Virtual Workshop #2:
Trend Tracking Versus Jumping
I. Trends and Options
The publishing industry, like any entertainment entity, runs on consumer demand. What the readers buy, the publishers want. When a certain genre or sub-genre is in high demand for a significant period of time, we call this a trend. However we writers feel about trends, they are a reality, and they have direct influence over what publishers will buy, and what they reject.
The most common ways writers deal with trends:
A. Ignore them. Write exactly what you want, and pay no attention to the market, and hope for the best.
B. Jump on them. Write only what is in market demand in hopes that it will give you an edge in the slushpile.
C. Track them. Continually watch what sells on the market and use that information to follow current trends, evaluate your manuscript potential and, if possible, be one of the first writers to anticipate a new trend.
A is the artist's way. I respect artists, and I think this is a lovely attitude to have. It's also the reason a lot of artists starve, so it doesn't work for me.
B is like jumping on Ye Olde Bandwagon. It's often more counter-productive than helpful, as by the time a trend really gets rolling you have a ton of writers trying to do the exact same thing.
C is what I do, and in this workshop, we're going to talk about how to do that.
II. Genre Awareness
To sell in a genre, you must be aware of what is selling in that genre. Go to the bookstore regularly and look at the shelves. Check the online booksellers' BSL lists. Talk about genre titles with readers and other writers and see what are the latest, most popular sellers. Read books that do very well for market analysis.
What to look for in your target genre, and author examples:
Authors who create trends (Dan Brown)
Books that explode on the market (J.R. Ward)
Novels that provoke strong reader reactions (Thomas Harris)
Successfully sustained bestselling series (Sue Grafton)
Unusual or unique voices (Jacqueline Carey)
Word of mouth or "buzzed" books (Lisa Valdez)
Educate yourself as thoroughly as you can about your genre, and you'll have the basic knowledge you need to track a trend.
III. Info Gathering
Every week helpful entities like The New York Times and USA Today tell us what consumers are snapping up. This is great for readers but not very useful to writers, because we know whatever makes the bestseller lists was actually sold a year or two ago. What sells now is what will (or won't) be hot in 2007-2008. You might as well ignore the lists, right?
No. The lists individually provide little useful info, but collectively are a free trend mapping service. A writer interested in trend tracking should read the lists every week and watch how well books in their target genre(s) are selling (this is why it's so important to know your genre, so you can recognize the applicable author names and titles that show up on the lists.)
Let's look at rankings for five writers over a one year-period on the USA Today list (books are listed in order of publication along with peak position on BSL):
Jennifer Armintrout: The Turning 93
Kelley Armstrong: Haunted 62, Dates from Hell 36, Broken 22
Patricia Briggs: Moon Called 109
Lynn Viehl: If Angels Burn 148, Private Demon 120, Dark Need 87
J.R. Ward: Dark Lover 48, Lover Eternal 39
Let me add some details: Jennifer and Patricia's novels are genre debuts. Kelley, J.R. and I all have established series that are building in popularity. Patricia and I are veteran pros in other genres. With the exception of Kelley, all of us are new to the USA Today list, so we're considered "up and coming." Patricia and Kelley are being shelved in SF/F, and the rest of us are shelved in romance. The one thing we all have in common is that we're writing series that are not the usual Kiss Me Forever Vlad type novels that have been so popular in the past.
IV. Analyzing and Applying Your Info
How well you can track a trend depends on how much effort you're willing to put into it. Reading lists, watching your genre, and making the connections does require some time, but you're educating yourself about the market. Track trends long enough and you'll find that you do automatically.
To apply what you learn, use the information you gather as a submission barometer for your written manuscripts, and as a priority guide for your new novel ideas. Do the five authors above indicate a new direction in the vampire fiction trend; perhaps a trend within the trend? Only time will tell for sure. But if you are a writer with a dark or otherwise unusual vampire fiction manuscript or idea, I'd say this would be a good time to put together a proposal and get it out there, because similar fiction is collectively rising on the lists.
One thing about information: make sure it's information and not rumors. For about a year now I've been hearing a tired old rumor about how chick-lit, a very big trend in the romance genre, is on its way out. It's becoming cluttered in the same way that romantic suspense did five years ago, and paranormal romance is doing now, but I'm not seeing it die on the lists yet, and plenty of new writers are still selling it. Publishers will probably become more conservative with the number of chick-lit titles they publish, and eventually whittle down their authors lists, but I don't think it's going belly-up any time soon.
V. Making Trends
All trends start with some author(s) who present readers with something unexpected. Anyone who decides it's better to take the A/artist option and follow the artist's path has the potential to be a trend-setter. So do writers who take the C/Tracking option, because while watching trends, you may come up with an idea for a novel that goes beyond what's being done. B/Bandwagon writers generally don't set trends, because you're imitating what's already being done, but there is always the possibility that you'll do it better than anyone else has before you. In all things trend-related, choose to do what works best for you as a writer.
Post your comments, thoughts and questions on trends by midnight EST on Thursday, July 27, 2006, and you'll have a chance at winning today's Left Behind Goody Bag: signed copies of my Jessica Hall novels Into the Fire and Heat of the Moment and unsigned copies of: Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl, Emma Holly's All U Can Eat, Jamie Sobrato's The Sex Quotient, June Casagrande's Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, and Gimbles (brackets that hold a book open for you for hands-free reading), all packed in a quilted tote bag made by Yours Truly. I'll draw one name from everyone who participates and send you the goodies; giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Note: Thanks to the terrific response to VW#1 I'm lagging a bit behind on answering questions being posted in comments, but I promise I will leave no question unanswered. :)
Bob Mayer's RTB guest post Writing for the Market.
Previous PBW posts about trends are here, here and here.
*Added: Bookseller Chick shares my general attitude about the chick-lit trend. (Thanks to L. for the link.)