Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Book Club Fiction

Around the publishing industry there has long been a hankering for a certain type of book that is both literary and yet commercial, familiar and yet exotic, well-written but not too dense, accessible but with some depth. They are books that are kind of tough to categorize, because they don't exactly fit into any one genre. I'd often hear people calling them either literary commercial fiction or commercial literary fiction.

But during my last trip to New York I heard an apt label for this category: book club fiction*. And lots of editors want it.

What books are in this category? Think:

LIFE OF PI
CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME
THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE
THE KITE RUNNER
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
THE LOVELY BONES
SECRET LIFE OF BEES
etc.
(EAT PRAY LOVE would be an example of book club memoir)

What these books have in common is that they appeal to the book club format. Anyone who has ever belonged to a book club knows the complex calculus that goes into making a good selection. It has to be a book that people can get through in a month, but still have enough depth so that there are things to talk about at the get-together. It has to be a book that would appeal to a wide variety of people. Bonus points for being set in a location that lends itself to themed cooking.

Book clubs are an extremely important market for publishers, so much so that books that would appeal to book clubs often have supplementary material in the back (such as discussion questions), and many publishers provide additional web resources. The books that are able to catch fire in book clubs are often the non-genre books that land themselves on bestseller lists and catch on through word of mouth, hence the clamor from editors for books that fall into this category.

Now, I wouldn't go and call your manuscript "book club fiction" in a query, because it's still not exactly a recognizable genre. But if you're brainstorming for novel ideas, think about what your book club would want to read.

*(I should clarify that I'm referring to friends/family book clubs, and not necessarily BOMC, although sometimes there's overlap in titles)






65 comments:

Maris Bosquet said...

"Bonus points for being set in a location that lends itself to themed cooking."

Darn! I suppose that rules out my literary fiction about the search for woolly mammoth fossils on the moon.

Ryan Field said...

I still belong to BOMC and ISO, I still make a point of supporting them, and I think they are still very good for the industry.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oops! I should clarify that I'm referring to individual book clubs, not necessarily BOMC.

7-iron said...

thank god. I keep thinking my ms is long enough, but that I could read it in a week and a half. It's a quick-read, but not necessarily an easy-read. The only thing: it's a guy's book. Do guys do the book club thing? I don't know.

Popcorn, anyone?

lauren said...

Among my many unmarketable skills is being able to guess my sister-in-law's monthly book club pick within three guesses, without fail, every month.

(This month is Edgar Sawtelle! Of course!)

Her club reads about 3 works for fiction for every memoir. They've done THE GLASS CASTLE, READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN, the Lance Armstrong memoir, and a couple of Augusten Burroughs's books. And yes, they do the themed cooking thing with every book.

I've noticed over the years that more and more potential book club books are being published. My mother reads a lot of contemporary trade paperbacks -- mostly women's fiction and commercial / literary hybrids -- and nearly all of them come with "reading group questions" in the back. (A lot of YA paperbacks do now, too.) But who knows what's going to catch on? THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, in particular, strikes me as the sort of book that's got a lot in common with many other books in its genre, and yet it sells like wildfire year after year while other women's fiction books come and go.

People in the Sun said...

These books with the potential for themed cooking make me furious. Okay, maybe just sad.

I was thinking about it when I read a Howard Norman book. I mean, if people just traveled a bit more maybe they wouldn't think Nova Scotia was exotic. You know?

Ryan Field said...

I like them. They're good too :)

Anonymous said...

In short, we are talking about books for people who only read one book a month, and read that book mostly to impress friends.

Sigh.

I read 4-5 books a week and am proud to say that not a single one of them has ever been chosen by a book club. But then I read them to extend my understanding of the world, not to impress other people.

lotusloq said...

Great post! That's nice to know what publishers are looking for. It makes a lot of sense.

