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Writing UPMARKET FICTION?...

To commemorate their 50th anniversary, the Watson Little literary agency has just announced the Watson Little Prize. All details for submission are here: https://www.watsonlittle.com/about/the-watson-little-prize/

Note: I probably am going to get a lot of flack for this post... LOL  😃  Only days ago I've been called a snob on another thread here for saying this "I tend to prefer well written romances on the literary side and I dislike fast-paced crime novels. I'm witing women's fiction / romance but I'm trying to make it quality commercial: the type people keep as opposed to throw away. Big ambitions here."

Well... well... well... Some agents are after upmarket fiction. I knew I'm not the only snob 😁 

All the best with your "upmarket submissions", but keep it quiet if you don't want to ruffle some feathers around here.


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Replies (75)
    • Thanks for posting this, Donna. Just to add that entrants have to be aged 50 or over, presumably to match the anniversary :-)

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      • Yes, I noticed that. Less competition then! Many will not submit for fear of disclosing their age in public.

        (Gives me a slim chance, I hope)

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        • Shit! That excludes me, then.

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        • That's sad if people don't want to disclose their age. They must have their reasons but ...

          Maybe I'm naive!

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          • Why oh why... would anyone spend a fortune on cosmetic surgery, only to submit their novel (in a moment of snobbery & distraction) to an age-restricted literary competition?! 

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            • 50 is the new 30.....

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            • My grandies won a walking competition for over 50s second in the world.

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              • I hope they are not fiction writers as well as walkers. If they are, there goes my chance.

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              • Libby, it's said that some agents are unwilling to take on older writers, presumably because they think they won't get much mileage out of them, or perhaps because they think they won't be compatible enough with them.  Grr!

                 It 's surprising, then, that this Agency is promoting a competition for over 50s, despite their anniversary. Perhaps the rumoured bias is false after all.  Aren't they getting enough submissions? Or just not enough "upmarket" ones?  

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                • I haven't had much spare time to read the community comments so forgive me if I ask a stupid question but what, exactly, is Upmarket Fiction?

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                  • Long story short: all fiction generally falls into 2 distinct categories, literary fiction and commercial fiction. Between the two, there are a variety of nuances from not quite literary but well-crafted in a way similar to literary fiction -- that's upmarket or quality commercial -- to absolutely commercial.

                    This does not mean that commercial fiction is badly written, it just means it does not make the art of writing it's main focus, it's usually plot driven and intended to appeal to the mass market.

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                    • Thank you D.M.Costa.  That a very clear definition. Now I know!

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                    • By coincidence earlier today I was watching the replay of the JW Summer Festival session with two agents, Laura Williams in the UK and Sonali Chichani in the US. They were asked about writers' ages and both were emphatic that they didn't consider age to be an issue. This kind of thing is always heartening to hear :-) Laura Williams was in favour of older authors, not at the expense of younger ones but because, as she pointed out, many authors pre retirement age don't have the time to write books. 

                      Interestingly there was also a question about author events from someone whose physical disabilities would make personal appearances too much of a drain on their stamina. Both agents agreed that with Covid forcing so many things online, the options for events and the increasing openness to different kinds of publicity means that authors can meet readers in various ways.

                      This information was also encouraging as it suggests a wider range of authors. Obviously there have always been plenty of writers getting on in years, but that includes those who have been writing for a long time. I think there's another aspect too, though this is only my guess. As a reader, I like authors of all ages and that includes those who are the same age or older than me, i.e. 60+. It's a sort of check list in a jokey way but with an underlying seriousness. How am I doing in terms of how I see the world -- kind of normal for my age or not? Sliding hopelessly into disconnection from modern life or somehow keeping my end up? :-) This is significant too: does an older author say something which perhaps someone younger wouldn't. For me that's all part of the pleasure of reading. 

                      Here's another thing I'm saying off the top of my head so could well be wrong, but in terms of hard-edged business, I'm in an age group which -- generalisation alert -- has the time to read. While I'm thinking wistfully of my youth and the energy I've lost, the publishing industry could be thinking, great, the old thing is going to spend plenty of time at home with a book!

