Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Genre-Specific Sales, Part 7 of 8: Women's Fiction

Once more, a quick note before I get started: it seems I've been nominated for a BBAW Award (Best New Blog), so if you've found PMN helpful to you, I'd be eternally grateful if you'd cast your vote for yours truly. Check out the awards timeline here and remember to cast your vote between September 7th and September 12th; I'll be sure to remind you come 9/7.

Now: Women's fiction!


I seem to recall that during my initial call for feedback, one or two of you wanted an explanation of the difference between women's fiction and chick lit. In my preferred format (i.e. bullets):

• Women's fiction is more of an umbrella term, encompassing chick lit, most romance, most erotica, and "mainstream" women's fiction (think Carol Goodman rather than Jennifer Weiner). Historical fiction often overlaps considerably (think Philippa Gregory).
• Women's fiction is as old as, well, women (or at least as old as women writers), whereas chick lit is a relatively more recent phenomenon (early to mid-1990s).
• Women's fiction is aimed at women in general, whereas chick lit is aimed at women in their 20s or early 30s, often unmarried, and often trying to juggle their careers, love lives, and social (mis)adventures as they learn to navigate their way in the world.

Still confused? Well, it turns out it's just kind of tricky to define women's fiction, and even Jessica over at BookEnds has said as much. I tend to subscribe to the Potter Stewart school of thought (i.e. I know it when I see it).

And speaking of bestselling author Jennifer Weiner—who, having graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, is no intellectual slouch—she has her own ideas on the subject, as well as the sales to back them up. As you may have noticed from Ms. Weiner's sales—and, indeed, the recent trends in major retailer co-op and various bestseller lists—both women's fiction and chick lit are selling well. (If you're curious, the BookScan numbers generally confirm this, with titles like Best Friends Forever, The Help, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society selling exceptionally well.) Recognize those last two from yesterday's post? Well, I'd classify them as women's fiction as well as historical fiction. After tomorrow's post, I'd wager you'll find the historical romance gets you the most bang for your buck, so stay tuned.

In the way of advances, I really don't have much for you; while I tend to think the average women's fiction/chick lit advance is slightly higher than the average advance for a novel nowadays (somewhere in the $5,000 - $7,500 range), I really couldn't tell you with any certainty. My advice? Ask your agent!

A summary for you, then:

• There are subtle differences between women's fiction and chick lit: in short, chick lit is a sub-genre of women's fiction.
• Both women's fiction and chick lit are selling well right now, particularly if they happen to also fall under the categories of historical fiction, fantasy, or romance. I sort of see the genre developing away from chick lit in the next year or two (that is, I agree with Jessica—or at least, what Jessica said a couple of years ago). I don't expect this to be a handicap for those currently writing chick lit, however.
• The average advance is likely in the same ballpark as the average advance for any debut novel today ($5,000 - $7,500), but I don't have much data in this area and really advise you to ask your agent about this one.
• Again, with all the usual caveats and disclaimers, my theory: historical romance (itself a manifestation of women's fiction, though certainly not chick lit), especially if there are steampunk/vampire/fantasy elements involved, is where it's going to be at in the next six to twelve months. Keep an eye out for tomorrow's post on romance.

20 comments:

  1. Serious question:

    Can a novel written by a man be classified as women's fiction?

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  2. Hey, congrats on the nomination. I can't think of any blog more deserving than PMN. Hope it wins!

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  3. Thank you for this! I have a "smart chick lit" project in the query stage right now, and I have gotten feedback from many agents that chick lit isn't selling right now... or maybe it's selling, but that the publishing houses aren't looking for any more. Still, I have hope.

    I've done a small series of rants on chick lit's bad reputation on my blog, and plan to talk more about it tomorrow, based in part on your post today. Thanks again!

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  4. How are memoirs doing these day? I know they were hot a while back. I'm starting mine this year. Working title: Memoirs of a Failed Orthopedic Surgery Resident

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  5. I just love your blog, and the nomination is well deserved! I've really appeciated all the info! And YAY for historical romance (my preferred writing style), though mine is gothic, but without paranormal elements. Perhaps I need to add a ghost...

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  6. CKHB I should have said this before but I wonder how much naming chick lit as your genre makes a difference over saying women's fiction in a query?

