Book marketing 101: literary and women’s fiction, part II

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m gloating today — three regular blog readers have let me know that they have been named finalists in this year’s PNWA literary contest. All three in major categories, no less. Not all wanted to be congratulated here, so I am holding off on specifics, but really, I couldn’t be more tickled.

And if there are more of you out there with good news, please let me know! I love being able to report that hard work and talent are being recognized.

Back to work. Yesterday, I unearthed the spectre of books that might theoretically belong in one category, but might be placed for non-content reasons in another. Since (as I pointed out yesterday) female authors are often surprised find their work labeled as women’s fiction by their agents, I thought that I should revisit the issue again today to show that there might be very good marketing reasons for reclassification — and that in many instances, either category can be justified.

The marketing reasons are simple: as I mentioned yesterday, women’s fiction is the single best-selling category, year after year after year. Selling how well, you ask? Well, of the five best-selling novels of the 20th century, three of them would now most likely be marketed as women’s fiction — but if sales are any indication (and they are), these books are as mainstream as mainstream can get.

I’m going to show you the first fifty words (the limit of fair use) of each, to show you how thin the line between mainstream and women’s fiction can be. See if you can guess what they are from these openings, and who their target market would be. In ascending order of sales, here is the first:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it…

I’m assuming that you guessed at the first word that it was the best-selling novel in America for more than 20 years, GONE WITH THE WIND. But judging just from this opening, how would you categorize it? Women’s fiction? Mainstream? Romance?

See why agents and editors like to be told what the category is on the title page? It’s often hard to tell. On to the next:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he…

Wild guesses? Hint: when they made it into a movie, the script transformed this first-person narrative from the point of view of a little girl into being primarily the story of her father.

It’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; your high school English teacher probably told you it was literary fiction. But if you had to categorize this on those first 50 words alone, though, would you place it there? Or would it be women’s fiction, because it’s a coming-of-age story told by a girl? (And from these first few lines, who is the protagonist?)

Not so easy, is it? Okay, one more:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. In northern New England, Indian summer puts up a scarlet-tipped hand to hold…

Anyone? Would it help if I told you the critics nicknamed the author Pandora in blue jeans? Or that the mainstream press hailed this 1957 book’s success in as the end of literature?

It’s PEYTON PLACE — but if you did not know that, how would you categorize it for pitching and querying purposes?

My point, of course, is that book categories are not always cut-and-dried; ultimately, the book’s category is going to be a matter for discussion between you, your agent, and potentially your editor as well. (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was, if memory serves, dubbed fiction by its author and agent; the publishing house, I’m told, made the decision to release it as a memoir.) So you’re not necessarily going to be stuck with your choice forever.

Be flexible — and choose the category that seems most likely to serve your book best at the agent-finding stage.

“But Anne,” I hear the literary-minded amongst you crying out, “what if my work genuinely IS literary fiction? Should I lie and say it’s something else, in order to make it seem more marketable in my pitch or query letter?”

Whoa, Sparky — no need to go that far that fast. Before you make any rash decisions, I would advise making absolutely sure that the book IS literary fiction.

While that may seem like a strange statement — after all, no one goes around challenging writers of mysteries to prove their chops — the fact is, the vast majority of books pitched or queried with a literary label are not. Without reading all of their work — which, as we saw above, is really the only way to categorize any book properly — it’s impossible to tell whether a book so pitched honestly is experimenting with new directions in style and construction (which is not a bad definition of literary fiction), or if its author merely want to convey that they believe their work is well-written.

The latter, as I mentioned yesterday, tends to fall upon the ears of agents and editors like the buzzing of housefly: persistent and attention-grabbing, yes, but ultimately not a pet you’re likely to bring home with you to cuddle.

But there’s something very sexy in the label literary fiction being applied to one’s own work, though, isn’t there? Let’s be honest about it: most of us like to think our writing has literary value, and critical opinion about what is High Literature changes with alarming frequency. It definitely sounds cool when you say at parties, “Oh, I write literary fiction,” as opposed to that stuff that sells in the millions.

Listen sometime to how people use the term at writers’ conferences; it’s almost a synonym for high-quality, especially amongst those who believe that most successful mainstream books are not very good. To these folks, the label says loud and clear that they haven’t sold out their talent; they are more than content to cultivate a small but devoted readership, without sullying their keyboards with all of that sordid commercial appeal. Quite the counter-culture roués, they are, with their goatees and bongos and poetry readings in basements.

Having been raised by parents who actually WERE beatnik artists, I feel eminently qualified to give a salient little piece of advice: be careful what you wish for your books. The literary fiction market is consistently very, very small, so small that many excellent published writers do not make a living at it.

Which brings me back to my point from yesterday: labeling your work as literary will NOT necessarily make it more marketable in the industry’s eyes, but less. Think very carefully about your desired target market before you label your work. If you really think it has broad appeal, label it as mainstream.