I've read 5 of the ones on your list and one is in my TBR stack. I enjoyed them all. They have quality and depth. Book clubs love them and are always looking for something new to read next month and the next ad infinitum. I just hadn't thought of it in those terms. Thanks for laying it out there for us!

Is there anything in particular they are looking for in YA?

Susan said...

Interesting topic, especially when so many agents and editors these days are talking about the difficulties of marketing and sales.

I hadn't thought of the book club angle before, or what the mysterious something is, that set these books in that genre.

adryz said...

I love book clubs but loathe the type of books they have to choose from. What is it about genre books that keep them from being good book club choices?

CC said...

Funny, because I'd consider everything on that list but "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime" to be literary books, not an offshoot of literary.

But, I've been wrong before. :)

Anonymous said...

What is BOMC?

jo said...

Nathan, my roommate sent me your blog about a month ago and I've read it religiously since. I just want you to know that your posts are extremely helpful and inspiring. Thanks so much for taking the time to post regularly.

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

So is it o.k. to call something "literary commercial fiction" in a query letter if it fits the criteria?

Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yes, definitely.

Aubrey said...

Nathan, I LOVE reading your blog! It is simply one of the best most informative blogs for authors out there...and authors are a thing I love to talk about (see myfavoriteauthor.blogspot.com).

I also belong to a book club and it has been hard for us to choose books when we remember it has to be in a one month timeframe, reading a long series (although I enjoy series') is too much for most people. And I love it when books already have book club questions and answers with the author!

Great post, great blog, love you!

boxofficegirl said...

Very commendable I'm sure to get through 4-5 books a week.
I would rather read 1 properly for the sheer pleasure of time well spent than skim read in order to move on to the next big thing.

Stacey said...

Hey Nathan,

I've been reading your blog, and other Agent and Author blogs for a while, and I was wondering if you could definte "Commercial Fiction" for us all. I have seen a few definitions, but I trust your judgement!

thanks!

Nathan Bransford said...

Stacey-

That's a good question, and I'll blog on it at some point. Basically, commercial fiction either falls into a specific genre or needs to have a very good raison d'etre. Book Club fiction is a case where something can be commercial without having a specific genre, but if something is just "commercial" without having a genre or without at least a passing literary-ness to it, it can really fall between the cracks. I'll have to elaborate on all this at some point.

lotusloq said...

Nathan, That discussion would be great for me. I'm having a difficult time putting a type to mine because it crosses so many genres.

It's sort of literary but sort of commercial. It's mostly based in reality, but there are some supernatural things going on. It's sort of romantic. It's sort of suspenseful in parts. It's sort of funny (hopefully) in parts.

It's a literary/commercial/suspense/romantic/ paranormal/comedy for the YA crowd. That just seems like so much to say. Should I just go with YA and let the description of the book show what else it is? I know you say go with what section of the store it would go in, but I feel it needs more. YA just seems so blank sitting there all alone on the line.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

mmm... i can see the meaning behind the label "book club fiction," but it seems somewhat vague. There are some book clubs devoted to chick lit, and others devoted to classic literary books, and others focused on edgy books.

the label doesn't make any sense, to be honest.

Nathan Bransford said...

lotusloq-

On the kids side, I think there's more flexibility to just call something YA or Middle Grade. The pressure to categorize comes more from the adult side.

Anonymous said...

I agree with cc's classification of most the books on your list as literary. There's seems to be a mistaken notion out there that literary fiction has to be nearly inaccessible in order to be literary. In fact, much literary fiction, and many literary masterpieces are utterly accessible, engaging, and satisfying on every level. I'm always a bit frustrated by the attempt to fit books neatly into sub-genres. I know this makes the marketing folks' jobs easier, but it often short-changes the book, and chases away readers who might otherwise be drawn in.

Perhaps that is the wisdom of "Book Club Fiction" after all -- that it alerts potential readers to the fact that some books can't be simply classified....

Aubrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
magolla said...

