandler nearly memorized, why Hammett is always hovering nearby, and why discovering Larry Brooks’ Wolfgang Schmitt novels was such a joy.

      Story Grid has become my go-to blog these days, with good reason.

      • Alex Cespedes on October 31, 2014 at 9:14 am

        Agreed! Story Grid is getting more interesting by the day, it’s like a little treasure trove from the internet gods. Am I being too much of a hipster by saying I want it to remain a little exclusive club for those of us “in the know?”

  7. Gene Shaw on October 31, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Hey Shawn,

    I’m curious as to why the DSM is on this list. I understand that it’s a gold mine for the publisher, but it’s also the accepted standard in the psych field for anyone who diagnoses mental disorders. That seems more a function of politics than anything that the writers achieved. Wouldn’t that me more akin to a university textbook? No one absolutely mandates that you buy it, but it’s understood that you have one.

    What am I missing?


    • Shawn Coyne on October 31, 2014 at 1:18 pm

      Hi Gene,
      Quick…what’s the second most popular reference book on mental disorders?

      If you’re like me, you’ll have no idea. Perhaps it’s the German Psychiatric Associations guide?

      I merely used the DSM to prove the point that it would be pretty much folly for me or anyone else to try and outdo the go-to sourcebook. The category (granted it’s a very specific category, but so is CAT COZY MYSTERIES) is dominated and known by one title. That’s what defines a category killer.
      All the best,

      • Gene Shaw on October 31, 2014 at 1:33 pm

        Hey Shawn,

        I had thought about the second book in the category prior to posting – and you’re absolutely right – I have no idea which one occupies that slot.

        Thanks for clearing that up.


  8. Sonja on October 31, 2014 at 11:07 am


    Off the top, what would you consider the best psychological thriller that is a classic or recently published?
    Really curious! Thanks!

    • Shawn Coyne on October 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Sonja,

      Hmm. The Thriller is a very specific kind of Story, so with that requirement, I’d have to say PRIMAL FEAR by William Diehl.

      There are plenty of other psychological stories more in the Gothic tradition, with love being the external genre most often associated with the internal testing plot revolving around sanity. REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier is a great one, and of course there’s JANE EYRE. All of those weird stories where there’s some force or someone locked in the attic are great.

      Plus there’s a play called GAS LIGHT that was adapted into a pretty good movie too that’s worth a look.

      The screenplay DRESSED TO KILL by Brian de Palma also comes to mind too. And Hitchcock’s masterpiece VERTIGO of course.

      I think the pure psychological thriller isn’t as prevalent today because society just isn’t as convinced in the efficacy of psychiatry as it once was. We used to believe that “other people” were crazy and that psychiatrists were capable of keeping the nuts in line. Now, with the proliferation of psycho-pharmacology, we’ve all been convinced that everyone is a little crazy and that all we need are some pills to get us right. Talk therapy or analysis just doesn’t have the oomph that it once did to get to the bottom of it all.

      So fear of the realistic crazy madman (not horror madman) isn’t what it once was and we don’t buy in so easily anymore to a doctor figuring out how to solve such problems.

      That’s my two cents.

  9. Stacy on October 31, 2014 at 11:17 am

    In honor of Halloween, the haunted house category killers are THE SHINING, also by Stephen King, and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson.

    Great list, Shawn. Can’t wait to dig into the books I haven’t read yet.

    • Stacy on October 31, 2014 at 12:00 pm

      Whoops, tried to get an “I think” in there and it didn’t take.

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