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Chasing the Market

I was a guest speaker at the Write on the Red Cedar workshop last weekend, talking to other writers about fantasy and publishing and different aspects of the writing career … it was a fairly small group, so I ran it as more of an open Q&A. A lot of the questions were about what was hot in the market. What’s popular right now? What’s the next Big New Thing? What are agents and editors looking for? What do the kids want to read?

These are valid questions. Heck, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency just posted an article about what sixteen American editors are looking for in 2014. It’s worth reading this sort of thing and learning what editors and agents are seeing too much of, and what they’re particularly interested in acquiring. But I think we place far too much weight on this sort of question, especially when we’re starting out.

What do publishers and agents and readers want? They want good, interesting stories.

That’s a total cop-out answer, I know. What does “good” or “interesting” mean? Was The Hunger Games the most interesting book to come out in its year? Was Twilight the best? Come on, Hines. Tell us the truth. Aren’t YA and Middle Grade hot right now, so shouldn’t we all be writing in those genres?

Okay, fine. You asked for it.

Remember, my opinion is obviously THE RIGHTEST, SMARTEST, COOLEST OPINION ON THE WHOLE INTERNET. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that plenty of authors with WRONG and UNCOOL opinions on how to build a career seem to have somehow succeeded as well, despite not doing everything exactly the way I think they should.

With that said, particularly for new writers, trying to write what’s hot probably isn’t the best way to go. For one thing, publishing is slow. For most people, it takes time to write a good book. If you publish traditionally, you’re looking at an additional few years of submitting your stuff, getting it edited and marketed, and so on, before it finally hits the bookstores. By which time you’ve totally missed the Sexy YA Were-Jaguar boat, which has now been replaced by Goblin/Leprechaun Romance. And sure, you could self-publish the book to try to speed things up a little, but you still need to write the thing. And if you’re trying to do it right, you still need to get it edited, get your cover art created, etc.

Another problem is that for most of us, the stories we write when we’re starting out are pretty derivative. We haven’t found our own voice and style. Which means if I see that Blue-Green Love: When Jig the Goblin got Lucky made the bestseller lists and decide to chase that trend, I’m a lot more likely to try to end up writing a weak imitation of that story instead of coming up with a truly new and original twist on hot goblin/leprechaun love.

My advice, for whatever it is or isn’t worth, is to write what you love. Write the kind of stories you want to read. Write things that excite you. Write what you’re passionate about. Chasing trends and writing stories you don’t care about just because you think they’re hot seems like a quick path to depression and burnout.

Goblin Quest [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was the fourth book I ever wrote, but it was one of the first times I said screw it, I don’t care about the market, I’m just going to write something fun, something that makes me happy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Goblin Quest is in many ways the book that launched my career.

And as it turned out, monster-themed books were the Hot Trend in Germany when my goblin books came out. If I’d added David Hasselhoff to the story, I could have retired a millionaire. But even without the Hoff, I was able to ride that trend, not because of anything I had planned, but because I happened to have the right books at the right time, with an agent who could make that deal happen. It was awesome, and I’d love to catch another wave like that, but I don’t think that’s something I have a lot of control over.

My advice on writing for the market? Know what’s out there. Read what’s come before, and read what’s selling right now. Then go and write your own stories. Write something new. Tell stories that make you laugh and cry. Write the scenes that make you want to call up your best friend and say, “Holy shit, you won’t believe what I just did in this story!!!”

Those are the stories that will make you and your work stand out.

I’d love to hear other writers’ opinions on this one … even if those opinions are WRONG ;-)

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2014 04:43 pm (UTC)
I reverse-chase trends, based on my experience querying an urban fantasy. It's all very well to say write what you love, but when it's a dying trend, chances are high that self-publishing will be all there is. And much as I enjoy self-publishing, I'm aware that if I want to make a living wage, I'm going to need to sell something to a trade publisher. That means following the trends so I can avoid them. It'll at least give me a sporting chance of finishing a book before agents and editors are saying they're sick of those books.
Jan. 14th, 2014 04:49 pm (UTC)
Interesting! That's an angle I hadn't thought about.
Jan. 14th, 2014 09:17 pm (UTC)
Hold up--is urban fantasy dying? I always thought of it as one of those genres that's always been around somewhere, but it's just super-hot right now, as opposed to niche, like it usually is. Same with vampires. (Although I get that people (other than me) are sick of vampires.)

