QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shelf Awareness in Novel Genres and Women's Fiction

The idea of genre seems pretty basic. After all, you're generally expected to start your query letter with the genre (and wordcount) of your novel. But genre lines can be a bit blurry, so it can be tricky to know what genre you're writing in-- especially if you're new to publishing. And it's fairly important to narrow it down-- agents are not looking for romantic dystopian historical cozy mysteries with paranormal elements. An agent's job is to sell your book and that means they need the easiest possible way to convey to publishers what sort of product they're selling.

At first, I had a heck of a time deciding my novel's genre. One of the more amusing discussions of this is posted in my own blog in Genre Crossing and The Edge of Memory.

I read all sorts of genres, and so influences of several genres found their way into my novel. It's a mystery, but not a whodunnit. It's suspense/thriller, but personal. It prominently features romance, but it isn't a romance novel. It has paranormal elements, but they're fairly subtle.

This might suggest a feeling of "something for everyone" but conventional publishing wisdom states this is not a desirable place to be. Publishers and editors (and therefore agents) need to know where your novel will be shelved and how it will be marketed. After all, that is their job... to produce and market your novel. Time is of the essence, so simpler is better. Which does sometimes seem to leave a more complicated book a bit nowhere.

So, during my early rounds of edits, I sent a survey to my test readers asking them what shelf they would expect to find my novel on, and got a wide variety of responses ranging from "Psychological Thriller" to "Family Saga" to "Mystery" to "Romantic Suspense" to "Whatever shelf Jodi Picoult is on."

If I had paid more attention to that last suggestion, I would have been on the right track sooner.

In that same survey, I asked if there was an author or a novel that my test readers considered my novel similar to in style or audience. I received a number of flattering responses, including Fannie Flagg, Nancy Pickard, Maeve Binchy, Anita Shreve, and most frequently Jodi Picoult. After a little research, I discovered these awesome authors are categorized as "women's fiction" when they're not over on the "Bestsellers" shelf.

At long last, I found a clear genre match in the definition of women's fiction from the FWA:
Women’s Fiction: Fiction which includes subjects and themes that range far beyond romance. The woman is the star of the story and her changes and emotional developments are the subject. Relationships are at the core of the plot. Could involve relationships with siblings, parents, friends and not necessarily just a lover. Doesn’t have to have the standard “happy ending” but there is a life-affirming resolution to the story. Focuses on the hopes, fears, dreams and even secret fantasies of women. (Examples: “Shellseekers” Rosamonde Pilcher, “Fortunes Rocks” Anita Shreve, novels by Sue Miller and Elizabeth Berg.)

YES! That's The Edge of Memory, absolutely. I simply hadn't realized that what I was writing (and reading!) was women's fiction. I had actually confused women's fiction with its subgenre, chick lit. The simple fact is that genres overlap. Books may be marketed in more than one genre. The single best way to describe your genre, in my opinion, is to identify comparable books and authors and determine how those novels are being marketed successfully.

So Take Home Tips from what I've learned on Genres:

  1. It's important in marketing your project to identify the best fit for genre category. This gives agents, editors, publishers the most efficient way to pitch your book up the chain.

  2. There are different expected book lengths by genre, so bear that in mind when marketing. I posted about wordcounts here and included Colleen Lindsay's wordcount breakdown by genre.

  3. Once you've identified your genre, read the current releases in your category to get a feel for the current market.

  4. Although important, genres can be flexible, too. I've seen agents posting that they market a cross-genre book in either category, depending on the pitch-recipient.

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks for the definition, it will make my life so much easier now. especially as it's not chick lit.

Portia said...

Awesome post. I like the idea of asking readers their take on what genre your work is. As writers, sometimes we have a different idea of what we're writing vs. what we've written. And sometimes hearing something like "your book reminds me of a book by" can set us on the right path!

L. D. Nash said...

This couldn't have come at a more perfect time. I've been querying my novel for more than a year now and have struggled with what genre that it fits among.

I'm still stuck between women's fiction and mystery/thriller. But I'm sure I'll narrow it on down before long.

Dawn Hullender

Anne R. Allen said...

This is a really important subject and very well done here. My work is more Fannie Flagg than Jodi Picoult, and I share Dawn's problem of wondering how to introduce the mystery element.

What I'm now doing is calling it women's fiction and later in the query giving it the subcategory of romantic suspense. That seems to be getting me more reads.

But I try to keep in mind what Miss Snark said, which is that she often gave the same work different categories depending on which editor she was sending it to. So I think the lines can be blurry, but they shouldn't be blurred in your query.

Leigh Hutchens Burch said...

Thanks for this great post. I think my ms falls into the realm of women's fiction, but I've been calling it literary fiction for feeling a lack of a more specific place for it. (I would love to be compared to Sue Miller. I think it's my ultimate goal in life.)

If you're so inclined, I would love a future post about what defines literary fiction these days.

Stephanie said...

Great post! My debut novel falls into chick lit and mainly I think it's because of the MC's age and the urban setting (and possibly her shoe obsession??? LOL!). Other than that, it fits the description of women's fiction to a tee!

jaxbee said...

Thanks so much, that's such a useful post. I've thought about this one a lot over the past few months. Originally I thought my novel was women's fiction (too much detail for blokes, apart from anything else) but then I seemed to have just as much interest on a writers' website from men as women, so I doubted myself.

I'd actually posted my book under, 'novel' and 'popular culture' as Women's fiction wasn't an option on the writers' site.I plumped for 'popular culture' as I thought that sounded a bit like 'contemporary drama' ?!!! (And in my defence, I think others on the site must have thought so too.) But I was absolutely horrified when somebody told me that popular culture was where they expected to find knitting patterns :-((( So yes, I do think it's a bit of a mine field but your definition is excellent, as are your tips, thank you.

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

Heather Dyer, you are my new hero!

I went through the same struggle in categorizing my first ms.

Thank you so much for posting this. It's going to help so many people.

Stina said...

That's the advantage of writing YA. Regardless of the subgenre, there is only one shelf. But you still have to know what subgenre you're writing.

Thanks, Heather, for the great post!

Lisa Katzenberger said...

Welcome to the world of women's fiction! I went through a similar struggle a couple years ago trying to specify my novel and discovered women's fiction was the right fit. So many agents are looking for that genre too!

Jil said...

Thank you so much! I, also, have been in a quandry about what genre my book fit into and now I know. I always thought Women's Fiction meant wimpy- with no depth to it.
I, too, would love to have you explain what is expected of literary fiction.

Stephanie said...

Women's Fiction is absolutely not wimpy!!! There are countless books with strong female leads! :)

Diana said...

Regardless of genre, I hope your book spends A LOT of time on the bestseller shelf. :)

From a library perspective, our staff has been having conversations about genre and "where to put things" this past week. In our case, we've been trying to define the Western. What constitutes a Western? And is our goal to alter the collection to draw more readers in to the Western, or conform our Western collection to what our patrons consider a traditional Western? It's interesting how authors, libraries, and probably booksellers can be challenged by the concept of genre.

Melissa Sarno said...

I spent a lot of time looking for a good definition of women's fiction and did not come up with one this good. I determined a while ago that my novel fit in this genre, but this definition re-confirms it. Thank you!