Building block of the pitch #1: navigating the tricky terrain of book category identification

Yesterday, I warned you that my approach to pitching is a TEENY bit unorthodox. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I believe that the definition of pitching successfully is not merely being able to cram an entire 400-page book into three sentences and spit it out coherently.

Call me zany, but it’s true.

Instead, I define pitching success as the ability to speak fluently and persuasively about a book in terms that make an agent or editor likely to say, “Gee, I’d like to read that. Please send me the first 50 pages right away.” I define a pitch’s success by its results, not its conformity to a pre-set model to be used in all instances.

I know: radical.

But thinking of it this way makes it far, far easier to make it through the pitch preparation process, I find: instead of grumblingly adhering to an evidently arbitrary and difficult standard of presentation, you’re gearing up to have all of the marvelously fulfilling conversations of the rest of your life as a professional writer.

Much nicer to wrap your brain around, isn’t it?

Now that you are prepared for my advice to be a bit offbeat, I am not afraid to shock you with my first unorthodox suggestion: DON’T start the pitch-prepping process by sitting down and trying to summarize your book.

Instead, let your first step be figuring out where your book would be placed on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, Borders, or a similar chain bookstore.

And no, I don’t mean just in fiction, alphabetically. In a marketing display, what kind of books would be grouped around it? How would it be placed so as to suggest that if the potential buyer liked book X, he would probably be interested in your book as well?

Once you know where the pros would envision your book selling best, you will have both an infinitely easier time pitching AND finding agents to query. Suddenly, those cryptic lists of book types in agents’ guides and opaque conference bio blurbs will spring to life for you.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of aspiring writers do not do their homework in this respect — and believe me, from the pros’ perspective, it shows in their pitches. The industry defines types of books far more specifically than writers tend to do — and no agent represents every kind of book. The sad fact is, the vast majority of aspiring writers out there have only a vague idea of how their books would be marketed to booksellers.

Yet the FIRST question any editor would ask an agent about a book, or a committee would ask an editor, or a book buyer would ask a publishing house’s marketing department is, “What’s the book category?”

To put it as bluntly as possible, the book category is in fact the industry shorthand for where a book should be directed in order to sell, at every level.

Before I launch into how to figure out where your book belongs, let’s take a look at how the average pitcher deals with this primary question, and why the standard response tends not to impress agents and editors very much.

In the first place, writers often mishear the question as, “So, what is your book about?” rather than what it is, a straightforward question about marketing. Thus, they all too often give exactly the same response they would give anybody who asked the more general latter question at a cocktail party:

“Well (gusty sigh), it’s a novel…mostly, it’s women’s fiction, but I guess it’s also suspense, with thriller elements. And the writing is definitely literary.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but to an agent or editor, this kind of response sounds EXACTLY like that noise that Charlie Brown’s teachers used to make: Wah wah wah wah waagh…

Remember, agents and editors think about books as products, rather than merely as works of art or expressions of the inner workings of the writers’ souls. And as products, agents need to sell books to editors, and editors to editorial committees, and marketing departments to distributors, and distributors to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

And I assure you, a vaguely-defined book is much harder to drag through that process.

So it’s an excellent idea to tell them up front — as in both your pitch and the first few lines of your query letter — what kind of book it is. But in order to make sense to people in the industry, you need to speak their language: pick one of their recognized categories.

In other words, don’t just guess, don’t lump a couple of categories together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a hyphenate, and don’t just make up a category.

How do you know where to start? Take a gander at the back jacket of most hardcover books: you will find, usually in either the upper left corner or just above the barcode, a one- or two-word description. That is the book category.

Now, think about your book. Can you come up with, say, 3-5 titles that are similar to it in subject matter, tone, approach, voice, etc., that have come out in North America within the last five years? Not similar in ALL respects, necessarily — just one or two may be enough.

If you can’t come up with any that are remotely similar, I suspect that you’re not overly familiar with the current book market — a serious liability for anyone hoping to pitch or query a book to someone who makes a living following such trends. If all else fails, start feeding relevant search terms into Amazon and see what comes up.

Once you have your list, go to a bookstore (either physically or online) and see where those books are housed. That is, most likely, where your book would be categorized, too.

