In last Tuesday’s discussion of comparison titles, an agent described a book as, among other things, “women’s upmarket fiction.” And I thought, “upmarket” is such a weird term, maybe I define it? But then I’d need to define lots of other things agents tell authors. And considering that the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas conference hosted a separate hour-long panel on weird literary terms, I decided the topic of agent-speak deserved its own post. So here it is, with agents Ann Collette of Rees Literary Agency, Claudia Cross of Folio Literary Management, Ethan Bassoff of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin and Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group bravely attempting to put definitions to what agents really mean when they say [fill in the blank].
Commercial, too: How, exactly, can a book be too commercial, I wondered. And perhaps the agent/panelists did too, floundering a bit. “Maybe not developed enough,” Cross said. “Or,” Bassoff added, “maybe the agent specializes in works that are more experimental.” Or “maybe it was just too trope-ie,” was Gottlieb's suggestion. (I'll jump in here to mention that "trope" as a figure of speech, tends to mean figures, sometimes verging on cliches, unique to a particular genre.) All in all, probably not a good thing for an author to hear, even if the agent was trying to soften the blow.
Didn’t connect: Speaking of trying to soften the blow, Collette’s take on this is “a nice way of saying it’s amateurish.” With a possible side dish, in Bassoff's words, of “I didn’t give a (expletive deleted) about the character.” Another ouchy.
High concept: On the positive side, ‘high concept’ implies not so much that the manuscript contains a large number of explosions as that it’s “something that breaks with the norm,” Gottlieb said. “Mario Puzo’s Godfather was high concept for its day because it was the first novel to have a villain as the hero.” On the other hand, “Can we as agents define ‘high concept’” Collette asked. “I usually leave it to the publisher to define,” Bassoff said. All in all, probably not a term authors should use to describe their own work, even if they think it is.
Narrative arc: “The trajectory of the story – beginning, middle, end,” Gottlieb said. Added Bassoff, “Every book needs to end a chapter – not a cliffhanger, but on a question the writer is going to answer. That type of progress is what I look for.”
Not right for me: It might seem that this is a variation of “didn’t connect,” but agents said not. More likely, it means the agent might have liked the book, but not enough to carry him/her all the way through the process of publication. “We all want to feel passionate about a book,” Collette said. And remember, “you want a good chemistry with your agent,” Cross said.
Platform: “It depends on whether you’re talking about fiction or nonfiction,” Gottlieb said. “Let’s go with fiction,” moderator Suzy Spencer told him. Then, he said, ‘platform’ means “that you’re an active member of your community.” “For romance,” Cross said, “you may not have won awards, but if you’re a member of a community (platform) could be a blurb from a well-known author." Turning the subject to nonfiction, Gottlieb said, “people are going to look at whether you have authority in your area. It can’t be just a good idea. It has to be – why are you the person to write this?”
Plot driven: “Sounds more like category fiction,” Collette said.
Send me your manuscript when you’re ready: “What I mean is, when the book is ready,” Bassoff said. “When you feel that you can’t do any more work, if you find yourself changing a hyphen for a semicolon.” “But don’t polish the passion out,” Cross added. “Send me your best work, not your fastest,” Collette said, raising a question from the audience, “If it’s been six months or a year, how do you reintroduce yourself?” “Mention that we met at the conference,” Cross said. “We’ll remember the broad strokes.
Upmarket: “‘Upmarket is a fancy way to say ‘literary’ in my opinion,” Gottlieb said. “It’s difficult to sell literary fiction. Upmarket gives the idea that it’s literary but still has commercial viability.”