How to Survive a Publishing Trend Cycle, Part 2

Last time, we talked about how a publishing trend cycle works, generally speaking.

Given that snapshot, you might ask yourself:  why would anyone in their right mind try to chase the trend?

There are a number of reasons people chase a trend cycle.

For some authors who are intent on either breaking into traditional publishing, or trying to jump start a self-pub career (and perhaps quit a day job,) the decision to “cash in” on a trend might seem too tempting to ignore.

In the “race” portion of the cycle, you’ll hear about agents and editors slavering for material, offering inflated advances and often buying on proposal and the barest of partials.  Or you’ll hear about the Johnny-come-lately who had been struggling with his own writing for years, only to “bang out” a series of short novels in said hot new sub-genre…  and suddenly he’s writing full time and pulling in five figures a month.

A writer can then rationalize:  this genre isn’t too different from what I’m writing… I could totally write something that fits this… I even have some fantastic ideas that I’d love to write!

So the chase begins.

If you’re intent on diving into a trend…

There is nothing inherently “wrong” with chasing a trend cycle.  (Anything you decide to write shouldn’t come with a moral judgment, in my opinion — as long as it’s yours.)  Depending on your goal, however, there are pitfalls you need to keep in mind.

1. Research the genre. 

When a genre becomes “hot” people invariably describe it in simplistic terms.

“Chick lit?  Oh, it’s those dates-and-drink books.”

“New Adult?  That’s YA with bondage.”

“Everybody’s looking for the next Game of Thrones.”

The thing is, those are very simplistic… too much so.  If you’re perhaps thinking “oh, I have this old contemporary romance, I’ll just make the protagonists younger and thrown in some scenes at bars” you’re not writing a Chick Lit, which is really more coming-of-age or coming-of-consciousness and always about a woman’s journey, whether or not a romance is included.  If you pitch or write a novel based on the faulty assumption, you will have wasted your time.  Further, you risk writing books that are cliche and stereotypical simply because you’re not aware you’re treading well-worn paths.

Take the time to read books in the genre.  See what you enjoy, and what you wish was represented.  See if it’s something you could enjoy reading in the long haul.

2.  Respect the readers.

If you can’t enjoy the genre, and respect the readership, you have no business writing the books.  Period.  This seems self-evident, but trust me — after hearing several well-meaning writers say, “oh, you write romance?  I’ve been thinking of taking a long weekend and writing one of those, they make gobs of money,” or “the idiots that read those kind of books, I should write one and show them what real writing is,”  all I can say is…

STOP IT.

Don’t assume that the genre needs “elevating” or that the teeming masses of readers need “educating.”  Don’t assume that the people who write it are hacks, churning out crap that you could do in your sleep.  Those penmonkeys you deride might not be the most polished writers, but they often have a deep understanding of story arc, and they create an intensely emotional satisfaction with their readership.  They connect with readers on a personal level.  Ignore these facts at your own peril.

3.  The hole and the hook.

Depending on where the cycle is, you’re going to want to do two things:  satisfy the inherent qualities of the genre (thereby satisfying the readers), and differentiating yourself from the oncoming “glut of meh.”  There are going to be a lot of mediocre books out at the same time, with similar covers and book descriptions.  You want to stand out.  You want to have something that’s noteworthy, something that isn’t being addressed that would be of interest to readers of the genre.

In short, you’re looking for the hole in the market.

You don’t want to out-niche yourself, mind you: there are some sub-genres that are underrepresented  simply because the readers interested in them are too few.

For example, historical romance set in Greenland in 1927.  Not to say that it wouldn’t be fascinating, but if there’s a slew of romances set in the Roaring 20’s, odds are good they’re not looking for the experiences of a fisherman’s wife in Greenland simply because it’s, you know, still in the 20’s!  

Instead, you’d look for something with similar qualities:  in your research, you find that the key draw is the flappers, the speakeasies, the liberation, the lingo.  You’ll notice that most of them are set in New York or Chicago.  So — why not Paris?  The Lost Generation!  That would be a hole in the market.