You can also go through the generally accepted categories and see what intuitively seems like the best fit. Here is the standard list for fiction:

Fiction (a.k.a. Mainstream Fiction), Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Futuristic Fiction (that is not SF. The usual example is THE HANDMAID’S TALE.), Adventure Fiction, Sports Fiction, Contemporary Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit, Lady Lit, Lad Lit; Romance, Category Romance, Contemporary Romance, Historical Romance (designate period), Paranormal Romance, Romantica, Erotica, Inspirational Romance, Multicultural Romance, Time Travel Romance; Science Fiction, SF Action/Adventure, Speculative SF, Futuristic SF, Alternate History, Cyberpunk; Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Epic Fantasy; Horror, Paranormal, Vampire Fiction; Thriller, Spy Thriller, Suspense, Romantic Suspense; Mystery, Police Procedural Mystery, Legal Mystery, Professional Mystery, P.I. Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Forensic Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hardboiled Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Cops & Killers Mystery, Serial Killer Mystery, British Mystery, Noir, Caper; Western; Action/Adventure; Comics; Graphic Novel; Short Stories; Poetry; Young Adult, Picture Book, Children’s, Middle Readers.

Pick one for your novel.

Specifically, pick the one that comes CLOSEST to where you envision the book being shelved in a big bookstore. (Since I’ve written about this topic quite frequently and I’m trying to get us through the pitching basics fairly quickly, for more specific tips on how to do this, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right.)

But whatever you do, NEVER tell anyone in the industry that you have a “fiction novel” – this is a very, very common pet peeve amongst agents and editors. By definition, a novel IS fiction, always, just as a memoir is always nonfiction.

Technically, anyway. Don’t even get me started on how many memoirists have found their books under just-the-facts scrutiny over the last couple of years. But speaking of which, here are the main NF categories:

Entertaining, Holidays, House & Home, Parenting & Families, How-To, Self-Help, Pop Psychology, Pop Culture, Cookbook, Narrative Cookbook, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Medical, Alternative Medicine, Health, Fitness, Sports, Psychology, Professional, Engineering, Technical, Computers, Internet, Automotive, Finance, Investing, Business, Careers, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, True Crime, Law, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Travel, Travel Memoir, Outdoors & Nature, Essays, Writing, Criticism, Arts, Photography, Coffee Table, Gift, Education, Academic, Textbook, Reference, Current Events, Politics/Government, Women’s Studies, Gay & Lesbian (a.k.a. GLBT).

Actually, there are a few more, but these are the main ones. For more detailed analysis, again, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES heading on the list at right. Also, the major genre’s writers’ associations tend to provide precise definitions of each subgenre on their websites.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” I hear some confused would-be pitchers and queriers cry, “I occasionally see other categories listed on book jackets. Therefore, you must be wrong about agents and editors expecting to us to label our books.”

Oh, that old saw. Naturally, there are new categories popping up all the time, a side effect of the expansive creative impulse of the human mind.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should make one up. All one has to do is check out any of the standard agency guides to see why: when asked what kinds of books they represent, agents don’t make up terms that are only meaningful to themselves and their closest friends; the vast majority of the time, they use the standard category designations.

Generally speaking, it’s safer to pick one of the standards rather than to insist upon a category that has only been introduced recently: if it’s too new, the agent or editor to whom you are pitching may not yet be aware of it yet.

Hey, it happens.

Believe me, if you are off just a little, an agent who is intrigued by your work will nudge you in the right direction, rather than writing you off because you picked the wrong sub-category. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for an agent to sign a writer and then say, “You know, Ghislaine, I think your book would sell better as women’s fiction than mainstream fiction. Let’s market it as that.”

And if Ghislaine is a savvy writer, she won’t immediately snap back, “Why is it women’s fiction rather than mainstream — because the author possesses ovaries?” (Not all that an uncommon an underlying reason for the choice, actually; some of my work has been categorized that way on apparently no other pretext.) Instead, market-ready writer that she is, she will respond, “If you think it’s a better idea, William. But do you mind explaining the logic to me, so I may consider it when I’m writing my next novel?”

THAT, my friends, is language the entire industry understands. This is a business where finesse definitely counts.

When in doubt, pick the more general category. Or at any rate, the more marketable one. It increases your chances of your work sounding to an agent like something that will sell.

Just in case any of you out there sporting ovaries are assuming that women’s fiction label is automatically perjorative: women’s fiction is far and away the best-selling fiction category. It’s something of a misnomer, because the vast majority of fiction buyers in North America are women.

Hey, I don’t make up the lingua franca; I just speak it. For more on the ins and outs of defining women’s fiction (particularly when a book occupies the rather broad territory where women’s, literary, and mainstream overlap), please see the three posts beginning here.

If you truly get stuck, here is a sneaky trick: go to a well-stocked bookstore and track down a friendly-looking clerk. Describe your book to her in very general terms, and ask her to direct you to the part of the store where you might find something similar.

