Book market trends and other things you have no control over

Jul 26, 2011

One of the most popular questions I heard people ask agents when I went to a conference back in May was about trends-- were the agents still looking for this trend or that trend, what trends were over, what trends were predicted to be next. Many writers want to write stories we love that will also fit into the marketplace, and knowing trends can help with that.

Unfortunately, the thing about trends is that they're not something we can control.

Trends are determined primarily by readers, and then by publishers trying to flood the market with what readers seem to want. It's possible to predict that because readers want dystopian, they may want science fiction next because they're related, but who knows. Maybe somebody will write an amazing book about a schizophrenic teenage elf, and readers will go nuts looking for more fantasy with mental health themes.

The advice professionals give out about trends and writing for them is usually the same: don't write for the trends, because by the time you hear about it, publisher's lists are most likely full of it. Just write the best book you can, one that you completely love, and if it's amazing, it'll find a home.

The thing about trends and hitting them or missing them is that it's almost purely based on luck. James Dashner mentioned at that same conference in May that when The Maze Runner was being published, it was around the time when The Hunger Games was getting popular. His publishers were excited to have another dystopian/post-apocalyptic story, because the market was primed for it. He was lucky, he said.

I've been thinking about trends a lot because I'm currently querying a dystopian novel. I wrote it before I knew much about the trend, but I'm not quite as lucky as James Dashner. While the trend is picking up in the reader's market, publishers have dystopians planned on their lists for the next few years. This doesn't mean I have no chance. I love this book, and I think it's pretty darn good-- otherwise I wouldn't have the courage to query it.

Here's the thing about trends though-- and about selling your writing in general. It's all about preference. It's about other people and what they like and what they're sick of and what tickles their fancy on a Wednesday at two p.m. when they read your query or pick up your book. And you really have no control over that.

What you do have control over is writing something that YOU love, which is why that's the standard advice from agents about trends. The other thing you have control over? Studying and applying writing craft and a hefty dollop of imagination to make your book amazing. Because everybody prefers amazing.

So, my friends, what are your thoughts on trends and writing?

18 comments:

Ruth Josse said...

I'm finishing up a dystopian right now and there have been times when I've wanted to trash it because maybe everyone will be sick of them by the time I'm even ready to query it. But. The fact that it is set in a dystopian setting is just that. I love the story and hopefully others will love it too.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Shallee..by the time we finish the book, the trends may change.So, its better we stick to writing a story we absolutely love.

akossket said...

You're right. Trends are good to know about but in the end, I write what makes me happy because otherwise I will have a hard time finishing that book and going back for revision after revision.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I would hate to think that dystopian is a trend. I think of it as more of another genre, like SF or Fantasy. That's just my opinion, though. I really like distopians. But I worry, too about trends. I definitely wouldn't write to one, but I worry that by the time my book gets into the hands of an agent it will be something people are sick of. But I'm writing a fairytale sequel. No one gets sick of fairytales, do they? (man, I hope not!)

Jenilyn Tolley said...

A few years ago at LTUE the panel was talking about trends. One of the things they said was that right before Twilight came out, everyone agreed that vampires were dead and no one was looking for them. They were trying to make the point that no one can predict trends and that's why it's more important to write what you're passionate about than what you think is popular.

Joe Vasicek said...

I think trends can be divided into two types: marketing trends and cultural trends.

Marketing trends are more artificial, and seem to be a creation of the industry: one book really takes off (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example), and everyone else tries to capitalize on its success by producing similar works. A bubble forms as publishers overbuy works in that genre, then collapses as readers lose interest. In the worst of cases, this leads to the implosion of entire genres; there's a reason we call Twilight "Pparanormal Romance" and not "Horror."

Cultural trends, on the other hand, are much broader and speak to the spirit of the times. They're a lot harder to quantify or delineate, but they have a lot more force and resonance than marketing trends. For example, Godzilla was, in many ways, a reaction to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and spawned a whole sub-genre of Daikaju, Gundam, and Mecha fiction in Japan, which eventually crossed over to the US in the 80s and 90s. Before 9/11, good guys and bad guys tended to be more black and white, and it was almost unheard of for the bad guys to win (think James Bond). Now, with shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica, movie heroes like Jason Bourne, and book series like George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, the conflict is cast in shades of gray, because the conflict of our times is much more gray (and yes, I know that GRRM started his series in the 90s, but I think that one of the reasons he's experiencing so much success is because his books resonate more now because of the cultural trends).

I agree that it's a bad idea to write to marketing trends. By the time anyone knows what the trend is, the publishers have already filled up their lists and the ship has already sailed. Trying to predict trends is an exercise in futility, and kills the creative spirit. However, if we want our works to have resonance and really speak to people, I don't think we can afford to ignore the cultural trends.