This Rhoda Nightingale, by the way--haven't seen you out of AW before! Cheers. :)
Jan. 14th, 2014 10:37 pm (UTC)
They let me out of my box sometimes!

To clarify, I meant dying as a trend, not dying as a genre. Agents and editors see too much of it, and editors aren't buying a lot of it. Anytime you see a question about what they don't want to see, the examples are usually urban fantasy. Close to the time I started querying, a number of authors I knew who had sold their urban fantasies didn't get further book deals for their series. The sales just weren't there to support the number of urban fantasy books that publishers had acquired.

So I'm not saying it's an impossible sell, or that it'll ever disappear completely. But it's very over-saturated and the competition is astronomical.

Putting it another way, it's much harder to be one urban fantasy query of a hundred that day, than it is to be one military science fiction query of two. Especially if the agents know they can likely place a military science fiction, because there's always a bit of space in that niche... but their editor acquaintances have told them they're not looking for more urban fantasy right now.
Jan. 14th, 2014 10:41 pm (UTC)
Oh sure, I get that--I heard that happened to Kelly Meding, actually, which sucks because I loved BOTH of her series. And have told her so, several times.

It seems like the trend now is contemporary/realistic. I see a ton of that around nowadays. So it's back to the crypt for me until the next vampire wave comes around.

Or I could write about dragons... The world needs more dragons...
Jan. 14th, 2014 05:22 pm (UTC)
The market changes so rapidly, and it usually takes at least a year for a book to get published, at least traditionally, that there's no point in trying to catch a wave. The remainder bins have been filled year after year with Da Vinci Code knockoffs, Harry Potter knockoffs, etc., because authors tried to catch up to a market that had already moved on to the next big thing. It bears remembering that after Harry Potter hit it big, despite the tons of "magic school" books that came out on its heels, the next big thing was something entirely different: Twilight. And after Twilight hit it big there were tons of paranormal romance books for teens that followed, but the next big thing was again something completely different: The Hunger Games. Now we've got tons of dystopian teen fiction, but the next big thing will almost certainly be something else yet again. So authors really should just write what they want to and not worry about chasing the market. You can't catch the market, but what you write may just change it.

Edited at 2014-01-14 05:23 pm (UTC)
Jan. 14th, 2014 05:27 pm (UTC)
You can't catch the market, but what you write may just change it.

I like this phrase. It is applicable in so many places and ways. Thanks!
Jan. 14th, 2014 05:29 pm (UTC)
I get a dollar every time you use it!
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:05 pm (UTC)
Since you posted it on my blog, that makes me the publisher, right? So I should be getting at least a 50% cut of that dollar!
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:07 pm (UTC)
Curse you, Hines! *shakes fist*
Jan. 15th, 2014 10:29 am (UTC)
"it usually takes at least a year for a book to get published"

-- uh-huh. It's worse than that.

The production pipeline at a major publisher runs on a 12 month production cycle (with quarterly or thrice-annual batches of new material being pushed out to the marketing/sales force) but finding a slot for a new author can take longer -- my first sale to Ace was followed by book slots at 12 month intervals but it took nearly two years after acquisition before it came out.

Furthermore, turnaround time for those editors who read slush, or even agented submissions, is slow: even if you're agented, if you're a new author you're probably having to go through your agent's slushpile. So, call it 12-24 months from submission to acquisition if you're successful.

Then there's writing time. If you have a day job to hold down, you can't write as fast as if you're writing for a living. I used to take 3 years per novel when I had a day job. (I now average 2 novels/year.)

Upshot: it takes about 5-6 years to write a book, run the gauntlet of agent and editorial, and then get it into a publisher's production pipeline.

Furthermore, a publishing trend takes some years to become established -- Harry Potter, Hunger Games, et al were not overnight successes: they took 2-3 years each to build, and the derivative second-artist imitators (from writers with existing contracts and slots to fill) took another 2-3 years to begin showing up on top of that. Someone trying to break in for the first time is therefore going to be not 12 months behind the bleeding edge, but more like 5-10 years.

Update: Blog essay exploring the implications.

Edited at 2014-01-15 11:10 am (UTC)
Jan. 15th, 2014 01:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Charlie. I'll be linking to your essay in today's blog post.
Jan. 14th, 2014 05:39 pm (UTC)
What was telling for me was the one editor explicitly looking for male-focused adventure and suspense type stories. Le sigh.

