And now a pause for a commercial break....

Dear Miss Snark,
What is the latest industry definition of "commercial fiction"? Please?
I have seen agents declare they are looking for literary and commercial fiction but no genre fiction, especially, no fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, etc. - which I thought would be considered very commercial.

Commercial fiction is the stuff that sells that is not genre, and not literary.

Sort of like describing "non-fiction" by what it's not : fiction.

Commercial fiction is a sales phrase. It's code for "this isn't some experimental novel from a writer's colony or an MFA program or some half baked numbskull who thinks artful use of the semi colon takes the place of plot". (down! down! no nasty emails...it's a JOKE!)

Commercial fiction can be upmarket or downmarket. Bridges of Madison County was indisputably commercial fiction. So is anything by Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts and Jodi Picoult. They don't win prizes, they mostly don't get reviewed, and they laugh at this all the way to the bank.

What is NOT commercial fiction is EL Docterow, John Irving, Bret Easton Ellis, Sue Monk Kidd, John Updike, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, or Jane Smiley. No matter how much they sell. They are literary fiction. They win the big prizes and the recognition. Sometimes they laugh all the way to the bank, but usually only if there was a big ol movie deal.

Genre fiction can be commercial and/or literary, but it's hardly every categorized that way. If you write in a genre (western, mystery, SFF, chick lit etc) you look for agents who say they handle that kind of work. Genre tends to be acquired by specific editors who know the market.

If you have any questions about what you write, go to the bookstore and look where work like yours is shelved.

In the end though, don't worry about this. Just write something fabulous and it will all work out. More than once I’ve had to break the bad news to a writer that they are not writing what they thought they were!


Kitty said...

Write something fabulous you say? Geesh, NOW you tell me.

Unknown said...

But what does one do when one writes literary fiction set in the 19th-century West? Particularly when it would never be published by anyone who does publish Westerns and it also does not easily fit the commerical fiction mode.

My problem is that even with what I felt was an excellent query letter - read and approved by three of my more impeccably published (Holt, Random, St. Martins, etc.) friends - each reply simply stated that they do not, under any circumstances, represent... Westerns.

Nothing else.

Several of them even seemed to take considerable pride in refusing to read the submitted chapters. I might add that of three friend's agents - only one of them would even agree to read it despite their strong recomendations. And then that agent quit her job last week and left for Europe.

I do not expect that there is anything you can recommend... other than keep trying. Just venting...

MaryanneR said...

I was glad to see you mention Jodi Picoult. I discovered her about three years ago and wait eagerly for every new release of her books.

Bernita said...

So a cross-genre novel that didn't consider itself "literachaw" would be commercial...??

Another Author said...

I'm one of those people who thought I was writing genre fiction, only to be told my my agent and editor that I have a "commercial" voice. Which I assumed was a good thing, and so far it has been -- but the jury's still out.

Daria said...

Interesting! And I could swear Patterson wrote genre fiction -- suspense/thriller. Sandra Brown, too.

Miss Snark said...

commercial trumps genre every time.

When you have a "breakout" book you almost always break out of the genre shelf and into commercial designation. You never breakout INTO a genre. So Sandra Brown and James Patterson may have been designated in a genre some time back, and they may continue to write the same kind of stuff but now they sell enough to be called commercial rather than genre.

"breakout" book can also mean the book that sells enough to get you on the radar, but that's a different post.