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                      • Thanks for sharing Libby. Fully agree with you. I've noticed that book clubs always attract a majority of older members as they have more free time. They also come from a generation for whom books were an important part of life & education.

                        Two years ago Harper Collins had a competition specifically for novels written by over 50s, with a female MC of same age group. Apparently this came about because they realised there was a gap in publishing.


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                        • Hi Libby, I am 60+ and in all honesty I would not write the same book at 30 as I would now. The main themes in both of my books are things I've experienced and learned about over the decades. I also feel there are other barriers to getting an agent apart from age, and as we're all aware, the publishing industry needs to be more inclusive and diverse. It is intriguing though, to try and read between the lines as to what this agency is after. I imagine they get thousands of subs a week, surely there is some upmarket fiction amongst the slush pile? 

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                        • Blakeney poses the question above:

                          "Aren't they getting enough submissions? Or just not enough "upmarket" ones?"

                          I looked at their clients' list and they have been representing writers from a diverse age group, including many older faces. So this is not just a recent effort to show inclusivity: they are indeed not biased by ageism.

                          I think the reason for this competition is genuinely to try to find some diamonds, even if they are still in the rough. They are looking for a certain quality... described by them as upmarket.

                          I remember listening to an interview with a popular agent during the Hay-on-Wye Festival, where she was asked what were agents looking for, and this agent replied: Quality commercial fiction. Fiction that sells well but is also well-written. That's what every single one of them is looking for.

                          Sounds simple, doesn't it? If only...

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                          • Sure you read differently. Most of us probably do read dfferently when there's a critique in question. I don't do what you do, I start analysing right away. I should try your method, it's very generous.

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                            • Oh, Kate, that's so funny. Your son is right. The 'art scene' is very much the same, ascribing deep issue-based thinking to a painting or especially an 'installation'. Funnier still is the book "Why Cats Paint, A Theory of feline aesthetics" by Heather Busch and Burton Silver (Ten Speed Press) showcasing '12 Major Artists' and how (and why) the cats create their various paintings and art installations (which include shredded couches and cleverly arranged dead mice 'installed' in a corner of your living room.) Find a used copy somewhere, it's a riot for any of us who used to be in the art scene and read Art in America or other trendy uppity art magazines. Yeah, as Freud said, 'Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.' LOL. I was at a writers workshop once where a published author held up his book and confessed a reader once pointed out a meaning in one scene that the author hadn't intended or realized. In response the author had gracefully (and cleverly) answered, 'ah, not everyone gets that,' which pleased the reader to no end. 

                              Life is a Rorschach test! 

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                              • Yes, true. But there are still some good ones. I’ve just been reading Widowlands, which is a well written book but very derivative, very similar to the Handmaiden ‘s Tale. I wanted to read the Goodread reviews, and I found that while some of them were sycophantic, others were very accurate. I suppose, like you, I was using it as a book club. Nice thought.

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                              • I saw this competition too. My Jericho editor described my work as ‘unashamedly commercial’ but is it upmarket too? I’d like to think so, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? I might give it a shot.

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                                • Give it a go, Milla. Good luck!

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                                • Hi D M, I am well over 50 and although I too have misgivings re agent submissions admitting age, most of the advice I have seen is don't mention it, it's the book they're interested in, not you. However, I can't help but noticing most of the authors I have seen recently on webinars and book announcements on Twitter etc, have mainly been women in their 20s, 30s and possibly 40s. I am 62 and have a publishing deal (not through an agent, it's an independent publisher), and they're not bothered about age. Not one bit. However if I decide to submit to this agency, I am more worried about what they consider 'upmarket'. My second book has been described as 'book club' and 'literary/thriller' so not sure if it fits, but might just submit anyway. None of their agents would be in my first 10 to submit to however. 

                                  I'm not sure what the agents want, I try to read their bios and look at books they have recently enjoyed, and who they already have on their lists. 

