Publishing Popular Fiction

Even as a published author, I’m not always sure of what genre(s) a work fits into. That was definitely true with Salvation Station. There’s the murder/mystery aspect, suspense, and religious fraud over three story lines. Initially, I thought it was a thriller. In the end, what worked best was classification as a crime novel, with components from a mixture of genres. While attending the San Francisco Writers Conference earlier this year, I participated in a session on what is considered popular fiction and what isn’t. Jodi Warshaw, Executive Editor at Lake Union Publishing helped clarify the various genre.

She first noted the main categories of genres: mainstream popular fiction, mysteries/thrillers, science fiction and romance.

These four are generally classified as commercial fiction, which Warshaw defined as having the following characteristics:

  • Writing is very accessible
  • The protagonist has an identifiable problem or goal
  • Protagonist has obstacles to overcome
  • Readers want to root for the protagonist from the beginning
  • Smaller cast of characters
  • High stakes: readers care deeply about what will happen if the protagonist doesn’t overcome obstacles and reach their goal
  • Protagonist goes on a journey by the end of which they have changed in some way
  • Generally a resolute ending (Warshaw noted readers tend to prefer this, but ending can also be less resolute but hopeful)

Two other genres she discussed I’ve had difficulty separating: literary and upscale fiction. Literary fiction is very beautifully written. The writing isn’t conventional but it’s not necessarily just about the craft. In literary fiction, Warshaw noted that the way in which the story is told is different. It is often considered high brow and is not as easy to sell as commercial fiction. Upscale fiction bridges literary and commercial fiction.

The difference between romance and women’s fiction often comes down to the romantic aspect. Women’s fiction can have romance, but it is not the sole focus. With the romance genre, readers have very specific expectations, wanting a ‘happily ever after’ ending where the couple is together forever. No hopeful ending, but very concrete.

Warshaw didn’t cover every possible genre/subgenre. There are countless combinations and new genres (domestic thrillers, for example) evolving all the time, but her presentation helped me get a firmer handle on what is popular fiction and what it’s not.



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