"Dear Mr. Lukeman, I've noticed a trend in YA books, that many follow the exact same popular formulas and are inhabiting an increasingly narrow scope. I keep hearing literary agents say they're "looking for something different", but I'm starting to doubt the validity of that. Why would you take a risk on something that might not make money in an industry that's becoming increasingly difficult to make money in, when you can just follow a formula that is guaranteed to make you money? I can't for one second believe that something like Watership Down would be published in this day and age, (and it definitely wouldn't be published by an American publisher), despite it never being out of print. My question is, when the average attention span of a literary agent is ten times less than that of the average reader, and query letters at best show the competence of a writer, is it more important in this day and age for the story to be well done or for the story to be marketable? "
This is an age old question, and not an easy one to answer. In the ideal world, a story will be both well done--and unique--and marketable. I don't necessarily view the two as mutually exclusive. If your desire is to write commercial YA, then there is no reason why you can not come up with a unique concept within that genre and to strive for the execution of the writing, word by word, to be as strong as possible.
If you are dealing with literary fiction and the writing is superb but the overall genre is not as commercial as certain genres of YA, then you may indeed have a harder time. Then again, if you are writing in commercial YA and your writing is not up to par, you may have a hard time as well. It is also possible that your writing is superb but you are not good at marketing and at summary, and your query letter doesn't get the attention of an agent. It depends on why you are writing--if you are writing to cash in, and chasing the most commercial genre of the moment, then your approach will likely be more marketing-focused. If you are writing literary fiction because that is your passion, then your approach will be different. You must follow your heart.
I would say that, as a rule, if an agent is looking to represent commercial fiction then he or she will scan a query letter with a different set of criteria--with an eye for marketability of the genre and concept. If an agent is looking for literary fiction he will be more drawn to your bio, credentials and the quality of your style. He might be more forgiving when it comes to plot. From an agent's point of view, if one is looking for commercial fiction it is always a nice surprise if the writing is particularly well done; and if one is looking for literary fiction, it is a nice surprise if there is also a strong plot. In this day and age I feel the gap has been widening between literary and commercial--but that needn't be the case. Those are arbitrary distinctions. A literary novel can be commercial and a commercial novel can be literary. Moby Dick is beautifully written, but also has a plot. So does Heart of Darkness. A hundred years ago literary authors knew they had to have a plot, not just pretty prose. For them, literary and commercial fiction were one.