Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘publishing trends.’ I wrote this piece on new adult lit and soon after attended a panel discussion organised by Children’s Book Circle on ‘Sick-Lit’ a publishing trend identified and bemoaned by The Daily Mail in this article.
A lot of things came up in the discussion but one of the best points was made by author Anthony McGowan. He shared how sceptical he was of trends in general as slapping a label on a group of books that have similar plots or themes deals only with concepts, not characters or writing. Trends mean that books that are widely different can get lumped together, which isn’t what good writing is about.
But as publishers, it is not only our job to nurture authors’ talent and produce great books – it is also our job to sell books. Trends do help do that. Think of all of those Twilight-esque covers that came out after the success of Stephanie Meyer’s series or how Sylvia Day’s Crossfire novels capitalised on the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey (with six million copies sold something is working!). Or consider the experience of author Robert Paul Weston: he was once advised he should write about angels because they were ‘the new vampires.’
Obviously starting a trend, being considered part of a trend or actively trying to jump on the bandwagon can benefit publishers, but how can we balance that with our commitment to finding and promoting unique authorial voices?
I chatted more with Rob Weston to get an author’s perspective. Here’s some food for thought:
1. Readers don’t know what they want, so it is impossible to predict trends.
This may seem obvious, but it is worth stating just how unpredictable the success of Harry Potter or 50 Shades really is. If you’d surveyed people beforehand regarding what they wanted to read about they probably wouldn’t have said ‘Wizards in public school,’ or ‘A sadomasochistic relationship.’
You simply never know when the next big thing is going to come along, so trying to create something that mimics the latest trend is always a gamble. Knock-offs rarely do as well as the original and the industry can move on in a heartbeat. Not long after Weston was told to write about angels, The Hunger Games came out and Dystopian fiction was the new trend.
As he observed, ‘Hardly angelic.’
2. It’s better to keep the writing process and everything that comes afterwards separate.
As a writer Weston said it’s best to take the approach of writing the best book you can and hoping it will take off. Whatever sales or marketing strategies that come later, or however a book might fit with a current trend, are things for the publisher to identify and make use of. Worrying about how your book will fit within a specific mould while you’re writing it will make it bad book because you’ll be focussing on things beyond developing the story.
The writer’s job, Weston says, is to give the story what it asks for. Later on, that should speak for itself.
3. Story is at the heart of every trend.
The business of publishing is rapidly changing. With the emergence of ebooks, apps and enhanced reading experiences there’s potential for all sorts of new trends and successes. For example, Weston is currently working on a transmedia project. His new novel The Creature Department, which will be published in November, is a collaborative effort involving himself, his US publisher Razorbill Books, and special effects company Framestore, of James Bond and Harry Potter movie fame. Weston is responsible for the manuscript, but visual elements of the book have been developed alongside the story instead of after it’s finished. Early on, Framestore came up with a cover design that featured characters that Weston incorporated into the story.
He says the collaboration has been a great experience. Developing ideas with other creatives has made the writing process less lonely and from the beginning his publisher and the artists at Framestore understood that good writing had to underpin the whole project.
The story needs to be at the heart of everything, because that’s what everything else – whatever trends take off and whatever apps, trailers and visual materials are developed – will build on.