How to Survive a Publishing Trend Cycle, Part 1

rollercoasterPublishing is cyclic.

Everyone knows this.

No one can predict when a genre is suddenly going to become “hot” — just like no one can predict when it will abruptly, and inevitably, cool.  But everyone knows that nothing stays uniform.  Cycles simply happen, like the tides.

If you’re a new author — or you’re an established author whose sales are “cooling” — the temptation can be great to chase these waves, trying to catch one just before it crests.

This is called “writing to market.” 

Depending on what blogs you read, this is either “being industry savvy” or “irreparably damaging your career/brand/soul.”

Personally?  I’ve written to market in the past.  I don’t recommend it unless you know, going in, what you want to accomplish — and what exactly is at risk.  Like “breaking” any other writing “rule” you need to actually understand the rule.

So before we talk about the potential gold mines — and landmines — of writing to market, this post is going to talk about what happens in a cycle — and why.

Anatomy of a publishing cycle.

1.  A genre success breaks out.

In some cases, this can be as publicly dramatic as Twilight showcasing the teen vampire YA sub-genre, or E.L. James’  50 Shades of Grey driving sales of erotic romantic fiction. (That, in particular, is an interesting study since erotica had a boost cycle in ’04 and ’05.  It was on the wane in 2006… a relatively short cycle.)

In other cases, it’s really only apparent to publishing insiders.  A book suddenly breaks out by industry standards — say, a few sparks in Steampunk, or a significant bump in medical mysteries sales– and other similar books start to follow suit.

2.  Audience clamors, demand is created.

When something breaks out, the audience looks to re-create the experience… only to discover that no one has published anything (or, if there are indies, they’re difficult to find) that fulfills this previously unrealized need.  Buzz is created.  “Why aren’t there more books like this?”

Industry insiders get wind of the clamor, again looking at numbers and listening to buzz.  They want to meet the need.  That said, their interpretation of what the audience is truly demanding is far more art than science.  Taking 50 Shades again… was the demand for BDSM-lite stories?  Is it the power dynamic?  Is it just the artsy covers?

Using their best guess, they start acquiring in droves.

3.  The race is on.

What generally happens next is a frenzy of acquisition and publication as authors and houses rush to meet the need while it’s still there.  And yes, the emphasis is on speed.

Publishing houses are always looking for the next “big” break out in a genre, especially when an audience is primed… but that said, they’re not going to keep everything on hold until they find one.  Striking while the market’s hot with an average product is better than missing the market altogether.  (I’ll explain why in a minute.)

4.  The Glut of “Meh.”

In the stampede of releases targeting the “hot” genre, there are a few standouts, but many will simply be “good enough” to satisfy the audience’s basic requirements.

This often results in authors dusting off and re-purposing rejected manuscript ideas, or quickly writing up proposals that might fit.  Even authors who enjoy and shine in the genre may put out rushed novels, caught up in the mania, pressured by editors and audience alike.

Using the example of “why did 50 Shades break out?” they may use a “formula” — anything that’s remotely in the same ballpark suddenly gets a similar cover style.  (This happened a lot with Chick Lit, as well.  Back in the days of Bridget Jones and her diary, anything that could get a neon pink cover with a martini glass, did.)

4.  Saturation/ Cool-down.

The audience starts getting burned out.  They initially purchased a lot of books in the genre, only to find few truly stellar examples… and a few downright shoddy ones.  They get more picky, because there’s more to pick from.  Sales overall start to slow.  There’s often a backlash. 

For traditional publishing especially, this can be problematic because of the long turnaround between acquisition and publication.  When things start to cool, they usually still have inventory to release, whether there’s demand or not. That can often result in “dumping” titles with little to no fanfare (comparatively speaking) and moving on to the next hot cycle.

If a publishing house (or indie author) was working on polishing and perfecting a truly stellar title in the genre, they’d now need to deal with the audience’s genre fatigue, possible backlash, and otherwise distinguishing the title in an over-crowded market… which is why most houses choose the “speed” strategy, trying to strike quickly with something mediocre, rather than deal with the marketing friction with something extraordinary.

5.  The Shakeout.

In any cycle, a few authors will establish themselves in their own right.  Jennifer Crusie survived the rise and fall of Romantic Comedies.  Marian Keyes and Jennifer Weiner transcended the Chick Lit implosion.  Stephen King and Dean Koontz will continue publishing no matter what the state of Horror is.

But as the market cools down, the industry “shakes out.”  If you wrote to market and didn’t get the brass ring, you might not have built enough of an audience to support further forays in this particular genre.  That’s not to say you can’t… it’s just, again, a bit of an uphill battle.  If you wrote to market through a traditional publisher, this is usually when you get dropped for poor numbers.

So that’s the cycle.

It may look bleak, but it doesn’t need to be.

For one thing, if you don’t write to market, then you can avoid the more tempestuous side of this roller coaster.  You won’t get the meteoric sales — but you won’t get the crash, either.

If you write for the genre regardless, then you can use some of the “upswing” to build your audience, with some specific strategies to get noticed in the glut, and fail-safes to cushion against the saturation/shake-out.

If you’re still intent on writing to market, in part 2 we’ll be discussing the worst dangers of “market-timing” and how to avoid them.  Further in the series, we’ll discuss where indie publishing fits in the cycle, and finally how to work with a cycle when you find yourself inadvertently caught in one.

Until then, click below to check out some related (and a bit more hopeful!) posts:

What if you couldn’t screw it up?

Branding, Promotion… and Grilled Cheese.

The Slow Writing Movement.