Upmarket fiction combines the best aspects of literary fiction and commercial fiction; is sellable and successful; attracts an intelligent, loyal readership; and agents and commissioning editors love it.
Does all this sound too good to be true?
And what on earth does ‘upmarket fiction’ mean?
Read on to find out.
In this article, I’ll explore what upmarket fiction is all about, and what agents and editors mean when they use the term.
I’ll look at the differences and similarities between upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, and literary fiction, and I’ll give you several examples – without spoilers – so you can explore the category for yourself.
Then you’ll get a set of practical steps to use if you want to write and sell upmarket fiction.
What Is Upmarket Fiction?
There are a number of categories used by agents and commissioning editors that describe the types of novels they are hoping to discover or aiming to sell, resulting in some rather general terms that can be confusing to writers, especially beginners.
These terms aren’t genres as such but are more to do with 1) the book’s readership; 2) the way language and/or storytelling are handled; and 3) how well they think a book will sell, based on others of the same type that have already been published.
You might find the term ‘book club fiction’ on the manuscript wish list of a literary agent you’re interested in querying, for example, which (at least on the face of it) describes the type of audience they hope will be attracted to the book, rather than its tropes, themes and ideas.
These terms include:
- Commercial fiction (relates to selling potential)
- Literary fiction (relates to the use of language)
- Women’s fiction (relates to potential audience)
Agents and editors sometimes use other categories, to do with how a book makes the reader feel.
- Up lit fiction, which is heart-warming, and emphasises empathy
- Misery memoir, a rather derogatory term for unhappy life stories
When you first set out to write a novel, these terms are probably too broad to be useful, but they can be helpful when you come to redrafting or when you want to sell your book and need to describe it to others. Personally, I find this a relief to know!
Upmarket fiction is one such category. In fact, it’s a hybrid term.
As you may have guessed from the introduction, upmarket fiction refers to a combination of commercial and literary fiction; it is strongly plotted but the language is also carefully crafted. It may include complex plotting, such as multiple viewpoints.
Upmarket fiction often appeals to readers who are in book clubs, which is why it’s sometimes used interchangeably with the term book club fiction.
Sometimes, but not always, upmarket fiction involves family dynamics or family secrets, using family and its shifting meanings as a framework for storytelling and as one of the main themes.
Many examples involve life and death or mortality as a theme, too, possibly because – in order to create a strong plot – writers of upmarket fiction sometimes use crime to structure the story.
As upmarket fiction is more of a category than it is a genre, it can be broken down even further using terms like upmarket women’s fiction and upmarket historical fiction. This can help readers and writers alike find the niche areas in which they want to surround themselves/write about.
So, let’s compare upmarket fiction to both commercial fiction and literary fiction, to clarify what it is and how to write it.
Upmarket Fiction Vs Commercial Fiction
Underpinning the categories I mentioned above are various assumptions – or a sort of tacit knowledge – about how a book will be written.
For example, there’s an assumption that commercial fiction will have a strong hook and gripping plot and therefore will sell well.
Commercial fiction is generally also genre fiction of some kind. It might be a romance, thriller, crime, sci fi, or fantasy, for instance, or a well-established subgenre or combination of genres, and will conform to genre tropes and expectations.
Commercial fiction is often found in supermarkets and airports as well as in bookshops. These books are likely to be real page-turners: the sort of novel you just have to keep reading to get to the end.
Writers of commercial fiction achieve this in six main ways:
- A strong – and clearly articulated – premise or hook. You could sum it up in a sentence or two, like an elevator pitch or a tagline for a Hollywood movie.
- High-stakes – the consequences of the plot are life and death for the main characters, or, worse, the whole world/universe will be destroyed.
- Cutting away from the action at exactly the moment the main character is in the most danger.
- Introducing cleverly foreshadowed twists that the reader didn’t see coming.
- Using ‘traditional’ genre expectations and conventions that the reader will recognise.
