What agents look for in commercial fiction

In these vastly uncertain economic and political times, there’s nothing more transporting than curling up with a brilliant novel. There’s some brilliant television on at the moment – dark, suspenseful drama and epic period pieces – but for something truly escapist, truly uplifting, sometimes only fiction will do. Much has been said about this new trend towards “up lit” within fiction – stories which emphasise kindness, empathy, sacrifice, forgiveness and small acts of heroism – and over the last few months there have been runaway successes in this new “genre” (including Gail Honeyman’s wonderful Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine), uplifting stories which provide welcome relief to relentless news headlines.

To provide context for this rise in up lit, we must rewind the clock, back to when S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (2011) and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) kicked off what became a meteoric growth in psychological thrillers – or domestic suspense, or grip-lit, call it what you will. Five years later the genre (or perhaps we should call it a train) has only slightly tapered off. There will always be a place for shocking, suspenseful fiction; if Apple Tree Yard was published now it would likely be just as successful as it was in 2013, because quality fiction will always stand up in the market whatever the genre. But there have been a lot of writers jumping on the bandwagon, and agents and editors are tired of the same old stories being told, so within psychological suspense it’s never been more important to bring something new and original to the genre in order to rise up through an undeniably saturated market.

Increasingly, agents and editors are on the hunt for what’s going to rise to the top and take the baton from suspense, and all signs are pointing towards uplifting, life-affirming fiction – the polar opposite of the domestic noir which has gone before and which those within the industry are beginning to tire of. Fiction that moves you, that makes you feel something, and encourages you to live boldly, kindly and to take chances has never felt more necessary and relevant. And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t need to fall within a specific genre: historical and contemporary fiction, commercial fiction through to literary, can all leave the reader with this sense of optimism. Quirky voices, unlikely friendships (as well as unlikely romances) and random acts of kindness have never been so welcome.  For inspiration, do read Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and Clare Fisher’s All The Good Things and make sure you pre-order next spring’s You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac. These are human stories: stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, stories of hope and of redemption, and of people overcoming difficulties and searching for the good.

And this trend isn’t just influencing fiction – the non-fiction market is tapping into it too. The market is flooded with books on the Scandinavian ways to live well and be happy, several little books on kindness, and in December King’s Road Publishing’s new wellness imprint, Lagom, will be publishing 15 Minutes to Happiness by psychotherapist Richard Nicholls.

As an agent, there is nothing more magical than reading a novel for the first time and being made to feel something by it. That feeling could be any number of things, but – looking outside at what’s going on around the world and on our doorsteps – the time feels right for it to be something positive. So I’m backing up lit – in whatever form that takes.

Rebecca Ritchie joined A.M. Heath in 2017 after 6 years at Curtis Brown, bringing her list of commercial authors with her. In fiction, she’s on the lookout for debut and established authors of contemporary women’s fiction, reading group, historical and suspense. In non-fiction, she’s particularly interested in cookery, travel, health and wellbeing.

A.M. Heath, agents, commercial fiction, Curtis Brown, Literary Agent


  • Thank you for this great article on what agents are looking for in commercial fiction. I am on the verge of completing my latest novel and I hope it stands out in the marketplace.

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