Literary, Upmarket, Book Club, or Commercial? How to Determine Your Book’s Category

Literary, Upmarket, Book Club, or Commercial fiction — which category are you writing, and is the difference a comment on how well you write? Authors well into their third or fourth books can be puzzled by these terms and the different ways agents and editors use them. They’re mainly labels in the publishing industry, used to figure out how to sell a book and what its potential sales are. Commercial fiction doesn’t mean that it’s not well written, or even artistically written. A literary novel isn’t necessarily fine prose. Of course, Amazon has a whole different set of labels, and that’s added to the confusion.

Most agents will tell you it’s about market typing, not a judgment of the writing quality. Writer’s Digest has this succinct explanation: “The biggest difference between literary and commercial fiction is that editors expect to make a substantial profit from selling a commercial book, but not necessarily from selling literary fiction. Audiences for commercial fiction are larger than those for literary fiction.”

Literary agent Carly Watters has a great infographic that clarifies. She makes the very good point that it’s most important to understand industry distinction while in the querying phase with your novel.

Novelist Jennifer Ellis has a table of characteristics that define literary and commercial fiction. She goes on to make this good point: “Others point out that some of the most successful novels in the world are ‘crossover’ novels and that the distinction between literary and genre fiction is a recent and arbitrary one. Kim Wright observes that many literary fiction writers are shifting to genre fiction because it is more lucrative.”

More from Kim Wright on this new trend of literary writers entering genre categories.

However you define your book, it’s important to pitch it in a distinct category when querying agents. It might be as simple as naming a genre, or as complex as using a couple adjectives, such as “upmarket women’s fiction with magical realism”, but to give the agent you’re approaching of an idea of your goal in writing this novel will help him or her evaluate what to expect.

What category do you write in — and is it a genre you stick with, or do you aim for crossover? I don’t aim at all, because I’m unable to write to a category. I most often fit into women’s fiction, but right now I’m contemplating point of view in a new novel and it might be from a man’s POV. I’m at the dreaming state of creation — the absolute opposite of labeling, identifying, and categorizing. That’s how I write. I dream first, analyze where I fit in the market later.