Pub Rants

Category: Publishing/Publishers

Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

Such encounters might kick off a nasty bout of cognitive dissonance. If our ubiquitous structures aren’t adhered to, then these stories shouldn’t work. So why do they? The answer is simple: Because different types of stories and different ways of telling them have, over centuries, evolved all over the globe. Learning, using, teaching, or critiquing others’ work based on only one of several similar structures is painfully limiting to both storytellers and their audiences.

Let’s look at an example of an ancient, non-Western structure.

Kishōtenketsu is a four-act plot that can be traced back through the centuries to several countries of East Asia. Though the word is Japanese, the structure itself originated in China. (We’ll circle back to China in a minute.) Author Kim Yoon Mi explains that, in Japanese, Kishōtenketsu describes the four acts as follows:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

In contrast, Western structures centralize tension and conflict. American writers are clubbed constantly with the following rules:

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must develop both internal and external conflicts and resolve them at the end.
  • If you have no conflict, you have no story.

But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

How did this come about? To answer, Kim Yoon Mi cites episode 6-04 of Wes Cecil’s Human Arts podcast, “Chinese: Languages and Literature” (2015). In summary, China endured centuries of brutal famine and war, and as such, conflict was never a good thing; therefore, Chinese stories decentralized conflict. So while stories that followed the Chinese qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé structure (the precursor to Kishōtenketsu) certainly included conflict, conflict often took a definitive back seat to characters’ personal development.

Here’s another difference. In our familiar Western structures, writers are expected to wrap everything up at the end, to leave no questions unanswered (unless they’re setting up a sequel, in which the expectation is still that cliffhanger questions must eventually be answered). But of Kishōtenketsu, Kim Yoon Mi says, “the conclusion isn’t always a resolute solution to everything….It’s more like a wrap up for that particular issue, while indicating the story still goes on beyond that…often with notes about the occasional backslide.”

Will Western audiences understand a Kishōtenketsu story? That’s a good question, one Kate Krake of Three Pillar Authors tackled on their blog back in 2016. Krake writes:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four-act, no-conflict structure may risk not engaging with Western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Kishōtenketsu is only one among many non-Western structures. (Please visit Kim Yoon Mi’s excellent article “Worldwide Story Structures” to explore myriad others and see examples.) I would argue that American agents, editors, publishers, and slush readers, if they are truly committed to making space at the table for diverse voices, have a duty to educate ourselves on the vast alternatives to our comfortable old “acceptable” story structures.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

Photo by Aaditya Arora from Pexels

6 Writing Tips From My 6 Years in Publishing

I’ve worked for Nelson Literary Agency for the past 6 years, all stemming from my certain declaration that I wanted to own a publishing company. I knew nothing of what the process entailed, but I knew I loved books and wanted to be a part of putting more out into the world. I’ve thankfully had the most encouraging and admirable mentors to teach me the ins and outs. Though queries have not been my main job, I have accumulated these few writing tips up my sleeve. 

Consume what you create. “Write what you know” absolutely applies to fiction. Consuming the genre that you write in aids in your understanding of your manuscript and how to pitch it. A fast way to tell an agent you don’t understand your own manuscript is to pitch it as the wrong genre. Utilize the existing books in your writing genre.

Publishing means new coworkers. Preparing yourself to work with others and consider their constructive criticism needs to be part of your transition to being query ready. Know that every published author you know has a rough draft that needed work. 

Rejection doesn’t define you or your work. Be careful how you react in moments of rejection as it may impact your potential for moments of success. Don’t silence your story because you haven’t found the team fit for you. 

Find your identifier. Agents read an impressive number of manuscripts in a very short span of time. To maintain order in their brain, they’ll often rely on an identifier. This identifier can be as simple as “that middle grade with a diary structure” or “the thriller with the unsettlingly charming voice.” This identifier may also be recognized and utilized by your consumers, so you’ll want to know what it is.

Advice for your manuscript is not always advice for your query. Advice for writing craft can be applied in three ways: relevant for your manuscript, relevant for your query, and relevant for both. Relevant for both can be seen in the advice “show, don’t tell.” For example, in your query, you’ll want to show, but not tell the voice of your story. If your manuscript is humorous, show that humor in your query. 

