Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent's Corner: What Sells Abroad

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Agent's Corner: What Sells Abroad

Literary Agent Samantha Haywood discusses the foreign book market. Writers, readers, Samantha would love to answer your questions. Please post them in the 'Post a comment' section at the bottom of the article.

By Samantha Haywood

While at the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October, I was thinking about my readers back home, here on Open Book, and I wanted to come back with some insider’s answers and insights for you about what is selling abroad these days.

During the course of my meetings, I asked editors, scouts and our subagents alike what was working for them in terms of selling English-language fiction and nonfiction abroad, and the consensus is that well-written books — literary, if you will — matched with plot-driven and accessible story lines — commercial, if you will — are in high demand.

To Canadian authors hoping to sell their books abroad, what I can say is that what made our exquisite literary fiction sought after is becoming slightly passé. Let me clarify: the Canadian fiction stereotype of quiet, introspective novels that are beautifully crafted is no longer in vogue abroad. The problem, I think, is the perceived “quietness,” which in my opinion means that the style and craftsmanship of the language in these books overtake the importance of the plot or story. As Bill Clinton famously said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” It now feels to me like publishers are almost saying, “it’s the story, stupid.” And the old selling axiom of "can you pitch it in a sentence or less" has never been more true. I think it’s quite safe for me to say that literary fiction everywhere is having a hard time in the face of commercial bestsellers. The pressure is on literary writers to enter into this sales-driven marketplace by matching their craftsmanship with Big Plot.

Another challenge is the competition. We used to be competing mainly with American and British writers for foreign sales, but now we’re competing with those authors AND European authors. Europeans are reading more home-grown authors and this trend extends beyond Europe to Asia and South America and beyond.

What do I recommend? If you’re a literary fiction or literary narrative fiction author, do not despair, but do take care about plot and become accustomed to thinking about your book in terms of what it is going to be marketed as after it’s finished. On one side of the spectrum there is the author Justin Cronin whose commercial bestseller, The Passage, proves that when an established literary author goes into the commercial fiction world, there is great money to be made. And I heard of other examples of American literary fiction writers who are now doing their literary novels alongside some new thrillers, YA series or supernatural commercial fiction novels. It’s too early to tell if this trend will prove long-lasting, but I can see why its happening and those authors that pull it off are enjoying more financial success as a result. But can they maintain dual readerships and publishers on both sides of the fiction spectrum? We shall see.

In my opinion, it’s never a good idea to write something to follow a trend because the trend will likely pass before you’re finished and trying to sell it. So don’t see this Frankfurt report as reason for you, as an author, to change how you write, but you do need to become cognisant of the ways in which you can keep your story accessible and understood in a marketplace that is unquestionably driven by a need to sell into commercial categories.

And if you are a commercial writer or genre writer, then the more “upmarket” you can be, the more crossover appeal you'll have to a foreign market as the lines between fine writing and story-driven fiction become more and more necessarily intertwined.

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Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at and @s_haywood on Twitter.

Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Transatlantic Literary Agency.


Hi Chad,

Thanks very much for the read and the feedback.

I'm glad this column rings true to published/established writers such as yourself. I wrote it to reinforce what I felt like a lot of us in the industry are already aware of and also to get new authors thinking about what the rest of us are dealing with in terms of sales and marketing at home and abroad. For me, the chats I had at Frankfurt reinforced what has been going on in Canadian publishing for the past while.

In my opinion, some of these changes are good ones. After all, publishing is a business and we need to sell new books and authors being more savvy on that end is critical to their potential future success. But at the same time I hope there is always room for those unlikely, more complex books that defy short one-sentence pitches.

Nice article. I write what I like to consider "literary pageturners." I'm just finishing up a new manuscript, having considered much of what you say here as I wrote the thing, because, while MY main focus as a writer is on sentence-level writing, I found it hard to ignore the fact that all the feedback on my last novel was about plot, and kind comments in reviews like "riveting; I couldn't put it down." So, I couldn't ignore that. It's why I grant each chapter its own arc (beginning-middle-end), and write a good few universally appealing plotlines, sprinkle in a twist or two, and it doesn't feel like "Commercializing" my literary fiction, so long as I still write the stories I want to write, and revise and polish and slave over the writing itself.

What I DO worry about is marketing handles. Pitches. it's like they reduce all the complexities of a novel down to one concept, when I want my books to be a different reading experience for everyone. In the case of my last novel and this new manuscript, in a sentence, I write "love stories gone horribly wrong." But there is a lot more to it than that, and that pitch scares away male readers, when it shouldn't, since my fiction tends to be dark and weighty, as virtually everyone would agree. But maybe there's no such thing as a universally appealing pitch?

Anyway. I'm rambling ... to avoid another revision of my work in progress. So thanks for the reason to take a break.

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