Wednesday, 17 December 2008

What Publishers Want

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. 


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure this takes into account the production time an unpublished author faces. If, say, I read all of the great vampire novels so en vogue right now, in the year it takes me to write such a novel and then the year it takes to polish and shop it around, will I have missed the trend? I've read recently that vampires are no longer marketable, that they are at the end of their sales curve.

This leads me to be a bit idealistic. It would seem to me that if an unpublished writer wants to write what is being published now, then that person merely wants to be published and not be an actual writer. If I am excited about the story I have to tell, if it keeps me awake at night and causes me to rise early in the morning to write it, then should I really care what the ephemeral commercial market is interested in? Don't I have an obligation to write the story I have? I realize this can lead to disappointment, but to me, this is writing, not publishing. Am I being too idealistic?

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks for your comment Paul and it's a fair point. Certainly you have an obligation to write your own story. However, I did say that I'm not suggesting you copy what's being published right now, just use it to seed your imagination. It's my belief that writers produce work from within a living tradition. By informing yourself about what your peers are doing, you participate in that tradition and create a context within which you can innovate.

Jarucia said...

I think of fads and trends as often having a good 5-8year run before they are totally dead in the water. I'd keep an eye on popular TV as well. If there's a hot series in it's second or third season, they're going to try to push it to 5 or 8 years if they can. If you can tell a good story in that vein you'll do well, IMHO.

Also, what's in the news. I mean that's how they've kept Law and Order on for over a decade. Look at all the stuff produced during the Cold War. It was hard to imagine how James Bond would find anything to do post, say, 1990.

Good story telling, no matter the topic, never goes out of fashion.

I agree with Brian's point about not sticking to the classics. Those folks are great storytellers for their time. I reviewed a truckload of excerpts last year which included one that was pure Catch 22 with 'fill-in Iraq war details here' syndrome. The writing was technically very strong, but the story was boring. Catch 22 in the modern version wouldn't look anything like it did in its hey-day. It captured something of that generation's war experience (albeit the weirder parts of the experience). That's why we can read it now and see it as a great story, but can't truly identify with it because it's from a different time.

But I ramble.

I think Brian has some very valid points here, to be sure.