Then start pulling books off the shelf and examining their back covers for categories.

Hint: don’t be too specific in your description to the clerk — and whatever you do, don’t mention that you wrote the book you are describing. “My favorite book is a suspenseful romantic comedy about murderous contraltos set in the Middle Ages — would you have anything close to that?” tends to yield better results than, “I’m looking for a book about an opera diva who lives in 9th-century Milan, has scores of amorous misadventures, and strangles her conductor/lover. Where would I find that in your store?” The latter is more likely to turn up a puzzled shrug than useful directions.

Repeat in as many bookstores as necessary to start seeing a pattern in where you’re being advised to look. That location is where your book is most likely to be shelved.

Yes, this process can be a pain, but stating your category up front will simply make you come across as more professional, because it’s the way that agents and editors talk about books. Agencies do not impose this requirement in order to torment writers, you know; the category you pick will determine to a very great extent whether any given agent or editor will be even remotely interested in your work.

Because yes, Virginia, there are professionals who will simply not read a query or listen to a pitch unless it is for a book in one of their pre-chosen categories.

Agents and editors LIKE making snap judgments, you see. It saves them time. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.

To put a more positive spin on the phenomenon, think of it this way: if you tell an agent immediately what kind of book you are pitching, the busy little squirrels in her brain can start those wheels spinning toute suite, so she can instantly start thinking of editors to whom to sell your book.

Since that is precisely what you want them to be doing, what are you complaining about?

If you’re still a bit confused and want more help fine-tuning your selection, again, I would recommend taking a gander at the posts under the BOOK CATEGORIES heading at right. In the past, I have spent more time on this particular point; I could easily spend a week on this point alone. But as I mentioned above, I honestly am trying to move us through this as quickly as possible.

Whoa, I didn’t even have time to move my hand to the return key before I felt a mighty gust of cries of WAIT! coming from out there. “But Anne,” breathless voices cry, “I honestly don’t know how to categorize my novel. Is it literary, mainstream, or just plain fiction — and will agents hurt me if I guess wrong?”

This is an excellent question — one that I covered at some length in several posts last summer; I would encourage you to go back over this post, this one, and this. You might also try asking yourself few questions about your book:

(1) Does your book assume a college-educated readership? Does it try experiments with structure and language? Is character development more important to the reading experience than plot? If you answered yes to at least two of these, literary fiction would probably be the safest choice.

(2) Is your book aimed at a general adult audience, or is more heavily weighted toward a female readership? (Okay, so this is kind of a trick question, since women buy over 80% of the fiction sold in the US (and almost all of the literary fiction, but bear with me here.) If it is genuinely aimed at a general market, mainstream fiction would be a good choice.

(3) Does your book have a filmic, easily-summarized plot? Are the style and storytelling technique similar to a bestselling author’s? If so, it might be commercial.

(4) Is your protagonist relatively young — and have sex with more than one partner/do drugs/have a drinking problem? Does the plot deal with adult-themed issues that probably wouldn’t make it onto network television in the dinner hour? If so, it might be adult fiction.

(5) Are all of the criteria in #4 true, but the protagonist is female, under 35, and doesn’t pursue significant interests in the book OTHER than having sex with more than one partner/doing drugs/having a drinking problem? Does her interest in shoes and handbags border on the pathological? If so, you might want to consider the chick lit category.

(6) Are you querying an agent who likes to make this call himself? In that case, you might be best off simply labeling it fiction — but you’re unlikely to know that unless you’ve spoken to the agent personally. If this is the case, you should pick the closest label, then nod smilingly when the agent to whom you are pitching says you are mistaken.

Hey, it’s how those of us already signed with agents do it. I even know a quite prominent author who claims that she doesn’t know whether any particular piece is women’s fiction or memoir until her agent has sold it as one or the other.

All that being said, try not to get too discouraged if your book’s category does not immediately pop to mind. Often, it is genuinely a hard call. Just do your best.

Okay, I admit it: that was a MASSIVE amount of information to cover in a single post — but look at it this way: the more quickly we can race through this, the sooner we can get back to craft!

The next pitch building block follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: I understand that some readers may feel that it is too time-consuming to go through my fairly massive archives, but please do check that I haven’t already written a post on a subject before asking me to write a fresh one. I’ve taken care to address many of the most common questions directly in the category list on the right-hand side of this page, just underneath the blogroll. I have also provided a site search engine in the upper-right corner; please use them.

