View Full Version : All things literary

07-06-2009, 01:39 AM
Writing, querying and selling literary fiction appear to be riddled with their own unique road blocks and challenges. Why don’t those of us who are writing, querying and trying to sell literary fiction share our experiences and frustrations and small victories here?

May be, by pooling our resources and common experiences, we can support and help one another?

Who are you querying and who is reading your manuscripts? Are there folks among us who are agented and are going through the submission process? Let us use this thread for sharing all things literary…

07-06-2009, 08:40 AM
Hey hon!

The reason you probably haven't gotten any responses yet is because such threads already exist in this very section. The most active one being "The No News is No News" thread. There is also, you'll notice a few threads down, "My stats, what are yours?", "Purgatory's Pit of Doom" and "The Next Circle of Hell". While I suppose none of them are unique to literary fiction, you'll find many different authors of many different genres sharing their experiences. You may find you have more in common with them than you think.

Check 'em out and feel free to join in! But don't just hang out here, don't forget to check out the "Goals and Accomplishments" forum which can be very inspiring to read.

Good luck with everything and welcome to AW!

alias octavia
07-06-2009, 09:25 PM
Hey Zsuzsi!

As you know, I am querying a work of literary fiction right now and struggling with the unique challenges related to seeking representation for this type of work.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is finding the agents who are truly interested in literary works. Of course, some of this trouble comes from the tricky task of defining just what constitutes "literary" fiction. I won't go into that here because it has been discussed to death in other threads.

I found that many agents list literary as an interest area, but tend to want fiction more on the commercial side. When I first started querying agents I would narrow my search by this genre label, but had poor query results. Once I started querying agents who specialized in literary fiction or had some track record of selling this type of material I had more requests for the manuscript.

Do you think agents just list literary as an interest to cast a wide net? Even when they really prefer more commercial novels? Of course there is the "upmarket" designation which continues to befuddle me. Another wrinkle is that most of the agents who really focus on literary fiction do not accept unsolicited queries. I've been tempted to query anyway...

07-06-2009, 09:35 PM
Yes, Octavia. My experience ditto. The definition of "literary fiction" evades me too. I know what I mean when I say it, I just don't know what agents mean. I agree with you, I think agents use the term loosely to capture a variety of writers. I,too, have started to look up names of favorite writers or writers whose works are similar to mine but alas, most of the agents who I'd like to be represented by-- Nicole Aragi, Ira Silverman, Bill Clegg, Eric Simonoff have closed their practices to new clients it seems.

07-06-2009, 09:40 PM
I think the literary genre is as well defined as any other (which is to say, not perfectly). The most common definition being something along the lines of: works, sometimes artistic or experimental in form, that seek to illuminate the human experience/condition.

alias octavia
07-06-2009, 09:47 PM
I like your definition, veinglory. The problem is that some agents say literary fiction, but then shy away from anything that they see as too artistic or experimental. I think what they really want are works that are well written, poetic even, but firmly within the mold of an easy sale.

I'm reading THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Krauss right now. Beautiful work, literary and yet it crossed over and was the NYT bestseller list. Some of these agents, I think, want to find the next book like this one or WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by SG. There are plenty of examples, but the stumbling block is the sales environment right now. I think people are less likely to take chances. For literary fiction, I think this means it is even harder for a debut author to snag an agent and a pub contract.

07-07-2009, 03:41 AM
Because the spectrum of literary fiction is so wide, I feel that agents ask to see your manuscript( based on your query), only to pass on it, citing reasons such as no commercial hook, or the pacing is slow, or that the plot is too subtle( features that are not necessarily too detrimental in evaluating lit. fic.). Unfortunately, the editors in major publishing houses are looking for the same things that agents are looking for.

Hopefully, there are agents out there who feel differently about it and hopefully too, these agents have contacts with editors who feel differently about it. Now, if we can only get those agents to become interested in our work.

I'd love to have someone who has sold debut literary fiction in recent years or snagged an agent in recent years to share their experience here.

Meanwhile, we will commiserate and share our contacts and leads, Alias Octovia.

Dean Michael
07-07-2009, 04:00 PM
What's even more frustrating about trying to land a literary novel is the whole "experimentation" aspect of it. Some of my favorite novels are experiments in storytelling, or involve "new ways" in telling a story. Actually, many literary journals/magazines encourage this form of experimentation so that new, original voices can emerge.

When agents request literary fiction, are they not seeking "distinctive" voices in the same way as music producers look for the new, fresh voice. If so, in their consideration, shouldn't they be valuing originality as opposed to familiarity with other works already published. In this competitive publishing market, wouldn't a novel that is entirely original stand out amongst a horde of books written the same way?