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  7. Eric, thanks for another insightful post. This series is really helpful.

    Sierra, I think you're right on the money. I write women's fiction myself and from what I've read, people are still reading and buying chick lit, but not as many agents or publishers want to use that term anymore.

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  8. Is there a double (triple?) standard in here somewhere? Women's fiction and chick lit get their own terms, but men's fiction and guy lit seem nonexistent, at least insofar as they haven't entered the lexicon.

    Also, I wonder how long it will take before musical fiction is big enough to talk about its sales... Can you search for "musical fiction" on Amazon?

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  9. So most erotica fell under women's fiction. Hmm. That rather threw me.

    Eric, Is there such a thing as men's fiction?

    I know of this used book store where the owner, a woman, clumps all men's fiction under, "Adventure." And all women's fiction under, "Romance," even hard core feminist stuff. So funny.

    Good post as always and congratulations. Don't forget to remind us to vote.

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  10. so often, I love reading your blog ... but on this one I have to disagree.
    as a visual artist & writer in my late 30s who happens to be female, I hate the concept of "women's fiction" as much as I hate the concept of "women's magazines."
    Like many women I know, I read widely in all subject matters (from science to science fiction to classic UK-philic novels to Chaucer to McSweeny's to architecture magazines to feminist punk diatribes to nonfiction histories to michel houelbeque to twyla tharp to ...) and I don't appreciate being marketed to as anything other than an intelligent reader...
    i say market to me by the subject matter (which VERY occasionally might be women-centric if it's women's health or some such) - if i love frank gehry, i'll want a book that involves discussion of or gossip about him; if i'm curious about the whole julia child re-phenom, i'll read about that.
    in other words, give me a thoughtful & useful pathway into the book's subject/style/format. calling something "women's literature" is lazy, broad, vague and useless as a category or tag.

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  11. Love this blog! My cozy mysteries cross into women's fiction. Is that true of most cozies?

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  12. Terry:

    Yes. Google "lad lit" or "male ennui" (a term either coined or popularized by Nathan Bransford). Neither sell well.

    Meg:

    I agree with you in spirit, but women's fiction & chick lit are widely accepted categories in the industry; that is, consumers make the distinction(s) between these genres and others and choose to buy them. If consumers didn't do this, the genre wouldn't exist (except perhaps in academia, where pretty much everything is fair play).

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  13. Thank you for this post and congrats on the nomination. I will most certainly be voting!

    As for breaking down the difference between women's fiction and chick lit, you have confirmed what I had been hoping - since my protagonist is a 30 year old married female, that definitely puts me in the women's fiction category!

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  14. Eric - Well, this gives me hope. After Nathan Bransford's recent post about modern genres, I was beginning to feel that instead of calling my debut novel "literary" or "mainstream" (which Nathan doesn't believe is even a legit genre), I'd be better off calling my book "women's fiction" - even though, as with Meg, it bothers me that such a category exists. It just seems so broad and so limiting at the same time - if that makes any sense. But I'm afraid that "literary" has become a dirty word, as of late.

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  15. Sierra, I've queried as both women's fiction and chick lit, and the agents have been calling it chick lit. One rejection specifically said that she tried very hard to think of a way to "reframe" my novel as women's fiction instead, but couldn't do it.

    I have a 20-something unmarried urban female as my protagonist, with a first-person P.O.V. and a confidential and somewhat humorous "voice." This defines chick lit. All I can do is call it "smart" chick lit to try to show that it's NOT ABOUT SHOPPING, and hope that when it gets published, it doesn't have a pink cover.

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  16. I write romance and erotic romance. If you think romance writers have a hard time from critics, try writing erotic romance - other romance writers trash us, but the skills and the writing expertise required is the same.

    Anyway, not to flog a dead horse, I don't know one romance publisher that would even consent to look at a book with a rapist hero. They are all dead set against it. So is any other form of coercion.

    Romance definition - tricky, but it has to be about the romance, not about something else with a bit of romance thrown in. The story has to be about a developing romantic relationship, and has to have a happy ever after or a happy for now ending.
    That's the genre definition, not the dictionary one, btw, the one generally accepted as a romance by the current publishing industry.

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