Over the past year or so I have spent enough time contacting literary agents to have learned several things: some total nonsense, some useful. And, I have learned some things about literary genre. For the sake of this discussion we are talking about fiction. Non-fiction is another story for another day … another bottle of red wine.
Walk into a bookstore, a big-box store best exemplifies my point, take a look at what they have for sale. It looks something like the above.
It should not come as a surprise that, percentage-wise, most readers don’t read a lot of Literary Fiction. Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance (especially of the Paranormal variety) Thriller / Commercial stuff are the big sellers.
The top 40 on the 2010 NYT best seller list is dominated by James Patterson, Baldacci, Lee Child, Stieg Larsson, M. H. Clark, Grisham, and Cussler (or their ghost writers). Only Kathryn Stockett, Jonathan Franzen, … and, perhaps, Jodi Picoult are truly writers of Literary Fiction.
• Literary fiction is not selling well. This is not news.
• The average sales and average advance(s) are lower than usual. You can probably expect an advance in the $5,000 – $7,500 range.
• If you’re not a seriously brilliant writer and/or do not have an MFA from Columbia, Iowa, or the like, you might want to reconsider writing literary fiction. That is, if you plan on selling it.
We writers of Literary Fiction are not likely to become then next Michael Chabon (Gentlemen of the Road) or Zadie Smith (On Beauty). We soon realize that the literary route is a labor-of-love, we do it because we are driven to write. We are not likely to get a six-figure advance or sell tens of thousands of copies.
Now: About Literary Agents …
As a writer of Literary Fiction I have discovered that the agents who are of-an-age to understand and relate to what I write have been in the business for years. They have an established clientele. They don’t need a new, un-proven writer. The new, young, agents who are putting together a stable of clients want Vampires and Young Adult and Chic Lit … They don’t understand or relate to Robert Penn Warren or Eudora Welty or Albert Camus.
From the first group, agents-of-a-certain-age, we get a polite form letter. From the latter we get, “While your work is good, it is not what we ( meaning “I” ) am looking for right now. Please try other agents.” The agent with whom I most wanted to work is accepting queries and new potential clients only by reference!
To quote one source: Literary fiction is hard to write. Like, really hard, bros and she-bros. Everything hinges on your ability, and not so much on your killer (or not-so-killer) plot. I have seen successful self-help books and middle grade novels written by people who cannot, in my estimation, write their way out of a paper bag. I have yet to see a decent literary novel guilty of the same.
Still, there are really good new, un-published writers out there, and I think that I am in that group, who are really good. I have this fantasy that there is an agent somewhere who is older than thirty-four and younger than fifty-eight (but who grew up in a house where good literature was important) who needs one more client! … for whatever reason.
Otherwise: it is emulate Elmore Leonard or James Patterson.