Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: http://www.larsen-pomada.com/lp/pages.cfm?ID=15. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at: http://www.agentsavant.com/as/, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.
Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.
Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?
Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction. It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.
Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.
Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance. It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests. There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc. Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.
Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance. The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.
Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit. In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking. Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them. You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.
Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.
Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.
Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?
Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks. Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.
Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?
Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.
Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.
Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.
Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).
Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?
Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised. Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!
Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?
Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.
Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?
Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases. But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only (email@example.com) where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.