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by Lisa Craig
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My pursuit to uncover a clear definition of women's fiction and understand what differentiates it from romance sent me to the depths of the publishing industry and back. What is women's fiction? What is the appeal among today's readers? How do publishing companies view the genre? I share with you my quest to answer these questions.
A Growing Market
The first stop on this grand adventure took me in search of hard, warm facts. Nichole Robbins, fiction buyer at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, states: "Most bookstores don't differentiate women's fiction from mainstream/popular fiction. Tattered Cover shelves women's fiction in the general fiction area." This practice makes it difficult to analyze sales, since Women's Fiction isn't sold or shelved as its own category.
After examining industry statistics from the American Bookseller Association and Book Industry Study Group, one can easily conclude that Women's Fiction comprises at least 40% of adult popular fiction sold in the United States and approximately 60% of adult popular fiction paperbacks. According to a Gallup Poll, we're talking a $24 billion dollar industry. Women read more than men and women buy more books than men. These conclusions support the theory that the concerns of women's lives are very important in today's literature.
Scouring my own dusty archives of previous Romance Writers Reports and Romance Writers of America industry statistics, it is clear the romance genre is a staple of women's fiction. The romance market is serious business, producing serious revenues, by serious women. Women's fiction, however -- like the women who read it -- has evolved to include subjects and themes that range far beyond romance.
Women's contemporary fiction is a growing market and includes many of the facets of other genres. Harper Collins/Avon Senior Editor Micki Nuding explains, "Women's Fiction can be commercial (and usually is) or literary; it can be here-and-now contemporary or a multigenerational saga, like Rosamund Pilcher's books. The woman is the star of the story and her changes and emotional development are the subject."
Empowerment -- and More
A number of published authors provided insight into this growing market. According to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, "Women's Fiction is about women's empowerment." Jane Heller defines women's fiction as novels written with any relationship at the core of the plot.
Trying to wrap a definition around women's fiction is a little like trying to put a fence around a band of wild mustangs. New York Times Bestselling Author Nora Roberts says it best: "Women's Fiction is a story that centers on a woman or on primarily women's issues, not necessarily the romantic relationship based books I do, but the woman's story."
Publisher guidelines for the women's fiction market are varied, and that variety is reflected in published books. Most women's fiction tends to be longer, about 100,000 words or more, but can be in the 50,000-word range. Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook zoomed up the New York Times Bestseller list with a 52,000-word love story about an elderly couple coping with Alzheimer's disease.
Longer women's fiction uses the space to develop intricate and multi-charactered subplots and deeper characterization. These books have more introspection and description and aren't as tightly focused as shorter novels.
A man (or a hero) might be waiting for the heroine of these novels at the end of her journey, but he does not usually get equal time or equal depth to his internal journey during the course of a book. In "straight" romance fiction, the author renders the hero in every detail-an expectation of readers. This is not necessarily the case in women's fiction.
"Stories about sisters, and women's friendships" seem to be a current trend, according to Micki Nuding.
A Life-Affirming Read
Every major publisher and most of the new e-publishers have a list of women's fiction titles in their list: Avon/Harper Collins, Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, Genesis Press - Indigo, Hardshell Word Factory, Harlequin/Silhouette/Mira, Hyperion, Kensington/Zebra/Pinnacle, Multnomah, New Concepts, Pocket, Penguin, Putnam/Berkley/Jove, Random House/Ballantine, St. Martin's Press, Warner.
When asked about the wide appeal of Women's Fiction in the marketplace, Ms. Nuding suggests, "The wider focus and the importance and variety and depth of the relationship portrayed really resonates with women today. Though there's not always the standard 'happy ending,' there's a life-affirming resolution even if the story's somewhat tragic."
A book buyer at Colorado's Douglas County Public Library offers her opinion of why women's fiction is such a big deal. "Women's fiction taps into the hopes, fears, dreams and even secret fantasies of women today."
Literary Agent Linda Hyatt of the Hyatt Literary Agency explains, "Good women's commercial fiction usually touches the reader in ways other fiction cannot. Relationship stories, generational sagas, love stories and women's commercial fiction must touch on subjects women can relate to in their real lives. Whether there is a happily ever after ending, or a bittersweet one, whether the reader laughs or cries, women love reading stories that touch their emotions-and tug at their hearts."
The novels of Women's fiction are authored by both men and women and are as varied as Montana Sky (Nora Roberts), The Gazebo (Emily Grayson), The Christmas Box (Richard Paul Evans), or The Horse Whisper (Nicholas Evans ). If you're interested in writing women's fiction, read, read, READ! If you aren't reading women's fiction, you probably aren't going to write it. Taste the different flavors, analyze it, and let your imagination and your heart be your guide. Don't be afraid of where the story will take you. Go along on the adventure.
If your heart is pointing you to expand your horizons you may discover more freedom and choices when writing for the Women's Fiction market. Try it! Hatch a daring or even heartwarming plot and relentlessly follow the trail. You may find that you possess a remarkable secret weapon for storytelling that may change the course of publishing history.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Lisa Craig writes women's fiction with a nostalgic twist. Lisa is an Internet consultant and enjoys developing websites for authors. She especially acknowledges and thanks all the industry professionals who provided information for this article.