It seems as if everyone is dancing around the main issue. Why don't you just call it the 'Oprah phenomenon'? That's why everyone is so hungry to get their hands on those kinds of books--they are instant best sellers, making the publisher a gazillion dollars.
Personally, I don't want someone to chose what I read, therefore I don't do book clubs.

lotusloq said...

Nathan,

Thanks so much! You just made my query 10 words shorter at least!

Zen of Writing said...

So, well written commercial fiction, or literary fiction that has popular appeal. Good ideas, both, since some commercial fiction is so poorly done I can't stand even to look at it, former editor that I am, and much literary fiction is lacking in story, or pacing, and puts the reader to sleep.

But anonymous' comment, that your list sounds literary, points to a disturbing trend, I think, the declining standard of what is considered literary.

When I was in college, ahem, highbrow reading was Homer...in the ancient Greek. Any English lit, aside from that read in Old or possibly Middle English, was decidedly middlebrow.

In certain circles, which occasionally provide candidates for high office in this country, I suspect that the reading of any full-length novel is considered highbrow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Nathan.
Your examples help too.

I recently learned of a local bookclub that tries to sort out complex literary fiction in their selections. Then there is the Room of One's Own foundation (or something like that). They recently had two books I could not resist.

I think, with more complex material, it is very helpful to have others to help sort out the complexities.

And learning about books, just like HERE (in this blog when we make recommendations to each other) is just fabulous for me. I end up reading gobs of them.

And it makes sense because who (beside Nathan or his associates in the biz) has the time to go through the industry and learn about everything? I don't. And so the recommendations are fabulous.

A Paperback Writer said...

Book Club fiction where I live tends to be:
1) trendy
2) appealing to women over the age of 50 with no college education and/or current stay-at-home moms with lots of kids
3) something that requires no depth of thinking whatsoever because half of the people who come to the meeting will not have read the book but will still want to "discuss" it.

Lily said...

Does this include previously published books that have gained popularity and have now been republished to include book club notes in the back, for example just about anything by Paulo Coelho, or Gregory MacGuire.

spinregina said...

why not be happy people are reading? who cares how they come to it, really?

Michelle Moran said...

I just picked up a fabulous book - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - which fits into this category exactly.

It's familiar - about book clubs.
It's accessible - but literary.
It's also a bit exotic, being set on Guernsey Island.

Highly recommended, and I can see it becoming a huge book club favorite.

Ryan Field said...

I'm curious about the literary/commercial thing too. And if commercial fiction is the same as "general fiction," which I've been seeing for a hundred years. I even saw this once..."We are looking for commercial fiction that rides the thin line of literary." Sounds good, but I wouldn't try to define that one on my own.

Linda said...

At a recent conference, a panel of agents had another name for book club fiction -- "faux literary". I think that's a pretty accurate description. And other than certain genre works, that's what the houses want. Peace, Linda

Jill of All Trades said...

I've read six of the listed books and loved all but one of them. I really don't care how they are listed as long as I enjoy reading them and as long as they encourage all to read, read, read.

jeanoram said...

"Bonus points for being set in a location that lends itself to themed cooking."

Yeah, when my book club gleefully mentioned the idea of themed snacks, I just about shot myself. Why, oh why, do book clubs get competetive about snacks, yet think I'm on crack when go all feminist rant on Dr. Phil's book--just playing the devil's advocate?

Chumplet said...

I suppose a work that inspires the label "book club fiction" must earn the right to be labeled as such, rather than the author presuming that it will be placed in that category.

I'm aiming for that privilege.

Bethanne said...

I love getting together with my women friends... I just have a hard time getting through the 'book club' books. In a way, i'm with Magolla. With an entire month to procrastinate, I have all these awesome books in my pile, and it's hard to pick up the one I didn't pick out.

That being said, it'll be my month soon... :D I hope the ladies don't mind a good, old-fashioned romance novel, because that's what they're getting.

I don't know how some books have gotten the label 'bookclub' but they aren't all inspired, that's for sure. It's hype. That's it. Good publicest, nothing more on some occasions.

