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June 23rd, 2007, 03:23 AM
I've been reading a number of interesting posts. They beg the question: what are the bestselling fiction genres (or, how do the genres compare to one another in terms of sales)? I know romance is up there, but beyond that, I'm clueless.

James Carmack
June 23rd, 2007, 08:22 AM
Yiddish ghost stores. Sell like hotcakes. You'll be a star.

June 23rd, 2007, 08:54 AM
From Publisher's Weekly:

The stats are for 2000, but I dont' think the market has changed that dramatically since then. (I also note that the percentages don't seem to add up.)

It look like romance takes the top place, followed by "mystery" which I have a strong suspiscion includes crime/courtroom/political thillers. "Science fiction," which again, I suspect includes the majority of speculative fiction comes in at 7.8% of the market share.

My understanding however is that many genres are crossing over. Some recent best-selling "literary fiction" (and I don't know who decides what is and is not literary) includes stong speculative fiction elements. Some e-book publishers have had a lot of success combining speculative fiction with romance as well.

June 23rd, 2007, 10:05 AM
Without looking at anything, I can safely say thrillers/mysteries are one of the top few. The bookstore near my house is flooded with such books.

June 23rd, 2007, 02:34 PM
Seems like popular fiction is up there.

I think one should be careful in interchanging the pop/literary terminology. It appears as though anything that doesn't neatly fit into a genre is called lit these days...not so sure I agree with that.

That being said, I'm wondering if literary fiction is, at times, too full of **** to enjoy. It's a tough call. If I damn the whole segement, I'm inevitably stepping on the toes of an author I love (Hemmingway, Lovecraft, Murakami, Hesse, Bukowski, Nabokov, etc); but when you run across something like Pynchon, what do you do? I have a friend that swears by his stuff, and I respect this guy. I just read through The Crying of Lot 49 and thought, "Okay, this has its moments, and it certainly provides a lot of interesting topics for discussion/meditation, but why the hell doesn't Pynchon just write an essay?" I reasoned that some of the things Pynchon talks about are so transcendent that they need an entire world to deliver the message; ie: he massages you into submission as opposed to pummling you with a raw argument.

This doesn't change the fact that I will probably not devote any more of my life to Pynchon's stuff. Maybe, but probably not. I could be too dim to really grasp his work, but I have a feeling its more the case that he continues to sell books because people like to have them on their coffee tables. Perhaps another way to look at this: if Pynchon was a budding author, with the climate of today's industry, do you think he would be picked up? (Not a rhetorical question, genuinely curious)

All this nonsense aside, John Carmack: 1.) Are you THE John Carmack? 2.) Yiddish ghost stories...hmm...A crack of thunder boomed, the brandy glasses vibrated. The power had been out all evening. I sat alone in the study, sipping from an aged cognac, my eyes groping for some meaning in the darkness. Then I heard it, a gentle scraping. Was it my ears? Or was it the ghost of Ezikheil Rebenowitz, the dreaded mohle who died in a horrific brising accident, in this very room...dah dah daahhhh.

Always nice to start the day with a good laugh. In any case, I'm probing these questions because, as most of you, I enjoy writing for writing's sake, and thought there might be a possibility of earning a buck or two from the pursuit. Hell, if I could make enough to keep the lights on I'd be happier'nah pig in ****, as they say in Texas. But that's only pipe dreaming at this point.

I've been wanting to write something of novel length for a little while now. Ideas have been bouncing back and fourth in my mind as of late, and I really want to have some clear, distilled essence of story before I begin. Generally, the plot gets away from me through writing, kinda takes on a life of its own, but I would still like to develop some central idea before I begin.

Now then, I enjoy writing all kinds of stuff. Trans and inter-genre. With this in mind, I want to come up with something that is on one hand sensitive to the market, and on the other appealing to pen. I'm not going to write something that I do not enjoy writing, that's for sure. I do, however, feel there is a very large window when classifying something as "commerical."

I have some basic ideas at this point, and am milling them over in an effort to figure out where I want to go. I have the benefit of an advanced fiction writing workshop coming up in the fall, and I want to take advantage of other people's opinions to get the first few chapters organized. Therefore, I'm going to have to begin sooner rather than later. Any advice you've gained along the way, or any links to that effect, would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your time,


James Carmack
June 24th, 2007, 07:37 AM
You're not the first person to read the name wrong. It's James, not John. Got to pay attention to what comes after the "J". ^_^

If you enjoy writing for writing's sake, it doesn't really matter what's popular or not. Write what's interesting to you, what's fun for you. I bet you a dollar to a donut the finished product will be better than anything you churn out in an attempt to play the market.