If I am hammering on this point with unusual vigor, because so many aspiring writers believe all really good fiction is literary. That’s just not true: there is excellent writing out there in every category. To set the needle on that broken record yet again: these are marketing categories, not value judgments, and mislabeling your work will most likely result in its ending up on the wrong desk — and you in the wrong pitch meeting.

So why don’t the pros simply listen to pitches and suggest alternative labeling, as I did above? Because, as I said, the only way to tell for sure whether a book is literary fiction is from the writing — and that would require investing far, far more time in a book than either hearing a pitch or reading a query letter.

Also, literary is the least-defined major category; I have yet to meet an agent or editor who can give me a definition of literary fiction less than a paragraph long. Like the Supreme Court’s famous definition of pornography, they can’t tell us precisely what it is, but apparently they know it when they see it.

Or so they claim. Ask any three agents whether THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE are mainstream or literary, and you will probably get at least two different answers on each book.

How would I categorize these three? Well, none of these crossover books would be well enough known for all of us to have a discussion about them if they hadn’t been mainstream successes. So my instinct would be to label them all as mainstream, in retrospect. I don’t know if I would have been that wise, though, before they hit the big time.

If you find yourself in a serious quandary over whether your book is sufficiently literary to need to be marketed as literary fiction, apply one of two tests. First, take a good, hard look at your book: under what circumstances can you envision it being assigned in a college English class?

I’m completely serious about this. If the subject matter or plot is the primary factor, chances are the book is not literary; categorize it by content. If you can honestly picture an upper-division undergraduate seminar spending a few hours discussing your symbolism and word choices, it probably is, and should be labeled as such.

The other test — and I swear I am not suggesting this merely to be flippant; industry professionals use it — is to open your manuscript randomly at five different points and count the number of semicolons, colons, and dashes per page. Especially the semicolons. If there are more than a couple per page, chances are your work is geared for the literary market.

Or you should disable the colon/semicolon button on your keyboard.

Don’t believe me? Spend an hour in any reasonably well-stocked bookstore, wandering from section to section, pulling books off the shelf randomly, and applying the punctuation test. Seeing a lot of semicolons in novels that aren’t literary?

Almost certainly not — and here’s why: mainstream fiction assumes a roughly tenth-grade reading level; literary fiction assumes an audience educated enough to use a semicolon correctly, without having to look up the ground rules. If you are writing for most genre audiences (science fiction and fantasy being the major exceptions), most agents and editors prefer to see simpler sentence structure.

Do be careful, however, when applying this second test, because we writers LOVE fancy punctuation, don’t we? Oh, I know this is going to break some tender hearts out there, but if you want to write fiction professionally, you need to come to terms with an ugly fact: no one but writers particularly LIKE semicolons. If you are writing for a mainstream audience, you should consider minimizing their use; if you are writing most genre fiction, you should consider getting rid of them entirely.

Again, I don’t make the rules: I merely pass them along to you.

And yes, Virginia, I DO use a lot of fancy-pants punctuation here in this blog. I am writing for an audience composed entirely of writers, so I can use all of the punctuation I please. Heck, I can even use an emdash if I want to—take that, standard format!

Next time, I shall discuss the another building block to your pitch: identifying your target market. For those of you out there who thought that I was just going to cut to the chase and head right for the pitch proper: keep your shirts on. Or don’t, if you’re trying to get a suntan. But either way, be patient, because following me through all of these interim steps will ultimately help you construct a stronger pitch.

Keep up the good work!

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

  1. It’s funny you should mention semi-colons. I ran into a semi-colon in the middle of Naomi Novik’s “The Jade Throne” (a decidely mainstream novel), and it practically jumped off the page at me. Even though she’s attempting a 19th century idiom, it still seemed out of place. So, my guess is it’s better to use the semi-colon regularly or not at all.

    As for punctuation, I save my admiration for people who know how to correctly use an EN dash.

    1. I know JUST what you mean, Kim: I had a semicolon leap up and attack me from the midst of children’s book recently. The very fact that it was stranded all by itself made it appear to be, if not a mistake, then at least an alien visitor from another book.

  2. thanks for all the great advice Ann. I certainly don’t use a lot of semi-colons in my work and no one would call my writing “literary” but my new novel is also a finalist in the PNWA. This time I’m in the suspense/thriller category. I’m sure many of your words of wisdom rubbed off on me as I read your blog. Still haven’t found an agent for the last book but I’m still plugging along.

    1. Barbara! How great!

      I’m glad to hear that you’re still pushing forward — and did you know that one of my agents is going to be at the conference this year? My agency (DGLM) is REALLY good with writers who work in a number of different book categories. I just mention…

  3. Anne,
    I have to disagree with your labeling of the three books. Herein lies the rub: if you label strong selling books as mainstream because of their sales records, therefore not literary, then literary fiction cannot attain a large market for the simple reason that it is defined by not doing so, i.e. anything with a large sales record is mainstream, not literary fiction.
    If editors do that, then literary fiction is surely doomed.

