First, a caveat: When I was a literary agent I wasn’t someone who worried too much about micro genre distinctions in a query letter. I think it’s helpful to know your genre, but also don’t think you should lose sleep over whether your novel is a dark urban fantasy or paranormal romance.
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.
What is commercial fiction?
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.
Commercial fiction no man’s land
A looooot of manuscripts I saw in the query pile fell 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.
But wait, there’s more!
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