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.


  1. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    I just turned 18 and am new to the business side of publishing even though I’ve been writing for years, but I figured it would help to start the learning process for when I seriously start putting my works out for possible publication in the future. I currently post some of my works online, so most of my questions deal with the issues of online posting.

    My number one concern deals with First Publication Rights. I only just discovered that such things exist—and have since then become incredibly disheartened with my online writing sites. You see, I’m a Wattpad writer (yes, one of those--alas) and I really like the way that the website has helped me grow and keep in touch with my writing, but I only just realized that it could possibly be hindering my writing future more than helping it. Wattpad is a public domain, so naturally, anything posted on it loses its first rights.

    So I was wondering, from the industry standpoint, how important are the first rights? Is there a way for me to continue posting on WP without hurting my possible future as a published author?

    I know that I am new to the scene. I know that in the coming years my writing will grow and change drastically and that anything that I’ve written now will have undergone such a massive facelift that it will be unrecognizable in the next few years. But I do have one work that I would like to try my hardest to see in paper glory. I know that multitudes of published authors will give me the ‘we all have six unpublished books hidden in our desk drawers’ speech, but I think hope is good right? Even if this novel isn’t the one in the end that will see the light, I’d like to keep that hope of it being one. I’m incredibly attached to it and will work on it until all the flaws that *I* could possibly see are gone, but regardless of where it ends up, I’d like to protect it now.

    So back to FPRs. For this one book, I will do anything to see it published someday in my future, so I’m wondering…what do I have to do to ensure its safety in the business part of the world?

    Like I said, I’m reeeeeeeally attached to Wattpad. It would hurt me a lot to take my novel off of the site, but I will if it will help me in the end. Most Wattpad writers think that I’m worrying too much (and they’re right…I tend to have a weakness for overthinking to extremes), but I’d just like to cover all the bases. I know that the traditional publishing industry is catching up to the online era of writing. So I’m wondering how much it’ll affect me in the end if I do keep posting, if I do lose those rights. People say that it’s good to post, to build up a following (though I have no idea how large a following I’d need to really entice a lit agent/publisher—or if that’s even possible with me), to attract a fanbase. But other published authors on WP say that that’s only really good for another book you might write, that will come after the one that’s already popular, so that you already have a fanbase to buy copies of a new novel (but I really want to have a future with this novel, not another one I might write). Essentially some say, that one you post a novel on Wattpad, it’s future ends there.

    I mean there are success stories, but they’re few in number. I’m wondering if I should post my novel up on Wattpad until I finish it (because the online community is great encouragement for writing) and then pull it down. Will my FPRs still be lost?

    And if I know that the end product (after revisions and revisions) will be very different (except for the title and character names…could never change those), will its FPRs still be lost? I could make my novel ‘private’ only (which would limit it to login-users who follow me), but I think that would only really constrict reads and not really protect my FPRs………right?

    I suppose, to summarize, I’d just like to know if I could keep posting my work on Wattpad. What measures should I take to protect my work? (In the end, does it really matter at this stage?)

    Thank you so much for your time and help!

  2. I've been offered the opportunity to publish the first chapter of my book by a publisher who offers short stories and chapters via its site and ITunes for use on mobile devices. I've done my homework and read lots of articles about them in the British press especially.

    I have the option of selling more chapters or the entire book as well. But I want to eventually sell the book to a traditional publisher. Should I limit myself to the one chapter, or should I consider this at all? I know that some authors have been discovered this way--even very famous ones. So I'm torn!

  3. One of my beta readers, an author published with Penguin India, loves my novel. He loves it so much he took it upon himself to pitch it to his editor for me. Now his editor would like to see my book. Acknowledging that it is not done yet, is this something I should follow through on once it is ready for professional eyes? Is this something that would assist in landing me an agent in the united states? Is it a terrible idea? I am so new to this process. and while it seems like a potentially awesome opportunity, I'd like to have all the facts in front of me before I jump.

    Thank you so much for your time!

  4. I’m struggling to define my genre, and getting conflicting advice. When I search for books like mine, I inevitably find mostly YA.
    One critiquer said it was mainstream fiction. An argument they had against YA was that, in addition to my main POV character (17 yr old), a second POV is her dad, which wouldn’t appeal to YA readers. Another was because there’s a scene where the 17 yr old has a sex.
    Another instructor suggested new adult or YA, and that my novel would get lost in the mainstream/commercial category. Other possibilities include romance, suspense, and paranormal/psychic/spiritual, or maybe even YA/crossover.
    a. Do you advise targeting multiple genres (i.e., agents in different genres), or is it better to settle on one (hopefully the right one), and only compare myself to books in that genre?
    b. If I compare myself to a particular genre, but an agent thinks my book fits elsewhere, do you think I hurt myself by not identifying the correct genre, or are agents likely to recommend another genre and be open to representing me or forwarding my query to the appropriate agent in their agency? (assuming my idea shows promise)

  5. In your book How to Land a Literary Agent, you mention several great resources. In my search for an agent, I found Would you recommend it?


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