And please, archive searchers, resist the temptation to blame the site for providing too much information gratis to aspiring writers — a sentiment that, perversely enough, commenters seldom expressed until my bout of mono earlier this year. After three full years of my intensive work here, it’s a trifle unreasonable to expect NOT to have to search for the particular topic any individual out there happens to want. It’s the nature of a blog to be cumulative, after all.

Book marketing 101: literary and women’s fiction

For my last couple of posts, I have been proceeding on the assumption that most of you intending to pitching books whose subject matter would dictate a fairly comfortable fit in just a couple of book categories. A novel might legitimately walk the line between suspense and thriller, perhaps, but it is unlikely to fit in the uneasy triangle where horror, chick lit, and Western intersect, right?

Although I would dearly love to take a gander at the latter book.

For the next couple of days, I want to talk about the two categories where content is not necessarily the deciding factor, literary fiction and women’s fiction. The first has to do with HOW a particular novel is written, not what it’s about; the second label is sometimes applied because of who is expected to read the book, and sometimes by whom it was written.

See why I saved these two for last?

Let’s take literary fiction first, because it is the less understood. Remember how last time, posing as your literary fairy godmother, I waved my magic wand and knocked, “…but it is written like literary fiction,” out of your pitching vocabulary? I removed it, I said, because saying it during a pitch (or within the context of a query letter) can confuse the hearer, an agent or editor who is undoubtedly thinking in terms of a single label for the book.

Why did I single out this phrase in particular? Pervasiveness: by my count, it is muttered apologetically within the context of somewhere between a third to a half of all pitches. Because, you see, most of us deep down secretly long for an agent to read a paragraph of our work, spring to her feet, and shout, “My God, this is the most beautiful prose I have ever read!”

Okay, maybe it’s not so secret a wish. But the fact is, from the industry’s point of view, MOST beautiful writing is NOT literary fiction.

Yes, you read that correctly. Contrary to popular belief, no one in the publishing industry uses the term “literary fiction” as a secret code for “very nicely written prose.” Instead, it is non-secret code for a specific book category of novels whose PRIMARY appeal lies in the interesting use of language, rather than plot.

Literary fiction tends to win awards, but actually it represents a miniscule proportion of the domestic fiction market — about 4%, in a good year. Its readership is almost exclusively female, and largely college-educated; these are the books that win Pulitzers and are taught in English classes, after all.

Or, to cast it in the mindset of the industry, these are the books that sell the least. No kidding: a first literary fiction work that sells 10,000 copies is considered a pretty roaring success.

See why you might want to think twice about insisting that your novel is literary fiction, rather than the mainstream or genre fiction its subject matter might suggest it is? To the ears of agents who do not represent literary fiction, this is like arguing that Mickey Mouse should be marketed to only an elite group of effete poets who, like Emily Dickinson, prefer to scribble away in their garrets, occasionally sending away for the latest in literary fiction to feed their rarified souls.

“My dear,” the industry pictures such souls simpering to one another, “you must cast your languid eye over this exquisite line of prose! No, no, don’t buy your own copy — I’m sure that the library has one.”

Now, admittedly, those who write on the literary/mainstream fiction cusp have an especially tough time with categorization: in a prettily-written, character-driven novel, it can genuinely be hard to tell. So time and time again, I meet writers at conferences who tell me, “Well, my book walks that thin line between mainstream and literary.”

They say it proudly, as if book category ambiguity were in itself a selling point — and as if literary fiction typically sold BETTER than mainstream fiction. To market-oriented ears, this sounds, well, backwards.

It’s perfectly understandable pride, though: they’re identifying with those rare American literary writers who’ve hit the big time. Alice Walker, for instance, or Annie Proulx. Thomas Pynchon. Philip Roth. Toni Morrison. Some might suggest early John Irving as well, say pre-1976. (Although if you want to start a vigorous debate in any circle of publishing professionals, ask whether they consider THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP literary or mainstream fiction. I’ve seen grown men come to blows over this burning issue.)

Feel free to start a list of your own, counting on your fingers and toes, but remember to include only living American writers: no fair wiggling a piggie for Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, or anyone currently occupying space under sod.

How did you do? Unless you are the type of reader who rushes out and buys every volume on the Pulitzer short list, or are an inveterate fan of literary fiction, I’m guessing that you probably didn’t run out of tootsies before names stop popping to mind. Bless the writers who have experienced major success with literary fiction, but there aren’t all that many making a spectacular living at it.

And frankly, pretty much all of them published a few largely unrecognized books before hitting the big time. Some of them, too, are literary fiction authors who have written mainstream books, rather than making it big with their former style of literary prose.