Your reputation proceeds you. The publishing world has many moving parts to produce a book and then get that book to its audience. These moving parts are made up of many hardworking people who cross paths more often than you think. You gain your credentials through more than just writing.

Photo by Natasha on Unsplash

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Novelist

This month, we asked three NLA authors for their best advice for first-time novelists.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet? and Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes

I’m fairly certain people did tell me this, but I wish I had internalized it: There’s very little authors can control in the publishing realm. The two things you can always do, though, are to keep writing and also to cultivate genuine, mutually respectful relationships with other writers and the members of your publishing team. Otherwise, hold it all—the “success” and the “failure”—loosely.

Meghan Scott Molin, author of The Golden Arrow Mysteries series

One piece of advice I think I wished I’d known (or internalized) when I started: One book deal doesn’t mean you “arrive.” Even a multi-book deal. I wish I’d known how many friends would switch publishers, agents, editors, publicists in their first year of getting a book deal. I’m slowly adjusting to the idea that it’s always a battle in one arena or another…the road isn’t smooth sailing. I think better preparing young writers for the “building years” between contracts, the months spent waiting on sub, the heartbreak of an editor backing out on an additional project…it’s all really valuable conversation.

Valerie Valdes, author of the Chilling Effect series

I wish someone had told me that all writing advice is akin to tools you can put in your toolbox. It’s okay to only reach for the tools you need while others collect dust, and not everyone uses the same tools, or uses them in the same way. Even you won’t necessarily use the same tools with every novel, and that’s okay, too. There’s no single right or wrong way to write.

I also wish someone had told me to focus on setting manageable goals that I control, instead of ones that other people ultimately have control over. So for example, “try to write a little every day” instead of “try to get an agent by the end of the year.” The latter is a milestone, and those are worth celebrating, but treating milestones as goals can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Photo by Ann H from Pexels

On August 25, 2021, Richard Chizmar’s debut novel Chasing the Boogeyman hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #10. It was a huge milestone in my agenting career, an achievement I never imagined when I opened NLA in August 2002. It was my 50th New York Times bestselling client title. Amazing indeed, but self-congratulating isn’t much of an article. A good article is divulging just how a book might hit the NYT bestseller List. And sharing now what I wish baby Agent Kristin had known then. 

First, a caveat. Talking about the NYT list is kind of like talking about unicorn sightings. The real science behind why a title hits the list is not transparent to publishers, agents, or authors. The NYT algorithm and tracking methods are proprietary information, so to be clear, I actually don’t know why or how any given title lands on the bestseller list. This article is simply a compilation of my observations after having 50 client titles hit that list. 

Velocity, Volume, Interval

If memory serves, my very first title to hit the NYT bestseller list was Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You in 2006—just four years after I opened the agency. For baby Agent Kristin, that NYT appearance was a complete surprise. I had no clue it was even a possibility, which just makes me laugh at my own naiveté. As an agent now, I have a very good sense of whether or not a title has the potential to hit the list. Certain factors have to be in play for even the possibility of a hit, and it all relies on velocity, volume, and the interval. 

In other words, in order for a book to hit the NYT list, that title needs to quickly sell (velocity) a high number of copies (volume) during a one-week time span (interval). If a book does those three things, it has a very good chance of hitting the list. 

The Indicators

As an agent, what gives me an inkling that one of my client titles may be positioned to make an appearance on the list? Four factors:

