Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Commercial Fiction

First caveat: I'm not someone who really worries too much about genre distinctions in a query, and don't think you should lose sleep over whether your novel is a dark urban fantasy or paranormal romance. So keep that in mind as you're reading this post.

Second Caveat: opinions may differ on my take on commercial fiction, so take this as my own subjective opinion even more so than usual.

Third caveat: this post is geared toward the adult side of the book business.

Fourth caveat: Your shoelaces are untied.

Fifth caveat: Made you look.

Preamble: concluded.

Commercial fiction! Sounds great, right? Fiction that sells! Who can't get behind that? Well... commercial fiction doesn't really exist as its own genre.

Here's what I mean by that: commercial fiction is kind of an umbrella term for genre fiction (Mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, westerns, historical fiction, etc.). Chances are, if you're writing commercial fiction you're writing with some genre or genres in mind and are targeting readers of that genre(s).

Now, what if you have a plot that doesn't readily fall into a certain genre and it isn't exactly literary fiction either (definition here)? To me, there are really only two possibilities:

1) You write it so that it is accessible and well-written enough to fall into the Book Club Fiction category (i.e. literary/commercial fiction). Major bonus points for having a high-concept plot (see: THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN). Quadruple bonus points for having a number or the word "Club" in the title.

2) You're in no-man's land.

A looooot of manuscripts I see in the Query pile fall into no-man's land. A non-literary novel about a man staring at the wall is never going to be "commercial" fiction unless it is extremely well-written and/or stylistically unique and/or brings something to the table in order to land itself in the Book Club Fiction category. So particularly if you don't have a high concept plot, writing it straight isn't probably going to work. It has to be something more.

It's very important to know yourself as a writer. If you're going for literary fiction, it has to be stylistically unique. If you're going for Book Club Fiction, it helps to be both accessible and well-written. If you're going for commercial fiction, you should know your target audience.

And in my opinion, it's important to think all this out before you start writing your novel. No man's land is a very sad place for novels indeed.


Stacey said...

Thank you Nathan! ;)

Kiersten said...

My novel's firmly in man's land, I'm just trying to get it over into agent's land.

Lady Glamis said...

Yes, I agree with all you said . . .

BUT do you also feel that a writer should tell the story the best way it needs to be told - and then simply let that novel find its way into a category?

Should a writer always begin writing a novel with genre in mind? Is that the wisest course?

Sorry, random questions. Answer them if you will.

Thanks for the info!

Nathan Bransford said...

Lady Glamis-

What you're probably seeing is that I think like an agent, not necessarily like an author. Authors probably are more likely to let the novels take their course and come what may, and there is a lot to be said for that.

I, of course, am thinking of the market first.

Stacey said...

I suppose my only follow up questions are...

If an agent lists that they accept commercial fiction, does that then mean they will accept any adult fiction? And does YA ever apply to the "commercial fiction" title?

Nathan Bransford said...


I can't speak for the other agents on what they mean by commercial fiction. But YA is separate, and if they rep that they'd mention it.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

The more I get to know professionals in this business, the more I realize that they actually figure things out before they write, like which blue sign their book will go under and maybe, you know, how the book is going to end.

Novel concept. (No pun intended.)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I try not to be stylistically unique. As an exile from poetryville, I've had my fill (and then some) of plotless stylistic uniqueness.

At the moment I have a big left-sided migraine (is the right side of my brain trying to tell me something?) and the last three words in the paragraph above, in a row like that, are only making it worse.

The on the surface / under plot distinction is a good one.

Hattie said...

Thanks for the advice, Nathan. And you didn't make me look -- I'm wearing boots today. ;-)

Travis Erwin said...

I've spent a lot of time in no man's land and have had to learn about this the hard way. However I thought commercial fiction was one of the new "in" phrases in the biz.

Maris Bosquet said...

Thanks so much, Nathan!

And thank you hugely for the link to the post about Literary Fiction. Very helpful...

Marilyn Peake said...