- Economic use of language, keeping chapters short, with no room for beautifully crafted prose or for complex characters.
Upmarket fiction is considered to sell well precisely because it contains many of these elements of commercial fiction.
In fact, upmarket fiction could be described as a kind of commercial fiction.
Upmarket fiction could include any or all of the facets above, apart from number 6.
Upmarket fiction does employ beautifully crafted prose and complex characters, but they mustn’t get in the way of the page-turner plotting. The craft, the characterisation and the strong plot are intricately interwoven.
Upmarket novels must include numbers 1 and 2 – the strong premise and the high stakes – although the stakes might be more nuanced than life and death. They might relate to a metaphorical death: social death, or the death of one kind of life and the beginning of another, for example.
Upmarket books may be less likely to include number 5 – or to stick to recognisable genre conventions – than other kinds of commercial fiction; in fact, they may well include cross-genre or multi-genre storytelling or play with the various fiction genres available.
Upmarket Fiction Vs Literary Fiction
Literary fiction focuses on the beauty of language, on its literary heritage, and on complex characterisation.
It might win prizes, but will have a smaller audience, and therefore it doesn’t sell as well as commercial or genre fiction. You’ll likely only see literary novels in supermarkets or airports if they’ve won a big prize.
Literary fiction explores themes and ideas that are bigger than the book itself, and that may have occupied writers, artists and philosophers for centuries, such as appearance and reality; loss; mortality; free will; criminality; identity; and war and peace.
This is the biggest difference between literary and commercial fiction, as the latter doesn’t delve into such themes. In terms of big themes, the two categories are polar opposites.
In literary fiction, the plot is not as important as the craft, the characters and the themes I mention above.
We might be mesmerised by the language or caught up in the ideas, but we’re not reading to find out what happens next.
Writers of literary fiction achieve this in six main ways:
- Viewing the craft and process of writing as an art form – how long it takes to write doesn’t matter.
- Using evocative imagery and carefully considered language.
- Showing the influence of other (probably canonical) writers.
- Creating thoughtful and thought-provoking, sometimes ponderous, characters.
- Exploring big (sometimes called ‘universal’) themes. Making the reader think.
- Letting the interaction of the characters create the plot, without needing a strong page-turning hook.
Upmarket fiction might do any or all of these with a few caveats, apart from number 6; these books need a strong plot as we said above.
Arguably it does matter how long upmarket fiction takes to write, because, as it’s a type of/is similar to commercial fiction, agents and editors might well expect the writer to produce a book every one to two years. (Try our article on how to write faster if you’re looking for some guidance in this area.)
Therefore, the language can’t be so considered and the characters so ponderous that it slows the pace. A varied pace will keep readers engaged.
If we created a chart and used it to list the key facets of commercial fiction and literary fiction, we could tick off which of those features would also be common in upmarket fiction.
In fact, if you’re serious about writing and selling it, you might want to create a chart like that for yourself.
You could then use your chart to discover examples of novels that fall into the upmarket category, such as those I’ve argued for below, remembering that they’ll always have a clear premise, strong plot, and well-crafted prose.
Examples Of Upmarket Fiction
In this section, I’ll take five examples that fit the description of ‘upmarket fiction’ and explain why they fit into this category.
The Children Of Men By P.D. James
This near-future dystopian novel is based on the premise that humans are now infertile and face extinction, causing society to fracture.
Although it probably predates the use of the term by publishing professionals (it was published in 1992), I’ve included The Children of Men because the novel has the strong premise and high stakes of commercial fiction and uses recognisable genre conventions, showing the influence of other writers in the genre, such as H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley.
The characters are complex, and James uses the story to rewrite ideas about family and parenthood and to explore other ‘universal’ themes, such as hope and despair, and death and survival, making us think, but not to the extent that characterisation and theme get in the way of the plotting.