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                                  • Watson Little's own explanation of the upmarket ficion they are looking for:

                                    ‘Upmarket fiction’ is a broad category, encompassing different time periods (historical or contemporary) and often elements from other genres (crime or romance or speculative, etc). We would love to see applications that fit this category (with due thanks to www.masterclass.com for this excellent definition):

                                    ‘Upmarket fiction’ is a subgenre of fiction books that incorporates elements of page-turning mainstream fiction, while still showcasing the more nuanced prose and complex character development more often found in literary fiction.

                                    Simple: They are looking for character-driven stories.

                                    You should go for it. Won't cost anything (a plus...) and you never know what could come out of it. Getting in the longlist would mean the world to me!...

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                                  • Character-driven stories are the ones I write.  H'm.  What exactly is book club fiction, anyone?  I've been puzzled by this for some time. I'd be grateful for clarification (although, it's probably nothing to be concerned about as few people are members of one, as has been said.)

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                                    • Gone Girl has reading group questions in the back. That's the only example that comes to mind.

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                                      • Jojo Moyes novels also have those questions on the back, but one of my book clubs would never pick one of them for the duscussion because they are not thought of as very deep. The other more informal group talked about them a lot and most said they loved a good bit of simple escapism. So do I, it's not all "highbrow" literature for me. Far from it.

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                                        • Thank you to all.  I think I understand now.  I suppose "books with issues that might prompt discussion" might be a way of putting it.  

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                                        • This topic of the definition of Commercial vs Literary fiction always draws a lot of strong views on writers' forums. There are tons of definitions online. These ones by Spread the Word are not bad:

                                          COMMERCIAL AND LITERARY FICTION: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

                                          Is it literary or commercial fiction?

                                          It’s a question that many people ask. Unlike poetry, with its clear form, or children’s fiction, with an obvious audience, and even narrative non fiction, which is rooted in truth, the definition of commercial and literary fiction is more nuanced and blurred.

                                          Whilst there’s crossover between the two, they are distinct categories.

                                          Literary fiction is often focused on artistry, with the story being driven by character and internal motivations. Commercial fiction is generally more plot driven, and read for entertainment rather than its art. ‘In literary fiction there is more of a focus on the writing in and of itself, not just as a tool for telling a story,’ says author Diana Evans, a judge in the literary fiction category. ‘Both literary and commercial fiction tell stories, but I would say that in literary fiction story and writing stand as equal concerns, whereas in commercial fiction story is at the forefront.’

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                                          • I think literary fiction can be freer with structure too, if it wants to be. There might be no plot as such or the story might keep folding back on itself to revisit scenes from a different viewpoint or with a bit more information added each time so the reader builds a gradual picture.  

                                            As 'upmarket' fiction seems to share aspects of commercial and literary fiction it could be called 'commercial/literary' perhaps?  Too simple?

                                            Does anyone remember when upmarket fiction used to be called middlebrow? A half-way house between lowbrow and highbrow. We seemed often to think with our brows in those days.

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                                            • LOL I've never come across that expression but it sort of explains itself in an ironic way: middlebrow. Genius!

                                              And you're right, literary fiction can afford to be more experimental with structure in a way that would never be possible with commercial, because commercial fiction is basically writen for the big market.

                                              Literary fiction is written for the sake of the art of writing and the pleasure of reading. It's the kind that wins big prizes, but that doesn't always translate into big sales.

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                                            • I've come across the term "Lit-light" to mean a blend of the two.

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                                              • Raised eyebrow?

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                                                • 😂

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                                                  • On the subject of "literary" versus "commercial" I've met a writer at a writers' poetry workshop and she wrote beautiful & elaborate literary pieces and was dabbing in poetry as an experiment. As we spoke she admitted that she had been writing (commercial) chick-lit for a living and had been doing it successfully for a while, with a number of published novels. She used a pen name as she wanted to keep her identity separate from her writing. I think she was writing for Mills & Boon.

                                                    I found it amazing & insightfull that someone could just pick a pen and choose to write commercial or literary. It just shows that commercial fiction does not necessarily mean a writer of less ability. In this case the writer was very talented,

                                                    Literary vs Commercial: It's like a popular pizza restaurant and a 5 star restaurant. They offer totally different food but someone that appreciates the gastronomy of the 5 star restaurant can equally enjoy a pizza. Some pizzas are very good indeed = like quality commercial. Nothing condescending about it.