Hi, Nathan,

I found it very exciting to read your discussion about Commercial Fiction vs. Book Club Fiction. Thank you so much! I never aim to write Commercial Fiction; but, when you mentioned Book Club Fiction the other day, it described the type of novel I’m writing, as I mentioned in a blog comment. Several agents have expressed interest in reading my novel when it’s completed, but I thought maybe that was a fluke. After reading your blog again today, I’m highly motivated to finish writing that novel. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that my novel may never get picked up, but the idea of Book Club Fiction gives me hope while I write...and hope is very helpful in pushing one’s self to write day after day after long, eyestrain-inducing day. I have a question. Do you ever recommend submitting formal queries before a novel’s completed?

Nathan Bransford said...


Nope, it's gotta be finished and polished. And actually, I've been receiving quite a few queries for unfinished manuscripts -- it's an automatic "no" for me.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks, Nathan. I'd rather complete the novel first anyway. I'm aiming for Spring. :)

NP said...

Off topic comment: I only discovered your blog recently, and it has been quite helpful. Thank you for being so open and friendly about the publishing process. You've taken a lot of the overwhelmed-ness out of it for me, which makes me WAY more excited to be writing!

Thanks so much!

lotusloq said...

Your demystification of submitting queries is completely priceless. I wonder if you could get a gig with mastercard.

Steppe said...

This bit is food for thought.

"...And in my opinion, it's important to think all this out before you start writing your novel. No man's land is a very sad place for novels indeed."

I think there are the wierd concept pieces like "Gravity's Rainbow" which I never heard about until I started reading blogs.

I think that to really think it out ahead of time is to say "Am I writing this for me because I have to; or am I writing this as a storyteller who seeks an audience for a tellable quality story."

One way or another a good story has it demands. Mainly a beginning middle and end that includes good characters involved in some sort of "engrossing transition." Quest mystery change of POV amazing discovery etc.

Genre is a tough process to define.
Stories and Biographies keep morphing.
I like fiction and non-fiction.

The subject of genre is baffling to a degree. I go with the earlier advice on strong plot-good pacing-resolution.

It's impossible to know what people will really get off on. I read the hobbit in 1970 when it was still a cult book in the library.
Years later it slowly became a big deal.

That's why the Gravity's Rainbow has gained a certain fascination for me even though I never read it except for the available opening blurbs and plot summary.

CC said...

I love this definition of lit vs. commercial fiction from the "here" link.

"...In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface..."

This is tbe best definition I've ever heard to break this down, other than the one that states... "if you have to ask if you are writing literary fiction, don't worry, you're not."

Enjoyed the previous Book Club fiction post too, though I still think most "book club" fiction = literary.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out if no-mans' land is equal to ennui, road trip, guy fiction?

Scott said...

I try and write books that are fun to read and demonstrate a significant amount of depth despite the often twisted and genre-bending plots. I don't really see anything in the stores that I could say exactly represents my "style". In fact, I often write what I think is missing and what I'm "looking for".

I mean, where exactly do you put a book that has a pretty housewife holding a plate of pentagram cookies on the cover?

Anonymous said...


So if you're seeing a lot of queries that fall into no-man's land, are you saying that a lot of people are mislabeling what their manuscripts really are? In other words, calling it a mystery when it should be literary/commercial fiction...?

Nathan Bransford said...

first anon-

Ennui and guy novels can definitely fall into no man's land unless they bring something else to the table and fall into the literary/commercial realm (see: Chuck Palahniuk, Nick Hornby)

second anon-

Well, I'm afraid that the problem often is that people are writing books that don't have a market.

Chris said...

I'm all for being creative and letting your story unfold, but making sure there is a market for your masterpiece is essential. I think you have to think like an author AND an agent/publisher, right?

GeekyQuill said...

I think I'm in dark comedy urban fantasy romance land, but it may or may not be YA and I think therein lies my problem.

Scott said...

Nathan, I've been reading up on mixed genres (which probably makes me dangerous) and I was wondering if you get many queries that identify themselves as "slipstream"?