  • Print run. A title needs a high number of physical copies going out into the world so that physical sales can happen. And yes, I know folks reading this article would love exact numbers (just how big does the print run need to be?), but honestly, this varies a lot. I’ve seen titles hit with a 100,000 print run (the bigger the number, the better), but I’ve also seen titles hit with only a 30,000 print run. There is no magic number here as other factors come into play.
  • Reprint before publication. If a publisher has to reprint a title before it’s even published in order to fill early demand, this indicates that excitement and interest for a title is building.
  • Pre-orders. The higher the number of pre-orders a title has, the better the chance. The pre-order number varies greatly depending on whether a title is set up to the hit the adult-hardcover list, the adult-paperback list, or the children’s list. With King, Patterson, Moriarty, Childs, and Steele all taking up regular space on the adult NYT list, and with those authors’ titles selling 20,000+ copies a week (according to Bookscan), you can start to get a sense of just how many copies of a book need to move in the first week to land on that adult-hardcover list.
  • Marketing spend. Awareness of a title has to happen for momentum. In publishing, marketing is where the publisher spends money to create awareness for a book. Publicity is exposure that is free. The bigger the marketing budget is for a book out of the gate, the better the chance. However, this isn’t always true…

The Surprises

Publishing is full of wild-card moments. That’s what makes this industry so much fun, impossible to predict, and full of joyful surprises. One of my bestselling YA titles of my career is Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. This title had a modest beginning with a small print run and a minimal marketing budget. But that original cover and fan love propelled this series to selling over a million copies. I also think a lot of fans think Perfect Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling title, but the reality is that it was book two, Rules of Attraction, that hit the NYT list for the first time in 2010. When Chain Reaction released a year later, that put the trilogy on the series NYT bestseller list. Technically, the first book never actually hit the list. 

Twenty-six editors turned down Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That book went on to spend 130 consecutive weeks on the NYT bestseller list. That’s 2.5 solid years on the list. I still can’t wrap my head around that. 

The Naiveté 

When I was a baby agent just starting out in the biz, I thought a New York Times bestseller meant the title was selling King, Winfrey, or Rowling levels. I also assumed that hitting the list would ensure riches for both author and agent. 

Wow, was I clueless. An NYT hit is fabulous, and often it does mean that the client will earn out the initial advance. It is not, however, a guarantee that earn-out will happen. And although for some clients hitting the list has led to financial stability in writing as a career, it does not automatically equal life-changing riches.

The Movie Effect

With the “New York Times Bestseller” moniker, instead of happening at once, sometimes it happens at last. Bird Box by Josh Malerman is that one client title that I felt in my bones should have hit the list out of the gate in 2014. I was just flat out wrong. It would take four years, Netflix, and Sandra Bullock to make that title into the NYT bestseller that I always knew it to be. 

Publishing. A giant mystery. Thank you for letting me celebrate 50 with you. I have a sneaking suspicion that number 51 might be just around the corner.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Carol VanHook

Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King

In the writing world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on genre. After all, knowing what you write, who it’s for, and how to reach your market are critical elements of many a successful career, and so much of that boils down to understanding genre. There’s also a low, constant buzz about concept. What does high concept mean, is it necessary, and how does it play into an author’s potential to achieve bestseller status or sell into Hollywood? This month, I present a new way to think and talk about fiction—one that argues genre isn’t everything and concept isn’t always king.

Conceptual appeal gets a lot of positive press, and high-concept stories do tend to rise to the top of any given slush pile. Why? Because they feel new and fresh and pitchable and buzzworthy. If you’ve ever received a rejection that says your manuscript is “too quiet,” what the person doing the rejecting is most likely commenting on is your concept. Or lack of concept. They want an idea that feels bigger, something that’s going to stand out on its genre’s shelf rather than conform to it.

But is high concept really the only way to get your book published? Absolutely not. In fact, concept is just one of four ways that stories appeal to readers. In addition to conceptual appeal, there is also emotional appeal, experiential appeal, and literary appeal.

Conceptual Appeal

A story with conceptual (or high-concept) appeal is built on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise.

That’s a definition you’ll find floating all over the Internet, but it’s about zero-percent helpful to writers trying to wrap their creative brains around the idea of conceptual appeal. That’s because the pitch for a high-concept story must be much more than clear and brief. (In other words, you can deliver a clear, one-sentence pitch for a story that doesn’t carry a single hot ounce of conceptual appeal.) So what’s the missing ingredient that will make a highly pitchable story truly conceptually appealing?