To me, it seems that agents are less likely to take risks on originality.

Just putting it out there.


07-07-2009, 07:41 PM
Hello Dean,

When you send out the queries are you mentioning the experimentation aspect of your book? Are are you letting the reader see if for themselves?

I agree with you, literary magazines( University presses, MC Sweeney's etc, Agni, Tin House) are much more open to experimental writing and metafiction than the publishing world. I think agents and editors are responding to what the market wants in that respect. A conventional read is a safer bet than innovative work from a debut author.

Makes you wonder for every DFW or George Saunders, how many writers out there who are deconstructionlists or post modern writers but the world hasn't heard about them because the publishing world has turned a blind eye to them.

Not only do we need agents who appreciate this, they also need to have contacts in the publishing world of editors and publishing houses, so they know where to go with this work. Otherwise, landing an agent but not selling a book becomes a meaningless exercise.

Keep plugging along...

alias octavia
07-07-2009, 08:24 PM
Experimental literary fiction is a hard sell in the mainstream marketplace. I think the trick is figuring out when a work is too literary to have appeal to the big, commercial houses. Small presses like Graywolf, Milkweed, Dzanc Books and Coffee House Press (just naming a few on the top of my radar) thrive on finding the new, underrepresented voices. Or - they also seek the mid-career, mid-list novelists. You don't need an agent to submit to these pub houses.

When you query a book to agents and get feedback that they love the writing, but don't see a market - do you approach small presses? This is an aspect of the business I would love to know more about. How does this figure in to building a career as a writer of literary fiction? Does it harm your chances of landing an agent in the future?

07-07-2009, 08:49 PM
I have a writer friend with four books( very experimental and highly original) that have been published by small presses. All along he has had a top notch agent from an esteemed NYC agency but she/he couldn't sell the books to conventional publishing houses. Instead she/he did help him get published through small presses. Now he is struggling to sell his fifth book, which the said agent endorses strongly but the publishing houses are frowning at his poor track record. I think if you were starting your career, going with a small press can become a burden unless of course you sell like Per Patterson ( Graywolf Press) did. Either way it is a gamble.

07-08-2009, 05:46 AM
My first novel was defined by several agents who read it as "Literary with a capital L." It got a lot of attention from agents when I queried and was shopped to a list of big house editors, all of whom said it was wonderful and they couldn't wait to see it published... by someone else.

Very frustrating. It is now on the shelf. Number 2 is with a number of agents now - I consider it less "literary" but it's still in that genre. So far the response is slower (the first one was repped w/in 2 weeks of query and then re-repped w/in 24 hours of being available again a year later) but I don't know if it's the book or the economy.

Number 3 is getting ready to go to a few readers. It's more commercial, I think, so maybe it will have a slightly easier path.

My agents never considered submitting to smaller houses - they both said (still say, actually) "keep writing, it will happen."


07-08-2009, 06:58 AM
It is such a relief to hear that you have had no trouble finding representation for your book, Claire. Which means we can entertain hopes of that happening.

One would have to chalk off the lack of sales to the economy, I'd think. As your agents say, you'd have to believe, "It will happen."

Are you switching agents for book two? In querying for your second novel, are you saying that you were once agented and on submission or are you querying for your second novel afresh?

May be number two and three will get published first paving the way for number one. It can't hurt that you have three novels under your belt. Hang in there.

What words of advise do you have for some of us who are seeking representation at this time? Did you query everyone who said that they dealt with LF or did you do a more targeted search? Thanks.

07-08-2009, 05:47 PM
I am querying anew with this second novel, which hasn't been shopped to editors - my previous two agents have shifted to repping more nonfiction than fiction and while one of them still reads for me, he is not taking on fiction right now.

When I originally queried the first novel, I think I sent out 17 letters, to mostly big names who repped lit fic, although the two agents who ended up being the most interested were big names in publishing - but new to agenting. Both my agents were career editors for big houses "retiring" to agenting, which was great b/c I at least got to have that editor-author kind of relationship. That part was amazing - working with someone who not only took my book seriously but loved it, and felt it had the potential to be big.

I initiated leaving both agents - I didn't want to get stuck with that book, and I didn't want to get too comfortable in that zone of "I have an agent" - but no book published yet. I have had more than a few writer friends who got in that position and emerged many years later feeling bitter that nothing ever happened for them. (and one who stayed with her original agent and eventually hit it big - so it can work that way too)

For me, the writing process itself is the reward, so while I do want to get one/some/all of these novels published, I also know that it is a tough road, given the kind of book I write. Ironically, many agents and all the editors who read it said it was the kind of book that would cross over easily - literary to mainstream - but even that didn't get a sale.