Pop quiz: who out there read Alice Walker’s MERIDIAN before THE COLOR PURPLE came out? Step forward, so literary fiction writers can add you to their mailing lists. Heck, so they can build you a monument.

To cite a more recent crossover book, the pros categorize THE ROAD as literary fiction, because that’s what its author’s previous books were. But if it were a new book by an unknown writer, I think there would be genuine debate over how it should be labeled: its use of language is undoubtedly literary; its essential storyline is classic futuristic fantasy; it’s a bestseller. So should the title page say that it’s literary fiction, SF/fantasy, or mainstream fiction?

There’s no easy answer, but if I were pitching it, I would take the cynical route. I would bill it as mainstream most of the time, since that’s a category that sells well, as fantasy to agents who represented that, and as literary to the tiny fraction of agents interested in it.

Because calling a book literary will not help sell it to most agents. Or editors, for that matter, unless they are specifically interested in literary fiction.

The moral: ALWAYS check if an agent has a proven track record of representing literary fiction before even BREATHING the phrase.

Another group of writers who have an especially hard time categorizing their work are writers who write literate books about female protagonists, aimed at female readers. Even if the writing is very literary indeed, they often find their work billed by agents and editors as women’s fiction.

Why might this be problematic, potentially? In the popular mind, women’s fiction tends to be (incorrectly, from the industry’s point of view) regarded as synonymous with romance, it can come as something of a shock to the writers in question.

Often, they’re insulted, but take a look at the statistics: women’s fiction is far and away the consistently largest category, in terms of sales. However, that’s a trifle misleading, because women buy roughly 80% of the fiction sold in this country.

Including, incidentally, virtually all of the literary fiction. But then, if we were just going by sales, all fiction EXCEPT suspense, thriller, some mysteries, and some SF should properly be called men’s fiction; women are the primary readers of almost everything else.

So if a book is about a woman, and intended for female readers, is it automatically women’s fiction, no matter how it is written? Well, no, not necessarily: if it falls more comfortably under the rubric of a specific genre, it belongs there. (If you do not know whether your novel belongs under women’s fiction or romance, go ask the Romance Writers of America; they will be able to tell you a whole lot more about the various and ever-expanding subgenres of romance than I could.)

Technically, the differential between mainstream fiction with a female protagonist and women’s fiction really depends how important the relationships are in the book: if we’re hearing a lot about the protagonist’s mother or her children, chances are it’s women’s fiction; if we’re hearing primarily about her work, it’s probably not. But truth compels me to say that I have seen what I would consider very mainstream fiction about female doctors and professors labeled as women’s fiction, evidently simply because the author was female.

I suspect this may sound rather familiar any woman under the age of 45 who attended a writer’s conference during the height of the chick lit boom. Remember, ladies? To fill you in, gentlemen: back then, to walk into a pitch meeting with active ovaries was to be told that if one was not writing chick lit, one ought to be. It was grim.

Or, as one agent put it to me after hearing my pitch for some very serious political fiction, “Honey, why do you want to be poor? If you call it literary fiction, maybe a thousand people will read it, but add some humor and slap another label on it, and it could be the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY.”

And although I believe that my response to her contained several pointed references to going over to the dark side (I am no fan of the Jones), from a marketing point of view, she definitely had a point. Labeling work as literary DOES render it harder to sell; insisting upon calling a book mainstream when there’s a women’s fiction agent clamoring for it is a bit quixotic.

If you’re uncomfortable with the women’s fiction label — which, again, is an indicator of a book’s target market, not a value judgment about its writing quality — you could engage in a bit of strategic equivocation. When in doubt, “mainstream fiction that will appeal especially to women” is about as much as it is safe to waffle in a pitch; if you really want to be Machiavellian, you could always pitch such a book as mainstream to agents who represent mainstream and as women’s fiction to those who represent that.

Hey, I’m on your side, not theirs. I want to see you land an agent.

I think situational category-hopping is a legitimate strategy in general, to tell you the truth: if your book honestly falls into more than one major category, use the category that best suits your needs in the moment. If you have written a comic horror novel, there’s nothing to stop you from billing it as humor when you were pitching or querying an agent who represents humor, and describing it as horror when you are approaching one who represents that.

After all, the book category label is there to help market your book, not limit it. Right?

But don’t worry, literary fiction writers — I’m not going to leave you in the lurch. Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips about how to tell if a book is in fact literary fiction, or just well-written, and how to present it if it’s the former.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!