I went to New York City a few weeks ago and spent 3 days talking to editors at Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. I try to do this a couple of times every year to pitch upcoming projects and to get a better idea what editors are looking for. Since I have been doing more work representing fiction, mostly literary and young adult, I decided to speak to a number of literary fiction editors and try to figure out the elusive secret key to publishing the perfect literary novel. I am sad to report that this key continues to elude me.
The editors, with whom I spoke, all told me that they were looking for “fresh new voices.” This is commendable and reassuring, particularly for debut novelists. And I also believe that this is true. We often scold commercial publishers for failing to take risks. Not to sound snarky though, sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing those fresh new voices from the stale old ones.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that trade publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. This is no less true of the decision to publish that most artistic of book genres, the literary novel. The acquisition decision is rarely based on simple aesthetics. In fact there is a vast amount good fiction writing out there, most of it heavily vetted and edited by agents before even reaching the desk of the literary editor. Good writing is a given. Publishers want something more.
Literary fiction editors are just like the rest of us. They get hooked on a novel in the first few pages, they fall in love with the story and the characters, they are seduced by the language, they stay up all night reading it, they laugh and cry, and decide they must publish this book. But then the decision moves on to the acquisition meeting. Every week a group of editors meet with the publisher of the imprint, the marketing director, and the sales manager. Questions come up. Will the chains buy this book? Is the novel too much like one that flopped last year? Is the voice really fresh and new? Is the voice too fresh and too new? Is it too dark for the book group readers (That happened to one of mine). Is it too literary?
Too literary! Wait a minute. That’s what publishers are looking for, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. All of the literary editors told me that they want books with good writing, strong characters, original themes and compelling plots. How is this any different than a commercial novel? After all thrillers have to be well written too these days.
So I took out a little piece of paper and started sketching a kind of literary-commercial continuum chart. Most of the editors agreed that such a continuum exists and that the lines separating the genres are pretty fuzzy. They all agreed that the books they are looking for are not at the far end of the literary continuum. They are closer to the middle. Some editors and some imprints have sensibilities a tad to the left or a smidgeon to the right.
So here is my chart. Study it, literary fiction writer, and you will get published.
Actually, that isn’t true. You probably won’t get published. Now those of you who lack courage and self confidence should not read on. The chances of getting a publishing contract are still pretty small, even for authors of talent and with fresh new voices. I asked one of the editors to tell me how many manuscripts she considered in a year and from those how many ultimately got published. She looked at her log and said she had gone over about 250 manuscripts. Two were ultimately acquired and put into print. This is a sobering statistic. And remember, all of her submissions were prescreened and heavily filtered by agents.
Here is the chart.
So I ask myself why am I spending so much time trying to make deals that seem to have less chance of happening than winning the lottery. I guess it is just that I love this stuff (and I got a pretty good feeling that my number is coming up soon).