Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Genre, part II

by Stacey

I received so many great responses last week when I posted about different genres that it made me want to answer some questions, and offer some thoughts that might be helpful to all of you aspiring authors out there as you think about your writing future. Many of the questions you have about pitching your book effectively, finding the right genre for your writing style, and creating a work that is commercially viable are the same ones that we have when we consider a new project. Will editors know where it fits, will booksellers know where to shelve it, and will it be able to stand out in an increasingly difficult and competitive marketplace? I wanted to ruminate a bit about this, and answer a couple of specific questions posted by readers, so here goes.

First, I wanted to talk a bit about nonfiction since my post only referred to fiction categories, and I personally handle a ton of nonfiction across many categories. My list has changed a bit over my eleven years at DGLM, beginning with a love of food and cookbooks and quirky, fun how-tos, and then moving into various practical areas of nonfiction, from health and fitness to sports (especially baseball) to crafting, and finally finding some nice success with narrative nonfiction. The key thing to consider for pitching nonfiction is who your reader is and how you will target that reader. If it's a craft book, a popular category over the last few years, and you have the right credentials and platform, you'll be able to illustrate where your readers are and how you will find them. Same goes for any other category of nonfiction. Identify your reader and then clearly go on to explain why you are the person most qualified to write the book, and to market and promote it. Seems simpler than it is, of course, but if you aren't able to clearly and concisely do this, then you should focus on building your credentials and platform until you are at a level where it's an easier pitch to make.

Moving on to fiction, there were a number of questions about what constitutes literary versus commercial fiction, so I wanted to share a couple of comments and then respond with a few thoughts.

Anonymous said...
I would love to see somebody post about what "Literary Fiction" really means. It seems to me that when writers use it in queries to describe their work, they label themselves as amateurs. Is that true? Is it something that agents put on their lists because many writers think of themselves that way, though they may really be writing, say, commercial/upmarket or women's fiction?

Empty Refrigerator said...
 Exact same question as Anonymous! How do you tell the difference between lit fiction and commerical/upmarket? And if this is subjective as it seems, what would you, as agents, suggest using as a default? Does "lit fiction" make an author seem like a snob?

To go into this a bit, I often ask myself the same questions and when a project presents itself that I can’t find the answers to, I know it meant it wasn't for me. We always talk about this being a subjective business, and it can't be reiterated enough that our rejecting a project in many cases is not so much a reflection of the quality of the project, but where it fits on our list, or whether we are able to see pitching it effectively to editors whose job it is to say no more than yes. To speak specifically to the question about literary fiction, I once got a great piece of advice from a very well-known and well-respected editor who has been around a long time. We were talking about literary fiction and she told me the term she used to describe books that work was "literary accessible". I thought this was a great way to think about the difference between literary and commercial, and know that there are ways to present a literary work that still feels accessible to a wide audience. That's what editors want to find. Beautifully written, well crafted novels that will find a large readership. It's not always about the book itself, but about how a publisher envisions publishing it, and how they will position it in the marketplace. A book like The Help, a huge breakaway hit, isn't an obviously commercial book on the surface, but it has found an eager and enthusiastic audience and I think falls into that "literary accessible" category. Years ago when chick lit was popular, I sold a ton of it, and before long, it became over published and you couldn't get anyone to buy a chick lit novel. But the books that were working were still arguably the same, just positioned as commercial women's fiction, a very broad but generous category where many kinds of literary and commercial novels can peacefully coexist. Lorrie Moore's recent award-winning A Gate at the Stars, a literary novel, will still be shelved in the same section with Jodi Picoult, a more commercial writer, and Sophie Kinsella, a very commercial writer, whose books managed to stay a notch above chick lit and continue to survive and thrive.

Another couple of questions came up about YA versus adult fiction, and this is another point that we've all thought a lot about and discussed ad nauseam in our publishing circles. Questions below and my responses to follow.

Nicole L Rivera said...
I had trouble with this myself. The specific question which has kind of been answered is: Is twenty-something YA or adult? I have received mixed reviews but they all come with the same pained expression and a not so clear answer.

Anonymous said...

Nicole I thought 20 something facing first time independence events (like moving out, first job, etc) was New Adult. I am still not sure though whether a coming of age novel should be marketed as YA or literary fiction or commercial fiction. It has romantic elements but not the predictable happy ending. What do you call that? Protagonist is 17 and there are a lot of ideas as well as plot.

  With the success of Harry Potter and Twilight, middle grade and young adult books have become the movie equivalent of a blockbuster series franchise, and we all aspire to find the next big thing. So it's no surprise that plenty of adult authors are writing into this category. For some interesting insight, check out this video interview with Rebecca Stead, author of this year's Newberry-winning When You Reach Me. I've recently sold several books for younger readers by clients who had only previously written for adults. In some cases, the differences in writing and plot are subtle, and the real differentiating factor is how the book is positioned and marketed. An ideal to strive for is a middle grade or YA book that has crossover appeal, or the ability to reach an older audience as well as a younger one. These books are hard to find, but when they work, they can work big. Books written for a younger audience often have protagonists whose voices speak directly to that reader, and the themes are often handled in a way that is more sensitive to a younger reader. I think it would be challenging to make a book with a 20-something protagonist work as a YA novel. I recently considered something that crossed this line and I wound up passing because it read like YA, but the themes were too adult, and the protagonist was in her 20s and I just felt like it fell into that dead zone between YA and adult, a very difficult audience to find. A coming-of-age with a 17 year-old protagonist would likely be a YA if the voice and themes support the market. For example, while The Lovely Bones is narrated by a teenager, it clearly is intended for an adult audience. Literary accessible rules apply to younger audiences as well.

I hope this genre talk has been helpful, and has answered some questions about the many ways in which a book can be written, pitched, sold, positioned, and marketed. As is always the case, there is a lot of grey area in categorizing your work, but it's worth taking the extra time to research the market and other projects that speak to your intended audience, and to keep a clear focus on pitching your work effectively. If there's anything I've missed, as I'm sure there is in this big discussion, please let us know and we'll try to get to it soon!


  1. Stacey, thanks so much for doing this second post! It's as though you read my mind! Not only has it answered a couple of questions I had about non-fiction (I'm writing a fun, how-to book, lol), it's also been helpful in keeping in mind that my middle grade novel can also appeal to the YA market as well!

    Thanks again!

  2. Here's one of the best comparisons I've heard on this topic: the difference between commercial and literary fiction is the language. Clearly no one will mistake The DaVinci Code for literary fiction, but it's a great example of what literary fiction is not. Short, stark sentences. Small, quick words. Few adjectives but lots of those nasty adverbs. Not a simile or metaphor to be found. Literary fiction is all about being artful with the language.