The Time Traveller’s Wife By Audrey Niffenegger
This is both a love story and a time-travelling sci-fi adventure. It’s a kind of upmarket science fiction romance.
The unpredictable time-jumping of Clare’s husband Henry gives the novel a clear framework, that both disrupts and re-establishes the narrative cohesion.
In an innovative way, time travelling also provides the premise and the resolution, meaning the writer can continue to play with storytelling conventions.
As with other examples, Niffenegger treats both family and mortality as important themes but also works them into the plot.
Everything I Never Told You By Celeste Ng
This is a murder mystery as well as a family drama.
When sixteen-year-old Lydia dies, her mother Marilyn wants someone to be held to account, and along the way, Ng explores themes such as race, prejudice, identity and the meaning of family.
The novel is pacy like a thriller but includes striking characters and complex plotting.
It’s a good example of upmarket fiction, because the use of language is evocative, moving and at times sensual, which is why I’ve included it here. For instance:
“All through the second lecture, Marilyn remembered the smell of his skin – clean and sharp, like the air after a rainstorm – and the feel of his hands at her waist, and even her palms grew warm.” (p. 38)
The Immortalists By Chloe Benjamin
In this book, a psychic claims to be able to predict the day you’ll die. The novel tells the story of four New Yorkers after they visit the psychic as children.
Again taking family as a theme, Benjamin uses multiple viewpoints, and the book reads like literary fiction, but the premise is so strong that we have to keep turning the pages.
The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle By Stuart Turton
This book was described in a Guardian review as ‘a gift to the marketing department’ and that neatly sums up why upmarket fiction is so sought-after!
Turton’s debut is multi-genre, and– like literary fiction– plays tribute to other writers of murder mysteries, such as Agatha Christie.
Reminiscent of Groundhog Day and Cluedo, Turton gives us well-written characters and the novel is tightly plotted; in fact, the same review described the ‘mind-boggling complexity’ of its plot.
These are some examples that I think fit the description of upmarket fiction. They all feature a strong premise that would certainly be ‘a gift to the marketing department.’
How To Write Upmarket Fiction
Here are some key practical steps to consider when writing upmarket fiction.
1. Start With You
Start with what you love to read, in terms of genre and subject matter, and with what intrigues you so much that you are willing to spend a year or more writing about it.
Starting with the aim of writing upmarket fiction is too broad to be useful – starting with yourself is much more likely to yield promising results.
2. Become A Plotting Ninja
Learn to plot.
There are lots of guides to narrative structure out there, some of which are made especially for beginners. I’ve written one myself!
They might seem formulaic– and they are before you bring your own specificity to them– but they will help you to shape your ideas.
To cite just three examples: Nigel Watts’ Teach Yourself Writing a Novel will give you the essentials; Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel is helpful when establishing the link between character and story; and Harry Bingham’s How to Write a Novel has a whole section on different kinds of plots and also contains advice on marketing your book from the get-go.
3. Plan Like An Expert
You don’t have to plan in advance if you hate the idea. Plan as you go along if you like or after you have written the first draft.
But to make the readers turn the pages, the plot has to work, therefore you need to plan at some point!
If you’re wondering how to plan a novel, check out our step-by-step planning guide for more.
4. Cross Those Genres
Consider combining two or more genres (like historical romance, for instance) but make sure they’re genres you love to read and are interested in.
Get specific by thinking in terms of subgenres. Audrey Niffenegger uses a particular kind of sci-fi – time travel – to make her plot work, for example.
Remember that you can play around with genre when writing upmarket fiction, but this is also about what you love to read and write, not what you think you should write! It will be easier to play around with it if you love what you’re doing. Have fun with it.
5. Create Complex Characters
Work on character development.
Spend time with your main and secondary characters, so they feel like well-rounded human beings with quirks and contradictions.
Write in the first person as your characters regularly even if you don’t plan to use the results in the finished novel– it helps you to get to know them.