June 24th, 2007, 06:33 PM
Indeed...can't believe I misread james/john...duh. Must make me look like a real rocket scientist. Thanks for the advice though.


June 24th, 2007, 07:34 PM
Thrillers are the dominate category in bestsellerdom, especially if you include mystery, which it makes sense to do as most mysteries also qualify as thrillers. In the 1960's, 70's on into the early eighties, they usually took up about two-thirds of the bestseller lists at any one time. Thrillers are less prominant today but still take up the largest number of list slots, especially in hardcover, and probably always will.

Romance used to make up about 50% of the mass market paperback market sales, making it the most dominant category in the paperback arena. However, its fan base declined, aged, and the cutback of outlets for selling paperback novels in the 1990's hurt romance the most, as places like groceries and drugstores were prime romance selling venues. Romance still does well by putting out lead authors in hardcover, and in bulk still sells well but it's not the bestseller powerhouse it used to be.

"Chick lit" is often confused with romance because many of the books given that designation are romantic, but others are simply "woman's" fiction dealing with a variety of issues. In the statistics Choppy found for us from PW, I don't know if they include such books or not in romance sales, but I would assume that they don't unless the books are in the romance sections of bookstores, where they usually aren't put. Chick lit is a descriptive adjective, not a definite category, and the bulk of books called chick lit are sold as general fiction.

"Literary" is a descriptive adjective, not a category. It means the author is well versed in language and narrative techniques, the art of words. Literary is a term used by the choice of the publisher, though if you get a nomination for a literary award, you can automatically call yourself literary. "Pop" or "commercial" are adjectives, not categories, and mean a book whose narrative is not as developed as in a literary work. It is used on category fiction regularly because category fiction is suppose to have a specific focus for particular fans that is more important than the literary technique of the writing (and because category fiction predominantly sells in mass market paperback and paperbacks are suppose to be the main format for less developed works.) Category authors, though, frequently get called literary writers, within and without of their categories.

Both "literary" and "pop" fiction, if they aren't part of a specific category, are sold as general fiction, so the general fiction stats we were given contain both kinds. General fiction also contains "ethnic fiction" which means all foreign writers writing about foreigners and all non-white writers writing about non-white subjects. Ethnic fiction has since the 1980's taken up a growing number of slots on the bestseller lists and continues to be a consistent performer. Right now, Russian and Indian themes still seem to be the most popular, but Africa and the Middle East/Arabic are coming up fast.

Contemporary fiction is an adjective, not a category, and sells as general fiction. It means the large group of stories set in the present or near-present time period. Historical fiction is an adjective, not a category, and sells as general fiction. It is those stories set in the past. Historical fiction used to do very well on the bestseller lists, now its presence is less common, but it still performs consistently. Contemporary fiction always gets a few slots, especially ethnic fiction.

Science fiction in the statistics from PW does include fantasy, but not horror, which is part of general fiction. Horror was a big bestseller presence in the 1970's and 1980's, but not so much today. The renewal of horror movies gave it a little bit of a bump. Science fiction declined in the 1990's with the paperback market crunch. Up till then, it had been doing pretty well, but now it seldom gets bestsellers and when it does, they are usually non-category ones. However, that seems to be changing and a rebound may be in the works.

Fantasy has grown consistently from the 1980's on up, and was assisted by the LOTR movies and the enthusiasm for children's fantasy in the late 1990's. It now has more slots on the lists than at any time past, more if you count non-category fantasy titles sold as general fiction. However, it is not dominating the bestseller lists, but instead maintains a healthy percentage.

All of which tells you basically squat about what is the best sort of thing to write for sales as most of the writers who do any type of fiction don't become bestsellers, but if you are hoping to have the odds backing you, write a thriller.

June 25th, 2007, 03:10 PM
Yiddish ghost stores. Sell like hotcakes. You'll be a star.

Jewish lore worked for Agnon; they gave him a Nobel prize. But then again, there are few with his literary technique and control/development of the Hebrew language.

On topic, big scale fantasy seems to be the big thing. By big scale I mean big good vs. evil plots such as the Lord of the Rings, and The Wheel of Time. Not to mention Harry Potter (though that is a little bit different in terms of setting).

Generally however, I am of the mind to think that it isn't about what genre you write in, just the way you control the language, characters and setting. The true difference between a magic realism author and a urban fantasy author is that the magic realist controls the language and the setting on a higher level, whereas the urban fanticist is looked at as a "fantasy author" and as mediocre.

June 26th, 2007, 12:43 PM
On topic, big scale fantasy seems to be the big thing. By big scale I mean big good vs. evil plots such as the Lord of the Rings, and The Wheel of Time. Not to mention Harry Potter (though that is a little bit different in terms of setting).

