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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What’s Hot? What’s Not? Does It Matter?

Last week was a time of several firsts for me. For the first time, I traveled by train, rolling out of a station in Virginia with a suitcase that was at least twice as big and twice as heavy as it needed to be, to take my first cab ride in Washington, D.C., to attend the Romance Writers of America National Conference, also for the first time. I met wonderful writers like RITA nominated Joanna Bourne and Kimberly Killion and far too many others to list for the first time, and talked and laughed face-to-face for the first time with online critique partners I considered my friends long before I knew what they looked like. I met authors who’d just received their first New York call, authors who’d topped best-seller lists, and authors who’ve yet to receive the coveted “call”. I even experienced my first grown-up fire drill. As a teacher, I’m used to herding two dozen kids from a classroom once a month. But when the alarm sounded on Saturday afternoon in the middle of Sherry Thomas’ wonderful session on putting “sizzle” into your characters, I honestly thought it was a part of the presentation until I noticed the confusion on her face.

What was not a first for me was the discussion of what’s hot in publishing. This topic comes up almost anytime authors get together. And I must admit, it’s tempting to want to follow the trends. As I sat in a PRO retreat session with a panel of agents and editors and listened to the words “steam punk” and “urban fantasy”, my mind started ticking away reasons why the Civil War-based adventure I’m plotting as a companion to my first historical, Destiny, might be better if I figure out a way to take my hero out of the Union Army and into the world of “steam punk” (which I vaguely understood after one of the editors gave the movie Wild, Wild West as an example of one aspect of steam punk – ironically, I viewed that movie with dismayed amazement that Kenneth Branagh had reduced himself to playing a sawed-off lunatic with a ridiculously over-the-top Southern drawl, but that’s just me, I suppose). Throughout the conference, I heard pronouncements that westerns are perhaps not dead but comatose, Regency-era historicals are hot (the number of books with the name Mr. Darcy in the title are a clear indicator of this fact), and Scottish medievals are hot (but for some reason, other medievals are not as popular). Paranormals are scorching, especially if you can find a way to stick in a zombie or two. (No, I’m not making this up, and I hadn’t had any martinis before the sessions.) And young adult, well, if someone figures out a way to write a werewolf version of Twilight that doesn’t bring Teen Wolf to mind, they’ll really have it made!

So, my question is, which came first, the trend or the marketing? Civil War historical romances are virtually non-existent these days. A few presses, such as the Wild Rose Press, publish novels set during the Civil War, but if a New York publisher has put one out recently, it’s missed my radar entirely. I did an Amazon search on Civil War historical romances and came up with a some small-pub books and a few from Harlequin and Dell that date back to the 1990s. Yet, when I started reading historical romances in the 1990s, you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without seeing a rack of books set during the Civil War. Major authors such as Heather Graham wrote Civil War era books. Then, like a species undergoing extinction, the sub-genre vanished. Why? Were there too many books in this subgenre? Did authors try so hard to churn out Civil War books that they wrote books that weren’t from the heart? Did the quality of stories being produced turn off readers? If I had more time, and wished to truly distract myself from writing, I’m sure I could delve into that question in great depth. I don’t have time to spare for in-depth research, so I’m just going with my gut on this, but I do think that’s what happens. Just as with movies and television networks, there’s a feast or famine mentality. How many reality shows does one truly need? How many versions of Law & Order or CSI are truly necessary to sate the audience’s appetite? With each copycat, the quality tends to suffer just a bit. Think of Jaws. By Jaws V, I was rooting for the shark. Any shark clever enough to actually stalk and kill people on the shark equivalent of a hit list deserves a good meal. How about the Mummy? Loved the Mummy, tolerated the Mummy 2, and questioned the sanity of the producers who bought the script for Mummy 3. I think you get my point. The same is true for books. When everyone’s rushing to produce the “hot” product, some of the product winds up lukewarm at best.

There may be authors out there who can write books solely for the purpose of getting published and making money and do it well, but I believe the vast majority of writers have to pen stories that come from the heart. I’m one of those who has to feel my story. I enjoy reading Regency romances and the occasional paranormal, but I don’t quite have the feel for the mores and social norms of early nineteenth-century England needed to write a convincing Regency romance. My first love is American history, particularly from the Civil War to World War II. As time goes on, I might branch out and explore non-American settings and the Regency period, but for now, I’m drawn to American heroes and American history. The stories flow – the only problem I have is clearing the space in my busy life to get them on my hard drive.

So, as authors, do we follow our hearts or follow the trends? The problem with following trends is this: even if you force yourself to fit the current mold, what’s hot now might not be hot in two or three years, when your book will be due out. With few exceptions, this is a fact of life.

I find great reason to be encouraged to follow my heart. New authors have recently broken through with historical romances set in ancient China (Golden Heart Winner Jeannie Lin’s Butterfly Swords), World War II (Kristina McMorris’ Letters from Home), and late-Victorian England and India (Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband). The publication of books with diverse settings (with nary a zombie in sight) gives me hope to pursue my own dream and write from the heart.

What are your feelings on following trends in publishing? I’d love to know what you think.

