At the workshop I attended this past weekend, there was some discussion at lunch about trends in writing. At previous workshops and seminars, this same topic has generated a great deal of talk and even debate.
For example, when Harry Potter first arrived on the scene, everyone and his or her dog had a wizard story, or a story about magic and apprentice witches or wizards. Yes, many of them were published, and often they were designed to look a lot like the Harry Potter books. But the fact is, they weren’t as good as the original, and these copy cat books didn’t arrive first.
Now it seems that everyone and his or her cat is writing about vampires. The success of the Twilight series is the catalyst for this movement. After all, if the writer of Twilight can break the rules of over 100 years of vampire tradition, then certainly every Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice can do so likewise and be just as successful, right? Well, not so fast there, fang face.
Here’s the problem with trying to write to a trend: timing. It’s not just that you need to be the first person to market with your book, but when you consider how long it takes for a book to become a book, by the time your particular version of the trend arrives, the trend itself is probably waning, and the public’s attention is shifting to something new and different.
A book released today was most like written two to three years ago. It was submitted to an agent or publisher – quite possibly rejected by a few of them, too – before being accepted by the editor or agent who ultimately sees something of value in the story. That process alone can take anywhere between three months and a year depending on the publisher’s acceptance policies. There are committees involved in making these decisions (very few editors have the ability to by a manuscript on the spot), and as the old saying goes, “For God so loved the world that He didn’t send a committee.”
Then there is the revision process, which takes anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on the writer, the deadline, the editor, the publisher, etc. Then there is cover design, scheduling or calendaring (which works the novel into the publisher’s release schedule), then the time it takes for printing and so forth. That’s why a book accepted for publication today may take 18 to 24 months before it is released. And many publishers are actually backlogged, meaning the books they are scheduling now may not see a shelf for almost three years.
All of this means that by the time the book is released, the kids who are interested in wizards or vampires or space travel will have aged two to three years and the trend will be dead. The new group of kids may or may not share that same level of interest in the subject. And series books are even harder to accomplish with trend writing because of the realities of writing series. The first book may sell well, however, subsequent books very rarely do as well.
When I wrote my critical thesis for my Masters degree, I studied series books and compared them against individual novels. The truth is that, even with books like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, after book one, subsequent books do not sell as well. R. L. Stein’s Goosebumps series is evidence of this, too. Though there were close to 100 books in that series (perhaps more, I forget at the moment how many), only book one ever sold a significant number of copies. The other books in this series lagged quite far behind. And these are books where the publisher was releasing a book almost every three months to keep its prepubescent readers adequately supplied.
Writing to trends is a waste of a good writer’s time. Leave that to the writers who aren’t original enough to come up with innovative story lines and unique characters who actually speak to contemporary readers. Yes, there are still publishers who are looking to cash in on the latest thing in the middle grade and young adult market, and they will produce a book that fits that thread. In fact, they may even rush it through production to get it on the shelves as quickly as possible. But the next time you walk through your local book store, see if you can’t identify these books. Here’s a hint: they are typically located on the “bargain” table, selling for less than half their retail value.
A better suggestion for writers with integrity: write from your heart. Tell the story that only you can tell in the way that only you can tell it. This keeps your soul intact and satisfies your desire to write, rather than giving in to some Faustian need to achieve success at all costs.
Now go write something GOOD!