Market Savvy for Fiction Writers:
Popular Fiction vs. Literary Fiction
By Shelly Thacker
"Few professors of English literature will ever admit to it, but the truth is that popular writers have had just as great an effect on the people of this nation as Dickens, Poe, or Melville and their classic works."
Editor James L. Collins
The most surprising event I attended at this year's national Romance Writers of America conference was a networking session for one of the many romance sub-genres. I say "surprising" because it seemed these writers had wandered into the wrong conference.
Most spent the hour complaining—in tones that ranged from indignant to angry—that publishers aren't buying more manuscripts in this particular sub-genre. "Don't they understand," one author wailed, "how much interest there is among writers in writing these books?"
Frankly, that question left me baffled. Either these writers don't realize we're in the popular fiction business—or they don't understand what the term "popular fiction" means.
Let's define the concept.
There are two kinds of fiction in today's market. Literary fiction is the fiction of ideas. Its primary purpose is to evokethought. The writer's goal is self-expression. Any consideration of the reader—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.
Popular fiction is the fiction of emotion. Its primary purpose is to evoke feelings. The writer's goal is to entertain the reader. Any consideration of self-expression—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.
Now, hold the hate mail. I'm not saying that you can't express yourself in a romance or mystery or science-fiction novel, or that literary fiction can't be entertaining, or that popular fiction can't be thought-provoking. We can all name novels that do it all. My point is, before you sit down to write your book—and more importantly, before you try to market it—you had better be sure exactly which kind of fiction it is you're writing.
And if you're writing popular fiction, you must be aware that the marketplace is reader-driven. You can entertain, astonish, provoke, even manipulate the reader—but if you want to sell, you can't ignore her. The reader is your whole reason for being. With every page you write and every choice you make, you need to ask yourself, "What affect will this have on the reader? Will she enjoy this? Will she rush out to her local Barnes & Noble and pay $7.50 to buy this?"
Like it or not, that's the cold, hard answer to that unhappy writer's question: frankly, my dear, the publishers of popular fiction don't give a damn how much interest there is among writers in pursuing one genre or another. What drives their purchasing decisions is the level of interest among readers—preferably several hundred thousand readers—in plunking down their hard-earned bucks tobuy the books.
If your particular genre or sub-genre is popular among huge numbers of readers, your manuscript has a better chance of selling. If your chosen genre is less popular, your chances decrease. Supply and demand. It's a simple equation—and no amount of whining will change it.
Perhaps more difficult to understand is that this same concept applies not only to genres, but to every element in your book. If you're trying to sell a novel with a less-popular setting or "risky" themes, you're going to have a tough time. And it's not the publishers' fault that your manuscript isn't selling (so stop whining); it's simply that fewer readers want to buy books with those elements.
You may be wise to save that "risky" book for later, and write something safer to make your first sale. Don't worry that this is "selling out." If you're writing popular fiction, you need to give readers what they want or you won't sell at all.
Imagine if General Motors tried to market an experimental sports car with octagonal wheels and a Saran-wrap windshield. Would you be first in line to buy one? Chances are, you'd prefer an SUV or a minivan or a nice, safe sedan. GM knows what their customers want, so that's what they offer.
Forgive the Motor City metaphor, but you'll do a whole lot better if your first manuscript is a nice, safe sedan instead of an experimental sports car. Maybe give it a zippy paint job and chrome wheels—but make sure it's recognizably a nice safe sedan.
If you want to sell popular fiction, you have to be market savvy. Be aware of your customer. Give the reader what she wants. You can bend all the rules you want later...but you have to break in before you can break out.
And if you can't live with that, I'm sure there's a very nice conference on literary fiction next door.
Shelly Thacker's nine novels have earned her a place on national bestseller lists and rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Locus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Detroit Free Press and booksellers who have called her "a virtuoso beyond compare." A two-time RWA RITA Finalist, she has won numerous other honors for her fiction, including a National Readers' Choice Award and many Romantic Times Certificates of Excellence. There are more than one million copies of her novels in print.
Copyright ©2004 by Shelly Thacker. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for individual writers to print one copy of this article for personal use. Any other reproduction by any means, print or electronic, is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author.