Thursday, August 18, 2011

Genre, Genre, Genre

I've been struggling with this "Genre" thing.

When I set out to write Aces, I thought of it as a contemporary romance novel. There was no doubt in my mind. And when I was done, I was still there. No doubt.

Now, after a few "professional" readers have gone through it, I have some doubts. Some will say, that it doesn't matter. But I have to disagree. I'll explain later...

My mentor sent my manuscript to three agents that he had worked with in the past. All three, awesome agents. All three, don't represent the genre. They represented Literary, or Children's/MG, or women's fiction, but not Romance. So when my manuscript went out to them, I knew how it would end.

And of course, I was right. I didn't expect them to offer representation. What I did get was two pices of information from each. One that encouraged me, and another that confused me.

Here's the basic reply I received:
"Thank you for letting me read this... loved/enjoyed the story... the characters are <<enter a nice phrase here>>... but... I don't represent <<fill in the genre here>>."

I was elated to see agents saying they liked what they read. But because I'm a bit of a scheptic, I also knew that they were probably being a bit nicer than normal, because someone they knew and respect had sent them my novel. So maybe they didn't love it... maybe they liked it. Maybe even liked-liked it... but probably not loved it. That's cool. At least they didn't voimit all over my manuscript.

That was the encouraging part. Now, for the confusing part.

You probably noted the little <<fill in the genre here>> comment.

Each of them said my novel was a different genre.

One said -- Romance (cool... she nailed it)
Another said -- Commercial fiction (oh, I see)
A third said -- Mainstream (okay...)

I'd like to think I'm reasonably intelligent. And with all my books on the craft, the market, and access to google, I would find the answer to this mystery.

After all, maybe all three are sort of the same, just a variation of the definition.

So I searched.

Nathan Bransford said on his blog back in 2008...

"... 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)."

Okay cool. So according to this, romance fell into commercial fiction. One and the same. My theory was holding up nicely. At this point I hoped that maybe even mainstream could fall into that definition. I crossed my fingers (and a couple of toes).

So I jumped over to Agent under Genre Description, where it said:
"Commercial fiction often incorporates other genre types under its umbrella such as women’s fiction, thriller, suspense, adventure, family saga, chick lit, etc. Commercial fiction is not the same as "mainstream" or "mass market" fiction, which are both umbrella terms that refer to genre fiction like science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and some thrillers."

Say what? So, according to, commercial is not equal to romance. Mainstream is romance. Great.

I read more. It went on to say, "Commercial fiction uses high-concept hooks and compelling plots to give it a wide, mainstream appeal."

So, commercial fiction has mainstream appeal. But it's not mainstream. Got it? Sure you do.

Well... I was confused. Nathan can't be wrong. He was a super agent for a while, turned author. Highly respected... but... but.. there's that but again.

I knew what to do. I would check out -- you know them. They do all the "___ for dummies" books. I found "Exploring the different types of fiction." Perfect!

It said, "Commercial fiction attracts a broad audience and may also fall into any subgenre, like mystery, romance, legal thriller, western, science fiction, and so on."

Oh, for the love of--! So commercial does include romance...

The challenge is that depending on which genre is the accurate genre, it changes the agents that I would approach. More importantly, it also changes the manner in which the query letter would be written. Why? This is what another agent who read my query letter said: "It sounds like contemporary romance, not commercial fiction."

:) Well... I thought they were the same. But I knew exactly what she meant. I had thought of this book as contemporary romance when I wrote it. So naturally, in my query letter, I would focus on the relationship of the boy and girl. Of course it would come across as romance.

You may ask, "If you wrote it thinking it's contemporary romance, why don't you just stick to it?" Go ahead, ask. Good, I thought you'd never ask.

Because, yet another two insiders said, "I don't see this book in the romance section of the bookstore. No bare-chested guy on this cover. It will be in the 'General Fiction' area with a lot of great love stories."

It sure would be nice if we had an equivalent to the unifying theory of physics. Maybe we can call it the Unifying Definition of Fiction Genres.

Am I over thinking this? My wife, in her infinite ability to cut to the bone said, "You're the author. You choose." I hate it when she's right. Which, if you've been keeping count, is nearly always.

In the end, I think it comes down to researching the agent. Check the site, find interviews, read their blog. Look at what types of novels the agent represents. Then look and see what they call that genre. If that "type" of book fits yours, call it whatever that agent calls it and be done with it. Simple... I need another double espresso!

Fight the good fight!


  1. Oy, who knew it could be so confusing? And, even though I want a bare-chested man on *my* covers, plenty of romance authors' books don't sport half-naked men or women. Heck, JoAnn Ross writes pretty steamy books and she has happy coastal scenes on her latest covers.

    Why not go to the source for a description of romance: Romance Writers of America?

    Basically, the love story should be the focus--the purpose of the book--and there should be a happy ever after (or at least implied HEA, or happy for now). Without the HEA, someone picking up your book expecting a romance will be throwing it across the room when they finish. Trust me on this.

    There are authors who give the hero/heroine an HEA, but the romance is a secondary story line to the main plot of stopping the terrorists, or destroying the asteroid. Those might be thrillers with romantic elements.

    Does that help? Check the link. RWA is more eloquent than me. ;-) Good luck!

  2. Thanks, Gwen. I knew you'd come through!

    What I love about the RWA is that they have defined their world. It leaves no guess work for the author or the audience.

    What bothers me (a bit) is that agents will say things like, "interested in commercial fiction." Then you look at their books and they have romance books there. So does that mean that I should send a contemporary romance query letter but name it Commercial fiction? *le sigh*

    I think I'm ready to declare it as romance, once and for all and be done with this. And if the agent doesn't say romance, then they don't get a chance at representing the next best thing since... your novel :)

    Thanks again.


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