Recently a number of my agent colleagues and I were discussing whether it’s worth even saying that we would look at young adult novels that are self-described in the query letter as “dystopic.” Dystopic is, at this point, a signifier for “any theme that’s been popular for a long time, been successful, and now is so saturating the market that an editor’s eyes roll back in their heads before the third syllable.” “Vampire” was the “dystopic” of four years ago, and “wizard” of four years before that.
It brings on an interesting thought process, and one that we deal with regularly: When a theme is popular but well-represented, do you keep evaluating submissions, hoping to find something different, or better, or unique? Or is that a waste of time? Do I look at ANOTHER thriller that feels like a rewrite of Jack Reacher or Da Vinci Code in the hope that a particular editor hasn’t found his best-seller? And how do we even know that the time has passed?
This is one of those areas where we use the tools in our toolbox: experience, taste, and connections. We will ask our friends on the Buy Side over lunch or drinks, who at this point would rather see the 125th knockoff of Fault in our Stars than another Hunger Games. We ask our agent colleagues whether they are having any luck (not with debut YA dystopia for the past couple of years by and large). And then we look at the queries themselves. Does this feel utterly familiar? Is this loner ex-Seal Team 6 back home in Western PA bringing anything new to the table? Is the writing undeniable? Is it worth spending the next six months whipping it into shape for the hope that one editor at one imprint hasn’t found that one special novel after 900 passes.
And then we take a deep breath, email the author, and say “Any way you can put it in space and call it science fiction? Add some sex and call it New Adult? Kill someone mysteriously and call it a cozy?”
And hope for the best.