The Differences Between Books

by Carmel Thomaston
a.k.a Fay Robinson


Many people have difficulty understanding the difference between mainstream, single  titles and category books. Complicating the confusion is that you also have mainstream contemporary, mainstream historical romance, historical, mainstream literary and other designations. What one editor considers a mainstream may not be considered a mainstream by another editor. 

Basically. . . mainstream novels tend to be longer than category novels and often longer than a single title novels, although no real guidelines for length exist. Length depends on how much space the writer feels he or she needs to tell that particular story.....and what length the editor feels is appropriate. That may be 50,000 words or 400,000 words. A mainstream novel has depth and texture. It has a detailed plot, characters that are very well defined and often uses multiple points of view. It can have a large cast of characters. A mainstream story is often about life, prejudices, fears, irony, as well as people. It can appeal to people of varied interests. Sometimes it provides a social comment. Other times only entertainment. In a mainstream novel the emotions of the characters are often fully explored. 

A mainstream novel has no guidelines for its characters or plot and anything pretty much goes if you're talented enough to pull it off. It may have romance in it and it may not. It may or may not have a happy ending. It will almost always have one or more subplots that can affect the main plot. MAINSTREAM (BUT GENRE . . . sort of) 

Mainstream books often appeal to readers of different genres. But if you look at them closely, you'll see they often each carry the overtones of a genre -- romance, horror, mystery, science fiction, etc. 

Anne Rice's vampire books, for instance, are mainstream horror. Tom Clancy writes mainstream techno-thrillers. Tony Hillerman writes mainstream mystery books. John Grisham writes mainstream suspense. Danielle Steel writes what is becoming known as mainstream "glitz and glitter" because the characters are often wealthy and the settings exotic. Larry McMurtry writes mainstream westerns. 

Mainstream books with an element of romance, are then naturally sometimes called mainstream romances. By "element" I mean the romance isn't the main plot but a subplot. Because of that element of romance and romantic tone, the book appeals to romance readers. Other names you may hear this type of book called are "contemporary mainstream fiction," "historical mainstream fiction" or "contemporary women's fiction." 

An example of a mainstream book with an element of romance is "French Silk" by Sandra Brown. The main plot is a murder investigation. A romance develops between the primary suspect (a woman) and the male police detective in charge of solving the crime. He suspects she might be guilty but falls for her anyway. She's afraid he might uncover the secrets she's hiding. Various subplots involving the heroine's mother, her friend, and other secondary characters are used. All these subplots are related to the main plot.  WHAT IS LITERARY? 

Mainstream fiction can also be literary. McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" I told you about above is mainstream fiction in the western genre, but it's also literary fiction. "The Color Purple," "To Kill A Mockingbird and "Sophie's Choice" are other examples of literary fiction. What makes them literary? The writing is exceptional, and the characters are fully developed. The settings are often so vividly drawn they becomes like a character. A literary novel provides more than entertainment. It may teach a lesson. It may cause the reader to examine his/her own values or to question his/her beliefs. It may be a social comment of the era. A literary novel is timeless. Its message will be as important a hundred years from now as it is today. 


If a book takes place in the present, it's contemporary. If it takes place in the past, it's historical, although every publishing house has a different idea about when the "past" begins. A novel set in 1960s Viet Nam may be considered historical by one publisher and not another. Many publishers consider only those novels taking place before 1900 as historical. 


A historical romance novel isn't the same thing as a historical novel, although they can have similar elements. The tale of a woman in 1750 running away from an abusive husband and falling in love with a handsome Indian scout is a historical romance novel if the romance is an important element in the book. 

If romance isn't an important element of the book and the most important element is that woman's struggle to survive in the Mississippi Territory, then it's a historical novel. Its appeal to the reader lies in the time period and the survival plot--not in how the woman is going to capture the heart of the hunky Indian scout. The rule of thumb? If it's read for the romance, then it's a romance, regardless of what the author intended. 