    1. You raise a good point, Kelly — and unfortunately, it IS largely what has happened. But amazingly, literary fiction still commands almost exactly the same percentage of the market as it ever has. Which implies that it’s standing still, not sliding toward doom, thank goodness.

      But I suspect that a good case could be made (in someone’s master’s thesis, perhaps) that there were elements in ALL literary fiction that hits the big time that do in fact make it different from literary fiction that doesn’t. (All of the examples I mentioned, for instance, had very strong storylines, and not particularly vast vocabularies.)

      Out of curiosity, how would you label these three books? From the opening pages alone, I doubt any of the three (except, amusingly, PEYTON PLACE) would be categorized as literary fiction, although I think you could make a pretty good case for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD based upon a read of the entire book. Otherwise, if these books were written now, and by female authors, I would be astonished to see them categorized as anything but women’s fiction.

      (I’m assuming you were referring to the three from which I quoted, and not THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, THE SHIPPING NEWS, and THE COLOR PURPLE; I would have a different response if you were.)

      And remember: I do not make up the rules; I just pass them along. The people who do make them are by definition very market-oriented, so I fear that the danger that their preferring market-oriented literary fiction might place less market-oriented literary fiction at a competitive disadvantage would only reinforce what they already thought.

      I suspect thst this is a debate that’s going to be continuing throughout all of our lifetimes, however, and perhaps our grandchildren’s as well.

  4. I’ve had my fingers crossed since February, hoping that I would perhaps end up as a PNWA finalist. As I have not heard from that organization, and as their website does not yet display a list of this year’s finalists, I can pretty well surmise that I am not amongst those chosen. But I do sincerely congratulate those of you amongst Anne’s readers who have been so honored. And I extend my congratulations as well to the remainder of this year’s finalists who perhaps do not avail themselves of Ms. Mini’s sage advice.

    In response to Kim’s comment: I have become a big fan of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. However, I would not classify them as “mainstream.” I have found all three in the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves at the local B&N. And a quick look at the back of one shows it labled as “FANTASY.” Having read the three books in the series and eagerly awaiting the fourth, I find them, because of the fantasy element of dragons, to be closer in tone and style to Naval Adventure stories, similar to Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander. At the same time, I consider my own works (first and foremost) to be Naval Adventure with some fantasy or science fiction elements in it.
    I’d like to also add my thoughts on the literary versus mainstream (or other genre) debate. While I fully see that one can purposely write a literary work and catagorize it as such, aren’t time and critics’ reactions to a story the real deciding factor? Is a book considered literary fiction because it was written as such, or because over time, readers decided it was?
    Again, my congratulations to all the PNWA finalists!

    1. That’s gracious of you, Dave — and very like you. I’m not sure that all of the finalists HAVE been notified yet, though; I keep hearing from people who have just found notifications in their mailboxes. I wish that they would just tell everyone who entered, either way.

      I like your notion of waiting for time to decide how a book ranks literarily — I should dearly love to hear a successful agent respond to it. I can think of quite a few cases (PEYTON PLACE, for one) where a book’s category has changed over time.

      Unfortunately, from the writer’s perspective, marketing happens up front — reputation happens after publication, so it’s not much use in pitching or querying.

  5. I just heard through a teacher of “improving your synopsis “that what I thought was my YA manuscript (A cutting from it won a YA award this month ) might be a “literary novel” because it focuses more on what happens to the character internally and how she deals with the situation than it does with the plot. How can this be? It is a first book for me – I just wrote the story because I couldn’t stop writing it. I didn’t plan it out in advance, I didn’t plan a market, either. I just wrote. A member of writer’s group suggested it was a YA novel because the protagonist is a teen – so that’s where I submitted it. How do people new to marketing their work find out what “category” their work may be?

  6. Ooh — that old bugbear. Susan, that used to be a rather common definitional distinction between literary and non-literary fiction: literary is character-driven, while non-literary is plot-driven. (Not entirely coincidentally, that also used to be a catchphrase about the difference between independent film and studio film.)

    Frankly, I have always found this distinction overly simplistic, but I imagine the teacher (a) meant it as a compliment to your writing, (b) was reminded of a LF book by your work, but neglected to tell you which one, and/or (c) neglected to tell you that there is plenty of character-driven YA out there — yes, and plenty of beautifully-written YA, too.

    You might want to take this question to Nadia Cornier’s forum. Her website was in transition the last time I checked, but she’s an excellent YA agent and straight shooter. I imagine she would have some rather interesting things to say on the subject of whether a book can be too character-driven to be sold as YA — and if anyone would know, she would.

