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Genre or Mainstream Fiction?

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 12 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Fiction Writing Fiction Books Novel

So you're interested in writing fiction? Most people with a strong desire to write fiction books already have an idea of what they want to do, what stories they want to tell, but there are other factors to consider. To put it bluntly, unless you are writing purely for your own pleasure, there's no point in putting several months' hard work into a novel which is never going to sell.

To find publishers, books of all kinds need to be carefully targeted. But should you go for a big mainstream publisher or a smaller independent? Should you aim your writing squarely at the mainstream or is it worth your while to experiment with genre fiction?

What is Meant by Genre Fiction?

Genre novels are all those which are considered to lack mainstream appeal. They include crime, horror, romance, science fiction, westerns, and fantasy books. The label 'genre' is also frequently applied to special interest areas like gay and lesbian books.

As a rule, each genre has its own traditions, and a writer interested in producing new fiction books which will appeal to its readers needs to get to know these first. Most successful genre writers are long-term fans of their particular fields and know them well.

Many new writers start out with genre fiction precisely because it's something they know well. This can be especially important for younger writers, as it can take a good thirty years of serious reading to be thoroughly familiar with the important styles, structures and ideas of classic literature.

New writers are always advised to write about what they know and often what seems most familiar is the language of the books you've grown up with. Even if you plan to branch out into the mainstream later, starting off with genre work can reduce the number of creative hurdles you need to leap at once.

Judging a Book by its Cover

If you dream of writing a best-seller, you may well feel that there's no point in producing genre fiction because genre novels are never that successful. On the contrary, closer attention will reveal that genre books are successful all the time - it's just that when this happens, they cease to be considered genre.

Science fiction novels become techno-thrillers; crime novels become classic mysteries. What this tells us is that it's not just about what you write, but about how you package it. This matters when you're choosing a publisher just as much as it does when your book hits the shelves.

If you have strong characters and well developed themes which are accessible to the casual reader, there's no reason not to try pitching your novel at a mainstream publisher, even if you think of it as genre. In fact, sometimes an idea which constitutes familiar genre territory will be seen as original and daring within the mainstream, such as Jeanette Winterson's recent tale of a girl who forms a friendship with a robot. If you're pitching something like this, simply avoid making reference to the genre and concentrate on showing how it can appeal to a wide audience.

Why Choose to Publish Genre?

If you choose to pitch your fiction books specifically as genre work, you can enjoy several advantages. Although genre-friendly publishing houses are usually smaller, there are a good number of them, and they are often more willing to consider the work of inexperienced writers. They usually look after their writers well in terms of providing advice and support.

They can't usually supply large advances and their smaller distribution networks mean you can't expect to make as much money through royalties but, on the other hand, you won't need to invest as much time, money and effort to get your work noticed.

Genre readers are far more likely to choose books based on their story than readers of mainstream fiction, who tend to make buying decisions based on existing familiarity with an author or the visibility of a promotional campaign. They are extremely loyal and a high proportion of them will consider buying future work by a writer who impresses them, so a reasonably successful genre book means you'll find it relatively easy to publish another.

Sometimes it can be hard to cross over into mainstream fiction if you're known as a genre author. One way around this is to write under different names. That way publishers will know you can write something which sells, but readers won't have any awkward preconceptions.

Many writers ultimately break out of genre writing because they find it artistically restrictive, but it can be good to have an established genre reputation to fall back on, and, indeed, it has often been argued that the greatest art is produced within limits.

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