Convention vs. the Current Truths
The sky is falling. (In the past twelve months we’ve sold seven debut novels, some for six figures, and have sold tons more new books and series for established authors.) Print books are dead. (E-books are gaining on print, but there’s still a long way to go before they take over. Print still generally outsells electronic by a wide margin.) It’s a whole new world.
Well, that last part is true, anyway, but there seems to be a whole lot of fear-mongering and rabble-rousing on the internet, leading people to believe that traditional markets are dead or dying and that every man should be an island. Publishers…who needs ‘em? Agents…obsolete. Well, I could argue both those points, but the piece I was asked to do involves the sf/fantasy markets, and though having a representative in your corner to advise you on all the options out there is more important than ever in the constantly changing publishing environment, it’s that landscape you really want to hear about.
So, what can I tell you about the current market?
1) Books are still selling. A post-Borders world is a bit scary, but the truth is that Borders has been in trouble for some time (years), and publishers have been adjusting to decreasing orders and then non-payment, so while the company’s bankruptcy is tragic, especially for the employees and the communities served by the stores that will now have no nearby book outlets, it’s something the industry has been preparing for now for some time.
2) Buying trends have shifted. In our industry, as in others, many consumers have moved on-line for their buying needs, where there’s access to a broader range of products than what can be fit onto store shelves. In other words, one-stop shopping. Brick and mortar stores have lost a lot of business to the big e-tailers. Readers still buy books, but the where of it has changed.
3) Because of outlet shifts, buying patterns have shifted as well. It’s harder to promote book releases as an event when buyers don’t have to worry about finding them soon after publication or not at all on bookstore shelves. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, it just means that book sales are more long term and not necessarily all fast out of the gate and that authors’ promotional efforts need to be more about branding and name recognition than complete focus on release day.
Okay, so there’s some information the marketing end. What about the publishing? What’s working in genre fiction at the moment?
I’m sure that you’ve noticed any time you’ve gone into the bookstores that paranormal is currently rocking the world, whether it be urban fantasy, romance or young adult fiction. That market is starting to tighten up considerably as publishers worry that it’s becoming more difficult to make a new series stand out in the already crowded marketplace. This is not to say that you can’t stand out, just that it’s terribly important that you do so. Vampires, zombies, etc. are eternal, but you need a very fresh take and an incredible voice not only to earn your shelf space but to stay there. There’s a bit more room for really wonderful epic fantasy, sf thrillers, military sf and space opera (also known as social science fiction) to balance out publishers’ lists.
The most important thing, I think, in any kind of fiction is a wonderful voice. The uniqueness of your work can be the lens through which we see it, the personality and presentation of your character. You know the expression, “I’d listen to him read the phone book”? In a way, that’s how I feel about voice. I’ll read just about anything, plot-wise, from mystery to romance to, of course, sf and fantasy, if you entertain me and make me care. About every agent and editor I know feels the same way.
You can also be a great storyteller, where it’s the tale and the cadence with which it’s told that pulls the reader along. Or have a wonderful concept. Get all of this in the same work, spiff it up with some polish, and you’re golden.
Really, agents and editors keep reading those submission because we’re ever looking to fall in love with a new work. We want to be surprised, excited, entranced. It’s one of the main perks of the job. (Another is calling that debut author to let him or her know the first offer has arrived and hearing the howl of excitement.)