But the good news is that so long as we don't cut ourselves completely off from society, when we write the stuff that we love--what really speaks to us--we can't help but incorporate these cultural trends into what we write. As Orson Scott Card says, literature is the culture speaking to itself.

shelly said...

Thank you soooo much for this post. You are soooo right. Write what you love b/c if the writer's passion doesn't shime through their reader will put it down.

David Powers King said...

Matching your writing with trends is tricky business. By the time you finish a novel for that trend, it may have already changed. For me, like you said, it's about writing that I love. Trying to match a trend that may go sour in the next six months is like an English writing assignment. Never was a fan of those.

Great post, Shallee! :)

Shallee said...

Thanks for your input, everybody! Akoss, they are definitely good to pay attention to-- it helps to be aware, no matter what!

Jeni, it's so true that the trends are unpredictable. Joe, your insight into market versus cultural trends was brilliant. We definitely need to pay attention to the culture around us in order to write what speaks to all of us.

David, you're right about it feeling like an assignment if we try to write to the trends. I think it kind of stifles creativity.

Kathryn, good luck with your fairytale wip! I hope the dystopian trend just stays as a popular genre too. :)

And Shelly, passion is always where it's at. :)

Abby said...

That absolutely rings true. Just write what you love and control what you can control. The rest will take care of itself. It would certainly be awesome if we had more control over trends and our query letters being accepted and all sorts of things but that's never going to happen. Just give it your best, love what you do, and be proud of your work. :)

Emy Shin said...

Trends are so unpredictable, and for me, one of the worst things is what you've described: Missing a trend because of luck. A beautifully written novel that doesn't follow a trend will likely be picked up because there's no competition, even though it might not be what's currently selling. But a great novel that just misses a trend (i.e. publishers have already filled their lists with that genre for the next year or two) is harder to place.

I absolutely believe that a writer should write what she loves -- but it is important to look at trends, too, not to write to them but in case she's just missing a trend.

I'm currently writing a YA Sci-Fi (I fell in love with the Sci-Fi genre as a whole after watching Star Trek Reboot a year or so ago -- terribly late to the whole franchise), but chances are, by the time I'm done with it, publishers will already have filled their Sci-Fi list. I really love the WiP, and would hate to abandon it because I'm afraid of missing a trend. But I have to consider that I might have a better chance with the SNI, a YA steampunk.

I'm sorry for such a long reply. Trends and missing them are something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Amanda said...

is that a picture of a bunny?

Executiveredhead said...

I just love that there are so many genres to choose from-as a writer and a reader. Think about the millions of people all over the world and the varying tastes they have. No matter what is trending, there will be readers out there for every genre.
I think it's good advice to take your idea-no matter what genre it's in-and writer the best story with the best characters that you can.
Someone out there (probably a lot of someones)will love it.

Madeline Bartos said...

I don't think I'll ever grow tired of dystopian! It's so different, each destroyed world is so diverse. (Although talking about it is sort of making me sick of it.) I write some weird spin-off of dystopian. Maybe I'll set the next trend. Uh. . . no. (But if I do, the genre shall be called Madopian. For sure.)

One trend that died quickly was paranormal romance. It was all like "SPARKLY!" and then "how many different plots can you have with a vampire? boring!"

I hope sci-fi becomes a trend! Then everyone will love it, and maybe they'll watch Star Wars, and my friends will know me as the coolest person ever, because I watched Star Wars before them. Ha! I think that all made sense. My focus is crumbling with my sanity. . . and brain.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I don't usually go with the trends, in reading or writing. But I have to say, I'm reading dystopian when I wasn't willing to read vampires. :) That says something for dystopian! I just think the dystopian premises are fascinating.

Rooting for you, Shallee! Don't give up!!

Amy

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, totally agree. Once a trend is identified, it has passed. Of course, that doesn't make it easy for the poor writer trying to break into the market. ;)

Shallee said...

Amanda, it's either a bunny or a cat. I can't quite tell which...the ears make me think bunny, though. :)

Jenna St. Hilaire said...

It's an English Angora rabbit. I used to have a couple. And seriously, that picture made me laugh loud and long. :D

Excellent post. I think you summed it up beautifully in the last line: "...everybody prefers amazing." I've never been a loyal genre reader for that reason. Oh, sure, I prefer fantasy, but I'm just as happy with an amazing dystopian (Roth's Divergent is a good example), an amazing contemporary, an amazing literary work, etc. etc. I wholeheartedly agree with you!

 
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