Suzanne said...

I agree with the reference to Oprah. She has been a pivotal force in getting important books into the forefront of the public mind.

Jeanne said...

This is an interesting subject. Like a couple of others, I too thought of Oprah's impact on book sales. I was in Barnes and Nobles one Saturday after she began the internet course for the Ekhart Tolle book and the sales clerks were laughing their behinds off about all the people who mindlessly buy anything that Oprah endorses. They of course were taking orders for ET's book because they were already sold out.
I've read several of the books O has suggested and hated them so much I threw them in the trash. Which to me is a sin because I NEVER throw away books and rarely lend them, because I become really upset if I don't get them back.
The thing about a book club is that it's got to have a hook for the members. I guess the members of the O book Club tend to want to be more like Oprah? I'm not sure. But each book club I know of seems to read the same types of books every single month. Never anything that appeals to me.
If I were ever asked to participate in a Book Club that read the sorts of books Nathan describes, I'd be all in.

Stacey said...

I really appriciate Jill of all Trades comment.

There is so many different kinds of books out there, and the reason for that is there are many differnt types of people who want to read. Just because someone is a certain age, or has children does not mean that they are reading certain books (as someone else alluded to).

There have been books that my book club has chosen that have been just fun reads, others that are good intense literature, and sometimes stuff that I really don't enjoy.

I think a "book club" book is as Nathan described it... "both literary and yet commercial, familiar and yet exotic, well-written but not too dense, accessible but with some depth."

And that kind of book is open not only for the book club to read it and enjoy it, but bibliophiles of all types.

Sara Merrick said...

This was a very interesting post -- and helpful in expanding my thinking beyond the labels of genre.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths said...

Zen of Writing:

Oi! I write literary fiction that's _intended_ to put people to sleep.

Coincidentally, my books usually have 30 chapters... hmm...

Sophie said...

A paperback writer-

Guilty

Belong to just such a group with same demographics. Am often the very person who wants to talk about books I haven't read.

This month we're supposed to read 'The Boy In Striped Pyjamas'. I am pregnant and want to avoid being harrowed by a holocaust story involving innocent children. (The facts are horrendous enough.) However, it has the advantage of being short- so as long as its not too good will be harrowed for relatively short time. Will try and read it just so I get to join in- I like the sound of my own voice!

Lady Glamis said...

Nathan -

You answered for lotusloq:
On the kids side, I think there's more flexibility to just call something YA or Middle Grade. The pressure to categorize comes more from the adult side.

So if my YA novel is definitely a crossover piece of fiction into the adult genre, and it is also a piece of literary commercial fiction, then how should I refer to it????

Also, I think Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is an excellent piece of "bookclub" fiction that seems to have been overlooked by many. I could be wrong about it fitting into that category, but it's one of my favorite books.

Shmee said...

Excuse me for my ignorance. I'm very new to this scene. Actually, given my experience and background, I don't think I should really refer to myself as being part of "this scene". At any rate, this post has me scratching my head about when you should actually try to sell your work.

I thought the book that I'm writing would be considered nonfiction because it is an account of real events that have happened to me (sort of an Anne Lamott/Elizabeth Gilbert/Martha Beck kind of book). According to "The Writer's Market", nonfiction books are typically sold by proposal not by complete manuscript. With all this blurring of the lines, I'm not sure I should continue to operate under the assumption that my work would categorically be considered nonfiction.

Any enlightenment you can provide would be most appreciated.

bryan russell said...

Shmee:

What you are talking about would generally be classed as "memoir", and memoirs usually tend to follow the same rules as fiction (rather than the non-fiction path to publication). Exceptions would be if you are a celebrity, etc., and can hook an agent/publisher with guaranteed sales based on your fame. So, for memoir, I've generally heard the rule to be: write the book, polish it until it gleams, and then submit to agents for representation (or publishers if you want to go the small press route, perhaps). Much like for fiction, memoirs are all about the writing and storytelling, and a sales pitch can't show you that. So, unless you're one of the unlikely exceptions, you'll probably have to join in the queue of fiction writers.

