Moving Targets

June 25, 2009 at 6:52 am (General) (, , , , , , )

(cross-posted at Alive & Knitting)

I was thinking this week about moving targets, of the book market variety. Popular fiction, like romance, is a reflection of popular culture – as those of you who read my blog have heard me say seven zillion times or so – so it’s constantly changing. As consumers (and that means readers) we’re always looking for the next new sensation. We are incessantly trying something new, then becoming bored with it. As producers (and that means writers) we need to somehow stay ahead of that curve.

Since RWA’s National Convention will be held next month in Washington, D.C., I thought it might be useful to have a peek at this, in action. Meet our Aspiring Writer (A.W.) who has her very first pitch session at this conference. She’s meeting an editor with a big New York publishing house, the very editor and the very house that A.W. has carefully researched and targeted as the best fit for her book. She’s prepped and practiced, she’s gone to the bathroom a couple of extra times (she’s a little bit excited) and now her name has been called for her editor appointment. This is it! She’s sure she’s going to get a request to submit.

Editor (stands to shake hands): Good morning, A.W. How nice to meet you.

A.W. (tries to be cool): Good morning. I’m very pleased to meet you. I know you edit Ms. NYT-Bestseller and I’m a huge fan of her books

E: As am I. (They both sit down) Well, then, tell me about your book.

A.W.: Well! It’s a vampire romance. The hero is a vampire and the heroine is a witch… (Brief synopsis ensues.)

E: What’s the obstacle between them?

A.W.: Well, she’s a witch, like I said, so she’s sworn to the reid. You know, “do whatsoever you will but harm none”.

E: So, she rejects him on principle, because he drinks blood?

A.W.: Right. But he’s just so sexy that he’s irresistible. And, you know, he’s not entirely happy with the need to drink blood either – he thinks he’s a monster himself and has to fight to accept the demon within. Being in love helps him control the hunger so he’s kind of addicted to her.

E: Um hmm. Any other plot elements?

A.W. (thinking desperately): Well, there’s a demon who is her familiar.

E: Tell me about him.

A.W.: Oh, he’s kind of mischievous and tries to force them apart. He’s a minor character but I could give him more lines.

E: What else?

A.W.: Um, it’s set in Iowa, and uh, it’s really really sexy. It’s a vampire novel, a sexy one, and I know those sell really well right now. Like Ms. NYT-Bestseller. My book is similar in a way, but the vampire is a bit darker…

E: We’re a bit over-inventoried in vampires right now. What else are you working on?

Ooops. A.W. expected to have the editor ask for the manuscript by now, but that’s clearly not happening. Why not?

I’ll guess.

The paranormal romance market has been on the move over the past decade. In 1994, I wrote an historical featuring a shapeshifter hero. A MAGICIAN’S QUEST was published in August 1995 and other than its exotic setting (medieval Morocco) the main conflict was the hero coming to terms with the beastly side of his nature. In 1998, my medieval ENCHANTED was published, which featured a hero condemned to become a wolf half of the time – that book was about breaking the curse so he’d be a normal man all the time. These two shapeshifter novels could be sold in that time because shapeshifters were new and novel – exploring the notion of what it meant to be a shapeshifter was “fresh” enough for the work to sell.

Shapeshifter romances were never as “in” as vampire romances – or at least they haven’t been yet! – but even so, that internal conflict, in and of itself, is no longer enough. The battle against the beast within is old news. The fight to assimiliate into society and have a normal life has been done. You’ll find the same thinking in vampire romance, or time travel romance, or any of the various paranormal romance subgenres. We need something new in order for the work to catch our interest.

At various points in time, we as readers have been enamored of vampires, or historicals set in Scotland, or sexy Regency romances, or erotic romance. There will be other infatuations. The point is that for brief moments, an aspiring author can get an invitation to submit work on the basis of that one qualifying detail alone. Publishing houses see something that works and want more of it.

But it doesn’t last. It really is a fleeting moment – you might get lucky or you might miss out. As we read more and more of the books in each targeted subgenre, we become a bit jaded. We want more than the basic hook. At least five years ago, just another vampire romance wasn’t good enough. We wanted something more, something special, something fresh.

And to be fair to A.W., this kind of sea change happens sooner within the publishing house than in the writing community. That’s because they’re putting together packages and cover copy and sales tips for each book in the list, and as the umpteenth romance in a particular subgenre comes across each individual’s desk, they need to know why this one is special. Editors read the most – including what doesn’t get bought – so they start looking for the change first.

