I've spent a good amount of time recently getting agents (and a few editors) to sign on to a ginormous Agent Pitch Slam, which is part of our writers' conference in NYC. Each agent submits their "wants" bio that explains what they are looking for and what they want to hear pitches about.
One word that kept coming up was the word "upmarket." The term isn't brand new, but it seems to be gaining in popularity, so I just wanted to address what it means (or more accurately, what I think it means).
Simply put, it's fiction that blends the line between commercial and literary. To further examine this, let's break down those two terms. Commercial fiction, essentially, refers to novels that fall into a typical genre (thriller, let's say). Commercial fiction can sell very well because it usually has a tight premise/logline ("Someone is trying to kill the president!") and people like reading a category like thrillers because it's exciting. Literary fiction refers to novels that don't fit into any standard genre classification—romance, mystery, sci-fi, for example. Literary fiction requires the highest command of the language. Not pretentious, over-the-top purple prose—just simply excellent writing. Literary fiction has a harder time selling because it's not easily defined, and sometimes the premise is not easily explained (or just isn't that exciting).
So that brings us to "upmarket." Everyone is looking for this genre. "But why, Chuck?" Well, think about it. It's literary fiction, so it's pretty damn good writing, but it has commercial potential. It has the ability to infiltrate lots of book clubs and start discussions and take off as a product. It's a win-win for everyone. I've heard a lot of agents say that they are looking for "literary fiction with a commercial appeal," or something like that. Well, one word that does the job of those six is "upmarket," and that's why you hear it so much. If you're writing narrative nonfiction or upmarket fiction, chances are, there are a ton of agents out there willing to consider your work.
Some examples of upmarket fiction (just my opinion): Water for Elephants; Jodi Picoult's books; The Lovely Bones; Michael Chabon's books.
Agents Weigh In
From Kristin Nelson's Pub Rants blog
"In terms of upmarket commercial women’s fiction, it’s all about the writing. Really, editors are looking for literary writers who can tackle the more commercial themes in a way that’s fresh and well constructed."
From the Folio Lit Web site
"We are aggressively seeking upmarket adult fiction that’s appropriate for book club discussion." Keywords - book club discussion.
And as far as whether the term has a hyphen or not (upmarket vs. up-market), who cares. I prefer nonfiction but does writing non-fiction really matter? Nope.