Hope that helps, and best of luck with it!

Shmee said...

Thanks Bryan. That's what I originally thought but wishful thinking led me down a bad path (as usual). Since I'm no celebrity, I guess it's back to the grind.

Thanks again for your kind response.

Shmee

Zen of Writing said...

hi Melody,

I should have said much of what is called literary these days can put a reader to sleep. It can be too emotion-based and interior, lacking in plot and pacing, or just poorly done -- "literary" is often a marketing tool, so the reader has to be careful. I'm avoiding "literary" bestsellers now, having been burned a few times recently. Or I get them from the library.

Books are also lacking in editing...thanks to publishers cutting back. That probably makes a huge difference in quality. I know writers don't like to hear that, but I'm a writer, too, and my post-apocalyptic novel has been through some very helpful editing. I would choose a hands-on agent over someone who said it's perfect as it is any day.

It sounds like "book club fiction" is a big category, adding well-written commercial fiction to good literary fiction.

But, it's hard to judge what's literary up close. Was Faulkner considered literary in his day? Were people as concerned with labels as we are now? There was popular fiction in his day, too, dime novels, etc.

Well, you've certainly got us thinking, Nathan.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Very commendable I'm sure to get through 4-5 books a week.
I would rather read 1 properly for the sheer pleasure of time well spent than skim read in order to move on to the next big thing.


With my slush (at a genre ezine), my critiques, and my fun reading, (books and blogs!) I have weeks that I read the equivalent of 4-5 books.

I also have weeks where I read only one book.

My comprehension is no different based on quantity. (OK, well, when I'm on my 30th 5K word short story in two days, yeah, it might slip a bit.) From graduate school, writing skills, and long practice, I'm well-trained to be a fast, critical reader.

But I have nothing against people who read a book a month. Hey, it's twelve books a year they wouldn't have bought otherwise!

Kristan said...

Thanks for this! For a while I've been wondering where my type of writing falls, and I honestly think this is it. (And I'm not just saying that because you're saying it's popular!!)

I think Amy Tan's work would also fall into this category, no?

Anonymous said...

Brilliant idea. I've had a couple book ideas I plan to pursue but have pondered what genre they would best fit...the commercial literary or literary commercial category best describes these. But the book club approach is right on. Of course, as you point out, that 'category' isn't recognized yet...but perhaps that day is soon approaching.

Kate H said...

Wow, you gave me a genre! Thanks!

I've always been kind of annoyed by the distinction between literary and commercial fiction. It strikes me as somewhat arbitrary and not very meaningful. We definitely need a new name for fiction that is accessible but deep. "Book club fiction" might not be ideal, but it's something to be going on with.

I have to say, though, discussion questions at the back of a book really bug me. I finished high school and even college as a literature major, thank you very much; I don't need a list of printed questions to help me think or talk about what made a book meaningful for me.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - seemed like great book club fodder to me (and I do mean that as a compliment). I've lent my copy to several people who've all enjoyed it, and had it recommended by people who didn't know I'd read it, so the word of mouth thing is surely happening.

I see exactly what you mean by this 'category'. It's the space where much of my current fiction reading resides. While The Memory Keeper's Daughter was hurled at the wall (hated that one, unlike many people I know), for instance, The Time Traveler's Wife is among my favourite books ever.

On the TBR pile at present are The Story of Edward Sawtelle (not because of Oprah, just because), The Good Thief, The Outlander (not Gabaldon, which I've read, but the recent one with a definite article in the title), The People of the Book...I don't belong to a book club, but this lot sounds like it (only more voracious than a book a month).

I'd be interested to see what others suggest as books which would fit into this category. Commercial literary fiction? Good enough to read, satisfying enough to want to finish. Sounds just fine to me.

