literary legacy

Should You Care About Publishing Trends?

The urge to write to a trend (think: zombie novels at the beginning of this decade, the crime thrillers of late) is understandable. As writers, we receive many more rejection emails than acceptances, often for reasons we can’t control, like market conditions or an inventory overload. Even if your work is accepted, much of the process falls under the control of your publishing house. Writing on a topic or in a genre that you see as surging in popularity can feel like  mastering your future as an author.

Yet there are risks to this approach. 

I once attended a panel that featured agents from several publishing houses in New York City to learn more about the process of getting an agent. Afterward, the agents hung around for follow-up questions. I had identified with one of the agents, so I approached, hoping to get general feedback on the novel I was working on. I gave her a brief summary of the piece, which has a 14-year-old protagonist. She replied right away that it would be better if my protagonist featured a younger protagonist, around seven years old. “The editors are really interested in young girls’ stories right now,” she told me. 

Following this recommendation would have fundamentally changed my story. My manuscript was fictionalized in many ways, of course, but it was based on my experiences. A seven-year-old wouldn’t be able to face realities and make decisions like the 14-year-old protagonist of my story. 

The agent’s comment might have been off-handed and glib, and it’s unfair to draw too many conclusions from a single anecdote. This was one agent representing one sector of one publishing house. Yes, it would be possible to make my protagonist seven years younger to appeal to one agency’s editors and this trend of young girls’ stories. Still, I knew it didn’t apply to my work.

Perhaps in another piece, changing a character’s age might not have impacted the logic of the plot or character development so deeply, and I could have given it more consideration. Perhaps another more minor trend-based tweak could be applied. Adjusting scenes to take place in popular settings (a hip cafe, say), or updating the food featured to be more in line with recent public interests (hi, açaí bowls!) could provide ways to stay timely without substantially altering the narrative. There are ways to weave in what’s top of mind without compromising the value of your writing, provided these changes or additions feel true to you and your characters. Books can use timely references to add texture—see Jonathan Franzen—or to support the style and meaning, like Thomas Pynchon’s pop culture medleys. Avoiding them altogether may be impossible, as David Foster Wallace pointed out. 

But books can also be nearsighted, tying themselves to the era of their creation: think Nikolai Chernyshevsky, read today largely out of literary curiosity and historical study. Expressions and situations that seem cutting-edge now may seem dated in the future, and trying to predict what will have staying power involves more luck than skill. Just like the stock market and weather forecasts, industry-wide movements are changeable, so writing to them can be a never-ending chase. No matter how quickly you write, the winds of fortune shift: trends evaporate and publishing houses’ genre quotas fill up. Your writing could be guided by external factors rather than what makes you a good writer: you. 

Much of what we do as writers happens intuitively. Working with data or consumer research or best-seller lists can be effective, depending on your goals, but it can also be disheartening and strip the work of its feeling. Art consists of our experiences, which roll around in our consciousness until they’re ready to go from thoughts in our heads to thoughts on paper through our shared language. And that takes time — in most cases, far more time than it takes for a trend to emerge or recede. 

Trends might change between now and when I finally finish my book, but I believe that if I stick to what feels right to me, it will be championed by an agent who sees that truth when the time is right—for consumers, for the publishing house, and for me. 

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