Mainstream vs. Genre

“Mainstream fiction rules, and genre drools!”

“Genre rocks and mainstream fiction eats dirty socks!”

Kids, kids, calm down. There’s room for everyone to play. Or is there?

“Yah, you go, Underworked and Overpaid Editor! You tell ’em! We can’t sell our mainstream fiction!”

Um…that’s Overworked and Underpaid. Geez, have they been talking to the beagle again?

I agree that genre works like romance, mysteries, SF, and fantasy sell well because they have loyal audiences – they’re a cohesive unit. They have their own conferences and it’s easier for new authors to maximize their exposure. But what about mainstream fiction? There’s no conference for that. So how does one rise above the loud voices of their competitors?

You’ve seen it yourself, editors are very careful about buying mainstream fiction these days because it’s the biggest genre around. I’m equally as guilty. It’s harder to sell, and not just for the small trade publisher.

So what do you do if that’s your particular love? How do you get our attention in a way that makes us jump on our desks and say, “By golly gosh, I can sell this beast!” After all, we get tons of queries every day.

The author as salesperson

Yes yes, I realize many of you are reaching for your flame throwers with the intent of singing my eyebrows. “I’m a writer, dammit, not a door-to-door Hoover vacuum salesman.”

Times have changed, baby. Especially in the U.S. Writing is no longer a solitary endeavor where we can send our words of brilliance off to an agent for that instant six-figure deal. We. Must. Sell. Ourselves. Add the blowback of vanity presses rising from the steamy cow pastures of Middle America, and there are more books than ever. Writers are smart to be prepared to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd.

Book Proposal

I know people who would rather have root canal without drugs than write a book proposal. “Ah, thank the Cosmic Muffin! I write fiction and don’t need a book proposal.” I happen to believe this is wrong.

Book proposals got their start as, well, a proposal; the book wasn’t yet written. It was a well-formed spark of an idea –  a “hey, I have this idea for a book, whaddya think?”

Editors would reply, “Before I entertain such a notion, prove to me that it’s marketable. tell me who your competition is, and who you are.”

Book proposals force authors to consider all the elements of where and how that book will behave on the marketplace. I have a complete rundown about the book proposal here.

All the information that comprises a book proposal is pertinent regardless of genre or level of completion. Marketing, promotion, audience, competitive titles, purpose of the book – all these elements help us decide the sea legs of a story – so why should it only be relegated to nonfiction?

A book proposal forces you to separate your mainstream fiction from everyone else because you have to think about your story’s unique qualities and pitch them in a convincing manner.

I know what you’re thinking; “How do I do that?”

Look for a socially relevant theme

Here’s how you can tongue waggle your genre brethren. See if you can’t pull out universally appealing elements. It’s one thing to tell me that your book is about five women who, for years, have been getting together for a week of catching up with each others’ lives, laughs, and too much drinking. Meh, another buddy book. Where’s my hook? What’s the universal appeal that makes me care?

Look to the characters for that universal appeal. Let’s say one of the characters is a well-known writer whose son was just killed in Afghanistan and, in her grief, she considers canceling her book contracts and hiding away from life. Her friends drag her to their weekend getaway and slowly start to bring her back to life.

The idea of death – regardless of where and how it happened-  is something that has touched all our lives. It’s universal.

See how the story takes on a whole different feel? The first one sounds light and fluffy because it’s all description. And let me tellya, description is what makes up 80% of my query letters. I can’t get enough information out of description. I need specifics so I can say, “send me pages.”

What if I don’t have any socially relevant elements?

Yanno, I get that question a lot. And I don’t believe it. If I was able to bring out something marketable in a surfer dude fantasy, then you most certainly can find something that makes your book universally appealing. If you don’t, are you sure you have a marketable book? Ask yourself why someone would want to read your book. It may be that you do have a marketable book, but I do have to ask the question here because you can be sure I will if you query me.

Authors who write mainstream have a tougher road to travel, and those who take these steps of preparation are the ones who get my attention. They’ve shown me they understand the business because they didn’t make me dig and ask a ton of questions. They were good Girl Scouts – always prepared. Or is that the lifeguards?

I would love to sign more mainstream because I enjoy being taken into someone else’s world where the possibilities are endless. But in order to get an editor’s attention, you have to know how to sell your story.

So, yah, mainstream does rule in my book. Just make sure you show me why. Take my advice – try writing a book proposal. It’ll clear your head.

Or make you drink heavily…

5 Responses to Mainstream vs. Genre

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I don’t think I would ever want to write a mainstream novel…because I don’t really *read* them.

  2. Frank Mazur says:

    I think of mainstream as fiction that almost isn’t. And the best of it is entertaining AND insightful.

  3. Kat Magendie says:

    I give everything a chance, or just about everything – I’ve read “chick lit,” serious “literary fiction,” southern fiction, non fiction, short stories, essays, a teeny bit of horror if it’s Stephen King – there are a handful of genres I don’t particularly read, but if a friend/colleague writes them and I want to support them, I will read them.

    Oh I love books.

  4. Marisa Birns says:

    Just as Kat does I read everything, and even if I didn’t enjoy a particular book/genre at the end of it all, that doesn’t stop me from trying again.

    Book proposal. Very good advice.

  5. Thanks for giving persons who assist authors with their manuscripts well-articulated points that beautiful prose doesn’t always make a story and that, even when it does, persons in the publishing system won’t read the manuscript first. I’ve put a link to your blog in my free resources area. Thanks.

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