Diana Gabaldon, author of "Outlander," "Dragonfly in Amber," and "Voyager," doesn't consider her historical novels as historical romance. Romance readers disagree because they consider her characters and plots very romantic. "Lonesome Dove" is a historical novel. "The Wolf and the Dove" is a historical romance. If you've read both, you'll understand the difference between historical romance fiction and historical fiction. 


"Single title" means a book that stands alone and is not as part of a line of books. These books are at least 70,000 words and can run to 130,000 or more. Some 100,000-110,000 is average. 

Like with mainstreams, the length is determined by how much space the writer needs to tell the story and the guidelines of the publisher. The market can also influence the size of the bigger books. When markets are tight and publishers need to reduce expenses, books tend to get shorter. Sometimes you'll hear the phrases "Long Historical" and "Short Historical" in describing books. If it's over 110,000 words it's considered a "long" historical and if under 110,000 words it's considered a "short" historical. 

Like mainstream books, single title books have texture, depth, heavily developed characters, strong main plots and one or more secondary plots and characters. What distinguishes them from mainstream is that the "element of romance" is much stronger and has a significant impact on the main plot. The romance can hold almost the same importance as the main plot, particularly in historicals. "Honest Illusions" by Nora Roberts is a good example of a single title contemporary romance. "The Maiden of Inverness" by Arnette Lamb is a good example of a single title historical romance. 


A "category" romance novel, also called a "series novel" is written to tighter guidelines determined by the publisher. Some flexibility is allowed depending on the author and the line but the level of sensuality, the depth of characterization and length of the books generally fall within a certain range. The reason for that is very simple: publishers use that to target their market. 

Books in the Harlequin Superromance line, for example, are around 85,000 words and have sophisticated plots with mature (older, non virginal) characters. So when a reader picks up any book in that line, they already have an expectation of what they will find. Readers like that because some prefer "sweet" books with little or no sex, (Traditional romances) while others like reading the more sensual books. Some readers like romantic suspense while others like romantic comedy. Category romance books are sequentially numbered and a set number are published each month. 


Category book divisions vary in length. On the lower end are short contemporaries which are some 53,000-65,000 words.  The long contemporaries run some 65,000 to 90,000. 

Always get the latest guidelines before submitting While the majority of category series books are contemporary, historical category series exist, like Harlequin Historicals and Berkley's Homespun lines. These tend to be longer than contemporary series -- around 100,000 words--although shorter novels exist. Among the shortest are the Regency novels, which run around 60,000 words, but more or less depending on the publisher. 

Publishers put out a specific number of books in each line every month. By limiting length to a certain range, they know exactly how much it will to cost them to print the books and the covers. 

Packaging is another reason why the books are limited in size. The books are packaged and shipped together. Some must be an exact number of pages to fit pre-packaging requirements. When a book exceeds the required number of pages, it will be cut...or typeset in smaller type to fit. 

Books that run longer than @ 140,000 words begin to cost more to produce (paper, ink, cover art). When a book costs more to produce it will cost the reader more to buy. And readers won't pay more for a book by an unknown author. Nora Roberts can get away with it but a new writer usually can't. So when the guidelines say an editor accepts manuscripts of 60,000 words, don't submit one with 90,000 words unless the editor you query says it's okay. 


In category romance books the romance must be very strong and development of secondary plots depends on the length of the novel. Elements of mystery, suspense, etc. are used but do not overshadow the romance. The shorter the book, the more critical it is to concentrate on the romance. 

If you start with a short contemporary, then read some traditional, long and single title contemporaries, you'll see how the structure of the plots begin to change as you move into longer books. In a short contemporary the space to tell the story is minimal so emphasis is on the plot and action. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl because of some internal or external conflict pulling them apart (or both), conflicts get resolved and boy and girl live happily ever after. It sounds simple but it's not. Writing to guidelines is every bit as difficult as writing mainstream because you've got to convey a lot in a few words. Because of the space restrictions, fast pacing and a strong opening hook are important. As you move from the short contemporary to the traditional, the plot and action remain important but the slightly longer length allows for the expansion of the plot, some secondary plots and more characterization. In the long contemporary, the additional length allows for stronger and more detailed secondary plots and for the writer to investigate the emotions of the main characters--particularly what they feel, how they got that way and how it affects what they do. 

