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Category : Trends
A regular reader of this blog sent me a note that read, “Chip, I know you’ve been to BEA and RWA in the past month. Can you simply tell us what books are selling right now? What are the trends you’re seeing?”
I can try. In the ebook space, it’s pretty clear that contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and suspense thrillers of all types are selling well. That would include PI novels, police procedurals, crime novels, etc. So what we call “category” fiction (that is, fiction that follows certain rules for its genre) really leads the way in ebooks. It’s nice to see literary fiction is finally starting to sell well digitally. For a long time there was a sense that people weren’t buying literary novels on their Nooks and Kindles, but we seem to be beyond that now.
Of course, the whole notion of “fiction on e-readers” is not just a trend, it’s an established fact in the contemporary world of publishing. We all thought fiction was outselling nonfiction about 3-to-1 on e-readers, and that was the figure I often used at conferences. Then a study was made recently that showed fiction is outselling nonfiction roughly 8-to-1 in the e-book market. Wow… My guess is that people who are used to reading things electronically are simply getting a lot of their nonfiction information (recipes, health tips, medical advice, etc) on the web, leaving them to look for fiction on their readers.
In the print space, we’re still seeing the fiction bestseller lists ruled by familiar names. Nearly every big book these days is from an author who has had big books in the past, which seems frustrating to a lot of novelists… but that’s just the nature of the business. When a book breaks out (and there are always going to be breakout novels — see Gone Girl, Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Really Crappy Writing, etc), we add
Just back from a fabulous BEA convention, where the mood was upbeat, nobody was whining about the future of books, and everyone involved (authors, publishers, agents, sales people, marketing folks) seemed excited about the future of the industry. Loved being back in New York and seeing all the great titles coming out. I like to watch trends, and noticed several at the show (which I’ll talk more about in future posts), including the changes to faith-based publishing. So while I was at the show, someone sent this: “You seem to be one of the few literary agents who works in the general market (what a lot of people call the ABA) as well as working in the Christian market (the CBA). I’ve published two books in CBA, but think my next book fits more of a general market audience. My question: is ‘crossing over’ from CBA to ABA a reality?”
Okay, if you’re not terribly religious, stay with me for a minute…. I think this stuff is interesting to talk about. First, for those not in the know, CBA is the Christian Booksellers Association, and it’s the realm of all things faith-based in publishing. ABA is the American Booksellers Association, and it’s sometimes used (though less and less) as a descriptor for the general, non-religious world of publishing. Now, if you’ll indulge me, let me offer a theological reflection that speaks to this issue of CBA and ABA books: Christianity teaches that when you meet God, you are changed. (I don’t care if you believe that or not, just hear the argument.) A Christian would argue that everything about you is different, because you’ve been exposed to God. So, from a theologian’s perspective, a Christian probably won’t be completely understood by those who are not Christians. He or she is speaking a different language. And any cultural anthropologist till tell you that the longer you’re a Christian, the fewer non-Christian
Someone wrote to ask, “Put simply, where does depth in fiction come from?”
Depth is found when multidimensional characters who I can relate to, who I care about, face the timeless questions of life in the midst of complex circumstances, then make decisions that are open to interpretation. Their choices may not be right, but as a reader, I get to go through the experience with the characters. I see people in your story I have come to care about facing big decisions, making choices that I may or may not agree with, and I get to go through that season with them, and see the results of their choices, then measure them against my own life. THAT’S what causes me to learn, helps me to understand myself, and leaves me thinking about your book. And this can’t be faked – any bright reader will figure out when you’re faking depth or artificially trying to gin up emotion. So you can’t write with an agenda. Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic masquerading as a novel.
One novelist sent me this: “Writers of historical fiction seem to be interested in knowing what time period editors might be looking for. Is there a ‘hot’ time period you would like to see a book set in or any to avoid?”
Well, it’s changing all the time. Publishing is a tidal business– the tide comes in, the tide goes out. So Amish fiction doesn’t exist, then we’re awash in All Things Amish, then there are considerably fewer of those titles. And there’s nothing wrong with that — the culture embraces some topics or periods for a season. Some have more staying power than others (so “westerns” became their own genre, “Amish fiction” has become it’s own sub-genre in Christian fiction, and Chick Lit disappeared as a relative flash in the pan).Watching the trends can be fun, just to see what publishers
Someone wrote to ask, “Should an author who writes historical fiction stick only to fiction? Since so much historical research has to be conducted, how do you feel about authors using their novel research to also pen nonfiction?”
