Saturday, May 24, 2014

Literary or Commercial fiction?

Hi Luke,

First, I'd like to thank you for making your e-books available online and for THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, which is a very helpful book indeed. I've just received feedback from a literary agent who said my novel is a high-concept novel. I cannot reconcile the definition of high-concept (mostly applied to blockbusters) with my story, which even though driven by a big and hypothetical idea, weaves in three first-person narrations and is very much character-based. What is according to you a high-concept novel? Could you possibly give me examples? Thank you very much!

Many thanks!

A good question, and hard to answer. We always enter into a gray area when we start to try define precisely what is "commercial fiction" versus "literary fiction" and where one departs and the other begins. In some ways our industry is split down the middle, with some editors tasked solely with acquiring commercial fiction, and others with literary. That said, there are also many editors who will acquire both, and/or who will look for the hybrids. There are many shades of hybrids, across the whole spectrum, with some leaning literary and others commercial. Complicating matters, as soon as one gives examples one can immediately be proven wrong, as one can point to a literary novel which was a huge commercial success or a commercial novel which reads like a great literary work. Also complicating matters is that the line in the sand has become more apparent in our day, whereas going back a century, many literary works were expected to have great plots. Moby Dick is a great literary work--yet at the same time, it has a great plot. That can't necessarily be said about many "literary" works today, for which a great plot can be absent.

From an agent's point of view, there have been many great novels I've sent out to, say, 30 publishers, only to have 15 tell me it's too commercial for their list, and 15 tell me it's too literary. It can be maddening, and shopping novels that fall into that gray area can be one of the hardest tasks for an agent.

In any case, all great fiction, whether high-concept or not, should also be character-based, so I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. Yes, you need a great plot to guide the characters--but you also need the characters to come alive and to do something, at some point, that you would not expect, and to influence the plot themselves. The plot and characters must play off each other, and that is to be expected.

Should I allow my agent to negotiate my deal?

Hey Mr. Lukeman,

I just signed on with an agent. He has been great so far, already sending out a manuscript of mine. The problem is, just before he made me an offer I began working directly with a publisher on a separate non-fiction book proposal of mine. The publisher really likes it, and I think that a deal may happen soon.

If a deal is offered by the publisher, should I bring my in to negotiate the contract? I’m sure that he could help me get the best deal, or even potentially shop it around to other publishers. That said, I did all of the groundwork.


It's a bit hard for me to answer without knowing if you signed the agent for fiction or non-fiction, but I will assume the latter. In either case, since you like this agent and he had been doing well by you, then I would indeed allow the agent to negotiate this deal. First of all, if he's a good agent he will get you more than the 15% you pay him and can protect you in the contract in ways you don't anticipate; second, the publisher will give you more respect knowing you have an agent and he can be there to deal with any thorny issues that arise during the multi-year process; third, you have to think long term. Over the course of a career you may write many books, and what matters more than this one book is having a good agent by your side who is devoted to you and can help you navigate it all and get you many deals. Bringing him this deal will help endear him to you. This is especially true with non-fiction, as often writers have to reinvent themselves with each book and concept and go out there and find a new publisher all over again. If you were an author of commercial fiction with a huge sales record, it would be a different story.

Should I pay a publisher in order to get published?

Dear Mr. Lukeman:

I've been approached by Rocket Science Productions who expressed a lot of interests to publish my novels that have received a lot of notice in the ebook site world. However when they sent over the information for me to go over, they stated the following:

" The world has changed a bit in the near 2-1/2 years since we met, and our prices have gone up to pay those professionals and experts who will lend their expertise to your book. However, because I like you very much and I believe you are going to become a great young author, I am going to discount your costs.

The Phase One cost today is $595.00 and includes a whole lot of work by individuals to register your book with the Federal Government (to protect your copyright), your ISBN, and all the registrations required for selling your book in every place where books are sold. I can discount this cost to $550.00. This fee must be paid upfront in completely when you send the MOU.

Phase Two for novels now (which includes editing and art direction) is $1,975.00, but I will discount you to $1800.00. Instead of requiring 60% upfront, you can send 50% upfront and the rest can be paid over 6 or 12 months with no interest.

Phase Three is still variable...every book is different in cost, but generally novels can range in cost from $4 to $10 depending on size and number of pages and cover design materials. We'll know more about this as we get closer. Whatever cost this is, you still need to send 60% upfront and the rest can be added to your monthly payments over 6 or 12 months.

Ebooks are $395.00 to convert to the dozens of different algorithms necessary to sell it on the many platforms. This is a one-time fee. "

Is this legit? I mean I would love to have my novels published this year, and so far this is the only company that has gotten back to me that could put my novels in bookstores. Any advice?


As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I do NOT recommend your paying any publisher any fees to be published. If they are a legitimate publisher, they will not charge you any fees, and they will, in fact, pay you an advance against royalties. If legitimate publishers are not offering you a deal, then that does not mean you should rush to pay someone. If you want a legitimate deal, then I would recommend devoting time to your query letter, finding a legitimate agent and having the agent finding a publisher--and of course, continuing to improve your writing. I talk about how to go about all of this at length on this blog, so please read ALL of the questions and answers, and please download my free ebooks, with hundreds of pages of additional info.

If you would rather self publish, whether in ebook or print form, then, once again, you don't need them. You can convert and upload the ebook yourself with virtually no fees. It takes some time to learn but is not as demanding as they might have you believe. You can also design your own jacket, if you have the eye for it and the talent--or hire freelancers to do it at low cost. And for a print edition, you can use CreateSpace or Lightning Source, again with virtually no fees--and control all the right yourself and have your book up instantly.

Whether your book needs editorial work is an entirely different conversation. But again, in general, I would be wary of telling you to hire an editor, as I am always wary of those who might try to take advantage. Continually improve your writing on your own as best you can, and have those close to you whom you trust as impartial readers. And always keep writing--and write more books. Each book will teach you something new.