Defining Your Book

October 10, 2019 § 5 Comments


Researching agents and working on queries brings up the key question, How should I describe my book?

Definitely with a plot summary. For queries, that’s a 1-2 paragraph description of the protagonist, their major problem, their biggest obstacle, and a couple of key events. For an elevator pitch, that’s 1-2 sentences like “In SITUATION, CHARACTER must ACTION against OBSTACLE towards GOAL or else STAKES.”

Queries thrive on comps—”My book will appeal to readers of Not-Super-Famous-But-Widely-Recognized-Book and Medium-Notable-Book.” With comps, don’t aim too high (Eat Pray Love is a phenomenon, not a comp), too low (a book that sold poorly is not a selling point), or overly aspirational (no Nobel-Prize winners).

Genre describes a book’s content, by what the label on the bookshelf says. Romance. Thriller. Fantasy. Genre is much less specific than Amazon listings with subrankings like “#3 in Memoir-Women Writers-Zookeepers-Penguin Specialists.” Memoir is a genre, but it will be shelved with Biography, or based on the written experiences, somewhere like Travel or Addiction and Recovery.

Tricky but useful, category helps us pick the right agents to query, and entice those agents to read our manuscript. Category is not content; it’s who will read this book. Young Adult is a category containing the genres YA Mystery, YA Romance, etc.

For memoirists and novelists, the most relevant categories are commercial, high-concept, book-club, upmarket and literary.

  • Commercial means the book is not too hard to read—usually 7th-10th-grade level—and appeals to a wide range of readers. The DaVinci Code is commercial. Commercial books sell in grocery stores and airports as well as bookstores.
  • High-concept books can be summed up in one fresh, intriguing sentence: “A man’s wife frames him for her own murder” (Gone Girl). “An autistic boy solves the murder of a dog, told in his own voice” (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). Gone Girl is high-concept commercial domestic suspense; Curious Incident is high-concept book-club fiction. High-concept books often top libraries’ reserved lists, and have front-facing displays in bookstores.
  • Book-club books are commercially accessible, but showcase deep issues. The book’s themes or plot tie into a larger cultural question. The blurb for Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light (crisis in an abortion clinic from multiple conflicting perspectives) sums this up well: “…a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel.” Enough meaty ideas for a club to wrestle with; not slanted too far to one side; a compelling plot readers don’t need an MFA to understand. These books show up in Oprah and Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson’s lists, and as community-reading books.
  • Upmarket means smarter-than-average, but with wider appeal and more action than full-on literary fiction. Upmarket books are less likely to depend on a twist ending and are read for the quality of writing as much as for the story. Wolf Hall is upmarket historical fiction. H is for Hawk is upmarket memoir. These books show up in Booker Prize and National Book Award lists.
  • Literary is a quality of the writer’s voice rather than a genre or category. Sometimes literary means “written really well, but it’s hard to sum up the plot.” Literary novels tend to be “quiet” and character-driven with emphasis on theme and mood, but there are also literary mysteries and historical fiction. For querying, it can sound arrogant to call one’s own work “literary,” (and it begs judgement of your writing craft) so instead use literary comps, mention your literary previous publications, and in your personalization to the agent, stress your attraction to literary books they represent.

Upmarket, book club and literary works are usually shelved together in Fiction or Nonfiction unless they are specifically another genre; high-concept and commercial books are out on display tables. If you’re unsure how to classify your book, walk into a bookstore and notice where your book might be shelved. What else is on that shelf, and does your work fit in? If someone reads the most popular book on the same shelf, and they pick up your book next, will they feel like they’ve discovered something amazing in a realm they already love?

Write your book first, with no regard for how it will be classified or sold. Use your creative spirit to get your story on the page before worrying about labels. But once you’re ready to query, locate your book’s place in the world. Chances are it has some friends—and those book-companions will help you reach the readers who need your words.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her stable of work-in-progress includes one nonfiction writing reference, one commercial thriller, one YA book-club fiction, one YA literary thriller and a probably misplaced optimism about her ability to sell them all. On Instagram she writes book-club memoir—follow her @guerillamemoir.

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