Harry Potter is very different in terms of setting, yes. It's a YA fantasy series in a contemporary setting. It is also a thriller. At the moment, the bestseller adult market for fantasy -- the top of the game -- is divided mostly into thirds: non-category fantasy, epic fantasy (big scale imaginary worlds,) and contemporary/supernatural fantasy, with Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore putting in for the satirical fantasy gang, both with over ten years of writing and building an audience to their credit.

The epic fantasy works that hit the higher rungs of the bestseller lists have tended to be the established series that have built up massive fan bases over six years or more. So if you write an epic fantasy and get someone to publish it, your chances are excellent to become a solid mid-list fantasy author -- but not a bestseller, at least not right away. However, it's not impossible -- Jacqueline Carey has had a pretty fast trajectory and Goodkind started out on the lists right off the bat. But this is unusual and Goodkind started in the early 1990's, when the fantasy market was very different.

In contrast, the contemporary/supernatural fantasy writers are climbing the bestseller lists at a much faster rate, in part because some of them are putting out several books in one series within a year or doing multiple series. They also have a much better shot at film/t.v. interest which can help boost their profile. That field, however, is also wide, with a lot of authors staying at mid-list if their works don't catch on. Still, the odds are better of accruing a large audience in contemporary fantasy than in epic fantasy at the moment. That could always change back, though.

And then there's Naomi Novik, who is cutting a great swath, and as a category fantasy author, by doing neither an epic fantasy nor a contemporary/supernatural fantasy, but instead an alternate history fantasy. And now that horror and fantasy are publishing jointly, instead of horror being mostly off in general fiction, horror could become more of a major player again, as it was in the 1980's. So a dark, horror-tinged, contemporary/supernatural fantasy with family values may be the best ticket -- like, say, a Yiddish ghost story.

Generally however, I am of the mind to think that it isn't about what genre you write in, just the way you control the language, characters and setting. The true difference between a magic realism author and a urban fantasy author is that the magic realist controls the language and the setting on a higher level, whereas the urban fanticist is looked at as a "fantasy author" and as mediocre.

The bestseller lists have nothing to do with how you write, but with how people react to the story, a process which is completely unpredictable. Writers acclaimed for their literary brilliance get on the list and writers scorned for their lack of narrative technique get on the list. A magic realism story is a work using fantasy elements in a particular way and is considered non-category, although recently some magic realist novels have been marketed to the category audience as well.

An urban fantasist is considered a category writer and because he is category, because he is in the sff section of bookstores, declared inferior to those titles published as general fiction. The reasons for this are varied, but the belief itself is entirely artificial. As more non-category fantasy writers get on the bestseller lists and win literary awards or do both, categoory fantasy writers have to be taken more seriously in the mainstream because you can't convincingly maintain the spurious argument that fantasy itself must always mean poor writing if you are pouring money and kudoes on non-category fantasy authors.

However, there is also then increased potential for top-selling category authors to be steered away from the category into general fiction, just to avoid the prejudice, making it harder for the category fantasy market to maintain sales and market share/presence. They used to try to move top-selling and literary style authors from the sff category market into general fiction, but often the prejudice followed along with them. But now, with fantasy so prevalent, it's easier to do and is a major marketing strategy.

So should everyone interested in fantasy -- or for that matter, sf -- attempt to write a non-category novel, publish with a non-category publisher and go after only a general fiction audience? The problem with that is that the general fiction field is the Mississippi to the other rivers -- it is very wide, puts out thousands of titles seldom backed by much publicity, and the odds of any of them hitting the bestseller lists is very long. Even though first novels regularly do get on the bestseller lists because of extreme word of mouth, most authors get there by years of putting out works and building a name that is recognized and a fanbase.

But the cool thing is that the opportunities for a fantasy author being not just a category bestseller (lead title, lower rungs of bestseller lists,) but a mainstream bestseller (higher rungs of bestseller lists,) has increased substantially in the last seven years. And with Cormac McCarthy's immense success with his non-category sf novel, "The Road," literary darling Michael Chabon having success with both his magic realist fantasy a few years back and his current alt history sf novel, and increased interest and sales for children's sf, category sf may soon be getting the same shots as well.

The bad news is that all these titles, sff and non, category and non, are getting on the bestseller lists with much fewer aggregate sales than they used to. Book sales overall are down per title -- which means it's technically easier to get on the lists, but less impressive when you do, especially as most fiction titles now spend fewer weeks on the lists than they used to. And the phenom of the decade, J.K. Rowling, is ending her series, representing not just a large drop in sales for her publishers, but for the entire children's market and the adult category sff market as well. Once her tsunami is past, we'll have to see what's left on the beach.