Fantasy and sci-fi writers who follow publishing trends, or are submitting novels to agents and publishers, may have come across an unfamiliar term: “upmarket fiction.” It’s often mentioned in manuscript wish lists, but what does it mean? What elements make a book fit this category? What can you do to make your work feel more “upmarket” – and is that even a good idea?
Polish your prose and grab your fanciest pens, as we learn how to recognize and write upmarket fiction.
What is upmarket fiction?
Upmarket fiction, a relatively new term in publishing, combines elements of both literary fiction and commercial or genre fiction. It typically features well-crafted writing and a focus on character development, similar to literary fiction. But it also offers a strong and accessible narrative that appeals to a broad audience, characteristic of mainstream commercial fiction.
Upmarket fiction often explores complex themes and issues but does so in a way that is engaging and relatable to a wider readership. It also often incorporates speculative elements like fantasy or science fiction, but is less reliant on following their tropes. This new genre aims to strike a balance between the depth and artistry of literary works and the broader market appeal of commercial or mainstream fiction. As a result, upmarket fiction may attract both readers who enjoy literary novels and those who prefer more commercial, plot-driven stories.
Why Publishers (and Readers) Want Upmarket Fiction
Let’s be clear: publishers want to sell more books. Awards and accolades are wonderful, but whether they’re a small press or a big commercial house, popular books keep the presses running. Upmarket fiction is, in some ways, an attempt to reverse engineer a wildly popular novel.
Upmarket fiction can create a virtuous circle between awards and sales. The quality of the writing and deep characterizations can attract critical acclaim, which gets a book on the radar of book clubs and social media. This higher profile brings more readers to the table – a good thing for both the publisher and the author. By employing some of the techniques of more commercial genre fiction, publishers can shoot for the widest audience possible.
How Fantasy and Sci-Fi Writers Can Write Upmarket Fiction
Upmarket fiction incorporates elements of many different commercial genres. That includes mystery, thrillers, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and romance. For fantasy and sci-fi writers, pairing an irresistible genre speculative premise with stylistic choices pulled from literary fiction can take your work from enjoyable to unforgettable.
Here are some things to bear in mind if you want to be ready to position your work as upmarket fiction on your next round of submissions.
- Elevate your prose. That doesn’t necessarily mean more complex or abstruse language. Clarity and ease of reading is one of the elements upmarket fiction pulls from commercial fiction. But many speculative writers rely on workmanlike prose designed to deliver plot points efficiently – and that won’t cut it if you’re aiming for upmarket.
- Be intentional about your theme. One definition of upmarket fiction is “commercial fiction with something to say.” Literary fiction is often as much or more concerned with the inner lives of characters than the action beats. Consider what you want readers to still be thinking about long after they finish the book.
- Meet the reader halfway. Speculative fiction can sometimes be a little didactic. Fantasy and science fiction writers may feel burdened to fully explain everything, because they’re not grounding a story in a familiar world. Literary fiction trusts readers to figure some things out on their own, or even leaves some things open for interpretation.
- Keep the plot moving. The energetic “page turner” pacing of commercial fiction is an element you want to retain in your work. Literary fiction can be slower moving, which can make many readers struggle to keep going. If a reader feels like they can put the book down, they will. And they might not pick it back up.
- Get a little experimental. This is where you want to take your big swings in terms of creativity. Not just in your premise, but in your prose. If you want to play with an unusual point-of-view, or break typical genre conventions, now is the time!
World Anvil: Helping You Improve as a Writer
One of the best tools at your disposal for improving your writing is a community of fellow storytellers. World Anvil has one of the best creative communities on the internet! We have Chapters, which are small groups that can help you critique your work.
We also have frequent challenges and competitions that can push you to improve your writing craft and creativity. And we provide resources like Worldbuilding Con and our Worldbuilding Podcast filled with professional, expert advice. Of course, we also offer a wonderful novel writing software designed specifically for writers of speculative fiction! With a wealth of templates, prompts and other features, World Anvil can take your manuscript to the next level!