Author Topic: genres: Literary vs. Commercial vs. General vs. Upmarket vs. Book Club . . .  (Read 799 times)

Offline lucidities

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Hey, folks:

This newbie to fiction writing and agent querying would benefit from experienced perspectives on how to figure out an appropriate designation of genre among seemingly similar varieties, as in the subject line.

All I can point to, as a start, is an article from Blue Pencil Agency literary consultants (an unknown to me; I'm new at this), titled "Upmarket? Book Club? Literary? How to Describe Novels That Don't Fit into a Genre," by Tess O'Hara, January 11, 2021. https://bluepencilagency.com/upmarket-book-club-literary-how-to-describe-novels-that-dont-fit-into-a-genre/  It offers good definitions, and this summary comment:

"Literary agent Jane Finigan recently shared [. . .] that, for her, knowing where a novel fits on the scale of literary to commercial isn't that important; it's far more helpful if the writer shares a few comparable titles. If you say your novel would appeal to readers of so-and-so and so-and-so, the agent can immediately picture it on a bookshelf, the right bookshelf. . . . Generally, providing both a 'genre' and a few comparable titles is a good idea."

Your thoughts and sharing of experience, please!

Offline Munley

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I think if you really have some comparison to make, it could be helpful to state it.

But I've come across statements from some agents that I question.

--- Providing comp titles is important to show the agent you are "familiar with the market."


Sure, know something about the market, but I want an agent who is a lot more familiar with the market than I am------including which editors are likely to be drawn to my book, as well as where on a bookstore shelf or online catalog it would fit. That's why I'd be willing to pay 15% commission to an agent. When an agent reads a query, deems it an interesting story, and sees sample pages well written, I would hope the light would go on in their own head. That's their job. Again, that's why I'd be willing to pay them a commission.

--- When an author can't come up with a comp title, it shows an attitude that their book is so smashingly good that no book in the world can possibly compare to it.

I've seen some online panel discussions with agents smugly snickering over this condescending assumption.
There are lots of possible reasons besides "vanity" that an author can't come up with a comp title, especially when agents insist that a comp title has to be a book that came out within the past 2 years.

--- Don't compare your book with a super popular book or one that got a lot of accolades or some famous classic.
Another sign of vanity to them. How dare you think your book is that good!
To my mind, a comp title should be mentioned to show how your book has some similarities in the story or characters, and possibly some differences. Not an advance claim to be some hotsy-totsy best-seller or enduring classic that people will still buy long after we're both dead. If you've got a wretched character wrestling with a  mess similar to Raskolnikov's, why should it be a crime to mention that in your query?  >:D




Offline lucidities

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Munley, your taking exception to select statements from agents as to what they need/expect in citing comps, and what they do not want to see, is quite valuable. For someone with limited experience, it's natural to emulate what seems set in stone . . . by master stonecutters as much as by patrons! (I might have to do a revision pass or two on that analogy.)    :)

The three assertions you make can be taken together, I'd say, to reinforce the fundamental truth of an author writing the novel that resides within and needs to be written, and then querying with confidence that when an agent eventually says yes, it'll be a match made for the right reasons. I especially value your reminder that a comp title can be cited for its partial and specific similarity (or difference). An aspiring novelist has to read a lot of novels--but surely more for assimilation than for adherence.

Offline Tallis

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All good points, and well put.

I'll humbly confess that I've struggled to find comps simply because so many of the books I read are more than two years old.  If internet statistics are to be believed -- isn't that a confidence-inspiring clause? -- anyway, if those statistics are even roughly accurate, humanity has begat 134 million books overall.  But only 1.5 million books since 2019... meaning that 99% of literature can't be used as comps.

It puzzles me, because surely book-buyers have memories too.  For me, older comps usually carry more weight.  If I was shopping for my kid, and saw a book whose blurb compared it to The Phantom Tollbooth -- that's definitely the one I'd pick up.


Offline JeanneG

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Comps don't have to include books that are about the same topic. They can be books that use a similar structure, deal with a similar family dynamic, address similar social justice issues, etc. I have three very different comps I'm planning to use for my query for my novel. One is a nonfiction book about the same subject. One is a novel that addresses similar issues of social justice but is more literary in tone than my book. And one is a historical novel (like my own) that has similar family dynamics, although my book occurs in a different period of history. All of these comps have been published in the past five years.

I would search for comps on Goodreads where you can find good descriptions of the stakes and structure that might parallel your story.

