WRITING FEATURE Literary vs Commercial



Are you a loud, energetic, excitable person? Or a quiet, deep, gentle type? Does this shape your writing style? Commercial or literary? In other words, are you determined to hammer out stories that sell big? Or are you a true muse, pouring out lofty prose whilst tweaking an eyebrow at the critics? Chrissy Sturt asks writers, editors, agents and publishers what they think of the debate.



This bold binary is easier to understand in adult fiction. Taking into account exceptions and nuances, long-lasting literary works boast finely wrought prose, whereas commercial stories dominate the charts with easy-to-read romps.


But does this distinction apply to children’s, or do most books tend to sit at the commercial sharp end? We grown-ups can tolerate a slow burner, but most young readers wouldn’t even recognise the term ‘literary’ and are quick to ditch if a book’s not grabbing them. Moreover, writers are constantly advised to think about pitch and premise, plot and peril – all concepts which seem designed to tick commercial boxes.


Many agents openly identify as ‘commercial’. Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency describes herself as ‘a very commercial agent.’ She wants something easily pitched (X meets Y) and high concept. Lydia Silver, of The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, is also after ‘things which are super hooky,’ – pacy writing, big and ambitious in scope, and stories pitched in one line.


According to Jonathan Eyres, commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, all children's fiction needs to be 'commercial.’ By this he means, ‘accessible enough to be chosen by the most demanding readers in the world.’ But he argues, even within this parameter, playful experimentation is possible, ‘as long as it’s on a child's level.’


Louie Stowell writes at the high-action end of the scale, and admits to not really enjoying ‘literary’ fiction of any kind. Her latest book Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Being Good, sold at auction and is her most ‘high concept’ offering to date. Louie feels the need for a ‘hook’ has definitely become more important – because online sales are such a driver, where there’s no bookseller on hand to expound the concept. But Louie can’t predict what will sell. ‘My journey has been to keep pursuing my vision,’ she says, ‘while understanding that sometimes the market agrees with me and sometimes it doesn’t, and I can never tell which one it’s going to be.’


So, where does this leave writers who naturally inhabit quieter space?


Freelance editor and experienced writer Anna Britton parted ways with her agent when it became clear her ‘quiet books’ would struggle to be picked up by publishers. A deeply painful experience at the time, she nevertheless vowed to stick to her own style. ‘Obviously being told my writing was too quiet was really difficult,’ she says. ‘Now though, I just feel it’s a trend. The market is full of very plotty books, but quiet books are still being published and they will have their time again.’


Like many authors I spoke to, Louisa Reid isn’t really comfortable with such a stark binary and feels the lines are much more blurred in reality. She herself writes in verse. ‘I hope to use language skilfully and for impact, and this is something we associate more with literary fiction – justifiably or not. At the end of the day, you have to tell a good story and that’s always at the forefront of my mind – keep the pages turning.’


It might be a relief to hear that heavyweight agent Caroline Sheldon says she isn’t looking for ‘wham bam in your face.’ She cites Michael Morpurgo and Malorie Blackman as sensitive writers who aren’t necessarily ‘quiet,’ but have elements of quietness in their work. However be warned – ‘You’ve got to have something to say, and be able to tell the story and build it up … insignificant and quiet would be hopeless for me.’


Kesia Lupo, senior editor at Chicken House, feels the market has actually shifted in favour of literary works. She points to the effect of the coveted Waterstones Children's Book of the Month slot to explain this. The look and marketing of these books tends to be 'classic' and 'important' rather than all-out commercial. Recent winners include Sarah Lean’s The Good Bear, Phil Earle’s When The Sky Falls and Padraig Kenny’s The Monsters of Rookhaven.



However, Kesia says she can't simply buy a book because she likes the writing, the idea really has to feel really solid. And she reminds us that publishing houses are businesses. ‘If we don't make money, authors don't make money either; we have a duty to them too. It's important to be savvy about what will sell and why. That doesn't necessarily mean commercial is best; our current bestselling author is Kiran Millwood Hargrave, who would definitely be considered literary.’


Jonathan at Bloomsbury shares Kesia’s hunch that the literary end, if anything, is moving to the fore. He predicts the children’s market will increasingly hunger for books with strong literary qualities, and writers in the mould of Sophie Anderson, Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman. ‘They might not grab the headlines and top spots like the next celeb comedy novel, but they're probably going to be the books that teachers love to read in class, because they both entertain and give kids something to talk about.’


Wherever you place your own writing, it takes guts to stick to your guns, even when you have a bestseller on your hands. Literary writer Zillah Bethell undoubtedly crossed into commercial success with The Shark Caller, now soaring into its second print run. If anything, the free-spirited way she conjured Blue Wing may be something she never experiences again. The very success of The Shark Caller, well publicised by Usborne, means Zillah will have to write more to the market in the future. ‘I have been a little constrained recently, in writing my second contracted book.’


Interestingly, the Carnegie Medal team – made up of librarians – has shifted its focus. Where once the award would have been seen as the hallmark of literary writing, it now aims to recognise the ‘most outstanding reading experience,’ in whatever form this comes. This is not just clever word play, but true cultural change. As Jake Hope, Chair of CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Working Party, explains, ‘Rather than view the 'writing' itself as having innate qualities, we want to explore the unique relationship between reader and text.’ This way, they can focus on books across the spectrum – and celebrate whatever sparks ‘moments of excitement, discovery, emotion, understanding, empathy and even epiphany.’


When Hannah Gold stopped trying to write high concept, plot driven books and instead wrote from the heart, she came up with The Last Bear – both a character driven story and a stunning commercial success, selling over 10,000 hardback copies in its first six months alone. ‘It's spare on plot but huge on emotion,’ says Hannah. ‘I hope my experience shows that quieter stories can shine too.’


What’s important, is that we keep writing and publishing a whole variety of books, as this is what children need. As Anna Britton puts it, ‘Not all children and young people want mad adventures and high stakes. Some of them want gentle books that speak to their heart and make them feel less alone.’




Chrissy Sturt is a freelance journalist and writer of flash, short and children's stories. She lives in Hampshire with one husband, two children and far too many animals.



  1. I've written only one story for children so far. And I'm having a hard time trying to figure out whether my book is commercial or literary. I never intended for it to be one or the other. And I can't help but wonder whether writers should make the conscious choice of being commercial or literary, and how a writer would benefit from making that choice. I'm inclined to think my book is literary. Would it be a more consistent book from a strctural and stylistic point of view had I intended to make it literary? I'll never know... All I know is that I never felt constrained by having to meet either the commercial or literary criteria. And, for a writer, having that freedom is priceless.

  2. By the way, I loved the article: it was very enlightening.

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