As writers, it’s natural to be curious about what literary agents and publishing houses are looking for. After all, securing a literary agent is something many of us who try our hand at writing a novel hope for. Even if your aim is self-publishing, it’s always helpful to have some understanding of what genres and themes sell books right now: it’s a great insight into your audience.
As we know, the publishing industry can be a little opaque, and trends change fast. But if you are looking for a literary agent and, ultimately, a book deal, this article with up-to-date fresh literary agent opinions should be helpful.
As it’s the week of Frankfurt Book Fair (arguably the biggest week for book deal announcements in the publishing industry calendar!) we asked literary agent Rebecca Scherer from the Jane Rotrosen Agency in New York – one of our trusted literary agencies here at The Novelry – to share some insights into what’s getting published right now, and the kinds of books Rebecca and her fellow JRA agents are looking for.
Rebecca Scherer: background as a literary agent
Rebecca Scherer is a lifelong New Yorker who began her publishing career at the Jane Rotrosen Agency in 2010 while earning a BA in English Literature, Political Science, and German language at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter.
As a literary agent, Rebecca Scherer has wide-ranging tastes, representing commercial fiction across genres. That being said, she has a special interest in and deep understanding of women’s fiction, crime/mystery, suspense, book club fiction, and upmarket/literary-leaning fiction.
If you write books and would like to learn more about the publishing process, including writing a great book proposal and query letter, you can find lots of great resources on our blog! We write articles that cover the gamut from how to write a great hook to the editing process, from putting together a query letter to filling out the submission form, and with lots of other insights from literary agents; we have you covered.
Frankfurt Book Fair: a unique opportunity
Three key dates in the publishing calendar each year are the Book Fairs – in the spring, there’s Bologna Book Fair for the children’s market and London Book Fair for the adult market, and Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn.
Over the three-to-four days that each fair takes place, industry professionals descend on these cities, ready to pitch their upcoming titles for the year. This means an agent from New York can submit a manuscript of their client’s (currently unpublished) next book to an editor from London in order to get a publishing contract, or a rights executive from a London publishing house can pitch an upcoming publication to a German editor in the hopes of securing a foreign rights deal.
The deals that get made during the fairs are a brilliant guide to spotting upcoming trends in the industry, and there’s always a rush of submissions in the lead-up!
As you read, remember, this is from the viewpoint of a literary agent working with publishing houses and publishing partners in the United States, so trends elsewhere could be a little different.
Rebecca Scherer on the importance of professional trends
What are industry people looking for at the moment?
Trends always feel a bit like a fool’s errand to try to predict in this business – and in the age of the new phrase ‘TikTok bestseller’, that’s never seemed more true.
But in a strange way, as an agent, I take a lot of comfort in that. The way I think of it, it means there will always be room for great storytelling of all sorts even if some topics and elements seem to take off more than others year to year. And it means there’s always room for readers to surprise us with what they gravitate toward.
There will always be room for great storytelling of all sorts even if some topics and elements seem to take off more than others year to year.
What Rebecca Scherer is looking for
Instead of trying to predict ahead, I thought I’d write a bit about what I’m looking for most at the moment in conjunction with some buzz words I hear loads of other smart industry folks use to explain what they’re on the hunt for and see working in the market.
If there is one term that consistently comes up in almost every meeting I have with an editor, it’s the elusive ‘grounded speculative’ – our world but off-kilter by about five degrees, five minutes into the future, something that could have been the basis for an episode of Black Mirror. I’ve heard all of these refrains in various meetings.
There are a lot of good concepts out there that are pitchable and that would make you want to read the book, but rare are those high-concepts in this realm that can sustain a novel for over 300+ pages – which is what makes them so elusive and so brilliant!
Maybe it’s the smart explorations of tropes in the current crop of wonderful rom-coms and romances that have people thinking more intentionally about tropes than usual (at least in my 10+ years in the industry). I think we all spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a story tick for humans over the last few years (maybe it was the extra inside time with lockdown!).
It wasn’t so long ago where using ‘trope’ in a pitch signalled cliché – but now I hear it all the time, often in regards to authors playing with and subverting said tropes in a way that lifts the whole book/concept.
Vera Kurian’s Never Saw Me Coming is a great example of this – seven psychopaths united by a university scholarship studying their diagnoses start getting picked off one-by-one. Vera is a brilliant writer and reader of books across genre, and, in many ways, this book is a love letter to various tropes in thriller fiction, subverted in some unexpected ways and elevated with biting prose.
It wasn’t so long ago where using ‘trope’ in a pitch signaled cliché – but now I hear it all the time, often in regards to authors playing with and subverting said tropes in a way that lifts the whole book/concept.
I think this ties a bit into the boom in cosier crime we’ve seen in the last year.
In these uncertain times, I think we’ve all been looking for clean endings with definitive good characters to root for and bad characters who get busted, and maybe a bit less blood on the page.
But as a Golden Girls superfan myself, I’ve also always believed in the power of older protagonists – particularly in crime fiction. After all, who else could inconspicuously ask a bunch of nosy questions, without anyone being the wiser?
Older characters contain multitudes and have a lot of wit and wisdom from their lives lived. I’d love to continue to see more of them shine in investigative roles and beyond.
Older characters contain multitudes and have a lot of wit and wisdom from their lives lived.
Tess Gerritsen’s latest Rizzoli & Isles novel put Detective Jane Rizzoli’s shining star of a mother, Angela, in the driver’s seat in this year’s fabulous Listen to Me. A comment on just how much we should all listen to our mothers! I would love to see more fiction do the same.
High-concept/the locked room
Will the locked room or closed circle mystery ever get old? I think not! But we are finding new ways to do it and keep it fresh.
Lisa Gardner’s propulsive and ingenious One Step Too Far used the setting of the outdoors on a harrowing climb search and rescue mission to add in the ‘man vs nature’ element while somehow still feeling like a claustrophobic locked room where suspicion falls on everyone. Lisa is a master at racketing up the tension and the mountain setting is a genius match for her plotting.
I also think the campus-set novel is evergreen, and often has the feel of a locked room in that those kinds of prep school or college environments make for their own powder keg of isolated tension. In that vein, St. Ambrose School for Girls by Jessica Ward (out next summer) is like Heathers meets The Secret History with a confining, tense boarding school setting I think readers will want to dive right into.
Last in the book club/reading group segment, family dramas are a great idea: this genre is evergreen. Give me a messed-up family dealing with its demons any day of the week.
The themes of family discontent are truly universal, across the most diverse backgrounds and situations. Every family dynamic is different but nearly everyone can relate to some sort of dysfunction in theirs (biological or chosen) – on a large scale or small scale, innocent or nefarious, funny or deadly serious – which is why there are so many successful books and TV shows about this.
Give me a messed-up family dealing with its demons any day of the week.
I think readers are always ready for something to make them feel the big feels in this channel, so long as there's hope to be had along the way!
Rebecca Scherer is always eager to be surprised
Those are a few areas I’m very excited to read more works in, but of course, I always try to leave room for the pure joy of being surprised by what catches fire – both in my reader heart and hopefully also in the marketplace!
- Members of The Novelry can enjoy a writing class with literary agents Rebecca Scherer and Meg Ruley from the Jane Rotrosen Agency in your Catch Up TV Area.