I apologize for posting my Y post late.  Here it is, for your enjoyment.  I’ll get the Z post up soon.

I found an interesting word that I thought I’d share with you for my letter Y post.

Yellowback (aka sensation novel) – cheap pulp fiction from the nineteenth century; what some would qualify as airport novels today.  Called that because the color of the jacket was often a bright mustard yellow.

During the Industrial Revolution, mass production of goods began, and suddenly anyone with the money could fill his house with all manner of furniture, linens and accessories.  A look at the Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck catalogs from the late 1800s reveals a plethora of items for sale, including books.

The yellowbacks followed the penny dreadful, the best known of which is Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood, a gory, overwrought vampire tale that could be purchased for a pittance and was widely devoured by the mass market.  The cheap pulp books of the day tended toward what we now call genre, or category fiction.

Category fiction falls into several areas:


Usually man and woman; mutual attraction and love; almost always has a happy ending.  The happy endings and Three’s Company-type misunderstandings which keep the characters apart are why I don’t read straight romance novels.  But then, I lean more toward the dark side.  It has cookies.


Criminals are usually protagonists.  Can involve cops/detectives, courtroom drama, and the like.  Generally, the perpetrators of the crimes are known.


A detective, forensics expert or amateur sleuth.  The majority of them are whodunit novels, where the perpetrator is unknown to the reader and to the detective, with a reveal at the end.


Think Commando, with missions, jungles, weapons, and machismo.  I know that’s a movie, but it’s a great example of the genre.  Also David Morrell’s First Blood, the novel Rambo came from.

Speculative fiction

Includes fantasy and science fiction, is a broader term for those.  Fantasy involves invented worlds, magic, supernatural beings.  Science fiction is science, technology, and future-oriented and can be hard, where technology drives the plot, or soft and more character-oriented.  Alternate worlds fall into this category also.


A subgenre of fantasy, horror tales are the monster stories, ghouls, ghosts, and reanimated corpses seeking brains or revenge.  You can have straight monsters, like Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT or explore the terror within, as in Robert Bloch’s Psycho.


Cowboys, cattle drives, and water rights, just like the John Wayne movies.  Notable Western authors include Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry.

Literary fiction

Ha, got you! Literary fiction is not strictly genre, but it’s fiction and it’s a category.  So I’m putting it in.  It’s characterized by serious themes and great attention to style, depth and character development.

Category fiction is broad and malleable, and writers often combine elements of more than one genre in their work.  For example, you can write a romantic story set in an alternate universe, with magical elements.  Or like my book, where a relationship begins amidst a criminal setting, which would make it a romantic crime thriller.  Predator, while not a novel, is actually a monster (horror) movie in an action/adventure setting.  Sometimes this results in the invention of a new subgenre–vampire romance, for example–which if successful will spawn a score of imitators.

It’s recommended that you at least know what category your story falls into before you query, so you can target agents and publishers who handle that type of work.  One of the biggest reasons for rejection is sending a query to someone who doesn’t represent your kind of story.

It also gives them a better idea of where they can sell it.  Obviously your agent won’t want to take your romance novel to a horror publisher, unless it’s about monsters in love who tear down the city.  Hey, that actually sounds like something I would read…

Don’t worry if you think you’ve written a yellowback.  People have been slurping them up for over a century.  Some snobby people think genre fiction is not real writing, but tell that to Stephen King.  When your horror novel hits the bestseller list, you can laugh all the way to the bank.

1 thought on “Yellowback

  1. Pingback: Genre and You Pick the Hate | Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West

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