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                                                    • True, Donna, but requiring of qualification.

                                                      Some people can pick up a pen (or sit at a keyboard) and knock out different literary stylings. Others cannot. (I know there are certain genres that, whilst i may be able to craft them with countless rounds of revision, use vocabulary and phrasing that is alien to me.)

                                                      It's a skill some have. Other have a linguiostic voice that comes across too strongly to jump around in that way.

                                                      Neither is better. They are both what they are. Strengths and weaknesses.

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                                                      • It just shows that commercial fiction does not necessarily mean a writer of less ability.

                                                        Commercial fiction doesn't mean a writer of lesser ability full stop. There are quality fiction in all genre and categories — commercial, literary, romance, sci-fi, thrillers. etc... Not one is better (or more "quality") than another. Issue-led and book club fiction is not better quality than pure escapism fiction. It depends on what readers like and want to read. 

                                                        As Rick says each genre requires different strength and a writer whose strength is an evocative language is not better than a writer who is great with tight plotting and fast-pace but write in plain prose.

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                                                        • Yes, and the word "condescending' does no apply to it. Full stop. That's the point I was trying to make.

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                                                        • Hi everyone,

                                                          I've been reading this thread with interest and at times (as a commercial author) through my fingers. I just wanted to remind everyone that we have authors of every stripe and genre on our lovely community, and all are welcome. Please bear that in mind and be gentle in your language, people may not post to say they feel a little hurt when their genre is talked about in somewhat dismissive tones, but that doesn't mean they're not a little tender. For the most part this conversation has been thoughtful and interesting (as they almost always are on here), and I'd like to keep it that way.  

                                                          Best wishes,

                                                          Holly 

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                                                          • Most people here at JW, if not all, are writing commercial fiction, including Harry and he's making a very good job of it. (Anyone that hasn't read his work should give it a try and he's got a freebie on his webpage).

                                                            The title of this post has come from Watson Little themselves, not from me. My intention in posting it here was to share it wih anyone that may be interested in submitting for the Watson Little Prize.

                                                            I had to google "upmarket fiction" and "what is upmarket fiction" to get an idea of what exactly they were asking, and I've seen that this is not a new category, it has been used by the publishing industry at least since the late 1990s, that's 20 years... at least.

                                                             

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                                                          • Latest: Watson Little have now added some more information to their webpage that answers some questions posted here. They give examples of favourite choices in this category.

                                                            Maybe they've been following us here. LOL 

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                                                            • I think of upmarket fiction as being similar to the categorisation of 'mezzo-soprano' in singing. Some people would describe themselves as being mezzo-soprano because their range lies between the extremes of soprano and alto, which is absolutely fair enough. But a professional mezzo-soprano has to reach the extremes of both. 

                                                              Literary and commercial fiction both require enormous skill, and to some extent different skills. Commercial fiction requires 'that page-turning quality' mentioned on the Watson Little website, and usually a huge amount of inventiveness to keep the thrills, laughs or plot-points coming, all the way to a deeply satisfying ending. Literary fiction tends to admit more complexity and ambiguity, whether that is thematic, psychological or linguistic. Its ending might be thought-provoking rather than satisfying, and the market is smaller. Both require brilliant writing. But it's possible - though not inevitable, or necessary - for some successful literary writers to sacrifice a little of that page-turning quality, and for some successful commercial writers to sacrifice a little of that complexity, because their skills are so amazing at the opposite end. 

                                                              Upmarket fiction is the mezzo-soprano of fiction. I'd imagine that slushpiles are full of excellent manuscripts that fail to quite live up to the expectations of either genre. But our bookshelves are full of books that do both: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, right up to the latest commercial and literary sensations. There is still plenty of room for writers whose dazzling commercial skills whisk us off into their worlds, and for those whose literary skills are so powerful that they change our minds. In addition, many straightforwardly commercial novels are hugely psychologically complex, or deal with difficult themes in ambitious ways; while many straightforwardly literary novels are accessibile and engaging. But no wonder this agency is interested in upmarket fiction. It's a sweet-spot, and for some of us, a bit of a dream.

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