Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rotisserie, Anyone?

Today I received an email from a writing partner on the cusp of querying. She asked the question so many authors find themselves asking: "Where does this book fit in?" She didn't mean in the larger scope of life, or on some metaphysical or metaphorical level. She meant, "what bookshelf would a bookstore put this on?"

Sometimes authors and books fit neatly somewhere. Some books are very clearly romance, or historical fiction, or young adult.

But some are not so clearly defined. There are historical aspects, but it's a mystery, too. It's romance, but set in an urban fantasy theme. Or, in the case of my friend, its protagonist is a teen, but the topic is very adult and the story takes place in the 1980s. It's easy to say it's a YA with crossover appeal, but when querying it becomes more important to figure out exactly where it fits best, so she can target agents better. And that distinction between YA and adult is more important to make in a query than, say, a book that could be literary or woman's fiction.

I've read agents say they don't care. Just call it a novel and let the publisher figure out where they want it shelved. The problem I am having is that my publisher wants me to tell them where to shelve it. I've flip-flopped on this book. I pawned it as commercial fiction, then agents said it was women's fiction. Then agents told me it was more literary. Then I was told it was Christian fiction. No one knows what to do with this book, and I've let everyone pull me around, even into the Christian fiction category, which was never my intention.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have any problems being a Christian. My identity as a person is a Christian. I am proud of my faith.  I don't even have problems with Christian fiction. It's just not where I feel like I should be. Or where this book should be.

I've gone back and forth on this so much if there were a fire beneath me I'd be fully rotisserized by now. I've really tried to embrace that label. It just won't stick.

It's hard to explain why. I've been trying to figure it out myself, and couldn't come up with much other than "It just doesn't feel like where I should be."

Today I realized part of why. I didn't set out to write a book about faith. My book isn't about faith. My book is about people in crisis; people who happen to be church-going folks who wrestle with what to believe in that crisis. And I believe a lot of people - Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheists - all wrestle with some of those same questions.

And then I looked around at some of the top fiction sellers over the past years and I noticed something. There are a fair number in which other religions hold a place in the book. Where other religions even drive the story. Particularly Middle Eastern faiths and settings and characters are very popular right now.

And I found myself asking, why aren't those on the faith-fiction shelf? Why is it okay for them to revolve around religion and still be categorized as literary fiction, and mine, in which faith is part of the fabric of the characters' lives but not part of the punchline of the book, cannot be?

I've looked at my obligation to shelf my book myself as a frustration. Why won't my publisher just tell me the answer?? I know they think it should be here, so I guess I have to put it here.

And then I realized today, in a flash of much-belated brilliance, that they have given me the gift no other publisher would give me. The gift of whatever shelf I want. All the readers who have come before and tried to label my book no longer matter. All that matters is where I think it should be.

What a freeing gift that is!


  1. It's hard to decide which box to get thrown into, or in this case shelf. I say go with your gut and decide where you'll feel the most comfortable.

  2. Patti - I agree. I started really mulling this over after reading Megan's blog yesterday on branding. I'm as much looking at this book as I am the books I want to write... how do they fit together? What is it they have in common? How can I keep a readership? It's important not only for this book to be in the right place for it, but also for it to be in the right place for the books tht follow.

    See? So much pressure!! :)

  3. Why don't you ask a few writer friends for their opinion? I think putting your book on the Christian shelf might limit sales. I'm a Catholic and I doubt I would ever actively shop in a Christian section, but I read a lot of books with religious undertones (Dan Brown's Mega-Mega-Blockbusters would be a good example).

    Is there a shelf where you think your book might sell better? It's too bad you can't get 50 review copies and just ask people-- you could cut a cross-segment of the population and find out who really likes the book and then market the book accordingly.

    I guess that's the benefit of writing non-fiction-- you usually know who your audience is.

  4. Ooh, that's a hard one. And I'm sorry it's rotisserizing you. Ouch. When I watched your trailer, I didn't think Christian fiction. And I guess I didn't think literary either, but I suppose you have to really read a book to see whether it is literary or not. I mean, the issue is current, very current. Maybe women's fiction? How old is your protagonist? Okay, I'm probably rotisserizing you more. Thanks for the award!