The Faddishness of Publishing

NB: Every example I give in this post will soon be out of date. I’m only talking Young Adult publishing in the USA. What follows may be a tad exaggerated.

Publishing may be an old and crusty industry, that sometimes still runs on handshakes, but it is also flighty and driven by fads.

Right now it is the kiss of death to say that your manuscript is post-apocalyptic.1 Which is interesting given the resurgence of sales for books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and, I’m really hoping, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.2 I’d’ve thought the demand for post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA would be huge right now. Teens have always been big consumers of dystopian tales largely because high school is all too often a dystopia.

When I asked why post-apocalyptic is anathema I was told, “They don’t sell.” When I point out that books like The Giver, Uglies, Hunger Games do still sell, it was pointed out that those are old books. It’s the new ones that don’t sell.

When I pointed out a more recent one that does seem to be selling, they then said that’s really time travel. Whatever my example, I was informed that it wasn’t really post-apocalyptic, it was fantasy or space opera or a romance. Okay, then.

The lesson I took from these conversations was that it is still possible to sell a post-apocalyptic novel but you best not call it that. That is pretty much the lesson I always take out of these conversations. “Vampires are dead! Oh, your book isn’t about vampires it’s about hemo-addicts? No problem then.”

The other word that YA agents and editors are particularly averse to right now is trilogy. When I asked an agent friend about it, they shuddered, “Oh, God, no. Just say it’s a duology. At most.”

This confused me as there are lots of trilogies selling well right now. Before I could start listing them I was told there are far more that aren’t selling, which makes it too risky to buy a trilogy up front.

That’s publishing logic for you.

Tragically, the dirty truth is that no matter what the genre there are always more books that aren’t selling well than that are. I know this because I have been publishing YA since the beginning of the huge YA boom. The majority of books, including mine, weren’t selling like Twilight. It didn’t seem to stop publishers from buying them.

Right now YA publishers will buy the first book in what might possibly be a trilogy, and sometimes they’ll buy the first two, but only if they sell well, will they ask for a third. Most publishers are not paying for a trilogy up front anymore except for a handful of bestselling authors.

Publishing is always risk averse but right now with books sales down across the board they are more risk averse than usual. They see the word trilogy or post-apocalyptic (or whatever) and what they hear is great big risk. They are scared. They back away from the scary words. They also back away from the scary new books that aren’t like anything else out there. *sigh* As an agent friend of mine put it, “Publishers are looking for the books that are kind of different but not too different that most closely resemble previous bestsellers.”

Now that you’ve finished reading this publishers will probably no longer be scared of “trilogy” or “post-apocalyptic.”

I love publishing. Truly, I do.

  1. Some agents I asked said the same goes for dystopian. []
  2. Of those three Parable is the one that’s most prescient about this particular historical moment. []

5 comments

  1. Robyn on #

    Oh thank god, I don’t want to have to write a trilogy.

  2. gabby on #

    Do you ever think of self publishing? I find that “dead” genres that publishers won’t touch actually sell quite well if you keep all the profits for yourself. 🙂 (You can sell for pretty cheap ($2.99 and still make very good profits because of so many sales.

    Even if editors are tired of reading the same thing, the readers of that genre/niche are just as hungry as ever.

    • Justine on #

      Yeah, nah. Self-publishing works wonderfully for many writers. But most of the successful ones a) write quickly and b) have the organisational skills you need to essentially do all the work of a publisher. I write slowly and have no organisational skills.

      Also it’s a fallacy that this faddishness does not effect self-published authors. What happens instead is that the decision to kill a series because it’s not selling is made by the author, not the publisher, because when you self-publish you *are* the publisher.

      No matter whether you publish yourself or work with a traditional publisher you have to deal with a changing marketplace.

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