Jan. 14th, 2014 06:31 pm (UTC)
I basically just write what makes me happy. The hope is that other people will enjoy my work and find it entertaining. :) I try to keep it as simple as possible and so far so good.
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:33 pm (UTC)
Yep. When people ask me what audience I'm writing for, the most honest answer is, "Me." I write stories that interest and entertain me, and I hope they have the same effect for other readers.
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:41 pm (UTC)
Exactly. :) I write because it's one of the few things that brings me joy and peace. Right now I'm really into sci-fi which is relatively new territory for me but I'm having fun with it. And the reader can tell when the author is trying to force something. You know what I mean? So I'm having fun and seeing where it takes me.
Jan. 14th, 2014 07:14 pm (UTC)

Roman hist fic is in fact quite popular right now so I should hasten and finish those suckers. ;-) But what is popular are serials with a single Roman MC who kicks a different 'barbarian' or sometimes corrupt Roman ass in every volume. Mine are more epic, with several MCs usually from both sides of the conflict, and in one case it's the Romans who get their asses kicked. Sorry boys, but history sucks sometimes. *grin* So those books may hit the wave, but perhaps they may not. I'm taking the time I need to make them as good as I can and then we'll see.

And then there's that 'Dark Age' (Early History is a better term, imho) bunny about Picts and Dálriatans. There's not much along those lines in the hist fic market if anything at all. I only found RE Howard's Bran Mak Morn and some other Fantasy takes on the Picts. But I quite like that little bunny. If only it stopped trying to bring some disreputable cousins from France along. :-)
Jan. 15th, 2014 04:50 am (UTC)
Ha! This is exactly what I say. You can't please all the readers, so I write for an audience I know - myself.

Jan. 14th, 2014 07:03 pm (UTC)
I write what I like to write and what I'm good at writing (which makes me a lot happier than writing stuff I'm NOT good at writing...can I just say that I will never be able to jump on the erotica gravy train...)

On the other hand, I do run my ideas past my agent before investing six months or more in writing them, because there are times when she tells me that a market is so saturated, editors refuse to even look at books about X, no matter how good it is.

So it pays to have a few areas you like to write in, because at any given moment, one of your favorites might fall into that "kiss of death" category.
Jan. 14th, 2014 07:10 pm (UTC)
Agreed. A lot of writers have more ideas than they know what to do with. At that point, having someone knowledgeable to recommend that Idea #4 might be the best investment can be a very helpful thing.
Jan. 14th, 2014 07:05 pm (UTC)
Chasing the market has not worked for me even when I was advised to do so by people in publishing who knew what was currently hot, what they were then buying rather than what was out on the shelves. I'd written a bunch of borderline YA/adult books that nobody could market successfully, and was advised to write something that was definitively adult, since people kept saying my books were too complicated for children. If I took off the YA trappings, it was suggested, I'd do better because there would be less confusion. So I did that. My book proposal was rejected. (Not by the people who had made the suggestion, though it wouldn't surprise me if that happened to somebody sometime.) And the next thing that happened was that Firebird bought up my confusing backlist and republished it all as YA, because Harry Potter had happened.

Jan. 14th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC)

Yeah, Harry Potter shook up a lot of people's assumptions about YA and what would and wouldn't sell.
Jan. 14th, 2014 07:35 pm (UTC)
f I’d added David Hasselhoff to the story, I could have retired

so if he isnt a goblin or a leprechaun, what is he?
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:07 pm (UTC)
Huh ... I'm thinking were-platypus.
Jan. 15th, 2014 06:18 am (UTC)
that would explain so much... so so much...
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:33 pm (UTC)
Part of my plan with my current epic fantasy trilogy was to anticipate a trend away from grimdark, but I blew it. Either it was too early, the book was no good (always a possibility, I guess) or there was some other problem with it.

Next time I'll plan to knock off a summer tentpole movie slated for two years down the road. It sure beats thinking this crap up on my own.
Jan. 14th, 2014 11:38 pm (UTC)
The best advice I've ever heard about -- though I haven't received it directly -- is the simple, "Have you tried writing a bestseller instead of this other stuff you've been doing?"
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:12 am (UTC)
Anyone who says that to me is going to get a first hand look at the dead-eyed stare of a killer.