6. Consider Using Multiple Viewpoints
Got more than one compelling character? Good! Consider using dual or multiple viewpoints to tell your story. Read examples of stories told this way before you start writing.
Try a spot of ‘method writing’. That is, write as if you were each of your main characters, telling the reader about the same event.
If you’re stuck, use an existing story as a prompt. For example, write about the day we found a body in the lake, or the day we visited a fortune teller, or the day we found out I was pregnant (when the whole of humanity was supposedly infertile), or the day we realised I could time travel.
7. Answer These Questions To Nail Your Themes
Decide which themes you will explore in advance, by considering which ‘universal’ ideas fascinate you the most. Not sure what to use? Answer these questions.
What deep conversations have you been drawn into recently? Which nonfiction books and documentaries fascinate you? Which big life experiences have taught you the most?
8. Twisted Family Values Anyone?
Consider using family dynamics and family secrets as part of your plot and as a way of connecting characters in the story.
You don’t necessarily have to use this plotting device/theme when writing upmarket fiction, but it does seem to be a fairly common trope.
9. Death Makes For High Stakes
Themes of death, dying and mortality also come up a lot in upmarket fiction and while this isn’t compulsory, it will automatically provide a way to ‘raise the stakes’; something you must do to draw the reader in.
10. Use Your Senses When You Make Your Tea/Coffee
Work on your writing style. In particular, practise sensory writing.
For example, try this: stop regularly during the day – perhaps every time you have a cup of tea or coffee. Using all the senses available to you, observe the world around you and write quick descriptions based on each one.
Tips For Writing Upmarket Fiction
Here are some quick tips for writing upmarket fiction:
- Read plenty of examples of upmarket fiction to get a sense of the balance between literary fiction-type language and commercial fiction-type plotting.
- Create a strong premise: can you sum the book up in a couple of sentences? Practise doing this with examples of upmarket fiction first. You don’t have to do it in advance.
- Once you have the premise, use it to write a blurb. Both of these will help you to sell the book to others and to clarify your ideas for yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
In this section, I’ll address and answer some of the most asked questions in relation to upmarket fiction.
What Are Examples Of Upmarket Fiction?
Some examples of upmarket titles include Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold.
What Is The Difference Between Literary And Upmarket Fiction?
Literary fiction is preoccupied with the use of language, the craft of writing and situating itself amongst other literary works. It also involves the investigation of so-called ‘universal’ themes. Upmarket fiction uses evocative language and thought-provoking themes but is tightly plotted with a strong premise and so is considered more ‘sellable’ than literary fiction.
How Many Words Should An Upmarket Novel Be?
It’s difficult to give a precise number as full-length novels can range from around 70,000 words to 120,000 or longer – 250,000 to 350,000 would be considered very long – but there is no hard and fast rule.
That said, commercial fiction tends to be on the shorter side, literary fiction could be long or short, and upmarket fiction tends to be in the middle of the range, at around 90 – 120,000 words long.
To get a sense of the sheer range of differing lengths, take a look at our article on novel word counts.
Why Are Agents Interested In Upmarket Fiction?
Upmarket fiction gives agents the best of both, or all, worlds. This category of novel attracts committed, loyal readers and is likely to be favoured by book groups, so upmarket fiction is usually considered book club fiction too. It’s well-plotted and well-crafted, meaning readers get drawn in.
All of that means that upmarket fiction sells well, and often converts well on the screen. In fact, almost all of the examples of upmarket fiction I’ve given in this post have been optioned for TV or film or adapted for the stage. In other words, it has commercial appeal.
It’s so valuable for writers to explore the nuances of upmarket fiction, both in terms of reading it and writing it. It teaches us a lot about the perception of what sells well and what doesn’t and demonstrates what many agents and editors are looking for: a strong premise; complex characters; well-plotted, page-turner stories; and beautifully crafted prose.
I hope you enjoyed this article and will try some of these key practical steps. Let me know how you get on!