What the Bleep do Publishers WANT?!

The past few months have been an up-and-down ride for my friend.

First, the euphoria of seeing her first book published in June. Before that, it was weeks and weeks of rush edits, late-night writing sessions, drafts that gradually had less red ink on them than black. She likens it to giving birth – hours of labor, and then once you have the baby in your arms, you don’t remember the pain anymore. Then, there was the rush of book signings – some with 20 or 30 people, others with just one or two. In the meantime, she was editing two other books she wanted to submit to her publisher.

Which brings me to my question of the week:  WHAT ARE PUBLISHERS LOOKING FOR NOW????

I know, it’s the age-old question, and unless you’re Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you have to ask it. All. The. Time.

Deb has two fantastic books in manuscript format – I’ve read both. But both are dystopian, which she tends to favor. She’s fascinated with taking one question, and letting the myriad answers spin out before her like a cosmic spider web of possibilities. What happens if . . . you discover how to use wormholes? What happens if . . . you have twins born two years apart? What happens if . . . Most writers do this; it’s just that for Deb, her what if’s tend to focus on the near future, and how one tiny change today could affect it.

But. According to her publisher – dystopian is dead.

Hence, this week’s Soapbox.

soapboxWhat’s frustrating is that countless writing how-to books and websites, and even other authors, will give you a variation on this advice:  Write what you want to write. But if you want to be PUBLISHED, you have to play by the rules, right? Publishers see trends. Publishers have to see trends. I remember reading somewhere that publishers buy books today that will be published two years from now. Therefore, what’s hot today probably won’t be in 2017. What’s hot in 2017 won’t be by 2020.

So how do writers know what the devil to write, if they want to be published????

Historically, authors like Dickens or Doyle could write whatever the hell they wanted to write, send it to the Strand or another magazine, and those magazines were happy to have it. Groveling, in fact, tripping over themselves to publish it, because these authors meant sales. When Doyle quit writing and killed of Sherlock Holmes, there was a general uproar in England. But we don’t get that option today . . . do we?

Well. Hold on. You can always publish independently. You can publish eBooks on Amazon or Smashwords. There’s even a platform on Amazon specifically for publishing novellas, short stories, and serials. In the 1800s, people loved short stories because they could be read on the train, or on a lunch break. Dickens never wrote his novels as novels; they were serials. Today, we’re starting to move back in that direction. Thanks to social media, some psychologists claim there’s a shrinking of the human ability to focus. Short snippets are about all we can manage. So a lot of authors are saying – great! Let me publish my short stories! Let me serialize my novels! (And when you write 150,000-word behemoths that no publisher will touch, this can be a Really Good Idea!)

Here’s the problem with that plan:  most authors who publish eBooks – especially with Kindle Unlimited – don’t make any money at it. Here’s the thing:  most eBooks sell at a price point of $2.99 – $3.99. If you want to support yourself completely this way, how many books do you have to sell in a month? If you’re like me, nearly 1,000. You are competing with thousands of other writers with precisely the same idea, so it’s not just about the writing – although that has to be exceptional – but also about your marketing strategy. Most indie authors say they spend as much time marketing as they do writing!

Now, it is easier to find readers there. (And according to one site I found, longer novels sell better on Kindle!) But if you screw up even one book, you lose readers. If you write – let’s say romance – there are currently more than 313,000 romance novels on Kindle. You’re competing with long-standing, traditionally published authors like Jennifer Cruisie and Danielle Steele, too. Write historical romances? There are currently more than 9,000 available on Kindle, and in the past 90 days, there have been 3,306 new releases. Write paranormal romance? The numbers get worse – 12,500+ available, and more than 4,000 new releases in the past 90 days.

No wonder we want traditional publishing!!!

But that still doesn’t answer the question:  if you want to be published by a traditional house – particularly one of the Big Five – what do you have to do? What kind of book do you have to write?

If anyone had the answer, we’d all be rich and published.

Even publishers will tell you they have no idea. No one knew they were looking for vampire romances until one editor came across one manuscript by one unknown author. She took a chance. Ten years later, vampires are everywhere. No one knew they were looking for S & M with a really crappy, controlling male protagonist who should have been hit over the head until publishers suddenly figured out that E.L. James was making tons of money in the indie market. And although dystopian has been around for ages in one form or another, it took The Hunger Games to make it cool. But guess what?

Apparently, it’s dead. For now.

Will it come back? Of course. That’s the thing about publishing. As with fashion, all trends become cool again.


Here’s a few links to some interesting articles on the state of book publishing and indie publishing: