Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What’s Old Is New Again

By Writer X

When I’m not writing, I’m reading. And when I’m not reading, you’ll usually find me at a bookstore. And it’s not just because one of my favorite local bookstores serves the absolute best snickerdoodle cookies and iced coffees, although that certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s just that I consider reading and visiting bookstores as much a part of my “day job” as writing books.

I make it a point to get to know the people who work at my local bookstores (chains and independents) as well as the books they like to sell. Although I’m not a bookstore stalker or anything, I do kind of like to watch which books customers pull off the shelves. And which ones they take to the cash register. I call it “market research.” It sounds less certifiable.

You might be surprised to learn that most of what’s displayed on the shelves of your local bookstore are the books that were popular 18 months to two years ago. In a way, when you peruse the shelves, it’s like going back in time. The books that are selling today are the books that editors thought were so hot almost two years ago. That might as well be eons in a book’s life cycle, kind of like how we calculate dog years. And sometimes much can happen in two years, depending on the genre; although sometimes nothing seems to change at all. Example: Vampires and forensic scientists. Those two plotlines show no real signs of taking a bow anytime soon.

Indeed, what the editors are buying today (for publication in approximately two years) might have nothing to do with what’s gracing your bookstore shelves now. In that sense, editors have to predict what readers will want to buy two years hence and fill their lists accordingly. Will readers want to buy happy stories? Sad ones? Futuristic? Apocalyptic? Doom and gloom? Gore?

While the same genres remain (e.g. Non-fiction, Thrillers, Mysteries, Romance, Literary Fiction, Young Adult), some of the plotlines have changed and/or expanded. The following are simply my personal opinions and observations about what’s selling in the various genres TODAY (or, really, two years ago). Are you following me, Camera Guy?

1. Thrillers. There are fewer thrillers with Russia and China in the plotlines and more centered in Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, and Israel. No big surprise here. Throw in a despot dictator, an angry former CIA or FBI agent, a technology gizmo, and you’ve got yourself the making of today’s thriller. A subset of the Thriller genre has to be anything involving forensic science, sometimes called True Crime. Any story with a forensic scientist is red-hot and doesn’t show any signs of slowing, as I stated earlier. It’s no coincidence that those CSI shows continue to mass-produce exponentially. I believe the television executives have every major city covered and why not? It sells. People can’t seem to get enough of all things forensic.

2. Mysteries. Where thrillers tend to be more action-oriented, the mysteries that sell today tend to be more suspense-oriented. That formula really hasn’t changed. The time period doesn’t matter either—past, present, or future. Currently, any mystery with a zombie flies off the shelves. Throw in a zombie love story and you’ve probably got yourself a bestseller.

3. Horror. Stephen King continues to dominate this genre, although I’m admittedly not a huge fan. Can’t stand the gore. And there always seems to be a poor, pathetic character that gets picked on or tortured mercilessly. Yuck. One change I’ve noticed with horror is the addition of many plotlines with a technical component—e.g. cell phones that take over the world, creepy robots, or laptops that become smarter than people. It’s almost become a prerequisite. In order for horror to be successful, in my opinion, it has to be action-oriented as well as suspense-oriented. Most of the protagonists continue to be men. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a love interest for it to sell either.

4. Romance. Romance books never seem to lose steam, regardless of the economic climate. They’re selling like hotcakes, probably because people want to escape more than ever and they’re usually priced cheaper than most hard cover books. If anything, there are more subsets to Romance than any other genre—paranormal, fantasy, historical, Amish, NASCAR. If a romance book can be turned into a series, all the better. Vampires are still hot, although I’ve read that in two years time angels will become the go-to plotline. And that means that the books involving angels as main characters are being purchased by editors today. Additionally, not to sound like a walking pun, but erotica is another subset of romance and it too is extremely hot. Gay and Lesbian romance has also become increasingly popular.

5. Literary Fiction. Stories involving baby-boomer characters undergoing major life changes (cancer, divorce, death) and World War II story lines are popular plots found in today’s literary fiction. Literary fiction, however, is the one genre that can be the most unpredictable. That’s because, I think, great writing and storytelling will always find a home in literary fiction, regardless of the trend du jour. That’s part of what makes literary fiction a little more exciting, in my opinion.

6. Young Adult. Stories for teenagers overwhelmingly remain dark and bleak. Apparently children’s editors don’t hold much hope for today’s youth. If your story doesn’t contain a messed up teenager from a broken home (bonus points if there is a drug addiction) with a body covered in tattoos and piercings, you might have a difficult time getting it published. Or at least have to try harder than usual.

7. Non-fiction. Speaking of red-hot, conservative political books are being scooped up like free cotton candy at the fair, thanks to Levin, Coulter, Malkin, and Beck. Dare I say that it’s cool to be conservative? Conservatism is one of the hottest trends that I see right now. Who knew two years ago that it would become this hot? Of course, it doesn’t hurt that these writers already have mega-huge audiences. Without their audiences, I doubt the books would have been put under contract in the first place. Still, they pave the road for others itching to break into this genre. As an aside, on my last visit to the bookstore, I noticed stacks of John Kerry and John Edwards biographies on the bargain shelves for $3.99 and less. And there didn’t seem to be too many takers, even at the smoking sales price.

So, since I can’t stalk you in your own hometown bookstores (unless you live in Phoenix), what do you see in your bookstores? What would you prefer to see? What are you tired of seeing? Inquiring minds just gotta know.

If you’d like to see something particular in the Commentarama Writing Series, don’t hesitate to email Commentarama or leave a comment in this post. If you’re afraid that LawHawk or Andrew will publicly ridicule your suggestion, then don’t hesitate to email me at writerx@cox.net.


ScottDS said...

Interesting article as always! I just have a few random thoughts...

Re: "I do kind of like to watch which books customers pull off the shelves."

I was the same way with movies when I worked at Best Buy. And if it was a cute girl in the sci-fi aisle, well... I'd usually get cold feet and walk away. :-)

Re: thrillers - This is one genre I should check out one day. I've heard good things about the Mitch Rapp series of books. (I'm sure they'll screw it up in the inevitable movie version.)

Re: forensics - I knew this genre (both on TV and in literature) was huge when my old high school started offering forensic science as an elective... and I would've taken it if it had been offered a decade ago!

Re: young adult - I don't quite remember the y/a novels I used to read but I'm sure they weren't as dark as you describe. I don't know if this is a case of writers writing about what they know, or if they're trying to capture a certain segment of the youth audience, or if they're simply trying to outdo each other.

Re: non-fiction - I avoid political books like the plague (unless you know of a good book for independents!), but I have to say I am a reference book whore. :-D Fact books, almanacs, quote books, books of useless knowledge, etc. I am a fan. Even as a kid, I always used to devour these books.

LL said...

Good writing is so hard to find.

There are actors who could read the ingredients from a box of Cheerios and I'd want to watch them.

And really good writers are the same. They engage, no matter what the topic, they stimulate, they weave visions in your mind and those visions leap from the page.

How many good writers are never published? We'll never know, because writing and marketing what you write are such different creatures.

I guess the stupid narcissistic biographies of news people (writers with friends in the publishing business = authors) and the like will continue to be spat forth, but I'm tired of them.

Joel Farnham said...

How about Science Fiction?

When I first started going to book stores, there would only be one bookshelf of Science Fiction. Now, there are aisles. Almost as large as fiction or literature. :-)

Writer X said...

Thanks, Scott. And next time you see the cute girl, go for it! ;-)

Movies are never as good as books, it seems, although every writer (myself included) would love to see her books brought to the big screen. Unfortunately, when you option your book to film it's almost as if it's not your story anymore and the screenplay can become drastically different than your masterpierce. It's kind of a Catch 22.

Forensic science in high school?? Jeez. I guess I'm from the dark ages when you were lucky enough to get home ec and woodshop.

Young adult novels are supposed to reflect the current times and teenage angst. Not sure if I agree with the editors that the times are as bleak as they're portrayed but apparently no one wants to read about a normal happy kid who doesn't hate her parents.

The trivia books that you've described are really their own genre. Look how popular STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE became. I like these kinds of books, too. I call those the kinds of books that help you if you ever get a spot on JEOPARDY.

Writer X said...

LL, there are tons of good writers that never get published. My agent told me a while ago that sometimes he thinks there are more writers than readers, judging from his "slush pile." Slush pile are the queries from writers he receives each day to read their books. Nice, huh?

Regarding books from news people and celebrities, they're hot. I don't see them losing steam for a while. As long as they make money, editors will continue to buy them.

BTW, not every author has a friend in publishing. What little success I've achieved, I've earned the old-fashioned way. And, believe me, sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to do anything else than what I'm doing.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Thanks for another informative article. I had no idea there was such a delay between the idea to publish and appearing on book shelves. A lot can happen within two years.

So I guess it makes sense that they would want mainly tried and true ideas that have shown an ability to withstand social changes.

That said, I wouldn't mind seeing more varied stuff out there. When I look through a lot of the genres, it seems that many of them could have been written by computer.

Are there places that do rush publication for ideas that are truly timely? (For example, a fiction story based on Obama v. Honduras, I would think might be hot this week, but rather cold by the end of the year.)

Writer X said...

Joel, great observation! Science fiction and fantasy are two seriously hot smokin' genres. I think they've exploded exponentially because people love to escape. They love to read about worlds different from their own. But the writing has to be very visual for it to be successful. Science fiction/fantasy is probably one of my most favorite genres.

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're very welcome!

The smaller the publisher, generally, the faster the time to publication. That said, even a large publisher can pump out something that is timely. Example: I understand that Sarah Palin's book GOING ROGUE is coming out soon, with a 1.5 million first printing. That is HUGE! She didn't sign to write it that long ago and her publisher needs to get it out while she's considered "hot." So, yes, that can happen but not very open.

Formula stories fill the shelves, unfortunately, and someone who reads a lot can usually spot them a mile away. Some of the story angles will change to reflect the times, though. But the basic plot remains the same. Boring. But a lot of people like predictability in what they read. Not sure if that is a bad thing, but it's not my thing.

You'll find the most variety in literary fiction but even literary fiction rides trends (e.g. books about baby boomers and their middle-age struggles).

As a writer, the best piece of advice I got was write what you love, not what's trendy. I've tried both. When I tried to write something that was trendy, I had to force myself to write every day and didn't enjoy the experience at all. And the book never sold. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

That does sound like the best advice, because it can't be easy writing something you don't like.

I just wonder though, because I seen so many books that literally have the same plot, the same characters, the same story points -- only the names have been changed and a handful of minor details.

I particularly see this in the fantasy section where so many stories seem to copy the Lord of the Rings/Star Wars story line of farm boy goes on quest to get object to defeat evilest evil of all time, picking up standard set of friends on the way -- Han Solo character, Chewbacca character, and love interest. It makes me wonder that anyone can still write that story without feeling like they're just copying a thousand other books.

Writer X said...

Andrew, I would have to agree with you about science fiction/fantasy stories about vampires and werewolves. And now zombies. But a book can set itself apart with beautiful writing. As I said, in order for a science fiction story to capture a person's imagination, it must have the right amount of visual writing, believable dialogue, and believable characters. If the writing is beautiful, I can almost disregard a familiar plotline. Example: THE OUTLANDER series by Diana Gabaldon. Even though she writes about time travel, her writing is so amazing that you believe (want to believe) it can really happen. One caveat, the later books in her series became too narrative and she kind of lost me, but I do love her earlier books.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think you're probably right. The thing that truly distinguishes the Lord of the Rings, for example, is not that it was first, but that it was so beautifully written.

Tolkien choses the right words, the right images, and the right mix of dialog and narrative to keep it moving smoothly but still giving you an incredible picture of the world which the characters inhabit.

I can't tell you how many books I've read that when I'm done, I didn't have a single real image in my head.

Writer X said...

Andrew, and the scary thing is that some editor, some publisher, thought the book you read was fantastic--or it was written by an established author that had proven herself/himself with a bankable sales record on previous books.

As an aside, I'm reading a book now that I'd recommend, although it's literary fiction: POPE JOAN by Donna Cross. The writing is beautiful and each time I pick it up, I feel like I'm in Rome in the 800's. Incredible.

patti said...

i have had two recently published young adult books sent to me, and while it's a trend among so many writers that want publication, i just don't get it. they are dark. depressing even. all i wanted to read at that age was anything that would give me insight to adults and their world. if the stuff available today had been around, i would have shunned it like the amish and whiskey. but then again, that's just me (not that there's anything wrong with being a young adult writer). seriously, what do i know, miss can't get an agent?!

damn, i think i have taken the amish shunning thing a little too far here...

Unknown said...

WriterX: In San Francisco, you have to get past the three-aisle Obama biographies, then the gay/lesbian masterpieces, then the radical politics section, then the Planet Gore section, then the histories of prostitution in San Francisco, the Native American oppression aisles and finally the sex-manuals for children under the age of twelve. By then, it's time to go home and watch old TV shows. I buy strictly on-line today.

