How to get your novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’ rather than ‘young adult / fantasy / romance / women’s / science fiction / etc’

51I6k+NGMTL._SY300_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:

  1. Be clear about this expectation when you query and communicate with potential agents and editors
  2. Confirm, before accepting an offer of representation or publication, that the other party shares your conception of the book.
  3. 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.


Or not.

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.

“I am now represented by John Cusick of the Greenhouse Literary Agency” is what I _should_ title this post, but its real title is OMG, I HAVE AN AGENT!!!


Placing in the Tu Books contest started a chain of circumstances that entailed a lot of fairly quick movement and a lot of sleepless nights. For once, the publishing world moved at a rapid pace. I think that the last two weeks have been the only time in my life when my writing life has moved faster than my real life.

My agenting story starts in January of 2012, when I started querying agents about this novel. I got a few manuscript requests, but my submissions process was interrupted by several long breaks during which I tried to hone my query.

Then, in January of 2013, a query that I’d sent out in October resulted in an offer of representation from a literary agent (A1). I was excited about the offer and was leaning towards accepting it, but there were two problems: a) I still had manuscripts and queries out with other agents who I wanted to hear back from; and b) I was a finalist in this Tu Books contest, which required that its winner be unagented.

A1 rather graciously agreed to hold the offer until the award was announced. If I lost, then I’d be free to sign with her.

A week later, the public announcement of the slate of finalists for the Award generated a manuscript request from another agent (A2), which I also had to put on a shelf until the results were announced.

About two months later (and roughly two weeks ago), I was notified that I’d won the Honor Award. Since I hadn’t taken the top prize, I was now free to sign with A1, who was still waiting for me to respond to her offer. However, I asked her for two weeks in order to follow up with A2. I then emailed A2 and asked if she could possibly get back to me within two weeks, which she agreed to (try) to do.

I also emailed all the other agents who were sitting on partial manuscripts* or my query, and said that if they wanted to consider the manuscript, they should get back to me within two weeks, because I was considering another offer. This generated a lot of very nice notes of the “Good luck with your new agent!” variety, as well as another (partial) manuscript request! (Oh, and a lot of the agents never responded at all, of course)

At this point, I was still relatively sane, since I was really only  waiting on one person to get back to me.

But then the winner of the contest, Valynne Nagamatsu, emailed me (and all the other finalists)  out of the blue and offered to refer my manuscript to an agent (A3) with whom she had a personal connection.

A day later, an old high school friend who I hadn’t spoken to in quite awhile Facebook-messaged me and asked me if I had an agent yet, because one of her college friends was an agent (A4). My high school friend knew from Facebook that I was an author, but I don’t think she knew that I was actively looking for representation, which, to me, makes this the weirdest bit of serendipity in the whole process.

Anyway, both A3 and A4 wanted to look at the manuscript and were willing to get back to me within the deadline I’d set for responding to A1.

During the whole querying process, my full manuscript had never been on more than two desks at the same time. Now, within the space of a few days, it was on four.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think. Well, actually, that’s not true. I wrote 20,000 words over the course of one weekend. But there was a frenetic quality to everything in my life. I was flitting from euphoria to despair every few hours.

When all of this began, I was reading a story collection by Miranda July that’s only maybe 60,000 words long. Now, two weeks later, I’m not even close to finished. I still have a third of it left!

While I waited, I developed some unsettling behaviors. There were days when I literally spent seven or eight straight hours staring at the GMail client, waiting for emails to come. I developed a cardiac arrhythmia that only appears when I hear the little beep that my iPad uses to signal new emails. I turned down social engagements so I could spend time in my room, alone, worrying. I exhausted every possible way of obsessing about this process.

Then, last Tuesday, I got an offer of representation from one of the agents. I had a very pleasant talk with the agent (one that made me late for my fiction workshop). And after hanging up, I dropped into an even deeper abyss of insanity while I waited to hear from the rest. Before that, I’d been somewhat convinced that A2, A3, and A4 were all going to turn me down. But now I knew that anything could happen.

The agent search has literally been all that I’ve thought about for the last week. Thank God that I had a class to teach, or I think I’d have skipped all my seminars and literally just have holed myself up in my room with my computer for days on end. I owe a very special thank-you to all the friends who were willing to listen to GChat with me about this agent stuff, ad nauseum, for hours.

Anyway, I’m not going to describe the details of my deliberations over the various agents (or, for that matter, their deliberations over me). All were amazing options, and I think they’d all have represented me very effectively. But I finally decided on A3 (John). I think he’s awesome: he seems enthusiastic about my book and my career, and he belongs to a great agency. I am extremely satisfied with this outcome, and I’m really looking forward to working with him.

In all of this, special thanks go to Valynne. She’s amazing. During this whole query process, I never even thought to ask anyone to refer me to an agent: my only referrals came totally unsolicited, and I really want to thank everyone who thought to lend me a hand. But I think it’s a special kind of awesome to win a contest and immediately turn around and offer to help the same people you’d been competing against. Also, during the last two weeks, she answered a lot of my questions and gave me plenty of useful advice on how to conduct myself. Before talking to her, I hadn’t realized how much I didn’t know about the publishing world.

And thanks are also due to my old friend, Valerie! Hearing from her would’ve been wonderful under any circumstances, but few rekindled connections are as wonderful as those which come attached to amazing career opportunities =)

*Agents will often respond to an author’s emailed query by requesting a partial manuscript (usually the first three chapters of the novel), so they can better judge if they want to see the whole manuscript.