No, high concept doesn't mean a lack of depth and they're not trying to Hollywoodize fiction publishing. (Nor would they ever be able to do so.) They're just borrowing terms because people want them to use buzz terms, because their bosses drop the buzz words on them, and it's easier to use them than to deal with the very complicated and very nebulous situations of fiction publishing.
Authors don't like that written fiction is vague in how fiction will work a publication and sales path. So they often want to see fiction publishing as shallow and Hollywood-like because that is familiar, comforting and supposedly workable according to sets of rules, like killer hooks (plus, if fiction publishing is like Hollywood, then there's lots of money!) At the same time, they want to see fiction publishing as being like school, where editors and agents shepherd great works of fiction and authors will be rewarded on what they view as set standards of merit and hard work. And they go back and forth between these two false images, depending on their experiences, world view, and what they see coming out. What they tend to see coming out are only the bright shiny objects -- they tend to ignore all the mid-list books which are exactly the books they should be paying attention to.
Sometimes agents do this too, and less often but certainly sometimes, editors. Some agents come from a marketing background and they are more likely to take a marketing approach, but all agents are trying to sell their clients' works and find clients who they like and who they think they can sell. But their views about this are not going to be all the same. They will be different. Senior agents who are older will have different views from junior agents, and so on. Sometimes they're wrong, sometimes they're right, but it's important to understand that they will not acquire a client or a book just because it, say, has vampires in it. They reject hundreds of vampire books every month, many of them with high concept plots. They look for characters, story, writing that appeals subjectively to them; vampire elements are not a litmus test. What they do know is that readers are interested in vampire stories, but the smart ones also know that reader interest drifts.
So if an agent tells you in 2010 that vampire novels are hot, that agent is not watching the market sufficiently. (That doesn't mean that the agent has no judgment about story, is dumb or can't be trained effectively.) Vampire novels were hot in 2001-2005, and for the youth market 2003-2007. (That doesn't mean that you can't sell a vampire novel now, just that the big expansion already happened.) Steampunk (includes Victorian historical fantasy,) has been running about 2005-2009. If you try to sell a steampunk fantasy now, it may or may not be harder going. In terms of titles out there now -- what you see on the shelves -- steampunk is doing very well, but those titles were bought a year to several years ago.
So when you go into the market, you have to have an idea of what's going on and where your work fits in. The reason I'm always going on about the history of the genres is that many authors will claim they've invented a new sub-genre because they simply don't know that their type of story is not unique but has been published for decades. I'm sure Ms. Moon runs into this all the time with aspiring writers. It's the whole enchilada that you're dealing with, with all its niches and sub-groups, not a tiny slice.
So if you went to publishers with a steampunk fantasy in 2004, you might well have gotten the response from some that steampunk doesn't sell. What this means is not that steampunk doesn't sell to publishers ever. It's been sold all along for decades and books come out from major publishers. What it means is, there are currently no big steampunk hits or movies that this person is aware of. Which was not entirely true -- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke was a huge hit in 2004 and did help open the door for other writers doing steampunk and Victorian historical fantasy or for those with titles already out there to get more attention. The other thing that helped was that again, readers drift and want variety. So after the expansion of contemporary fantasy where they sampled that, what did they do? A lot of them went and tried historical fantasy, of which Victoriana is the most popular. Not to mention that historical fiction got several hits and the show The Tudors, etc., leading some historical fiction readers to drift over into trying historical fantasy.
In other words, it's all one big amoeba. And everybody keeps trying to figure it out. Publishing people are often sharp about it, but they are not unified in views. Again, if you want to chase trends, don't look at the bright shiny objects that seem to be amassed on the shelves. Look at what's coming out on publishers' lists that there seems to be slightly more of than there was before. That will probably be your next group to expand its audience. After expansion, there is some contraction (alternate world fantasy is experiencing a little of this right now, contemporary fantasy also is starting,) but if there's a solid enough core audience, it will remain a large sub-group, and further expansion may occur periodically and readers will also drift into related areas which then expand a little or a lot.
If you don't want to chase trends, but just are trying to figure out how to present your work -- which is the better strategy in general -- remember it's not a pitch, it's a persuasion. A pitch is for an idea that 200 people are going to change and work like Play-do under the helm of a director to turn into something. You're one written author and you're not going to get much editing either. And publishing people have heard every marketing buzzword around. High concept to them does not mean shiny advertising words. So the big question you are being asked is: what is your story's worth? Which goes back to why you wrote it and revised it into its final shape. Not how original it is, not how formulaic it is, not can it be made into a movie. What is your story telling, what is it for.
Remember how in the query letter thread, I usually end up asking the person 10-30 questions about their plot and characters? I'm trying to find out what the story is about, what they were trying to do with it so that I can see how they'd need to describe it. And what high concept means is that rather than having to ask you those 30 questions, you just are able to tell them up front. The simplest of stories can be powerful, the most complex of stories can be described by its core. So high concept is essentially a time-saving device.
Sorry to rant again; hope it's some help.
In the film industry, up until about the late-80s/early-90s there was still a very firm notion that there was a major difference between high-brow and low-brow film. It persists to this day, but perhaps not with quite the same level of vehemence (from both sides) -- there's less of a line in the sand, and it's more acceptable to watch and enjoy both sorts as valid entertainment. Originally, High Concept basically meant repetitive, puerile, low-brow entertainment media dressed up in an elaborate, saleable concept.
The criticism of the High Concept film is that it employs stock plots, stock characters, and reuses every worn-out trope there is -- all that changes from High Concept film to High Concept film is the concept. The concept then becomes window dressing in the film industry's push to reproduce the same, puerile, money-making Hollywood drivel over and over again. So say the culture critics...
The usual examples are things like War of the Worlds, as opposed to Independence Day, as opposed to Godzilla, as opposed 28 Days Later, etc... At the core, all of these movies employ the exact same plot, same structure, same character types, same basic conflict, same dramatic tropes. Each one simply uses a different version of the same concept to sell itself (foreign invader of some kind, humanity must defend itself). If you love this kind of movie, you'll love this new version of it!
But then there's films like Scream, which is a mock-High Concept film. It falls somewhere between satire, parody, camp, kitsch, and high concept. The whole bent of Scream was to demonstrate that the repetition of tropes can be done tongue-in-cheek, and yet also seriously at the same time. Basically, Scream took the ironic High Concept notion seriously and employed it to its best advantage -- the film was both intelligent and entertaining (what?!? ce n'est pas possible!). That changed how people approach High Concept -- all of a sudden it was legit.
So now, High Concept means something more akin to "middle-brow," or even "literary" -- in the sense that your work demonstrates knowledge of genre conventions and tropes and employs them gainfully, with a (sometimes more, sometimes less obvious) nod to the artifice of the whole thing.
It's very po-mo, you see.
The result has been a push toward tightly woven (or heavily blindered) films that pursue a concept with single-minded dedication, and that it's now OK to recycle conventions -- the pretensions of high-brow aspirations and low-brow execution are not longer at odds, but are instead working together. Hence the middle-brow, the ideal target audience -- not too smart, not too stupid, savvy consumers of entertainment.
Anyway... asking for High Concept is one thing, and describing it is another. It's sort of like asking for camp film -- is that even possible?
This guy's version of it, http://www.writersstore.com/article.php?articles_id=609, is interesting...
Still, there's no magic bullet. But the High Concept idea isn't completely useless.
Buzz words, according to political critics, as they have become so popular in US politics based from focus groups, are commonly referred to as Hollywoodization.
Now I am not totally disagreeing with your response; but the matter in which new fiction is approached today is far different than it was years ago, in which many blame high concept. I know a long time romance novelist (or cheesy romance, as some refer), as she has told me of these changes. To her, the publishing of a novel today is comparable to 'pitching' a movie script that will razzle and dazzle even the most uninterested in the romance genre.
But as I said, In my opinion, high concept is a focus group created buzz word created and embraced by publishers as a tool to sell more copies, thus increase their profit.
Yes, because most buzz words originate out of marketing people in Hollywood.
But that doesn't mean that publishing people want to actually turn fiction publishing into Hollywood. And again, even if they tried, they would not succeed because they are entirely different mediums, entirely different industries, entirely different cash levels, and because of the way people buy fiction which is not at all the way they buy movie tickets or watch t.v. Fiction buyers are marketing resistant; the premiere way that fiction is sold remains word of mouth. There are no option deals in fiction publishing. There is no getting your cousin's screenplay sold on a placeholder deal. There are no focus groups in book publishing and certainly not in fiction publishing. There are no marketing consultants that research if a particular novel will play in the market. Nor do the booksellers have them. People think they do because they think it's like Hollywood, but they don't.
They are just buzz words that get thrown around and then discarded for new buzz words. You don't really have to worry about them.
Fiction publishing has not changed radically in the (oh eesh) nearly 25 years I've been dealing with it. But things within it sometimes do change. You can't approach large publishers without an agent because they no longer have the manpower to deal with unagented submissions, for instance. And the number of people who want to publish fiction has increased radically.
Category romance has changed back and forth, depending on the circumstances. It used to be King of the paperback market and now it's kind of just the Duke of the paperback market. The shrinkage of the wholesale market in the 1990's changed the circumstances a lot and shrunk the category romance market, so there is now more competition. The emphasis also shifted from short contemporary romances and historical romances to suspense, fantasy and chick lit type romance that was half the time sold in general fiction. Also longer contemporary romances. And those have all started to do very well, but the problem is that with the wholesale market gone, all fiction bestsellers sell less copies than they used to, and the same for mid-list, so for some long-standing romance writers, I'm sure the pickings don't seem as good. I'm also sure that on the general fiction, longer romance area, they're under pressure to try and have something that appeals to film, even though Hollywood is adapting far fewer romance and women's epics than they did in the 1980's.
Category romance has also got quite a nice e-publishing operation going because romance publishers embraced it long before the other ones have. But it has sort of created a A team and AA farm team set-up to some extent for some publishers. If you have any specific questions about romance publishing, JT, let me know. The situations for romance are often different from other sectors of fiction like SFF, but there is cross-over because the SFF publishers also buy SFF romance.
Again, what we've tried to lay down is that dazzling rhetoric isn't going to work with fiction publishing people because dazzling rhetoric is part of their jobs. It's like trying to PR a PR person. What they want is information. And they don't agree on what "wide appeal" or an interesting concept is. They don't want to be dazzled, they want to be interested. And you're only going to interest some of them, not all, and ultimately, it comes down to whether they like your writing or not, which they're not going to all agree on either.
If you want to get very "high concept" though, the things to remember about the fiction market is that it operates, again, on both symbiosis and variety. So try to have some of both in your descriptions, I guess.
Last edited by KatG; January 15th, 2010 at 06:05 PM.