Sep 27 2011

Genre and market categories

As I research agents, I’ve encountered a lot of terminology that is obscure at best: upmarket, mainstream, literary vs. commercial, character-driven vs. plot-driven, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. One agent says she is looking for “upmarket contemporary mainstream” and the “next crossover novel,” while another agent says she does not accept “cross-genre.” What’s the difference between crossover and cross-genre? Can you shed some light on these terms? Chris Karim, New York

A work of fiction can be described and categorized by different sets of terminology. There are genres, sub-genres, market audience definitions, and style or setting descriptions. Sometimes the same term can be used in different ways. Often a style and market term may be added to the genre category to more narrowly define a work.

So yeah, this can be confusing.

Genre includes the standard categories such as science-fiction, fantasy, romance, historical, young adult, horror, thriller/suspense, crime, mystery, erotica, women’s fiction, commercial, and literary. Then there are sub-genres within genres, e.g., sci-fi space opera, paranormal romance, high fantasy, and chick-lit. Steampunk is a sub-genre that combines historical, sci-fi, and fantasy in unique, anachronistic ways, such as a story set in the Victorian age with high-tech gadgets powered by steam engines.

For a more detailed list and description of genres, go here.

The difference between commercial and literary fiction is a longstanding debate, and I’ll save that discussion for another day. In a very broad-brush stereotype, literary fiction may be more focused on the quality and the art of the writing itself. Literary fiction is often more character-driven, while commercial fiction is usually more plot-driven. And yes, there are thousands of exceptions to any attempt to delineate the two. I’ll also tackle the character- vs. plot-driven story in the later post on literary vs. commercial.

As a genre, commercial fiction (sometimes called general or mainstream) might have a wide appeal and sell to a larger audience, and it doesn’t fall into one of the more narrowly defined genres which appeal to a specific group of readers with a particular interest. Think Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) for commercial fiction, although Da Vinci could also be categorized in the thriller/suspense genre. So ‘commercial’ might be the genre description, or it can be used to describe a different genre book that appeals to a wider audience.

Beyond categorizing a book by genre, there are market categories and descriptions. This is where the term ‘upmarket’ has come into play in recent years.

From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readers who are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.

Upmarket fiction has been described as literary appeal with commercial potential. For examples of upmarket fiction, think John Irving, Jodi Picoult, Amy Tan, Sarah Gruen, Arthur Golden, and Ian McEwan.

Mass market (as opposed to upmarket) usually means those small paperbacks lining the shelves in the grocery store. These might be crime, thriller, romance, detective, or general fiction, but these are the books some readers devour at a rate of one or more a week, or buy a stack to take to the beach on vacation.

Other market categories include Christian, ethnic or multi-cultural, and LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender).

So you can now categorize your book by genre, by sub-genre, and by market audience. On top of that, you can describe it in more detail by the time and place setting.

Contemporary fiction means the story is set in today’s real world, as opposed to historical fiction (e.g., set in England during the Victorian era or in the American Civil War), or the fictional worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (Starship Enterprise or Middle Earth).

‘Crossover’ means a book that, while neatly labeled with one genre or market category (such as women’s fiction), also appeals to other readers (such as men). Or middle-grade/YA (such as Harry Potter) that appeals to adults as well as teens/kids.

‘Cross-genre’ is completely different from crossover. Cross-genre books are a mix of two or more specific genres. When a particular cross-genre gains popularity and has enough books written in that category, it might become its own sub-genre. A romance novel set in the Victorian era falls in the sub-genre/cross-genre of historical romance. A vampire novel aimed at teens might be labeled YA paranormal fantasy, which might be considered a cross-genre, or a sub-genre (paranormal fantasy) aimed at the YA market, or its own sub-genre.

A cross-genre novel can be a difficult sale because, instead of appealing to the two separate audiences, it might disappoint both sets of readers. A sci-fi/romance novel, for example, might not be sci-fi enough for hard-core fans, while the sci-fi aspects turn off romance readers.

The Twilight series is a good example of several of these genre and market descriptions. It’s cross-genre (YA/paranormal fantasy/romance). Its tremendous commercial success is due to the great crossover appeal to adults, primarily women. It would also be described as contemporary because it’s set in today’s real world (other than things like vampires and werewolves, which are the paranormal fantasy part of its genre mix). It probably wouldn’t be described as ‘upmarket’ because it wasn’t written with that intention, and it wasn’t necessarily aimed at an upmarket readership group, even though it appealed to many upmarket readers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe Twilight as literary, but I do know some literary writers who became engrossed in the story even if they groused and quibbled over the quality of the writing.

So Twilight – a YA contemporary paranormal fantasy cross-genre crossover commercial blockbuster success – is the pinnacle of good things that can happen with cross-genre and crossover novels. It appealed to huge audiences – teens, adult women, paranormal fantasy fans, romance readers, etc. That perfect confluence of appeal to various market segments is what causes books like Twilight and Harry Potter to take off into stratospheric sales.

Many more writers have tried blending genres and markets, and wound up with no agent, no publishing contract, or very low sales. Perhaps the story wasn’t strong enough, or the writing wasn’t good enough, or no one knew quite how to market it. Maybe the mishmash of genres appealed to no one. So be careful of trying to straddle or combine genres, and make sure it will appeal to a combined audience rather than alienate both sets of potential readers. Mainly, be sure you have a compelling story, engaging characters, and quality writing.

So what does any of this mean to writers? Everything or nothing at all.

Do you write the book you want to write, the story inside you that has to come out, and deal with the marketing and categorization and ‘shelf-spot’ later? Do you let your agent or someone else deal with that messy stuff? Do you write in a specific genre with a specific target audience in mind? Do you want to expand your potential audience to readers who don’t normally read that genre? Do you intentionally set out to create a story that will appeal to specific market segments so you know how to pitch the novel to agents, editors, publishers, and publicists?

Maybe you’ve decided to write a Christian YA contemporary literary high fantasy detective paranormal romance with crossover appeal to upmarket multi-cultural women and MG boys who love steampunk. Let me know how that works out for you.