Literary vs. Commercial Writing: Understanding the Difference Matters to Your Success as a Writer

It’s Wednesday so time for another guest post!  This week’s guest is the author Alle C. Hall who discusses the difference between literary and commercial writing.  Enjoy!

Literary Vs Commercial writing: Understanding the difference matters to your success as a writer. Image: woman working on a laptop

Nothing sinks a submission faster than sending commercial work to a literary venue or sending literary work to a commercial venue.

But how is a writer to determine if her or his voice is literary or commercial? And why does defining your voice matter? And what do we mean, precisely, by literary and commercial?

We are talking about the genre.  In certain corners of the writing universe, there is great fracas regarding what constitutes literary vs. commercial writing. Generalities emerge to plague us:

  • Literary writing is character-driven; commercial writing is plot-driven.
  • Literary writing makes one think; commercial writing makes money.
  • Literary writing is boring; commercial writing is entertaining.
  • Literary writing uses long sentences and big words; commercial writing is for bird-brains who can’t grasp metaphor.
  • Literary writing ends with the reader feeling like committing suicide; commercial writing ends with everyone happy.

Right this second, how many of you can think of a book that breaks one or more of these “rules?”

For those of you who nodded yes, you did so because the same plot can be told using literary or commercial prose. The only difference between literary and commercial writing is the writers use of language.

In as much as Beethoven sounds like Beethoven and Patsy Cline sounds like Patsy Cline, musicians have a sound. Writers have a voice. Literary writing sounds literary. Commercial writing sounds commercial.

What sounds literary and what sounds commercial may sound different to different people. However, when someone who is familiar with rock ‘n roll hears The Beatles, they know they are not listening to Led Zeppelin.

When an agent, editor, or reader who likes commercial writing reads commercial writing, they know it. The same goes for literary writing.

I am of the belief that a writer can’t do much about the way she or he was born hearing words fall into place. The goal then becomes to put words together as best as he or she can.

Rather than deciding, “I want to be a literary writer,” or the opposite, let your genre emerge.

Just write.

Then define it as literary or commercial.

Defining your voice as commercial or literary will:

  • save you a great deal of time and heartbreak; and
  • make you much more money as a writer.

Two Ways I Determined That My Writing Was Literary

1 – I submitted a novel proposal to over 60 agents.

Approximately 35% of the literary agents were interested. None of the commercial agents were interested.

This undertaking was a heartbreaking and expensive way to understand my place in the writing universe.

Every time I was asked to send the full manuscript, my hopes went through the roof. Every time I sent the full manuscript, I had to print 196 pages and then overnight it to the agents. (Industry standard.) Let’s call that US$30.

2 – I examined the books that I loved and/or that influenced me greatly

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov. (Odd, you might think, as I am an ardent feminist as well as a survivor of sexual assault.

There is more than one way to be influenced by a book.) Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Primarily, I read literary fiction by the American woman that is contemporary and commercially successful. I am an American woman. My as-of-yet unsold novel is contemporary literary fiction—and let’s hope commercially successful.

~ ~

A fellow writing teacher suggested another idea: give one’s manuscript to a self-defined reader of commercial or literary writing. Whether they like it offers an excellent clue.

Why the Need to Distinguish Between Commercial and Literary Writing

The genres of literary and commercial are necessary only when it comes to having your writing reach a reader. In other words: selling a book or article/short story.

In order to sell a book, that book must have an ISBN number. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number.

Originally ten digits long, but since 2007, thirteen digits, an ISBN is unique to every edition of every book, eBook, magazine, CD, the list goes on.

Publishers, bookstores, and libraries use the ISBN to control inventory, place orders, and—how is this for important—calculate author royalties.

Magazine Articles and Short Stories

The rules hold true for writers trying to place short pieces in magazines or literary journals.

Before you submit, it is simple enough to spend a few minutes on-line with the magazine, reading their current issue and a few back issues to determine if the writing sounds literary or commercial. The writer will send out fewer submission and receive more acceptances.

Which is what it is all about.

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About Alle

Alle C.Hall is on staff at two literary magazines: she is the Senior Nonfiction Editor for jmww journal and a Reader for Vestal Review. She worked as a bookseller for two years and was part of the Seal Press team back when the publisher worked out of Seattle.

Now a literary writer, her recent publications include Tupelo Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Brevity (blog), Literary Orphans, The Best of Crack the Spine, and Blue Lake Review.

“Wins” include Best of the Net nomination from Word Riot; First Place in The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition; and a semifinalist in Hippocampus Magazine’s “Remember in November” Creative Nonfiction Contest.

Website   |   Facebook

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Thanks so much to the lovely Alle for sharing her knowledge. I hope you found this article useful and do take the time to visit Alle’s website and links.

If you have any questions for Alle, drop them in the comment section below.

Happy writing

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13 thoughts on “Literary vs. Commercial Writing: Understanding the Difference Matters to Your Success as a Writer

  1. I agree with you about finding your voice, rather than deciding to make yourself literary or commercial. And I’m betting a lot of us are trying to be (or hoping we are) crossovers. I don’t understand what ISBNs have to do with the issue though. Almost all print books and many ebooks, of all genres, have ISBNs.

  2. Pingback: Literary vs. Commercial Writing: Understanding the Difference Matters to Your Success as a Writer – by Ari Meghlen… | Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

  3. This use to confuse me. Who am I kidding, it still does. I always thought my work leaned towards literary but my editors say commercial. I’m outnumbered so commercial it is.

    The most important point you made is to just write. Your voice is your style and changing it will only do you harm. Embrace your words and let the others decide if it’s literary or commercial.

    As always, Ari, excellent!!!

    1. Bryan,

      You nailed the key reason I chose this topic: I want people to embrace their voice and excel at the kind of writing that they do best: their own. Really, there is no plot that has not been explored, no character that is truly unique. But your voice — that is something that no one else can lay claim to. Write well! -Alle

      1. Also (forgot!): The genres do blur, one into the next. A great example of a literary writer who tends toward the commercial is Barbara Kingsolver. Perhaps you are a crossover. If so, lucky you. Crossover writers tend to make the most money because they can draw from two readerships.

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