Trends in the Market – What Matters?

Before I became an agent, I marketed children’s books.  I worked on many different projects and was lucky to have loved lots of them, along with their authors.  It is that experience that brought me to this job, where I am lucky, again, to find so many books and authors to love.  It’s interesting to be on different sides of the publishing process – in marketing, I was at the end, throwing confetti and handing out cigars, announcing the birth of a gorgeous new book in the world.  Now, I’m closer to the beginning, which is a fascination all its own.  But one thing stays the same, no matter where I’m sitting – everyone wants to know: what does the market want?

This question is a river that runs through every part of the publishing map (at least all the parts I’ve visited), and it can be anxiety provoking.  I hear it in writer’s voices, and I’ve heard it in editor’s voices, and marketing director’s voices – I think everyone feels it one time or another.  Is dystopian dead?  How long should my picture book be?  Is contemporary selling?  Writers ask, what do editors want?  Editors ask, what does sales and marketing want?  Sales and marketing asks, what do the buyers want?  And on it goes.  I think we all would love to learn the secret alchemy of success.

I’d be na├»ve, and giving you bad advice, if I said Market Schmarket, who cares!  But at the same time, I’ve seen – in sales and marketing meetings, in conversations with successfully published authors, at writers’ conferences – the reverse: a concern with what the market wants so single-minded that it swamps everything else.  That’s not going to get you much of anywhere.  Because instead of thinking about what you could write, you’ll just spend time thinking about what you can’t.

So, right now I am going to tell you what the market really wants.  Turns out that it’s probably what you want too: a book that makes you stay up all night reading.  A book that feels so real that briefly, this world dulls a bit in comparison.  A book that changes your mind.  A book that you put down 10 pages to the end, because you can’t bear to finish.

It’s true that a book could steal my heart, and have no effect on yours.  And it’s also an unfortunate truth that you can write that book and it might not get the attention it deserves.  But what I’ve learned over the time I’ve spent in children’s books – in marketing, in libraries, in bookstores – comes down to this: write the best damn book you can.  Put your heart and soul, every ounce of your creative energy into it.  Don’t mimic, don’t try to guess the next big thing.  Because a book that makes you stay up all night has something unique in it, and that’s going to come from you, not from endless comparison to what’s outside you.

Does this mean that you should ignore what’s being published?  Well, not completely.  There are basic facts you must know and looking carefully at what’s going on the shelves in bookstores and libraries will deepen your understanding of this world we’re in; sharpen your sense of exactly which corner will be yours.  But given what I’ve said above, how to do this in a way that will be constructive?

Think of your research as being about broad strokes:
Do: look to see what genres seem to overcrowd the shelves; it’s probably smart to avoid these.
Don’t: look at a single best-selling title or series as a point of comparison.

Do: note common characteristics, i.e. most picture books are about 32 pages long.  Pay particular attention to variation.  Do you see any books longer or shorter?  How many?
Don’t: look at 10 books and consider your research done.  It’s likely that your investigation won’t be completed in one trip.  Think about 10 trips, looking at 10 books each time.  At least.

Do: talk to experts; ask a bookseller or librarian what she’s noting about the new titles coming in, what books she’s expecting to fly off the shelves.
Don’t: ever stop reading.  I probably don’t need to remind you of this, but along with all the above, read, read, read!

The common thread in this list is to keep your field of research wide.  Don’t get bogged down in what you see in one book, or hear from one person.  You won’t find, nor should you, a specific piece of advice about what to write.  Rather you should see the big picture coming into focus; the dimensions of the parameters that you will work within.  Once you feel that you have that, you’ve done your research.  Now the hard part begins: find a place inside those parameters, the place that’s yours and yours alone.  So, that secret alchemy?  It lives inside you, and only there.

What kind of market research have you done that you feel has propelled your writing?  What tricks can you share?