The big adult fiction title of this past fall was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. The sequel to the author’s 1985 bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale was unveiled with a 500,000-copy first printing. At the time, The Handmaid’s Tale was benefitting from a surge of interest in its wildly popular TV adaptation on Hulu, and from a renewed interest in dystopian tales following the election of Donald Trump. Now, with the globe seized by a pandemic and millions of Americans hunkered down because of shelter-at-home orders, editors say they are interested in lighter fare—mostly.
So what are publishers interested in buying during a pandemic? According to a number of editors and agents who specialize in adult commercial fiction, escapism is on the rise, to an extent.
“This is the question I think we’re all dealing with right now,” said Harper editor Sara Nelson, when asked if she’s looking for different kinds of books since the Covid-19 outbreak. “On the one hand, we’re so obsessed with our current moment that it’s hard to know what we, let alone most readers, will want to read a year, or a year and a half, from now. I don’t generally buy dystopian fiction anyway, but I am pretty sure I won’t find dystopian novels appealing for the near future.”
Nelson, who has always loved historical fiction (among her notable acquisitions in the genre is Heather Morris’s bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz), added that she is taking even more comfort in these types of books now as “reading about the past becomes even more appealing as we slide into the murky future.”
Peter Steinberg, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media, said, “When there’s an unexpected shift in society, I think it has an almost real-time effect on editors’ buying habits. Because of the overwhelming nature of Covid-19, escapism is one of the better ways to elicit those intense emotions.”
But many agents and editors warned that escapism is an incredibly broad term—one that makes room for everything from romantic comedies to dark thrillers.
Writers House agent Johanna Castillo said her sense is that, in addition to maintaining a steady interest in rom-coms, family dramas, and historical fiction (which all have an “established readership”), adult fiction editors seem to want two other types of books. “The first [provides] a sense about learning from history—novels that are inspired by plagues in the past.” And the second type provides “the inverse—a desire to imagine a future, with a dystopian society that takes on a plague.” But as much as people want to get away from the here and now, she believes people still need to understand, and process, the present. “There is a reason why the movie Contagion was the number-one downloaded movie in February.”
For agent Eric Myers, who has an eponymous shingle, the hot genre of the moment is historical fiction. The best of these books, he explained, have the “ability to sweep us off into eras far removed from our own—eras that often tempt us with nostalgia or stoke our yearnings to have lived, even for just a day, in a different and sometimes more glamorous past.” He added that he’s been surprised at “how receptive publishers are to stories taking place in 19th- and early-20th-century New York.”
Cindy Hwang, editorial director at Berkley, said, “I’m looking more for distractions.” She remains “really anxious” about what the future will hold, and she believes readers are similarly looking to find relief from that feeling in fiction. “I’m looking for books that will let me forget,” she explained.
Nonetheless, Hwang feels the present is informed by the past. “I’m reminded that the era of the screwball comedy happened during the Great Depression,” she said. “People have always looked to comedy for distraction. So I feel like, no matter what happens, people will be looking for escapism.”
When asked what she’s looking to buy right now, Jennifer Enderlin, executive v-p and publisher of St. Martin’s Press, said, “In terms of fiction, I wouldn’t say editors want more uplifting books over thrillers or tear-jerkers.” But, she added, “bad-news books, not so much.”
For Enderlin, the term escapism is problematic, insofar as it confers a certain levity. That, she explained, is not necessarily what she wants now. “Escapism doesn’t have to mean fluffy or light. It can be searing, devastating, romantic, suspenseful, hilarious, or transporting.” She noted that she is seeing a huge uptick in sales of her author Kristin Hannah’s 2015 bestseller The Nightingale, which Enderlin described as a “box-of-tissues read.”
More than anything, agents and editors agreed that, while happy endings aren’t a requirement, the fiction that’s selling now takes readers away, in some capacity, from the here and now. As Robert Gottlieb at Trident Media Group put it, “I would advise fiction authors [working on books right now] to stay away from the coronavirus itself.”