Remember also that editors at print houses are at least a year ahead of readers. If you buy a book on July 7 which is the first title by a new author who is being promoted heavily by the house, and which just went on sale that day, that book manuscript was purchased at least a year ago. For a new author, it might have been bought closer to two years ago. There’s been a whole lot of work cross that editor’s desk during that interval. Unfortunately, you can’t know what that work was, or what the editor bought – you can only pick up that July 7 title and hope it tells you something about the editor’s taste.

Two years ago.

You can, however, assume that such subgenre elements will move in one predictable direction. As these hot-ticket elements become more popular and more mainstream, they all evolve in the same direction – they all require a deeper romance and better character development. In a sense, the hook or the element becomes part of the market at large and the story itself (the characterizations, the dialogue, the action, the romance) becomes the discerning factor. So, it can’t just be a vampire romance or an erotic romance – it also has to be a really good romance.

The other thing that happens – although this is harder to predict before it does happen – is that genres infect each other. When I sold Dragonfire to my editor, she told me that one thing she liked about it was the mythology of the Pyr and the worldbuilding. She told me that she saw that as key to the success of paranormal romance series, and that it was particularly what she looked for in a new series.

The intensity of the worldbuilding probably originates from the fantasy market, but the fantasy market has been around for a long time without this cross-over – I suspect the more immediate impetus is television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This series and other similarly popular paranormal series posit an entire hidden universe right beneath our human noses, one populated by otherworldly creatures with their own agenda. The protagonist – or protagonists – stands on the cusp, with one foot in each world, often as a gatekeeper. This notion slid into the romance section and the paranormal romance subgenre, colouring the expectations of readers. One vampire alone isn’t that compelling anymore. We want him to be part of an entire vampire world, one with lots of other vampires and lots of issues.

So, I think that A.W. would have had a better chance of getting a submission request if her vampire romance had been part of a series, one that peeled back the veil on a whole ‘nuther parallel universe. She argued that her book was similar to those of Ms. NYT-Bestseller, who this editor bought and published with great success, but the point is that Ms. NYT built her audience when the market was in a different place than it is currently. Ms. NYT was the fresh voice then, not the one mimicking another established writer. What A.W. needs to do is be the fresh voice for the future, to write something that builds upon the notion of a vampire romance in a new and innovative way.

How is she going to do that? By keeping her eyes open and being aware of popular culture. By not being so quick to toss out her “odd” or “outrageous” ideas – no matter what her critique partner thinks of them. By going to the Spotlight sessions at RWA National and not just listening to the publishers’ presentations but looking for patterns. What are people buying and why? No one will tell her what to do. She has to figure it out for herself, and then make it happen.

Nobody said this was an easy business, but as writers, we are the source of new trends and ideas. Don’t take the easy path. Make your book, even if it is the umpteen gazillionth vampire romance, stand out from the pack.

Make it fresh!

Deborah Cooke
Alive & Knitting blog

7 Comments

  1. michelehauf said,

    Well said, Deb!

  2. Deborah Cooke said,

    Thanks Michele!

  3. Lisa Renee Faust said,

    As a writer of romance (first romance novel just published and released in April) and an avid reader of all types of books, I tried when writing my book to make it feel more personal than some of the romances I have read in the past. I tried to keep my writing true to my style of speaking and relating to life in general.

    And at the end of the day, all I can hope is that when people read it, they enjoy it, and feel like they may just have had a brief glimpse into my life!!

    Hope your blog readers will check it out as well!!

    Lisa Renee Faust
    http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheRoadToLove

  4. terryspear said,

    Here, here, Deb!🙂 I loved two books that were basically different versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Hmmm, a werewolf Pimpernel….🙂 Has possibilities! LOL

  5. Karin said,

    Fabulous post! This is some great advice for writing in any genre or sub-genre, really. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. eroticdvd said,

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  7. Mark Zamen said,

    A very good essay; accurate, timely, and well written. The issue of internal conflict has of course been incorporated into literature already, though there are various types of such conflict, stemming from a multitude of sources. One example is to be found in my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay, bipolar man, and chronicles his inner and outer struggles as he battles for stability and acceptance (of himself and by others). Internal conflict can and often does preclude achieving success in life; this certainly happened in the case of my central protagonist. More information on the book is available at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

    Mark Zamen, author

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