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!

11 Replies to “Book marketing 101: literary and women’s fiction”

  1. The definition of romance is HEA: Happily Ever After. No HEA ending, not romance. Women’s fiction and chick-lit may also be largely about relationships or love, but the resolution can be more open-ended.

    Kind of weird way of categorizing books, but there you have it. In a way, it’s the rigid requirements of romance combined with its vast market share that make for all these other hair-splitting categories.

  2. Hoh-Kay. Petard, hoisted upon, my own, by the patoot. Got it.

    Not such a bad thing, after all, to be True To Your Genre. The savings on fainting-couches alone . . .

  3. “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.”


    I have to say that I was thrown when I first read that passage. I misunderstood what you were getting at because the reference to being dead outshone the reference to non-Americans. I was here sputtering, “Salman Rushdie isn’t dead. He was just knighted!”

    I then looked to see if Alice Munro had died and saw that she was Canadian. I then realized that the phrase “living American writers” was then exemplified in inverse order of those who did not belong in that set.

    Maybe I need another cup of coffee before I start reading blog entries in the morning.

    I read the rest of your entry without any problem. Thanks for your insight on this.

    BTW, in a bookstore like B&N and Borders don’t they shelve mainstream, women’s, and literary fiction titles together as well as historical fiction? I’m just used to genre categories being segregated such as romance, science fiction/fantasy, mysteries, and westerns being set apart. I don’t recall seeing more subdivisions of the fiction shelves other than anthologies and poetry.

    Am I missing something important here? Because when I walk into a bookstore with a particular title in mind, I have to figure out which shelf to browse first to see if they have it in stock. It wouldn’t matter to me what category they placed on the back jacket cover as being women’s lit, fiction, or literary fiction as long when I held it in my hot little hands I decided that I liked the entire package meaning its cover with intriguing hook, blurbs, and the beginning few paragraphs.


    1. That’s what comes of my writing a post in a hurry, Linda…

      You’re right that both Borders and B&N don’t separate out every category by shelf; actually, even Amazon does it less than the publishing houses do. The last time I checked at my local Borders, they were shelving nonfiction by fiction authors in the literature section — and the clerk looked at me blankly when I asked to be pointed toward memoir. Turns out that it was shelved by subject matter (e.g., a memoir by an auto mechanic would be in the automotive section), rather than its own shelf.

      And you’re also dead-on that readers tend not to pay much attention to the categories of books — the average reader probably would not be able to tell you where the book category is located on the back cover.

      However, the bookstores BUY books by category, so even if it’s not apparent to the consumer that they are shelving books by category, they actually are. They may choose to shelve the literary and mainstream fiction together (pretty common), but their manager will absolutely know which is which — and which categories are selling well.

  4. My ms is about as far from literary fiction as you can get, but I face a pitching challenge that I bet is shared by a lot of the literary fictioneers: the premise/plot, in my opinion, isn’t the strongest aspect of the book.

    How do you go about pitching a novel whose greatest strengths are its dialogue/prose, or characterization? If you can spare a few words on this topic, when you get into pitching specifics, I will be forever grateful. (Forever and a day, because I am already forever grateful for all your advice.)

    1. md, that’s a great question. I have not yet begun to talk about the pitch itself, but I will definitely work this in.

      The short answer: unfortunately, the pitch is expected to be about the STORY of the book, not how it is presented; talking about perspective, voice, etc. is part of a subsequent conversation. So in the case you describe, the agent would ostensibly learn about the book’s greatest strengths by reading it, rather than being told about it.

      I know; annoying.

      There are a couple of pretty good reasons for this, though. First, and probably the more important, the agent is going to have to pitch the story to an editor before the editor will take a gander at the writing. So the agent is going to want to know that there’s a pitchable story there, whether it’s the book’s primary strength or not. Also, good writers and not-so-good writers’ descriptions of their own craft can sound AWFULLY similar to someone who hasn’t read the books in question.

      So you are going to have to pitch the story, alas. But I will definitely come back to this, never fear.

  5. Hi Anne –

    A new baby has prevented me from being much of a blog commenter of late, but I wanted to stop by and say THANKS once again for the contest prep series you did. My entry made the finals for one of the PNWA book-length categories. I plan to use your pitching tips next. You’re providing a great service!

    1. Serenissima!!!! That is five thousand kinds of fantastic, on both counts!

      Many, many fingers crossed for you. Is it the piece I think it is?

  6. I recently read a very interesting novel that can be classified as suspense/crime thriller/romance/technology based/legal fiction. Therefore, t falls under the emerging category of multi-genre fiction and appeals to various audiences. The novel is called “Wearing the Spider” by Susan Schaab. After reading your blog I thought this would be a useful read for your writing theses. The URL for the book is

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