What Is Upmarket Fiction?

From Jane Friedman:

Ask five different industry members and you’ll get five different answers. But what really is “upmarket” fiction?

Upmarket fiction is a blend of commercial fiction and literary fiction, but how it gets blended is where writers and industry members can’t always agree.

The nuances of upmarket fiction are confusing because the lines are blurry to those who don’t see it every day, but I have a method to share with you to better understand the category. Here’s a definitive guide to upmarket fiction.

It has universal themes everyone can connect to, with a hyper-focused plot.

Universal does not mean meandering and expansive. Universal means ideas that travel. Love, loss, grief, trauma, family secrets, and identity show up in upmarket fiction because these are the books that start hyper-specific, like a dust bowl fiction called The Four Winds, and ends up traveling around the country and the world (selling translation rights as they go).

Like Mika in Real Life, we get into them for the plot and end up being swept away by how it makes us feel and then we want to go tell everyone else about it!

Like The People We Hate at the Wedding, we all love the drama of a messy wedding, especially one that includes international travel.

Foreign rights agents never truly know what will sell, but emotionally gripping, universal themes are the books they always want to share with their foreign contacts because they’re not geographically bound. Upmarket novels have potential to sell well in translation because we’re all human.

The aim is thoughtful discussion of real world application.

Ripped-from-the-headlines books often fall into this category. Books where the topic is already being discussed in pop culture or the news and captured in fiction like Girls with Bright Futures (social satire of the 1%), We Are Not Like Them and Such a Fun Age (both hold a mirror up to society’s social justice conversations) are great examples. Books that make readers think about “What would I do in that situation?” or “What if that happened to me/my sister/my family?” are ways that readers are pulled into the book in a nuanced way that inspire deep thought about how the reader feels about the subject matter or character conflict and their own personal relationship to it.

It’s a blend of literary and commercial: quality writing with a high-concept hook or unique structure

So here’s where the blend comes in. The literary part is that the quality of writing is high (doesn’t need to be capital L literary, though, and actually shouldn’t be), and the commercial part is the hook. You immediately get why you need to read it and read it now, but you’re going to keep reading because the writing is really strong.

What is a high-concept hook you might ask? The GuncleOne DayThe Midnight Library and This Time Tomorrow come to mind. A high-concept hook is a premise or hook that you can immediately wrap your head around and see how it can drive a novel: a “what if” hook, a hook that might be about an existential question but is captured in a brilliant single line.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG’s definition: Upmarket Fiction is a buzzword used by less than 1,000 people in the world and understood by none of them.

PG is now going to practice his high-concept hooks.

8 thoughts on “What Is Upmarket Fiction?”

  1. They’re testing marketing speak for when they move pbook prices to $40 and above.
    The stories themselves are unchanged but Inflation isn’t going away soon.

  2. One wonders what the OP would have to say about the 1980s-1990s school of “K-Mart Realism.” But the writer is obviously too young to have lived through that particular crappy bit of fashionability. Unfortunately, I’m not (I also had to live through disco).

    Write first. Categorize during marketing efforts later (whether to commercial publishers or to distributors or to the reading public).

  3. Upmarket fiction is what I write, what I’ve been writing for 23 years: commercial fiction with a literary quality to the writing. It used to be called a ‘big book.’ There have been other names, and certain writers have been associated with the ability to both pitch a book at a wide audience, and deliver something readable. I’ve always used ‘mainstream fiction.’

    I hope the moniker sticks, but, if it does, know that the lists will be overwhelmed by books wanting the designation without supplying the goods. It has happened to everything else already.

    • Like I said, it is nothing new, aimed at the same audiences.
      The name is just marketing, hoping to draw in the curious.
      Best long term marketing strategy, though, remsinwriting a good book that hits folks where they live.

  4. ” Love, loss, grief, trauma, family secrets, and identity show up in upmarket fiction ”

    Sounds like every book blurb I’ve ever shied away from. As soon as they start talking about “family secrets”, I turn and run.

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