Second-Best Sellers

Catherine Robertson on commercial fiction.


The question I’m asked after, ‘What kind of books do you write?1’ is ‘What is commercial fiction?’ If I reply that it’s pretty much everything that isn’t literary fiction, that only leaves people more confused. I can tell because the next question they ask is, ‘What is literary fiction?’ Or, more often, they start moving away towards the snacks.

Let’s imagine I’m not at a party losing the battle for attention to miniature sausage rolls. What is a useful definition of commercial fiction? How does it differ from literary fiction? Do these distinctions even matter?

The commercial fiction category is no help because it’s far too broad. It overlaps at one end with genre or mass-market fiction – crime, romance, sci-fi and fantasy – and at the other with literary fiction. In between, it contains women’s fiction, historical fiction and that imaginative catch-all for the rest, general fiction. Everything including the kitchen sink, in other words.

I could say that what all these books have in common is that they’re expected to sell well. But then I’m ignoring a truth summed up by a cartoon I once saw: it showed a publishing house team in a strategy meeting. One of the team is saying, ‘I’ve got it! From now on, let’s only publish bestsellers!’

The truth is there’s an alchemy around bestseller-dom that’s as unfathomable as the QI scoring system. Mediocre books become bestsellers. Truly terrible books become bestsellers. Books published years ago leap back into the charts thanks to Tiktok, Netflix and/or Elizabeth Gilbert. Weird experimental books win big literary prizes and become bestsellers that no one reads. And, of course, brilliantly written books, books by previously successful authors, and books that secure massive advances through fierce publisher bidding wars sink like stones. Just because we label a book commercial doesn’t mean it will be. Again, unhelpful.

I think we get warmer when we look at how the books are written. UK literary agent Ella Kahn, says, ‘Commercial fiction (whatever the genre) tends to be more driven by plot and character development, and literary fiction by stylistic or thematic concerns … A high quality of prose is important for both categories, and thematic explorations and plotting can be just as complex in either. But in commercial fiction that quality of writing might also be defined by a certain degree of “readability” or “accessibility” in the style that perhaps makes it more instantly engaging.’

I’d argue that all writers, unless they’re hobbyists or egomaniacs, want readers to be engaged. The most important distinction then, I believe, has to be about intent. What kind of experience does a writer intend their readers to have? How do they want their readers to engage?




John Updike’s first rule for constructive criticism is: ‘Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.’2 I’ve seen people critique Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood for falling short as a thriller. Is it meant to be a thriller? Joanna Trollope was accused of pretending to be more literary than she is, when she’d probably agree with Terry Pratchett that his major service to literature was never to try to write any. The only fair way to judge a book is to first understand the author’s intent.

Back to my earlier question: do these distinctions even matter? They do to me and my fellow commercial fiction authors because New Zealand doesn’t value us. As a nation, we seem to be hung up on the binary of perceived quality: literary fiction is by and for intelligent people, while commercial fiction is by and for cabbages, or – as Lucy Ellmann said about Agatha Christie novels – people with bad head colds. Our major book awards have never, until this year, included commercial fiction. Writers of literary fiction are most likely to receive arts grants, and most likely to be invited to national and overseas literary festivals. I’ve been invited to festivals more often as a session chair than I have as an author.

Obviously, I have a bug up my arse about this. My bug is not that we’re missing out on all these opportunities, but that we’re missing out on readers. The impression given is that our commercial fiction books are Not Very Good, when the message we ought to be giving is that pleasure can be found in a variety of reading experiences.

Here’s an example: I read Danielle Hawkins’ When It All Went to Custard and lost myself for an afternoon in an entertaining story of a woman struggling with mid-life issues, and I read Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and focused keenly for three weeks on a 1000-page non-stop internal monologue of a woman struggling with mid-life issues. The two reading experiences were diametrically opposed. But both books were smart and funny, and I enjoyed them immensely. Five stars each.3

Unless we’re very rigid in our habits, we vary our other experiences all the time. Take food: we can admire the vision and artistry of a Michelin-starred chef, and we can also appreciate the perfect simplicity of a few great ingredients combined, as in a caprese salad. Or TV: sometimes we’re up for the entire back catalogue of Ingmar Bergman and other times, we want to binge old episodes of Vera. We don’t believe we’re downgrading by choosing the latter options; we’re tailoring our experience to our mood. Why can’t we view books the same way? Why can’t we read each book on its own terms, as Updike advises, with an understanding of the experience it aims to deliver?

It doesn’t help that commercial fiction is marketed in such an imitative way. Walk into any bookshop and note the strikingly similar covers. Same font, same colours, same woman walking away, same man in silhouette beside a single streetlight. This is a strategy to attract readers: if you liked that, then we hope you’ll like this other book with the bright bold Instagram-friendly pattern on it.




What is does is lump together authors with entirely different styles, blurring any sense of each author’s personality, and creating disappointment when a promise of a certain experience is not fulfilled. (Yes, this also happens with literary fiction, but a lot of New Zealand literary fiction is published by smaller presses who like to create more bespoke covers for their authors. Fight me.)

What will it take to get New Zealand readers to value New Zealand-penned commercial fiction? Reese Witherspoon optioning our screen rights? A commercial fiction awards? Creative NZ issuing an official announcement that we do not suck?



The different faces of the 2020 bestseller by NZ writer Rose Carlyle.


It helps that Michael Bennett’s crime novel, Better the Blood, was a finalist for the big Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2023 Ockham NZ Book Awards. It helps that Allen & Unwin have launched an annual prize for commercial fiction manuscripts, won last year by Josie Shapiro for her debut Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts. It helps that Hachette has launched a whole new commercial fiction imprint, Moa. It helps that some bookshops actively promote our work. It helps that, despite persistent rumours, our major creative writing schools do accept authors of commercial and genre fiction.

On my bedside table right now, I have Anne Tiernan’s The Last Days of Joy, a battered Terry Pratchett, and The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. Each of them will provide a distinctly different reading experience. What would help most is more readers willing to mix things up. I promise that your lives will be the richer for it.4





1. Before that, they ask, ‘Have I heard of you?’
2. We can forgive the ‘him’ because Updike was talking about himself; his rules were written out of personal exasperation.
3. Yes, I did read the whole of Ducks, and when I next have a spare three weeks, I’ll read it again.
4. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy every book. The 1-star Amazon review of James Joyce’s Ulysses was pretty fair when it said, ‘This is a tough book to read unless you understand several languages and are on LSD.’



Catherine Robertson is a commercial fiction author and co-owner of Good Books, an independent bookshop in Te Aro, Wellington. In 2020, she was the CNZ/International Institute of Modern Letters Writer in Residence. Catherine is Chair of the Hawke’s Bay Readers & Writers Trust and on the board of Verb Wellington. Catherine’s latest novel is Spellbound (Penguin Random House, 2021).

'There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process' - Tracey Slaughter

Read more