Susan Feldstein is one half of literary agency The Feldstein Agency based out of Northern Ireland, which she runs with her husband Paul. In this week’s blog, Susan talks about the rise of the ‘narrative non-fiction’ market and how writers no longer need to have celeb status to get published.
Paul, my partner in our boutique literary agency on the north-east coast of Ireland, has worked in publishing on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 40 years, and in that time has had ample opportunity to observe the many quirks of the industry. One of his many observations about publishers concerns what he refers to as ‘the lemming effect’ – the way in which, once publishers spot a ‘breakout’ (for which, read ‘surprise’) bestseller or trend in the market, their collective impulse is to jump onto the bandwagon, and to keep on jumping in large numbers until the wheels come off from sheer overload.
Often this can work to the detriment of readers and writers, meaning that a one-off success of mediocre value can spawn countless ‘copycats’ and create a literary ‘movement’, and sometimes even a global franchise. (My apologies if you loved Fifty Shades of Grey – but I’d definitely put it into this category!) There are of course one-offs of high quality too, but too often their many spin-offs are mere shells of the originals. The real downside to all of this is that many far more worthwhile and interesting projects simply don’t get a look-in and will remain on the desks of authors’ agents, gathering dust.
But sometimes, surprise bestsellers and ‘the lemming effect’ can create much more positive trends in the industry, and can open up opportunities for books which might have been regarded as marginal or completely uncommercial just a few short seasons earlier. In the last few years, the genre of ‘narrative non-fiction’ has seen a huge rise in popularity, and, as The Bookseller reported in a a pre-London Book Fair round-up this year: ‘Judging by the agents’ hotlists, [this] trend has not even reached its peak.’
A very popular sub-genre within the broader category of narrative non-fiction (which really just means, the presentation of any factual subject as if it were a story – with a strong thread, a narrative arc, and a compelling and relatable style), is that which is sometimes termed ‘real lives’ – i.e., memoirs or autobiographies. Another recent Bookseller article identified the books publishers are most actively seeking in this sub-genre as, ‘memoirs that matter – broadly, autobiographies written by “ordinary” people often about challenging subjects’.
The memoir or autobiography as a genre has been, of course, around for a very long time – since people began telling other people the story, or stories, of their lives. But the encouraging thing about the market at present is that, unlike even three years ago, you don’t have to be well-known or a public figure to have a chance of your book being seriously considered for publication. This is a welcome development for a lot of us, after a number of years which have seen the genre dominated by books about the lives of ‘celebs’.
More good news is that you don’t necessarily have to have a huge social media ‘platform’, or be an Insta-influencer, blogger or vlogger, to get your book published these days. It’s undeniable that these things will help, but they are no longer prerequisites for publication. The quality of your content, and the timeliness of what you have to say can be enough to convince a publisher to take you on, even if you’re not a social media star.
In a popular culture where style has trumped substance for so long, the resurgence of substance is something to be celebrated. However, while you don’t have to be famous, you do have to have something to say which resonates with the zeitgeist, and you do need to have an original, or compelling or elegant way of saying it.
Perhaps the fact we’re living in times of upheaval and of increasingly divided societies explains the recent move away from the ‘misery memoir’ of old, where we could read about the sufferings of those less fortunate than ourselves from the comfort of our own cosy lives. Now readers seem more drawn towards a reading experience where they are more engaged and more fully immersed. Rowan Cope, publisher at Scribner, identifies such books as those, ‘. . . which show the power of the personal narrative to illuminate issues – such as the trauma of displacement or the environmental crises we face – that can have deep resonance and urgency for us all’.
In the last few years, there has been something of a flurry in the industry around the ‘memoirs that matter’ genre, with most of the major publishers setting up imprints showcasing these kinds of books. Even as recently as last month, Jake Lingwood, former MD of Ebury, said of the new (as yet unnamed) list he’s been tasked with setting up at Octopus: ‘each book will aim to have first-person experience at its heart’.
Publishers I met at the recent London Book Fair confided that what they are looking for now are ‘quieter, more authentic voices’ about experiences which will really resonate in today’s world. Many of these publishers are seeking that extra dimension of analysis and reflection in the author’s perspective. Can you extrapolate from what you’ve lived through and identify what it has taught you about life in a broader sense – how has it helped shape the way you see the world; how has it contributed to, or reinforced – or decimated – your set of beliefs about what it means to be alive?
To give you an example, a client our agency has recently taken on came to me with an amazing life story – still not 50 years old, she has lived a succession of experiences so harrowing, that you’re left wondering how one human being could possibly undergo, and survive, so many tragedies in one lifetime. After a traumatic childhood, she lost a beloved brother to cancer in early adulthood; a year later, her husband was killed in a tragic accident after only nine months of marriage, leaving her six months pregnant with her first child; in her mid-30s, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour, after which she faced post-surgery paralysis and 12 years of rehabilitation.
Each one of these traumas could be the subject of a separate book in itself. But, in terms of finding a publisher in today’s market, it was quickly clear to me that what this woman’s story needed was a level of interpretation, a bigger framework which would go beyond the simple chronicling of a set of experiences. And so we focused on highlighting perhaps the most miraculous aspect of her story – that not only has she managed to survive these traumas, but that she is happier now than she has ever been, and lives her life more fully than ever before, despite still bearing the scars, both physical and emotional, of everything she has been through.
The memoirs I, as an agent, have always been most drawn to are those which have some kind of larger perspective to offer and, ideally, something constructive and even uplifting to say about life. These days, it seems that this is what many publishers, and readers, are looking for too. This is good news for anyone who has an interesting story to tell – as well as the ability to transform that story in the telling.
Susan Feldstein is a literary agent, publishing consultant and ghostwriter at The Feldstein Agency: www.thefeldsteinagency.co.uk.