And here is my general understanding of the various genres you listed:

Literary fiction is focused on language and character development, with the plot being secondary. Think beautiful, poetic, or even experimental writing with complex characters.

Commercial fiction is a broad category that encompasses most major genres, including mysteries, thrillers, fantasy novels, etc. Think fast-moving plot with lots of twists and turns. The writing is competent but not soaring, and the characters have interesting backgrounds. Commerical fiction shows up on the stands in airports when people are seeking an easy, engrossing read for their flight.

Upmarket and Book Club are interchangeable terms. They refer to fiction that is more character-driven with an emphasis on good writing but not as focused on the beauty of the language in literary fiction. These books often address interesting moments in history, political subjects, unusual historical figures, eccentric characters, etc. Their stories revolve around a theme that invites discussion. For example, The Four Winds, by Kristen Hannah is book club/upmarket. She's a strong writer, her characters are intriguing, and the story takes place during the Great Depression. The theme of the book revolves around the exploitation of farmworkers in California and their struggles to unionize. For a book to fall into the category of upmarket/book club, it should have big ideas and themes, and the writing should push toward being literary. A lot of book club books fall into these genres: historical fiction, women's fiction, social justice, and memoir.

Hope that helps some.

JeanneG

Debut novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press) released in March 2015; winner of IPPY in national category of religious fiction and currently a finalist for IAN Book of the Year. My work-in-progress: THE DOUBLE SUN.
FB: https://www.facebook.com/JeanneLyetGassman
Twitter: @JLyetGassman

Offline lucidities

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JeanneG, that helps hugely! Your well-reasoned and well-articulated description of the "Upmarket and Book Club" category(-ies) has clinched it for me, and you clearly helped me rule out the Commercial genre. And truly literary? Well, one can always aspire.   :-)    Couldn't have reached such clarity without your help today. Well done!

Offline lucidities

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JeanneG, a word or two as to how General differs from what seems to be its closest kin, Commercial?

Offline Tabris

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I'll humbly confess that I've struggled to find comps simply because so many of the books I read are more than two years old. 

I'll take it one further. If an author has "read widely" in their genre before writing (as they suggest), and then they take a year to write and revise the book, and then querying takes six months, that leaves a six-month window for those comps to have been published.

I know agents love to come up with flaming hoops we're supposed to gladly leap through in the name of professionalism, but this one is just ridiculous. Especially when I see agents on Twitter complaining that they themselves seldom get to read for pleasure anymore because they're reading their clients' books and submissions. So...when do THEY get to stay on top of all the genres they're representing? Would they themselves recognize these within-two-years comp titles you're mentioning?

Offline JeanneG

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I believe you see the category, "General," mostly from British agents. In appears to be a newish version of a category that used to be called "Mainstream." Both seem to refer to all fiction that isn't clearly literary or a specific genre. Alas, over the past decade or so, books have been pigeonholed into smaller and smaller categories for marketing purposes. It used to be broken down into "mainstream," and "commercial/genre." Now, we have a whole bunch of sub-categories being tossed around.

That's my best guess anyway.

JeanneG
Debut novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press) released in March 2015; winner of IPPY in national category of religious fiction and currently a finalist for IAN Book of the Year. My work-in-progress: THE DOUBLE SUN.
FB: https://www.facebook.com/JeanneLyetGassman
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Offline lucidities

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Again, very helpful, JeanneG, and now the choice looks much less agonizing!     :)

Offline Munley

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Here is a query rejection I got a few years ago from an agent who actually did what I which agents would do when they consider a submission --- have their own light go on with comp titles. But it turned out to be a be-careful-what-you-wish-for result.

Dear (author):
Sounds like a perfectly solid, and publishable storyline. But it also sounds vague,y familiar to me. And though that might not be a problem for many agents, it is for me simply because I’m taking on few new books at this time so am looking for fresh stories as well as voices. Better luck moving ahead.

===============
Couldn't quite figure out what the agent meant, especially since the agent couldn't quite pinpoint in her own head what other novel my novel reminded her of.
Maybe she was trying, in an awkward sort of way, not to be mean or discouraging.
But implying I have a stale story and stale voice isn't exactly a morale boost. Alas.  :'(   
Would have preferred a simple "Not for me" rejection.
« Last Edit: March 04, 2022, 03:58:00 AM by Munley »

Offline lucidities

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Ach, and och!