Because I write young adult books, I sometimes field inquiries from people who’ve written books with age 13-19 protagonists and want to make it clear to potential agents and publishers that their book is not a young adult novel.
This is a problem that particularly affects women writers, because there are entire genres whose purpose is, basically, to cordon off women’s stories and stop them from being taken seriously (e.g. a girl’s coming-of-age is YA, whereas a boy’s is literature; a woman struggling to find love in her 20s is chicklit, whereas a man doing so is literature; a woman trying to deal with raising a family and with her incipient mortality is women’s fiction, whereas when a man does it, that’s literature). So many female writers seem particularly concerned with trying to ward off any suggestion that they are writing commercial fiction.
Now, I know that many of my readers will instinctively scoff and dismiss this as snobbishness, but I spent a portion of yesterday’s drive thinking about the non-snobbish reasons why a person might not want to have their novel published within a commercial fiction category. And I thought of four.
- This is the only novel of this sort that you plan to write — Commercial genres are more restrictive than literary fiction. You can publish a novel w/ spaceships as literary fiction, but you can’t publish a novel with no speculative element in the science fiction section. Furthermore, a person who finds an author through a given channel of commercial fiction is, rightly, going to expect that their future work will be somewhat of a piece with what they’ve read. If you don’t plan on writing any future novels that could be called young adult, then you really should avoid being put into that category.
- You believe your novel would appeal more to literary readers than to readers of that marketing category — I believe it’s very possible to write a novel with a young protagonist that is, nonetheless, of little interest to teens. Similarly, I think that some novels w/ speculative elements would be unlikely to be embraced by a speculative readership. For instance, does anyone think that Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada would have won a large readership amongst science fiction fans? These novels might use tools and tropes from a commercial genre’s box of tricks, but they don’t fit within that genre because they fail to be pleasurable in the ways that this genre generally expects (for instance, Ada is a science fiction novel that does not contain much of a sense of a wonder)
- You want to become a professor and/or win awards — Most creative writing departments won’t hire you on the basis of a novel published as commercial fiction. And most major literary awards won’t go to commercial fiction either. I think that becoming
- You can’t handle the marketing- and productivity- requirements of a career in commercial fiction — In literary fiction, there are mechanisms that keep authors’ reputations alive during the long interval between books. Whereas in commercial fiction, you’re supposed to keep yourself alive by being productive and staying on shelves. If you can’t write lots of books, then maybe literary fiction is the place for you.
(On a sidenote, I do think that some authors do just want to avoid commercial fiction because they are snobbish. These are the writers who don’t want the label simply because they think their novel is too complex to be published within a commercial category. I know that some blog readers get whipped into a froth over this issue, so let me be clear here, when I talk about ‘commercial fiction’ I am only talking about a set of marketing categories. These categories do not have rigid boundaries. They are discursively created through the individual decisions of thousands of agents, writers, publishers, book-buyers, publishers, and sales people. A book is commercial fiction because people say it is. Books slip into and out of commercial fiction all the time (for instance, Gone With The Wind was once literary fiction and is now commercial fiction). The label ‘commercial fiction’ does, in the minds of many people, connote something that is of lower quality. And the label does affect the way that it is marketed to readers. But I, personally, am not saying that commercial fiction is of lower quality. What I am talking about in this post is not some grand structural thing, I am talking about the ways that you–as an author–might want to influence the way your book is marketed.)
Anyway, the answer here is really simple. Authors underestimate the degree of control that they have over how their book is pitched. They think that they will put their delicate coming-of-age story into the world and then publishers and agents will yank it away from them and turn them into young adult writers. And the truth is that there might be some pressure to do this. It’s easier to sell young adult novels. And my impression is that advances and print runs are often higher for YA novels than for literary novels.
However, the simple fact is that the book literally belongs to you. You, on a legal level, own it. And if you remain firm, then you should be able to make sure that it’s marketed in the way that you want.
The thing to do here is to not just be agreeable. If you know what you want, then you’ve got to be clear and upfront about your expectations. The very first thing to do is to just make it clear to agents, in your query letter and other communications, that you see your work as a literary novel. Then, when you speak to an agent on the phone before accepting their offer of representation, you should ask how they plan to market it. And if they don’t plan on marketing it exclusively to editors who handle literary fiction, then you need to tell them that doesn’t work for you. And if you still can’t come to an agreement, then you have to refuse their offer of representation. Conversations like this are the reason that agents and authors talk on the phone before signing an agency agreement.
What many beginning authors fail to realize is that an editor doesn’t buy a book and then decide how to publish it. No, usually it’s pitched to an editor as a certain kind of book. And it’s pitched to an editor and to an imprint that only (or at least mostly) handles that kind of work. If your book is presented to potential publishers in a certain way and they acquire it on the basis of that representation, then that’s how they’re going to present it to the public.
So if you want your book to be literary fiction, here’s the simple three-step process:
- Be clear about this expectation when you query and communicate with potential agents and editors
- Confirm, before accepting an offer of representation or publication, that the other party shares your conception of the book.
- Be prepared to walk away from agents or publication offers if their answers on point 2 are not satisfactory.
The key here is just to have an agent who agrees with your conception of the book. The agent will then go and find an editor who shares that conception. And, in the end, your book will end up in the place where you want it to be.
The scary thing about this advice is that it might entail turning people down. You might lose an offer of representation because the agent wants to market it as a young adult book and you don’t agree. And you might fail to sell a book that otherwise would’ve sold.
But that’s exactly what’s at stake here. If there wasn’t anything to be gained by going commercial, then there’d be no pressure to do it. If you really believe that one path is right for you, then you need to be willing to refuse to go down the other path.
Sometimes I think that what new writers are really asking is, “How can my book be marketed as literary fiction without losing any of the excitement and opportunities that it might have if it was marketed as commercial fiction?”
Many commercial writers have the inverse question. They want to know how their books can have all the possibility of literary acclaim that comes from being published as literary fiction without losing the chance at a larger readership that comes from being published within commercial fiction.
There’s a plaintiveness embedded inside both of these questions: a rage at the ways that genre categories enfold and constrict and limit the work. But that’s a whole nother post.
Finally, in my very last caveat, I want to say that beginning writers underestimate the degree to which agents understand and are familiar with this problem. If I, a debut author of no particular name or reputation for wisdom, have encountered this question on more than one occasion, then every agent must’ve encountered it hundreds of times. Agents are well aware of the reasons why a writer might want to be in one category or another. Furthermore, authors also underestimate the amount of leverage that they have in talking with agents who are interested in their book. I’m not saying you can throw your weight around, but if an agent has read your entire book and wants to represent you, then they are fairly invested in you and in the work. If you’ve pitched the book to the agent as a literary fiction novel and the agent handles literary fiction and they’ve read the book and liked it, then I would honestly be surprised if the agent was unwilling to market it as a literary novel.