11 comments:

Andrea said...

Great observations as always! Makes you think about what to write. I think we all have struggled at some time or another over whether to write what's hot or not.

Victoria Janssen said...

I figure it's impossible to write what's "hot" because what's hot is often passing by the time people notice how hot it is. If that makes any sense. I mean, books on the shelves were usually bought by editors over a year ago. Better to be ahead of the wave, or make your own wave, than be swamped in a thousand books just alike.

At the very least, I'll be writing what I want to write.

Victoria Gray said...

That's what I'm hoping to do...be ahead of the wave. Look at what's happened with vampires. The market is now swamped with vampire books. There for a while, everyone and their grandmother had a vampire book coming out, even if the vampire was rather secondary to the plot. Some books seemed like a tv show where a big star is doing a cameo..and tonight, in chapter 20, Dracula shows up for dinner...will SuzyQ quench his thirst...you get my drift. Now, unless an author has an edge that is just breathtakingly original, a book with vampire characters isn't going to stand out. So I'm with you..I'm writing what I like. I think if you write a book you'd like to read, you're following your heart.

Victoria Gray said...

Andrea,
It is a struggle, isn't it? I was serious when I wrote about rethinking my next book. I've already plotted the characters, etc., but it's so tempting to try to chase the trend. I think my writing would stink, though, if I went paranormal (a little, yes...ghosts are cool to me, but unfortunately, also to the market) I simply don't enjoy books about shifters and demons and such...don't know why, I just don't. I read a couple by Kresley Cole, including one that won a RITA, and I came away thinking her stories were intriguing, but didn't touch me the way stories about average humans with average weaknesses do. She is a fantastic writer, but it would make no sense to try to emulate her, as my heart isn't in it.

Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Victoria! Like you, my first romance was set during the Civil War. At the time I wrote it, I didn't realize how unpopular the period was. But I persevered and it's finally been released from
The Wild Rose Press. Other publishers I submitted to, didn't want it. But it was the book of my heart and I refused to give up on it. I've written more stories set during the CW period, all of them coming out this year with TWRP.

The problem I'm hearing from readers regarding CW romances is, 'they're all the same.' Gone With the Wind clones. Well, mine certainly aren't and with my premiere book, Erin's Rebel, I'm hoping readers who pick up the book will see that and be willing to purchase my other CW romances as well as those by other authors.

My advice is--don't follow trends in publishing--make them by writing a book that you truly love!

Victoria Gray said...

Thanks, Susan. It's funny that Civil War novels are so stereotyped, and yet, when books are marketed with the name "Mr. Darcy," doesn't that just scream Jane Austen? (I'm reading a book now that is not a romance called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies that actually takes P&P and infuses a zombie subplot...it's warped and funny, but doesn't that just speak volumes about the trend?) My book is set during the Civil War, but like yours, it is so different from Gone With the Wind, it's like comparing The Phantom of the Opera with The Producers...they're both musicals, but the resemblance pretty much stops there.
Thanks for posting, Susan. I'm looking forward to reading your book and your upcoming release, Confederate Rose.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a pre-Civil War Western, and a well-meaning editor told me to forget about Westerns and set it in space instead.

Victoria Gray said...

My question is this: is there really no market for Civil War stories and westerns (and American settings in general) because readers yearn for fantasy settings such as space or civilized gentlemen in Regency England, or is there no market for Civil War stories and westerns because publishing houses are geared up for Regency, fantasy, and paranormal marketing and don't want to shift gears? How can there be a market for westerns when they're not being published? When publishers take chances and buck the trend, great things happen. Think about Harry Potter. I'm a teacher and children's librarian, and I can tell you, before a publisher took a chance on Harry Potter, there was nothing like it for young readers. Long, challenging, with richly textured vocabulary, twisting plots, and so many characters there are actually guidebooks written to the series, it's a wonder it was ever published. It truly broke the mold for children's literature. But when it was published, wow...look at the demand for stories of that type that sprang up. I often wonder what the editors who rejected Harry Potter do each time a new book or movie comes out...I don't think they brag about passing it up. :)

Paty Jager said...

I write what I'm interested in and hope when the book is finished someone will like it enough to publish it whether it's the "trend" or not.

Jeannie Lin said...

Thanks for the shout out! Great post and definitely a topic near and dear to my heart.

I honestly do feel that breaking into this market is hard no matter what. Writing what's hot has it's own challenges and the grass always seems greener from the other side, doesn't it? As an aspiring author trying to make it, you're going to get kicked around quite a bit and only love for the project can get you through the hard times.

Do I wish I could pick a hot genre and "make it work"? Course I do! I fantasize about having the skill and market savvy to be able to do that. Just like I fantasize that one day, an aspiring author will get a rejection stating that the Asian-set romance market is flooded and she has to push the boundaries even further to set herself apart. ;)

Penny said...

Love your blog. It's inspiring. About Steam Punk. It's both an age group and a style of dressing. The steam punkers are an artistic, dreamy, literate bunch who will not tolerate the mundane nor the trite. Good luck attracting them. I believe they are the early-21st Century hauteur.