(Note:  this is something I’d recommend for any genre, whether it’s “hot” or not.  This is the “same, but different’ thing that editors keep going on about.)

The “hook” is something memorable, something intriguing.  Ideally, something readers would talk about.  So The Hunger Games isn’t just another teen love triangle.  It’s “a story where these twenty-four kids battle to the death.”  (Yikes!)  Melissa Marr’s brilliant Wicked Lovely series is another YA paranormal with a love triangle… but if the girl chooses wrong, she’ll be condemned to being numb forever, essentially.  J.D. Robb’s In Death series isn’t just another police procedural — it’s set in the future (Also, her characters — the uber-sexy Roarke, the hard-as-nails Eve Dallas, and the entertaining secondaries, are usually what superfans love most, and speak of often.)  Jim Butcher’s Dresden files aren’t another Urban Fantasy series – it’s Buffy meets noir mystery.

You can always try to break in via a “hot” genre.

If it’s something you think you might enjoy, trending genres are good places to get discovered.  If you catch the cycle early on, you may even get the promotional benefits as a traditional publishing house “pushes” the title to booksellers and readers with additional publicity.  (I love signing on for new lines for that.)

If you don’t become a break-out-of-the-box success, and you get shaken out when the cycle closes, it’s not going to irrevocably damage your career.

If you do break out wildly, keep in mind:  you’re going to be building a readership in that genre.  Your audience will want more of the same.  You can shift gears and write other genres, but you will essentially be starting from scratch if it’s a genre that does not fulfill the same emotional satisfaction for your readers.  (See:  J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy.  She sold a good deal to her Harry Potter fandom, and gawkers who wanted to see what she’d do with something adult.  That said, she got raked over the coals and nobody’s clamoring for her next “adult” book at this point.)  

As always, your best bet is writing what you love.

I know.  It sounds trite, doesn’t it?  But ultimately, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with the novel — and with the readers who love that novel.  You may as well make your writing a home you’re comfortable living in.

Click below for some related posts:

Promote Your Book:  Lessons from Cinderella

Writers Are Not Readers

Why Genre Blends “Don’t Sell”

How to Figure Out Your Book’s Genre

colorfiles“How do I know what genre my novel fits into?”

I see this question a lot.

It’s not that authors aren’t familiar with genres — although with the proliferation of sub-genres cropping up daily, it’s hard to keep up — but often it’s because they feel their books could fit more than one genre.  They don’t want to be pigeon-holed.  They don’t want to miss a potential audience.  At the same time, picking a genre is expected.  What to do?

First:  get familiar with what’s out there.

One of the easiest ways is to look at a bookstore, whether it’s online or bricks-and-mortar, and see how they classify fiction.  This changes a bit over time.  (Anybody else remember when they had a “Chick Lit” section at Borders?  Hell, anybody remember Borders?)

Here are some of the most common umbrella genres.

  • Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence.
  • Erotica — stories of sexual exploration.
  • Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures.
  • Horror — stories that invoke fear.
  • Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc.
  • Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder. 
  • Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery.
  • Romance — stories about love/intimacy.
  • Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds.
  • Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice. 
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth.  Primary emotion:  hope.

There are obviously lots of sub-genres for most of these categories. Also, I’ve left out Children’s/YA/New Adult fiction, simply because you can have these same umbrella genres within those categories — it’s more about the age of the protagonists rather than the subject matter, and the targeted age of the reader.  So you can have YA paranormal romance, or Middle Grade sci-fi, or what have you.

Next, look at the “genre qualities” of your book.

Did you have a genre in mind when you wrote it?  If not, given what you’ve just learned about the genres, and what readers expect from each genre, where might it possibly fit?

Most importantly, which of the above audiences would be the most happy with what you’ve written?

Example:  Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation

It’s a book about two sisters who go to a small town to make a film.  It involves a love story. There is also a mystery.  There is also a decent amount of sex.

That said, it’s not really a mystery, despite the dead body and various machinations as the murderer is discovered. It’s not that difficult to solve, and it’s not the primary focus.  Mystery readers, who are driven to figure out “who did it?” will not be satisfied at the dilution of the mystery with elements that they’d see as secondary: the love story takes up way too much real estate.