I think it depends on the author’s preference, or maybe their gifting. I don’t have any problem representing authors who write both fiction and nonfiction. However, it’s really tough for a writer to succeed at both. In my view, a novel requires a different set of writing skills than a nonfiction book — novelists require the ability to show, not tell, while nonfiction is all about telling. There are very few examples of writers who have excelled at both. (Yes, there are some, but not many.) And readers simply don’t cross over – most tend to be either fiction readers or nonfiction readers. And historical fiction readers aren’t generally that interested in reading a nonfiction book from a favorite writer, so even a bestselling novelist will find her nonfiction book to be a hard sell in the marketplace. For those very practical reasons, most historical fiction writers tend to stay with the fiction genre.
Another writer wants to know, “What particular skills do you look for in a writer of historical fiction?”
A strong voice, first of all. The one thing that makes a novel unique is not so much the setting or the characters so much as the voice of the writer. Too many historical novels feel the same — the setting has changed, but the book could have been written by anyone. So what really sets it apart, and the first thing I look for, is a strong author voice. That being said, a strong sense of history and adequate research so that the story feels genuine are essential, of course. I want a story that’s unique and interesting, so it’s best if the writer has a passion for
Someone wrote to ask, “Must a novel always be 100% finished before an agent will want to take a look at it? Or if you spotted great voice in an unfinished work, would you take a look and offer encouragement?”
If I absolutely love the voice, I might sign an author based on the quality of the writing. That happens on occasion. More often, I will look at a project and offer encouragement to the writer if I like his or her writing voice and think it has potential, but still think it needs to be completed. Right now the market is more or less demanding a novel be completed if a publisher is going to take a risk on a new or newer author. So yes, an agent might very well say he likes your work, but put off a decision to sign you until you complete your novel.
Another asked, “How much of a difference does it make to an agent to hear I’ve been referred by one of their current clients? And how does that compare to a face-to-face with an agent at a conference?”
It always makes a difference to me when one of the authors I already represents sends a talented writer my way. I figure the writers I represent are already my friends — we understand one another, so they’re probably going to send people my way who would likely be a fit. So consider that a good start. That said, it still usually takes a face-to-face for me to really get to know someone. A conference meeting is often too short (sometimes ten minutes), but it’s a start. In both cases, it will need to be followed up by great writing and a long talk or two, where we both get a feel for whether or not we’re a fit for one another.
One writer asked, “How are royalties paid? Why is it
I’m trying to catch up on the hundreds of questions people have sent in. Someone wrote to say this: “The popularity in genres seems to go in cycles, with perhaps the exception of romance, which always seems to sell well. Where in this cycle do you see the historical fiction genre right now? In the near future?”
Fiction goes through a cycle with publishers: produce some, watch it grow, produce more, produce too much, cut back, start selling again, produce some, watch it grow, etc. Right now one could argue that there are more historicals being sold than there used to be, but I agree with you — that’s simply a cycle. People love reading about other eras, so while we may be trending down a bit right now in some genres, it will trend back up. That’s how fiction works. In a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals were doing well. Now that the economy is brighter, we’re seeing a swing back to more contemporaries. Suspense, which also had an explosion with the growth of e-books, seems to have been waning a bit, but since it’s cyclical, they will come back.
Another reader sent me this: “Is there a certain sub-genre of historical fiction (fantasy, romance, thriller, mystery) that you think is selling best now? And is historical fiction fading out?”
A sub-genre that seems to be trending up is the romance novel with a strong suspense line. Another has been the romance with fantastic or supernatural elements. Some historical periods continue to sell, so there is renewed interest in the Edwardian and Victorian periods (thanks to Downton Abbey, an entire period of time that’s been overlooked is once again popular). And despite slowing, plenty of readers are still in love with the Amish and all things simple. Romance novels set in Texas seem
I’ve had a number of people write to me in response to my recent post about 2013 publishing predictions, asking how I felt the role of literary agents is changing. It used to be that an agent basically offered four benefits: (1) an editing/sounding board for writing and ideas; (2) access to publishers; (3) contract and statement assistance; and (4) some type of career advice. There are a bunch of other ideas people bring up (such as “maximize the advance!” and “be the tough guy when things get ugly!”), and no doubt several other iterations of the ideas above, but I think those are the four big content areas in which agents have generally served.
But now we’re in a new era. The way books are produced, marketed, delivered, and sold to readers has changed considerably over the past few years. The sales channels are completely altered. Publishers have overhauled their staffing and methods. New jobs exist that didn’t used to exist, and old ones have faded out of existence. The advent of digital publishing has not just created this new product called “e-books,” but have helped reshape the entire industry. So it only makes sense that a literary agent shouldn’t be doing his or her job the same way it was being done ten years ago. To that end, I thought I’d try to offer thoughts on how I see an agent’s role in contemporary publishing.
