This is a conversation I’ve had with several people over the last few months, including querying writers and my agent. Some people may look at the title of this post and say “Does it matter? My agent can figure it out.” Now, that may or may not be true (my agent is going to want me to explain the book to her, so I still need to know what it is), but you need to know what genre your book fits into before you start sending it out.
When you’re looking for an agent to love your book, you need to know where it fits. If you’ve written a romance and you only query agents who represent women’s fiction, you’ve set yourself up for a lot of heartache and disappointment. Querying involves enough heartache and disappointment on its own - there’s no need to create more for yourself. If you’re self-publishing, people are going to be disappointed if they’re expecting romance and they get women’s fiction, and vice versa. You need to know where to place your book. Don’t set yourself up for negative reviews based on false expectations.
So, how do you tell the difference? Well, if you have something like Erin Emerson’s What Would Oprah Do?, focused on the main character’s journey to find herself with nary a love interest in sight, it’s pretty easy. So is Brighton Walsh’s Caged in Winter, where the entire plot revolves around Winter and Cade’s relationship. But a lot of women’s fiction includes romantic elements, so it is important to know where your focus in so you know how to pitch the book.
There are a couple of easy indicators, like how romance frequently (but not always) has explicit sex scenes where women’s fiction often (but not always) fades to black. Women’s fiction nearly always is told from the point of view of one or more female characters, where romance will often include male point of view.
Romance requires a happy ending. Your main characters don’t have to ride off into the sunset and get married (especially in YA), but they have to be happy for the foreseeable future. The entire focus of the book is on love as the plot, even if there are other things going on. Romance has some very specific things that readers expect to see. (Here are some of the most common tropes.) The focus on the relationship between main characters starts early. There's heightened sexual tension throughout. Every scene is written with romance in mind. It's the driving force behind the main characters' actions.
Women’s fiction, on the other hand, doesn't need to have a happy ending. A happy ending doesn't need to involve love. Women’s fiction also typically has at least one plot that's not about the relationship. For example, in the Shopaholic series, Becky’s relationship with Luke is important, but the main plot is always about Becky - her shopping addiction, her overwhelming debt, meeting her long-lost sister, etc. Those books would still be enjoyable if Luke didn’t exist, although they’re better with him in them. That’s women’s fiction. The driving force is about the main character's journey: she has things that she's trying to achieve, separate from the romance. Subplots may be more focused on the main character's relationship with other characters, rather than the love interest.
If you’re still not sure, ask yourself: What is the main focus of this story? Does the entire thing collapse if you remove the love interest? If not, you’ve probably written women’s fiction. If so, it might be a romance.