Even though SciFi has exploded over the past few years, I haven't liked very much of it. I'm a fan of Heinlein, Asimov, Dick and Farmer. The more recent writers have developed either a ridiculously splashy style, or follow the Robert Silverberg school of psycho-scifi. I like space opera!

Thanks for another very informative article.

Writer X said...

Patti, take heart. Amish as a genre is quite popular right now! Regarding young adult novels, just when I think they can't get any darker, they do. Dark is okay but 300 pages of hopeless is another thing. Don't give up, Patti!

Writer X said...

LawHawk, you are welcome!

Your bookstores are different than the ones I frequent in Phoenix. But, that's not to say that the aisles, particularly in the chain bookstores have more than just a few aisles of Obama books. He could be his own genre. As an aside, walking through the front door just last week, I almost tripped over the Ted Kennedy display. Interestingly, didn't notice too many people leaving with Ted's book in hand.

I do buy online occasionally, but I still have a thing for visiting bookstores. Love the scifi authors you mentioned, particularly Asimov.

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

After film school (new blog coming soon!), I worked in a bookstore called Books-a-Million. It closed a few years ago but there are other ones... I believe it's mostly a southern chain.

Anyway, for the six or seven months I worked there, it was okay. Met some nice people and the managers were alright (most of them, anyway). Some people thought we were a Christian bookstore because of the rather large religious section. Others thought we were evil because we kept the XXX magazines on the shelf and not behind the counter. (I'd call that a win-win!) :-)

Writer X said...

Scott, that's what I love about bookstores--you can meet some of the strangest (and nicest) people. The lesser known chains are a little more interesting because they can sort of do their own thing.

Tennessee Jed said...

Writer X - since it goes without saying I enjoyed your article, I will skip those things others have already said better and try tossing out a couple of different observations.

1) You just had to torture me with the gratuitous (o.k, o.k., it wasn't gratuitous, but it sounded neat to say it) reference to snickerdoodle cookies and iced coffee. For shame!

2) When you referenced how editors have to try and see into the future to what people will like two years hence, you reminded me of one of my old boss' wife's job. She was a color consultant who was brought in by automobile paint manufactures to mix up the colors that would be found on cars three to five years in the future. Who knew? Thanks again Writer X.

Writer X said...

TennJed, if a bookstore sells snickerdoodle (or chocolate chip) cookies, it doesn't take much more than that to get me inside. ;-) Throw in iced coffee, stacks of books, and I'm pretty much in heaven.

I don't know how these editors decide what will be hot or not. In my mind, I picture that they must meet in some unmarked building somewhere, seated around a long executive table, smoking endless packs of cigarettes. Then they toss a coin. Heck if I know.

Glad you enjoyed the post, Jed!

rlaWTX said...

I love books. and I love reading. But I have discovered that, at this point in my life, I want ESCAPE!! I read scifi/ fantasy/ romance types (yes, I know...) because, even the formulaic (sp?)ones (assuming sorta well-written regardless of formula) give me another place to be, other people to think as.
Thanks for the article. I also didn't realize the time gap. The gap I notice most is when I catch up to an author and I read much faster than they write!!!!

Writer X said...

rlaWTX, you're welcome!

And I'm with you: I like to escape, too. Isn't that the beauty of reading a book? Other than the right snickerdoodle cookie, nothing is better than finding a book that you cannot put down! And then wanting to read it all over again! Formula or not, that takes beautiful writing.

Yes, sadly, there is a gap between finishing a book and publication. It generally takes me 3-6 months to write a book. Others take a year or more while others report that they can write a book in a weekend. No clue how a writer pulls that off, though. Then when you finish, you give it to your agent who tries to sell it, if you're not already under contract with a publisher. The publisher can take months to decide whether to publish it--longer if you're a debut author.

Frankly, it's a miracle that we get any books on our shelves when you look at all the obstacles in the way!

StanH said...

Nice piece WriterX. I was in a book store just last evening with my daughter, so it was a writer that was shadowing us, it makes sense now. Yeah man, if you’re in the book business go to where they sell books.

Writer X said...

Sorry, Stan! I usually try to be more discreet than that. :-)

MegaTroll said...

I really enjoy these articles. Thanks for writing them. It might be kind of cool to see your own book on the shelf?

Do you design your own cover for your own book or approve it or how does that work?

Writer X said...

MegaTroll, thanks! Glad you enjoy the posts!

Regarding cover art, the publisher's art/sales department develops the cover. The author does get some say in it but not necessarily final approval.

Book covers are absolutely critical and can make or break a book. Consequently, a lot of thought and consideration goes into this process.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, To follow up on Mega's question, do they show you designs, do they ask you what you want, do you get some sort of final approval?

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're shown a few draft covers and you get an opportunity for input but the final decision remains with the publisher. Naturally, if something is just wrong about a certain cover, you're going to speak up and voice your concerns and the publisher will listen. But most of these art/graphic people are pros; they know what makes a good/bad cover.

I think a more detailed discussion about the importance of book covers (and book titles) will be a great idea for a future post.

AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like an interesting post. :-)

rlaWTX said...

I do wonder about the blurbs on the back of a book. There's been many a book that I've read and realize that the cover took a minor point and inflated or took that point and made the wrong assumption/conclusion. Sometimes it's irritating because the plot described on the back - and the reason you bought it - doesn't match the inside. And sometimes it bugs because I really like the book and think that the cover missed the point and what if someone else doesn't like it because it doesn't match.
[convolute much?) :-)]

Writer X said...

rlaWTX, great observations!

The blurbs (and the book jacket) are designed to give you a taste of the book so that you'll go to the front page (and hopefully buy the book). As an author, you hope that the "hook" of your blurb lives up to the expectation of the rest of the book. If it doesn't, not good!

Covers are a little different in that it has to convey the right emotion, sense of the book, even the genre all wrapped up into one. Covers get people to buy books.

But, most of all, you want to dazzle (not disappoint) your readers with your book, the title, the blurbs, and, yes, the story itself.

It's very convoluted! :-) I hate it too when a book blurb doesn't meet the expectations I had for a book. When that happens, I'm not likely to purchase a book from that author again.

FB Hink said...

Writer X, great, great series! As a “struggling” writer I am finding a lot of information and wisdom from what you’ve written. I am new to the publishing world and maybe my question will make a good post by you in the future or, if not, a simple one or two sentence response.

You mention that it takes 18 to 24 months for the book to hit the shelves. What happens in the intervening time? I’m assuming that the clock begins when the novel sells. I would think that with more modern technology and better distribution channels that this time would have been shortened somewhat.

I tell you, the more I learn about the process the more I like the idea of self-publishing. I will take a giant leap into the traditional waters but as a marketing person, I kind of like the idea of packing up the trunk of my car and hitting every book store between here (Houston) and New York, begging and pleading that my masterpiece will, in fact, change the world as we know it (heavy sarcasm – I really am not that high on myself) and set all kinds of sales records (that I do believe!). Thanks.


Writer X said...

Fred, you are quite welcome. I'm glad you find the series helpful.

You ask a lot of really good questions. First, between the time you sell a manuscript to a publisher and the time it actually hits the shelves, a lot does happen, at least initially. First, there are the edits that you will be asked to make by the editor (almost a guarantee) who acquired your manuscript. These can be a handful or almost a rewrite. Then, after probably at least one face-to-face with your editor, you meet with the sales department and discuss the promo plan for your book. This can vary and will depend on the strength of your name/book. Example: The promo plan for someone like Dan Brown will be much more extensive than someone who is a debut author. You should probably consider hiring a publicist, if one is not assigned to you by your publisher.

Somewhere in there, the publisher is developing the cover of your book. Meanwhile, you start to market your book before it hits the shelves--e.g. talking it up on your blog, on other blogs; creating book trailer; attending writer conferences. You're pretty much doing anything you can to ensure your book is a success. To make a long story short, the fun doesn't start when the book hits the shelf. It starts WAY before that time.

Regarding self-publishing, there are pros and cons and, admittedly, I do not have a lot of experience in this area, although I have my opinions. The pro's are that you retain more control, you make more per book (royalties), you don't need an agent/traditional publisher, and you can get started on your dream TODAY. Drawbacks are that it sounds easier than it is. However, if you have, for example, a great book, a ready audience, and plenty of passion and energy, why not do it? Self-publishing has come a long way. Do your research first, though, before you go down this path. Talk to people who've done it. Don't just talk to the sales people at the self-publishing companies.

I've got it on my list to do a future post on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. That is an excellent idea.

Hope I've answered your questions. Good luck, Fred, and thanks!

FB Hink said...

Wow, thanks. I really had no idea the process was that detailed. It appears to be quite costly and so the high rate of rejection is understandable.

I have a ton more questions but I won’t bombard you. Looking forward to your next post.


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