First, a good agent is still doing editing, but perhaps even more book and project concepting. Idea development and packaging are an essential part of the role now. Your agent needs to be talking with you not just about “how to do an ebook,” but how various projects and packages fit into your overall business plan.
Second, I think the notion of an agent giving an author access to publishers has evolved into an agent as interactor — networking with various publishing types,
Okay, time for my big publishing predictions for 2013…
1. Some of the large publishers will buy up the smaller micro-publishers who have succeeded in niche markets. (This only makes sense. Penguin/Random House are merging, and want to expand their reach. Hachette is perhaps the most forward-thinking of the companies, and must see the opportunity. It’s possible HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster will combine forces, and they are two companies who have always sought to maximize niche markets. MacMillan does as well. So look for some of those guys who started in their garage a couple years ago to cash out.)
2. Literary agents will re-define themselves. (This has already begun to happen with some multi-person agencies. The growth of e-books and the opportunity authors have to self-publish means an agent, to demonstrate value, has to prove he or she can assist with self-publishing, with marketing and sales planning for a wide variety of projects, with career development for authors who are working with traditional publishers as well as publishing their own books, with contract evaluations in an age of significant intellectual property rights changes, and with business management. An author isn’t just a writer any more — he or she is a self-proprietary business person, and good agents will re-define themselves in order to assist with that change.)
3. E-book royalties will grow. (E-publishers are already paying in the 50% neighborhood, so traditional publishers are going to have to be competitive. I can see one of the Big Six boosting e-royalties to 30%.)
4. Several of the major and mid-major publishers will move to strictly digital catalogs and royalty statements. (Think of it: At many of the larger houses, they’re still hiring people to print off stacks of paper and stuff them into envelopes. Welcome to the 80’s! This is a change that’s way overdue. And there’s limited value in expensive book catalogs any more — a digital
While on an agent’s panel at ACFW in September, I sat next to Lee Hough, one of the smartest and hardest working agents in the business. While we all fielded the typical questions we get as panelists, someone asked a question about the current state of affairs in publishing, and how agents are faring.
I tend to take a positive, entrepreneurial, and philosophical approach when answering questions about the challenges of publishing.
Lee, however, hit the mark when he said “It’s like the wild, wild west out there right now.” His summation about the new landscape of publishing has really stuck with me. In fact, it’s a new constant on the landscape of my daily work life these days — right alongside MacGregor Literary’s long-standing company philosophy that “good is always better than fast.”
As positive as I try to remain, I’ll admit, it’s felt exceptionally difficult to place books and find homes for authors these past few months. Even with the successes I’ve enjoyed this year in spite of it all, it feels like I’m on more uneven ground than ever. And I know agents aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
Marketers are constantly scrambling to orient themselves to what it takes to get readers to buy in a noisy online environment. Sales teams are faced with succeeding in spite of the literal crumbling of their brick & mortar customer base. Publicists are being asked to do more with less. Editors are overworked. Authors are no longer just invited by publishers to help market their books, but are expected to do so. In fact more and more, the strength of an author’s proposal is weighed as much for the type and number of readers they bring to the table as it is for the quality of their writing. Maybe more.
Top that off with the consideration that authors are not only competing with other authors for
I’ve had people sending me dozens of questions recently, so I thought I’d try to catch up by changing things a bit and offering several short questions and answers. So the next few days of the blog will sort of head in a new direction…
Someone wrote and noted, “I have a busy life, and I seem to spend much of it in front of my computer. How can I keep up with the industry? What do you fell is worth sacrificing my writing time to follow?”
My choices may be different from your own, of course, but I subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly (the bible of our industry), and I get Publishers’ Lunch and PW Daily on my screen every day. They offer a summary of news, with links I can go to when I want to find details. (For example, today the Authors Guild asked the government to look into the proposed Penguin/Random House merger, since it turns out there just MAY be a bit of market-cornering going on.) These keep me in touch with the industry. There are a number of blogs I like, but I’ll admit that I tend to look at the blogs of the authors I represent, and I can’t quite keep up with all the good blogs that have been created. Novel Rocket is good because it keeps you on top of a lot of titles. I still read GalleyCat. Most of the publishers have their own company blogs. I like Mike Hyatt’s excellent blog, Salon.com, bookbusinessmag.com, Digital Book World, and I belong to a couple discussion groups to talk about the business and marketing side of publishing. I’ll invite readers to suggest other good industry blogs in the “comments” section…
Someone wrote and asked, “What can you tell me about audio books? My publisher isn’t interested in producing my books in audio, though they sell well in print. Is there a way to