    But in practical terms, YA (that’s Young Adult, for those of you unfamiliar with the term) is a matter of target audience, not writing style.

    While your writing group member is right that many agents would automatically assume that a book focused upon a teenage protagonist was YA, adult readers would be interested in different aspects of that protagonist’s life than teenagers would. Which, again, is a question of audience: adults see things very differently from even mature teenagers; I may have first read LOLITA when I was 12 (hey, I was precocious), but my take on what the book was about was substantially different, I noticed, when I read it again as an adult.

    Often, the books about young protagonists intended for adults involve a longer period of time and/or a coming-of-age moment, but in my mind, the real distinction is whether the narration is from within a young person’s perspective or not. For example, the protagonist and narrator of Gunter Grass’ THE TIN DRUM is physically a child for most of the book, but what a child! He’s thinking like an adult from within the walls of his mother’s womb (literally). Yes, some young people may read it (another junior high school read for me), but his view of the world is so symbolic, so sexualized, and so political that no one would ever dream of categorizing it as YA.

    Or, to put it another way: a book that would get the kid giving a factual book report on it sent to either the principal, the school psychologist, and/or home with an outraged note to the parents is probably aimed at adults. (You should have seen the look on my 6th-grade teacher’s face when I tried to report on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, for instance.)

    Then, too, there’s the use of language and vocabulary. There are words that you simply cannot use in YA (and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is full of ‘em, believe me), and since younger readers tend to be more used to plot-heavy books, they tend to move faster. Thus, I wouldn’t put Truman Capote’s rather slow-paced short stories about his childhood in front of any but the most mature child, yet many of those stories take place before their protagonist is 10. The early HARRY POTTER books deal with a protagonist of a similar age, yet the vocabulary and focus stamp them very firmly as YA.

    All that being said, without reading your book (or any book, for that matter), it isn’t possible to tell whether the best market for it would be literary (which assumes a college-educated audience) or YA (which assumes an audience under the age of 17). There are a lot of factors that would go into the choice — and I have to say, in your shoes, how seriously I would take any teacher’s advice on the subject would depend to a very great extent upon whether she had read much of your book. (I bring this up because it would be most unusual for a teacher to have time for extensive reading in a synopsis seminar, unless it were a fairly lengthy one.)

    Without a full read, my instinct would be to turn the question back to you — who presumably have read the whole thing many times. Whom do you envision reading this book? Not your intention when you wrote it, but the finished product? Specifically, do you picture adults being more drawn to it than teenagers?

    It’s important to consider target audience at the marketing stage, even if you wrote the book WITHOUT considering it. It’s practically unheard-of for the same agent to represent both YA and literary, so you would need to decide. Any agent would be relying upon that assessment, after all.

    You could conduct an interesting experiment: query 5 LF agents with it and 5 YA, and see where you get the stronger response. Since it won a YA award, I would suspect that you would get a better response there, but it’s worth checking. (Bearing in mind, though, that a YA award is going to weigh more heavily with a YA agent.)

    There’s one other possibility for what your teacher could have meant — and as it’s not so nice, I hope it wasn’t the case here. There are some people (usually not those actively involved with the industry) who use character-driven as a euphemism for novels that spend overly long periods at a time within the protagonist’s head. There are even some benighted souls who use it as a synonym for slow-paced. Which, again, is an assessment that could only be made from a close reading of a substantial portion of the manuscript.

    But even then, it would reflect a pretty old-fashioned view. It used to be a common misconception that literary fiction is INHERENTLY slow-paced, and should take place mostly in thought — remember THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, where the protagonist agonized silently for what seemed like forever? But if you look at what is actually getting published now, it’s less and less true, overall. LF short stories are often light on plot — I’ve read some magnificent short works that have no story arc at all — but actual novels tend not to be, at least in the current market.

    Still, it’s not an uncommon attitude, which means that there are definitely some writing teachers out there who might conceivably respond to an author’s saying, “Well, it’s hard to summarize the plot, because it’s mostly about the protagonist’s reactions,” not with, “Okay, but the protagonist is reacting to SOMETHING, right? That’s your plot,” but with, “Oh, then it’s literary fiction.”

    But let’s take your teacher at her word, and assume that her advice was based upon the character v. plot distinction, rather than the slow v. clipped — which, as I said, no one would be able to pronouce upon definitively without reading the book in question. Without having read the piece, I can’t really say, of course — nor, honestly, do I think you should give great credence to anyone who hasn’t.

    But in your place, I would definitely check with other people in the class to see if they got similar reactions — ESPECIALLY if your teacher made this prenouncement without reading much of your book. Even the best teachers are wrong sometimes. Before you take her word for it, run your work past people familiar with the CURRENT literary fiction market, to see where it might most comfortably fit. Sometimes, the answer is not immediately apparent.

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