Episode 010 | Commercial vs. Upmarket vs. Literary
In the first two “Who/What” episodes, we spent some time thinking about whether we wanted to be a dreamer/pre-writer, a hobbyist, an amateur writer, or a professional writer and explored what kind of stories we might like to tell (AKA genre). Today, we’re going to demystify sales categories and get a sense of where we might imagine our books landing.
Before I dig into specifics, let me say this from the outset:
Like genre, these sales categories are simply tools to help authors, publishers, booksellers, and book promoters find the right readers for their books and to help readers find the types of books they like to read. You should write the books you want to write, the kind that you feel passionate about and that you tend to read.
Now onto the details! It’s tough to beat an infographic. P.S. Literary Agency did such a good job with this one, I thought I’d lead with it.
Following is some additional information on each of the categories: CommercialUpmarketLiterarySometimes Also Known AsPopular Fiction Genre FictionMainstream Fiction Crossover Fiction Book Club FictionSample AuthorsJames Patterson Nora Roberts Dan BrownCeleste Ng Elmore Leonard Gillian FlynnToni Morrison Colson Whitehead Donna TarttPrimary FocusEntertainmentThe Blending of Art and EntertainmentArt/CultureWriting StyleUsually widely accessible and faster pacedLanguage, style, and themes more elevated, but still widely accessibleOften more willing to take risks with form and languageGenre NormsUsually adheres to themSometimes follows some of themMay toy with them or ignore them If the categories were applied to the fashion world, they would be…Your Favorite Local Mall’s Mainstream StoresLocal Boutiques and/or The Stores at the Fancy Mall New York Fashion WeekSomeplace You Might Find ItPaperback Section of Grocery StoreBook Club MeetingEnglish Class# of Agents Seeking Books in the Category (2019)29563429
TO KNOW WHAT YOU SHOULD WRITE, PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU READ.
The biggest clue as to what you should write is always as close as your bookshelf. If, for instance, you devour contemporary spy thrillers, but never read historical fiction, think twice about trying to write historical fiction, right? The same goes for these sales categories.
Don’t feel like you need to write literary just to be taken seriously, and don’t think that you have to write commercial fiction to make any money. There are lots of exceptions to every rule of thumb.
And, most importantly, understand that any story can be written and do well in any of these categories. Annie Neugebauer does a good job demonstrating this in her article “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction.” She offers examples of books with similar topics and storylines done with different underlying approaches and shelved in three different sales categories. For example, each of the following books has a plot heavy on intrigue and suspense:
commercial example: Loves Music, Loves to Dance, Mary Higgins Clark
literary example: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
upmarket example: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Each of these books has done well, critically (especially Nabokov’s book), commercially (especially Mary Higgin’s Clark’s book), or both.
THE ROLE OF MOTIVATION
In Episode 003, we explored different types of motivations for writing. As a reminder, here are the types of motivations discussed in that episode. If you haven’t already done so, take a look at the questions below to help better understand your own motivations and to keep yourself on track when your inner critic gets a little extra snarky.
If you’re motivated by _______, ask yourself_________________
Passion – What book/poem/article/etc. is it that I want to read? Is it something that only I can write? What makes this work fun? What would the world be like without the characters/stories that I’m creating? What would it be like with them?
Message – What issue or cause do I want to raise awareness for? How could I contribute toward a solution or an improvement in some way?
Audience – How can I offer comfort or support to my readers or viewers or listeners?
Recognition – Am I willing to wait for this? How many times was my favorite author (or book) rejected before it was accepted? Was it valued in its time?
Money – What kinds of things can I do with the resources I earn from my work? How will it improve my life? My family’s life? My community?
Challenge – What other things have I done that seemed hard at first? What other things have I done that I had to try more than once before I succeeded? What is something I accomplished that took a long time to finish? What are the things I’ve finished that have made me most proud? What can I pull from these experiences to make it more likely I will finish this writing project?
Because each of the sales categories has signature qualities, they each have their own pros and cons. As a result, a writer’s motivations for writing books might be best served by one type or another. CommercialUpmarketLiteraryPassionGood FitGood FitGood FitMessageGood FitMost focused on inspiring discussion and relating to the real lives of readers Good FitAudienceMost focused on the entertainment value of writingBest suited for book club discussions, etcMost focused on challenging the readers intellectually and questioning prevailing cultureRecognitionAwards are more likely to recognize contributions to a specific genreGood FitMost major awards pull from this pool of workMoneyReachest widest audiences in the bestselling genresGood FitGood FitChallengeBest if focused on market challenge(s)Best if focused on challenge(s) related to raising awareness of an issueBest if focused on artistic challenge(s)
Remember, first and foremost, write the book you love, that you would want to read. When it comes time to put that book in the hand of readers, these categories will help you to present, market, and pitch the book you’ve written more effectively. It’s just another tool to be familiar with, not a rubric you must follow.
Catch you next week!
P.S. For fun, give this quiz by Reedsy a shot: Are You Writing Literary, Commercial, or Upmarket Fiction?
“What is Upmarket Fiction and Should You Be Writing It?” by SheWrites
“The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction” by Annie Neugebauer
“2019 Literary Agent Analysis — Genre Edition” by C. Hofsetz
“What Kind of Book Are You Writing: Literary or Commercial Fiction?” by Jack Hadley
“Literary vs. Commercial Fiction” by Kathy Temean
“Definitions of Fiction Categories and Genres” by Writer’s Digest University
“Commercial, Mainstream, and Literary Fiction” by Scott Francis (dated, but asks a good question)
“7 Tips for Writing Book Club Fiction” by The Blood-Red Pencil