While often described as between SF and Realism (or Fantasy/Realism, possibly Horror/Realism) it seems to have its popular examples, The Handmaid's Tale being one of them. On the one hand, there's a strong component of literary fiction inherent in slipstream, yet genre elements are important, as well.

No man's land, or can it be book club fiction depending on the themes addressed and the quality of the writing?

Or am I missing the point altogether?

Just_Me said...

I have explosions and space ships, that alone moves me away from no-mans land and into sci-fi. Happy, capy, sci-fi sometimes, but science fiction nonetheless.

And... shoelaces??? In this weather? I'm barefoot!

Miriam S.Forster said...

Howls of laughter at the idea of a book about a man staring at a wall.

I always wonder what people like that are reading that makes them want to write stuff like that.

The best way I know to avoid no-man's land is to read. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on that has any resemblance to anything you might want to write someday.

Miriam S.Forster said...

Also, I'm not wearing shoes. So there!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Nice try. I loathe shoes. Try telling me there's a hole in my sock. This time of year, I just might look. (but it's a crapshoot; I'm happy barefoot, too)

Seriously, I wish you'd posted this before you did the Q&A on the listserve I belong to a few weeks back. I'd love to pick your brain further about it, as it's quite contrary to a discussion I had with someone else.

Emily said...

As a reader, no man's land fiction is exactly what I look for. I want explosions AND character depth. I want aliens AND psychological trauma. I want characters who stare at walls, only to have those walls get bashed in by dinosaurs and zombies and crashed spaceships.

I always feel like the commercial fiction is lacking depth and the literary fiction is lacking action. I want to see more No Man's Land fiction.

Stacey said...


I am going to let Nathan tell me if I'm right, but from the research I have done on genres something is usually marketed YA if the characters are of a YA age (ie. High School). As far as I have seen it isn't necisarrily related to other content.

spinregina said...

Two questions, one dumb, and one irrelevant but still important (to me).

Where does Maeve Binchy fall?

Where did the blog for French by Heart author go? I just bought the book and so far love it...wanted to drop a line.


Anonymous said...

WOW! This is an AMAZING document of valuable and relevant infomation. You are so awesome to go to the time and trouble to put this out for our edification.

Thanks Nathan!

webhosting said...

Thanks for your advice~

Whirlochre said...

Not only wasn't I wearing any shoes, I spent fifteen minutes looking for a donkey.

But — it meant I read the post at least twice.

Thomma Lyn said...

Thank you, Nathan, for this informative post! I appreciate the time and care you put into helping us writers.

Anonymous said...


> I always feel like the commercial fiction is lacking depth and the literary fiction is lacking action. I want to see more No Man's Land fiction.

Me, too.

I recently spent yet another fruitless afternoon wandering disconsolately between the General Fiction section (no more dead people, for the love of God!) and the Fantasy section (no more high sorceresses, please!).

I'd love to see more fiction with genre trappings but of literary quality. I'd buy it. But I may be the only one. *sigh*


markwise said...


Is there a genre for Chick Lit Fantasy Fiction? That's what my novel is aiming to be.

Mark Wise

Jeanne said...

Scott- if I ever see a book with a "pretty housewife holding a plate of pentagram cookies on the cover" I am going to snatch it off the shelf.

My curiousity is peeked already.

Madison said...

I understand where you're coming from. Honestly, I write things the way I want them to be written and then see if they fall into any particular catagory. So far, I think I'm in man's land. We'll see what you agents think when I send out my queries! :-)

Carolyn said...

omg. My shoelace WAS untied! Thanks, Nathan!

Rick said...

Nathan: thanks for the interesting and informative post.

I might as well toss in my two cents.

A writer needs to have something to say. But that in itself does not produce a novel. There must be an audience that wants to read what the author has to say, or the writer is writing for the author and not a commercial market. That’s okay if publication is not the goal.

Basic marketing sense would suggest having a target audience in mind before writing. Yet, we have so many market segments, that target audience can change as the novel progresses.

So many great ideas suddenly come to mind in the midst of...well almost anything: driving, reading, writing. One of these great ideas might alter the outcome of the story. So what can we do other than plot and plan?

