A question I get asked all the time by people who are trying to break into writing as a career is this: how do you know what publishers are looking for? An aspiring author was asking me this only recently. It’s all right for established authors, she complained, they can talk to their editors and keep up to date with publishing trends. But if you’re not inside the magic circle how are you going to find out whether you’re even on the right track? It’s just a matter of luck.
Well actually it’s not just a matter of luck. There’s an absolutely guaranteed way of discovering what publishers are looking for and it’s called researching the market. It works like this. You find out what is being published right now and you read it. That’s all there is to it. But note, when I say right now, I really mean right now. Not three years ago. Not even last year. Now.
A lot of would-be authors think it’s enough to read the classics. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t. But if you want to discover the cutting edge, this will not do by itself. Your writing has to be informed by what your peers are doing. This requires commitment; it involves systematically buying new books, not getting them out of the library, scouring the charity shop book-bin, or putting the occasional title on your Christmas list. This is a costly business but no whinging! When you get published won’t you want people to buy your books?
Publishing is an industry and like all industries, indeed like all aspects of human behaviour, it is subject to changes in fashion. If I wanted to be a car-designer and I produced a design for a car based on something that was in vogue ten or fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t get very far, would I? One of my favourite cars was the Morris Minor. My aunt used to collect us at the station in hers when, as children, my brothers and I went to stay with her for our Summer holidays. It was a lovely, friendly vehicle with indicators that emerged from the side of the car like little wings. But no automobile manufacturer would produce one now. People want cars with heaters that work properly, air-bags in case of accidents, assisted braking systems, state of the art hi-fi systems and anything else that the manufacturers are prepared to offer.
So it is with fiction. You cannot turn out last year’s model and hope to prosper. You need to study what is making waves right now. I’m not suggesting that you should try to reproduce that. To do so would be to produce something derivative and unoriginal. Just use it to seed your imagination. Out of that process something new will hopefully grow, informed by the best writing of the past, the best contemporary writing and your own, as yet unheard, voice.