Anonymous said...

This type of classification reminds me of something I saw on an agent blog recently where she didn't accept "literary" works but would accept queries of books that were "literary with a commercial bent."

Maybe she meant "book club fiction?"

No wonder writers are confused.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

"BC fic" - yeah, I like it. The themed food thing has great potential. I can't help picturing in my mind those tiny tea sets they used to make for girls, that came in a REALLY BIG BOX! Woo-hoo! As a child you could hardly pick that box up, it was so big!

I'm not in a fiction reading group, but a poetry reading group - it'd be great to get a box of goodies to go along with the poetry - wouldn't have to be food necessarily. Just some fun stuff to "get the party started" as they say.

Here's a link to art-o-mat - the original art vending machine! Check out the cool art pieces, and imagine them getting passed out at a book club meeting, sort of like...I can't think of anything...dinner rolls...Godiva chocolate...

http://www.artomat.org/
artomat_artists.php

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Kindles and book clubs and small pieces of art...

If people are reading stuff on their Kindles, and they don't have the physical book as "proof" of their having read it, then small art pieces could serve as 'avatars' or 'icons' of books - so you'd have a shelf full of them, alongside your Kindle, so when someone comes over, instead of checking out your bookcases to get a sense of the kind of person you are, they would browse through your avatars/icons/art pieces:

Guest: (Picking up a wood block with a bee painted on it): "So, you've read The Secret Life of Bees? What did you think of it?"

Oh well, back to work

Stacey said...

Hey if any of you guys are interested, I followed this blog to Aubrey's blog and found that they are doing a giveaway of a classic "book club" book. Go check it out...

http://myfavoriteauthor.blogspot.com/

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

Whoa, your "Book Club Fiction" blog post has me very excited and motivated to finish the novel I'm writing. A few agents have expressed interest in reading it when it's completed, and I thought maybe that was just a fluke. I’ve been worried because the novel’s both literary and science fiction, shaking my head as I write it, thinking to myself, Why can’t I write in one-and-only-one genre and jettison the literary aspects? As I read your blog, I realized that the novel I’m working on fits that category. Also, within the novel, I’ve made up quite a few futuristic foods for which recipes could definitely be created, and I could name specific types of book clubs that might enjoy the book. I’m going to buckle down, get the book finished, just see what happens. :)

emmadarwin said...

Nathan, you've made my day. I'm thrilled to discover I have a genre. Up till now I've been literary/commercial-women's/men's-historical/contemporary crossover. Always nervous work: am I falling between several stools? But so far I'm managing to dance on all of them at once, which is just as well, as it's what I write, and I can't do much about that.

The book clubs I've been invited to join for the discussion have been really interesting and perceptive about my work. And no themed cooking (just as well again, given the settings of the novel)

bks2plz said...

I see you love to read. Looking for a great book?
I would like to invite you to read my new fantasy novel, "Gateway to DreamWorld." It has received rave reviews and has a shot at becoming a movie.
It has just been listed on Amazon.com and Barnes&Nobles.com

I would love to get your review of my first novel.
Brenda Estacio

Claire King said...

Well I'm about a year late commenting on this, but I only just found the blog.
This post really brightened my day, I can picture exactly what "Book Club Fiction" is in this context and it thrills me because that's what I write. I have been so loathe to call it "Women's Fiction".
You say in this article not to query using it as a genre, I wonder if, in the months that have passed since you wrote this, has that changed? If not I suspect that agents will have an eye for picking it up from a well written synopsis and the sample chapters?
Thanks again.

John said...

In book clubs' defense, they do do genre fiction occasionally, though i cant give a comprehensive list. i know that all 3 books in the "his dark materials" trilogy have been chosen by the Book of the Month club. i would classify that as YA/fantasy. even if it does deal with weightier themes than usual, it's not "literary" writing, which i usually take to mean "artsy and slightly pretentious". note that not all of the books on the above list do i consider literary by this definition.

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