Not that I'll resort to violence, but I'll be thinking about it, and thinking hard.
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:30 pm (UTC)
Sign me up. I'm tired of grimdark, as well as vampires/werewolves.
Jan. 15th, 2014 02:12 pm (UTC)
Me too, and grimdark fantasy is some of my favorites (Anne Bishop's Black Jewels trilogy is a sanity read for me). But it's seemed to have become a competition as to who can out-grimdark whom, and yeah, it hit me as, "Why do I keep reading books about horrible people?"
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:38 am (UTC)
Marion Zimmer Bradley once wrote an editorial urging writers to go for new themes, like, say, a talking cow.

Shortly therefore, she wrote an editorial about the resulting flood of talking cow stories, that the best one appeared in this issue, and how this meant that talking cows were no longer a new theme.
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:28 pm (UTC)
Seeing you quip about the Hoff made my morning.

Maybe that's a bit of a low bar, but if you saw my meeting schedule for today, you'd understand.
Jan. 15th, 2014 12:46 pm (UTC)
The most vexing part about finding out that a subject you love/are writing about is a trend, is that the trend never touches on what you love about that trend. Particularly fantasy YA trends, they always go: social misfit discovers secret heritage/finds mysterious cute boy, must save cute boy/secret heritage thing! It's always the same annoying core wearing a different and transparently thin veneer. People go "yup that's mermaids/angels/genies" and not "yet another book with an MC who 'isn't like those other girls' who meets a mysterious stranger."

If I wanted a selkie story because seals are charming jackasses to each other, I'd instead be drowning in a pile of "Sarah meets the broody Roan down by the sea... and he has a secret." But NO fun seal romps or questioning who actually steals selkie skins and if all humans really are jerks who would steal one or if this is just a convenient story shorthand for "abusive asshole" because IDK, explorations of what the flavor-of-the-week actually entails isn't fun to these people. Half these books you don't even reach the hook until 50 - 70% of the way in. I came for the selkies, not this cut-and-paste protagonist wanking about their mundane life, I could be reading mainstream books for that.

Actually, I recently tried to find a single interesting mermaid book out of the pile. Turns out my sister was looking for mermaid erotica, so by combing multiple genres for mermaids we found... very, very little despite the massive glut that still left me writing what I want (because nobody else is! What's so hard about a comedy of manners/clash of cultures/a halfway decent grasp of what it's like under the ocean?), even though it'll be unpublishable for ages, most likely.

Edited at 2014-01-15 12:48 pm (UTC)
Jan. 15th, 2014 04:11 pm (UTC)
I would totally read a comedy of manners involving selkies and mermaids.
Jan. 15th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
Right? That's what I really wanted out of mermaid books--a cross-cultural romance (or not! Maybe a coming home story? As a Cuban-American, cultural boundary crossing is one of my Things) that has more to do with the ways you wrap your barnacle silk cloak or how a proper lady/gentleman walks out of the ocean without revealing their scales or how wearing three shark's teeth in your braid is a mortal insult to the Abyssal Baroness than about the hot stranger with a secret.

...But yay for knowing I have a market of at least two readers.
Jan. 16th, 2014 09:10 pm (UTC)

Similarly, I wrote about selkies and clash of cultures and wired romances and epic magic on a tropical archipelago because dammit, that's the sort of thing I wanted. Not another rehash of an extant romance story with mythological beasts swapped out, or yet another rehash of the same "man steals sealskin" folk tale*. Alas, the story being 180K, I've been strongly advised to sell something a more acceptable length for a first novel first.

* I have certainly run into other versions of these things, or versions that charmed me that included these elements, but most came out before any current YA or urban fantasy trends.
Jan. 15th, 2014 09:22 pm (UTC)
Have you read Sonya Taaffe's collection Singing Innocence and Experience?
Jan. 16th, 2014 09:29 pm (UTC)
The only writer I've met who admitted to successfully chasing a trend was Tanya Huff. She worked in a bookstore, and noticed they could never keep vampire books in stock for long. So she wrote a series. it did pretty well.

Note, though, that Blood Price came out in 1991, 2 years before the first Anita Blake book...

That's about the only way to chase a trend. Notice an absence, and go for it. Otherwise, write your own thing is better by far.
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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