With this second novel the take (from agents) seems to be "I love this but I don't know who I would sell it to."

A number of agents have said that once the first one goes, the others will be easier sells - but meanwhile I have to write that "one." :)

The hardest part about this business is that there are so many layers to crack. Writing the book, getting it right, getting an agent. And that is SO MUCH to have achieved - but even once you have an agent, there are that many more layers to break through before the book can get onto the shelf in a bookstore.

All that said, my third ms sits piled around me even as I type - and I have at least 4 projects elbowing their way to the front of the "next up" line. It's almost a cliche at this point but I do think it's true - if you don't enjoy the writing part, it's probably not worth it.

07-08-2009, 06:51 PM
I know someone who has, but she's in China right now, so I doubt she'll be around to post. All the same, she wrote her first lit novel, got an agent for it, and sold it earlier this year. She doesn't have an MFA from a big name program (or any program), and she didn't build up any other writing credentials like pubbing shorts in lit mags. She just wrote a great book and sold it. It does happen.

I'd love to have someone who has sold debut literary fiction in recent years or snagged an agent in recent years to share their experience here.

07-08-2009, 08:08 PM
Thanks, Claire. Just a sobering message that getting an agent is not the end of this road. Although without it, we cannot even dream of going anywhere. Necessary step but not sufficient. I do love what you said about enjoying the process of writing itself. Without that the rest seem absurdly inadequate to sustain you.

Redzilla, thanks for sharing that news. We don't hear enough of that. Yay for your friend.

07-08-2009, 08:52 PM
I know someone who has, but she's in China right now, so I doubt she'll be around to post. All the same, she wrote her first lit novel, got an agent for it, and sold it earlier this year. She doesn't have an MFA from a big name program (or any program), and she didn't build up any other writing credentials like pubbing shorts in lit mags. She just wrote a great book and sold it. It does happen.

You stole my thunder with this post. I was going to say the main requirement for a novel to be literary is that the writer went to an MFA program like Iowa, got some endorsements and/or an agent and/or publishing contacts from his/her professors and has published a lot in literary magazines.

I still think this is the typical resume, with the exception proving the rule.

Having none of the above credentials, I'm also in the "just don't know where I could sell this" category of responses. Now I've got three novels with an agent who I'm driving crazy.

Anyone for a fourth?

alias octavia
07-08-2009, 08:57 PM
"I love this but I don't know who I would sell it to."

Yes, I'm familiar with this sentiment. It seems to be what I'm getting a lot of right now.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Claire and best of luck with those ideas that are "elbowing" their way in and demanding attention. I'm sure you will have great success with querying agents for this other work.

You are right, of course, about enjoying the writing. In the end, that is what matters. This process can be maddening, and it is easy to forget about what is really important. I didn't start writing to be published. I write because I can't imagine life without writing. Validation, by means of publishing, would be nice but it isn't necessary. In the end, I am the one who needs to be happy with the words on the page.

A wise woman, the founder of the "no news is no news..." thread said once that everyone has their own path. I really try to remember that when I get down about the process. I am on my path and it will be full of its own unique challenges. I am always thrilled, Red, to hear about someone having success and selling their first novel. Unfortunately, I don't think that is my path but I have faith that it will happen one day. In fact, at that point, it will mean so much more to me. It is sort of like climbing a mountain, a tough, steep - stop and curse the beast - sort of mountain; when you get to the top the view is better, all because the journey made you work for it.

07-08-2009, 09:04 PM
It is sort of like climbing a mountain, a tough, steep - stop and curse the beast - sort of mountain; when you get to the top the view is better, all because the journey made you work for it.

As long as you don't look down--or up.

07-08-2009, 09:52 PM
One thing that has really kept me sane through this process is having a small group of writers I met while working on the first novel - met them at a writing retreat and now we all meet there for a week 1-2x/year. We all have our own paths and we all get excited about any progress any of us make - and we also have a blast every evening doing "cocktails and critiques" and enjoying the good writing that is being done and shared.