Stories with conceptual appeal deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up. If your pitch gets strangers (not friends and family) saying…

  • That’s a million-dollar idea!
  • How in the world did you come up with that?
  • I can’t imagine how your story is going to resolve that problem!
  • I wish I’d come up with that idea!

…then congratulations! You have a story with conceptual appeal.

Here’s another key feature of stories with conceptual appeal: They will only be new and unique once. After they explode onto the scene, they get broken down into tropes that get reimagined by writers writing to the market, hoping to capture the vast readership you’ve amassed. (Ask any agent who was in the biz in the wake of Harry Potter how many query letters they received for middle-grades featuring magic boarding schools. Ask how many they’re still receiving.)

This is not a judgement statement by the way; it’s merely a description of how high-concept books cause genres to shift as readers develop appetites for new types of stories they never knew they were missing.

Emotional Appeal

The emotion-driven story engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls. It promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading. Whether that something is joy, sorrow, or terror, authors whose stories are foremost an appeal to emotion do their best work when they’re tapping into the human condition. These stories often dive deep into the following:

  • Connection (family, friendship, love, reconciliation, redemption)
  • Endeavor (conflict, struggle, indomitable spirit, triumph against insurmountable odds)
  • Separation (failure, pain, loss, death)

Experiential Appeal

Stories with experiential appeal must be experienced to be felt or understood. They are difficult to describe (and even more difficult to pitch), and any attempts to do so often end with, “You just have to read it to get it.” In the movie world, there are plenty of great examples of experiential appeal: Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and The Matrix*, to name a few. Experiential fiction often intersects with the speculative genres—especially science fiction, magical realism, and horror—but it doesn’t have to. You can write a story in any genre that unfolds in a “you just have to read it to get it” sort of way.

*Before we move on, let’s chat about The Matrix, which many might argue is high concept. I disagree. Remember that stories with conceptual appeal are based on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise. Can you write a clear, one-sentence pitch for The Matrix? Can anyone? Sure, you can briefly encapsulate the core premise: “What if all humans were living comfortable but virtual lives, and the cost of waking up to the truth meant living in a dystopian hell?” But this concept as pitched doesn’t even come close to the experience of the movie itself. So although the writers landed on conceptual appeal, it was their choice to let the story unfold in an experiential way that truly blew moviegoers’ minds. Therefore, the conceptual appeal of The Matrix is secondary to its experiential appeal.

Literary Appeal

Writers who aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence put the writing itself first. The artistry of the style, voice, rhythm, meter, lyricism, phrasing, use of poetic devices, and so on, are as important (if not more) than plot, action, or a snappy pace. In other words, these are stories readers find worth reading for how they are told.

A term adjacent to “literary” is “upmarket,” which you might see on agents’ and editors’ wish lists. Upmarket refers to works that employ familiar features, tropes, or structures of genre or commercial fiction but that are told in a more literary writing style. So if you’re a writer striving to appeal to readers who appreciate the artistry of language, but you also want to play in the sandbox of a favorite genre, then you are an upmarket writer. Hooray!

The Genre-Appeal Grid

Now that you know the four ways fiction can appeal to readers, what’s next? Check out the grid below, which features the four appeals across the top and a few (but definitely not all) genres down the side. Where does your current work-in-progress fit? Keep in mind:

  • Knowing your story’s genre as well as its primary appeal can help you figure out how you want to approach the telling of that story.
  • A story can appeal to readers in more than one way. Maybe, like The Matrix, your book has a primary appeal and a secondary appeal.
  • More isn’t better. Trying to write a story that appeals to readers in all four ways is like trying to write a story that crosses too many genres: you’ll end up with a muddy mess that in its manic attempt to be for everyone will actually be for no one.
  • Whichever square on the grid feels most like home to you can help you define your niche and author brand. You’re the one who writes experiential historicals! You’re the one who writes literary westerns! And you! You’re the one who writes high-concept romance!
  • Or every book you write can belong to a different square. You decide!
  • Every square on the grid is valid. None is better than any other. Your success lies in how you execute the story you want to tell, for the readers you want to write for because they value the same things about story that you do.

Photo by Gratisography from Pexels

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels