Reinvention is set to be a key trend for 2012, with top literary agents saying they are on the alert for genre-busting books or titles that contain a new slant on a "national treasure".
Curtis Brown's Gordon Wise said agents were looking "for the beginning of some big new trends". Noting the success of Icon Books' The Etymologicon, which traces the roots of words, he said: "Books can defy the rules. I think there has to be a ‘national treasure' element in it, but that doesn't have to mean a person; it's about tapping into the same thing but from different angles." But Wise added that the idea has to be a strong one. "I'm talking to a lot of my clients about how to be clever, but also blindingly obvious," he said.
Books that side-step genre and can break through as a standalone brand are also in demand. United Agents' Simon Trewin said the tough market means every book needs to be a mini-brand. "You can't just publish into genre any more. I'm looking for ambitious novelists," he said.
David Higham m.d. Anthony Goff said: "I think certain genres have been very weak in the last couple of years, and publishers have lost confidence in them. Something that is merely very good in its genre is not enough, we are looking for something that is a bit different, and that word-of-mouth appeal is very important. "I'm sure some of the genres will come back, but publishers are probably looking for books that will redefine them."
Débuts with the power to attract global interest remain high on agents' agendas, including novels with a high-concept or fantasy element. Trewin commented: "We are all trying to imagine how readers are going to be attracted to the books, so inevitably there is going to be a trend towards high-concept books that you can sell to people very, very quickly."
Blake Friedman's Oliver Munson said: "I really want to be able to sell them in more than 20 countries and make a big international splash. For me it can never be something totally British in focus, and one way to circumvent the borders is by going for high-concept books."
Another way to achieve the effect was through books written from a smaller, more regional perspective, Munson added. "I think you can have a regional perspective that still does really well internationally," he said.
Sheil Land agent Piers Blofeld said that in tough financial times, fantasy titles can "come steaming through as a bit of a lifesaver", with Luigi Bonomi saying he was seeing a lot of submissions for "crossover genre fiction, not just from new writers, but also from established writers trying their hands at it".
In non-fiction, female-led stories could give a new twist on the male comedian memoir genre which proved less popular this Christmas, with Wise citing the success of Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman (Ebury) in 2011.
Wise said: "It has been three of four years of comedians, it didn't feel so fresh, so something new and interesting has to come into that slot." However, Trewin said: "I don't think the comedy market is going anywhere . . . I'm looking for really opinionated books written by almost the only person who could bring that world to the page."