I love reading that a debut author sold the first book. I also love it when a debut author sells the fifth book! :)

I didn't mean to paint a dreary picture at all - when I get truly down about it I go to the bookstore and look at the debut fiction shelves - they remain full and there are always so many I can't possibly keep up with them. So they are selling, and hopefully one day we'll all be in that spot. Meanwhile, I intend to enjoy the journey from here to there.

alias octavia
07-11-2009, 11:27 PM
Claire - I don't think you painted a dreary picture at all. I agree with you, I enjoy hearing when a debut author sells. Literary fiction is a difficult area to crack into -- even for those with MFAs and impressive publication credentials. As much as I lament the process, I am honored to have any agents interested in my work because I know there is a lot of talent out there all working to the same goal.

I can only hope this process will help me improve my craft and keep reaching for and demanding even better from myself. The only disappointment, really, is that this development all must now take place outside of the process. A debut work now is different than it was fifty years ago... Now the work must be stunning through and through, decades ago some of the appeal of debut work was the potential it showed. There is no room for that kind of development; publishing these days lacks that sort of patience.

Writing groups are important to staying sane and motivated. I have two face-to-face groups that I belong to, one just a discussion/support group and the other is a critique group. There are some things that only other writers understand.

07-13-2009, 08:13 PM
alias octavia,

Good points.

it's wonderful that you see this experience as a learning process. Unlike any other form of schooling, this is a gamble, though, and will always be a gamble. It gets tiresome to keep on hearing that agents and editors like your book but are unsure that the reading public would embrace it. Too many writers vying for the same readers is a serious problem with serious writing.

The process ought to be gratifying in and of itself. The job of querying and intersting agents is as gratifying as playing the lotto.

I am so tired of hearing that the market doesn't want literary fiction that I am wondering if it is worth pulling back on the queries and waiting patiently for the general publishing climate to improve. I mean, why exhaust our precious resources?

07-14-2009, 08:00 AM
Anyone know about conferences designed for literary writing only where one might meet / and or pitch to interested agents? I know many conferences that get talked about in these forums but I'm specifically interested in knowing if there are ones exclusive for literary work. Any one here with experience or information? Perhaps, this might be one way to hook up with agents interested in not-so-commercial work.

alias octavia
07-16-2009, 12:57 AM
I don't know of any conferences that are strictly literary. I feel like the majority of literary oriented events are workshops and they tend to be in the thousands of dollars -- a little out of my range at this point.

I am curious as to people's thoughts about literary novel contests - Bakeless Literary Prize (http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/blwc/bakeless/). The winner receives publication by Graywolf Press. While we have discussed the merits and downsides of small press publishing, does the prestige of a contest win associated with the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference outweigh those negatives?

07-16-2009, 01:04 AM
Entry into Graywolf Press, as a contest winner, might be a good way to break into the market without the stigma associated with small press publications. Besides, they allow for multiple submissions. So, if another opening comes up one can always withdraw before May, 2010. I'd consider it. Thanks for the lead, Alias.

07-21-2009, 11:30 PM
I recently started subscribing to Publishers Marketplace and am now appalled at what sorts of information you can glean.

1. Agent one who is reviewing your full has never sold fiction in over five years. Do you want them even if they want you?

2. Agent two who rejected your full with the usual verbage( didn't connect with the characters, pacing is slow etc etc) has never sold debut fiction in five years.

3. Agent three who rejected your partial hasn't had a sale in three years.

4. All the agents who have had any degree of success selling debut fiction in the past year are the ones who have ignored your query.

5. One fiction sale for every ten to twenty non fiction books sold.

6. In the past year (save one or two exceptions), any agent who has sold one or two fiction makes it to the top of the list for Fiction sales.

Take home message anyone?

07-22-2009, 05:49 AM
I am querying like mad with no success and am running out of agents!!! Apparently none of the historical romance agents think my historical romance is the dreaded "right" for them. WHATEV. I'm so angry. LOL

08-21-2009, 02:09 AM
Just want to cheer on those who have written "the literary novel" but cannot find representation yet. Please keep at it. I just got "the call" from a reputable agency in NYC with big sales for my literary novel. My novel doesn't have any commercial potential ( IMO) but the agent was taken with it. Some agents out there must still believe in pursuing their passions even if it doesn't serve their pecuniary interests. Here is toasting to all those agents...

08-21-2009, 04:28 AM
Cheers to you, Zsuzsi!

I just found this thread, and am totally feeling the pain. I've had awesome responses from all my readers on my manuscript, but am still getting from agents that they love the writing but its just not for them.

I think what frustrates me the most is the thought that I fear some of my favorite writers--even the contemporary ones-- would have a hell of a time getting published these days.

Keep All Chins Up!

09-01-2009, 09:20 AM
Are there any newly agented authors of literary fiction who are in the process of revising or submitting to publishers? Would you care to share your experiences? I am currently revising my novel for my agent.