It’s also not an erotica.  While the sex is steamy, the focus is more on falling in love and emotional intimacy than sex as a vehicle of character development: there are character development scenes with the heroine and the hero’s child, for example, or the sisters discussing their past.  For someone looking to read erotica, this would seem extraneous, and possibly slow-paced or boring.

It is definitely a love story.  The mystery elements and the sex both serve to reinforce the growth of the love between the protagonists.  So the genre that makes the most sense is romance.

Another example:  Jim Butcher’s Dresden File series.

The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a detective, solving cases that usually involve murder on the mean streets of Chicago.  He tackles a lot of epic adventures, giving it elements of Action/Adventure.

That said, he is also a Wizard.

They are definitely mysteries, taking a page out of the classic noir novels.  It would definitely satisfy a lot of mystery readers… if they were also amenable to the magical/mystical features of Fantasy, which many might not be.  Same with the action/adventure reader set.

Fantasy readers — specifically Urban Fantasy readers — would be very satisfied by the other-worldly aspects, the world building, and the magic and mystical figures.  The action, adventure and mystery all work with the fantasy element.  Harry shoots things with fireballs and magic spells as well as shotguns.  He solves mysteries that may or may not involve fairies, necromancers, or mythological gods.  It’s immersive, with world building so thorough that you are completely drawn in.  Urban Fantasy is the best fit.

Finally:  identify why you want to know.

There’s a difference between choosing a genre for a potential agent, for example, and choosing a category for a self-publishing listing.

When you’re writing a query, you want to show the agent that you have a sense of who your target audience is and where your book would most likely sell.

You might think “but isn’t that the agent’s job?”  and indeed, said agent may have some opinions on how to better position your work.  But if you don’t have any clue, and you just dump a book in his/her lap with the expectation that they will read through it and glean the positioning, it’s a harbinger of things to come.  Tacitly saying “but that isn’t my job” when it comes to something as relatively simple as genre choice suggests that you’re really going to balk when it comes time to actually  market and promote the thing.

For an agent, choose the most likely readership. 

As I mentioned, mystery readers could enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. But they aren’t the most likely readership.  An agent will want to know what’s the most likely readership — who is the mostly likely to seek out this particular type of book, buy this type of book, and enjoy this type of book.  Not someone who stumbles across this book and decides to give it a try on a whim, enjoying it more than he expected.

For self-publishing, you’re looking for the most likely category, and the least populated fit.

When uploading a digital self-published release, you’re allowed to choose several categories/genres for your novel.  These are pretty fluid: bookstores like Amazon change their listings of sub-genres all the time, so it’s a bit of a moving target.  But what you want is to choose a broad genre that fits your right reader’s expectations, just like you’d choose for targeting an agent.  Then, you’re also going to choose a niche, preferably one that isn’t heavily populated, that also fits your novel.

If you have a mystery that involves a police detective, you could pick “Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense” as a category.  Looking it up under Kindle Books, however, you will notice that it has 107,974 results offered — that’s how many ebooks use the same category.

The odds of you getting in the top 100, where many readers look for new authors, or anywhere near a “category bestseller” that will kick on the Amazon Recommendation Engine, is pretty paltry.

Look at the sub-category “Police procedurals” and  the number of books specifically categorized as such drops to 4,844.

To really get specific, if you had a “cat sleuth”?  The number of books drops to 23.  You’d be in the top 100 by default!  (Remember, if you don’t have a cat sleuth, don’t select it just to get a better category ranking.  Getting bad reviews from dedicated niche readers who feel mislead isn’t worth the ranking boost, in my opinion.)

Remember, you can generally pick two categories.  Try to hit one broad category, and one narrow niche.

It’s more art than science.

There isn’t a hard-and-fast way to figure this out, but hopefully these tips will give you a simplified approach to looking at what emotional satisfaction your work provides for genre audiences, and how to move forward.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand — and don’t worry if you have to amend your stance later!

What do you think about the genre listings?  How would you categorize your work?

Please leave a comment — I’d love to hear what you think!