Classifying the material as one genre or another can be tricky. For instance, Ray Bradbury claims he writes fantasy. Much of it looks like science fiction to me.

Kate H said...

Nathan, again thanks for a valuable perspective on this whole genre business. The literary/commercial "dichotomy" has always frustrated me, I think largely because I'm a classics girl--and back when Austen, Bronte, Dickens, and Trollope were writing, there was no such distinction. A good book was a good book. Dickens and Trollope were hugely popular in their day--certainly what we would now call "commercial"--but now they are relegated firmly to the "literary" shelf, and Trollope is hard to find even there.

These people are my models. I know it's a different world now, but I believe there's still a large market segment that wants to read accessible, thoughtful, well-written books. Thanks for giving it a name!

Scott said...

Thanks, Jeanne! It's remarkable how one comment like that can hit me like a shot of fine, single malt scotch. Much appreciated.

And I have to side with those who have said they're looking for books where authors mix it up a bit. I see where Nathan is coming from, too, so I guess one has to really make a query stand out so that the buzz of the idea comes through.

I define my audience as those who are "looking for something really cool, maybe a little dark, too". For better or for worse, it really doesn't get any more complex than that.

Jeanne said...

Scott- The reason that your idea sounds interesting is because, as a stay-at-home-mom/housewife for 18 years I have read all the super sweet perfect Susie Homemaker type books I can stand. Stories that idealize women in that way are for girls who still think that if they land the right man, buy prime real estate, and have babies, life will be perfect. And when it's not, you are really, really let down.

Give me a story of a Mom who wants to smack a hex on the skanky Pom Mom who screamed at her for no reason at the football game - THAT is a story I can relate to. :) There's a lot of reality in the dark stuff.

Scott said...

Jeanne, I will definitely alert you when my draft is ready for reading in case you're curious. I do let the story go quite a bit further down the rabbit hole (pretty much until you hit flames), but the tone is always more "twisted fun" than straight-up evil.

Dunno, guess I like a little polyester pastel to set off the darkness. And my Jack-O-Lantern is definitely sticking his tongue out when it's not in his cheek. ;)

Jeanne said...

Sounds great!

Vancouver Dame said...

This was a very timely posting. I think any clarification of terms helps the new writer. Literary, commercial, and 'book club' have been elusive terms, which you have explained better than anything else I have read. I went back to the previous posting on Literary Fiction that you had for Feb 26/07, and that was quite a good posting as well. Two other terms I have found confusing are 'mainstream', and 'popular fiction' which are often used in contest categories. Perhaps those terms could be discussed in a future post, or as a reply.

Tara Ryan said...

I've heard many industry professionals say to picture the section your novel would be found in at the bookstore. The "Fiction" section is by far the largest section and the one I shop in. My writing fits here - definately more mainstream than literary - so I've been calling it commerical fiction. HELP!

Scott said...

I like to picture the tables of "New Hardcovers" and "New Paperbacks" in my local Borders. You get a catholic sampling of voices and genres without a label to direct you outside of "New".

Marketers of books need a focus for your work, and there are popular categories to place works that allow them to go to the old play book.

I guess the trick with interstitial properties – and it's the same in the industries that my company serves – is how to find the language to define the product as "different, maybe better".

Different sells if you can relay "what's in it for the customer". If someone can find a company who is really behind them, they can do very well.

Ryan Field said...

Good Post.

Erik said...

I was busy when this one came out, and I'm only now catching up.

You say that Literary Fiction has to be stylistically unique. OK, I got that.

But I still want to write something people will read! Seriously, does a first time author have a chance at "literary fiction" in the first place?

Mine is a thriller/romance/literary/Idunno kind of work. What I think I'd do is let you work it out. OK? :-)

Commercial Collection said...

It's really a nice article. . .

Thanks for sharing with us. . said...

I write in a variety of areas. The most important aspect of anything I write is to tell a good story. I have written a biography, children's fiction and recently finished a young adult paranormal fiction manuscript. I'm already on to my next project which will be fiction. Is there room for someone who writes in so many different areas?

Related Posts with Thumbnails