For example, in Debbie Macomber's "Navy Brat," the heroine vows she'll never get involved with anyone in the military. Her father was in the Navy and the heroine grew up having to move from station to station and never being able to make friends. The reader follows the heroine as she falls for a naval officer . . . goes through the agony of being forced to choose between the man and the life she thinks she wants . . . and comes to realize she really liked that old life of frequent moves and seeing new places. Macomber does an excellent job of digging deep into the heroine's mind to show us what she feels and why through each step of the process. 


With a single title contemporary, a writer builds yet another layer to the book. Emotions are even more deeply explored and are shown using one or more secondary plots that weave through the main plot and directly impact it. For instance......if Macomber took her long contemporary and structured it for a single title.......she might start by fully developing the character of the heroine's father and creating a more detailed subplot that uses him (and her actions toward him) to explore her feelings about her childhood and show the depth of her determination to have a normal life like everyone else. Another step to add to this deeper level might be to create a subplot showing the depth of the hero's feelings about Navy life and why it's so important to him. Did he grow up in a small town and this is his first glimpse of the world? Is the Navy the first real "family" he's had? The possibilities are limited only by her imagination. 

Notice that these two subplots I've suggested are not independent of the main plot or of each other but that the three weave through the story to cause conflict and to deepen the emotional level. IMPRINTS Books of a certain genre that have relaxed or no guidelines, and can be released either as part of a line or as single titles are published under Imprints. Bantam, for example, has an Imprint called Fanfare. Books published under that Imprint are romance. Bantam also has an Imprint called Sprectre. Books put out under the Sprectra imprint are science fiction. Fanfare has no guidelines except that the books must be romance. Every book is different. Some are contemporaries and some are historicals. Some are 90,000 words. Some are 125,000 words. 


Romance books fall into several sub genres other than the ones I've mentioned above. Some of the others are: Gothic, paranormal, Romantic Suspense time travel, vampire, inspirational, Americana, western, Texas historical, young adult, Medieval, fantasy, futuristic, multi-cultural, Regency and Regency historical. "Regency" is applied to the smaller historical books (50,000 to about 65,000 words) set in the Regency period. The customs and traditions of the period are often emphasized in them. "Regency Historical" is applied to longer historicals set in the Regency period. The customs are still integrated into the book but may or may not be emphasized. 


Writers should know the difference in books because they need to get their manuscripts in the hands of the right publisher. A category romance book sent to a publisher of only mainstream books is simply asking for rejection. Send a vampire novel to a company that doesn't publish paranormals, and you've wasted their time and your own. And you don't want to write a book and THEN try to define what it is. The pacing between category, single title and mainstream books is very different. The best way to begin to understand the differences in romance books is to read. Some people only read historicals or contemporaries, category books or mainstream books. That's okay if you're just a reader. But if you're a writer, I personally think you should read all of them.

(Copyright 1994 by Carmel Thomaston.  Published with permission of the estate of Carmel Thomaston.)

About the author . . .

It is regret that I must announce the death of Fay Robinson a.k.a. Carmel Thomaston.  Carmel was a dear friend and mentor who believed in love at first sight, happily-ever-after endings, and that some hearts are destined to be together. How could she not? Her English mother and American father married by transatlantic telephone six months after their first and only date. Fay had her own rendezvous with destiny while doing a story on a firefighter for her local newspaper. That night she told her best friend, "Today I met the man I'm going to marry." Fay and her firefighter were to have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this year.

Fay Robinson

MR AND MRS. WRONG, Harlequin Superromance #1012. September, 2001.

COMING HOME TO YOU, Harlequin Superromance #961. January, 2001.

A MAN LIKE MAC, Harlequin Superromance #911, April, 2000. Winner of the Rita award from Romance Writers of America.

Romantic Times magazine says:

"Fay Robinson flawlessly blends fiery chemistry, snappy repartee and a strong mystery to create a terrific read."











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