Last week, agents (and publishers) from all over posted to Twitter with types of stories they were currently looking for using the hashtag “#MSWL” (Manuscript Wishlist). A great (and very helpful) idea to help authors try to connect with agents/publishers who might be interested in the type of story they had written, it also turned out to be rather disheartening for authors who scrolled through not finding a single agent looking anything like their novels. Some accounts even went so far as to post things along the lines of, “I’m swamped with X, NO MORE STORIES WITH X.”
Pretty much there’s no way to react to that other than, “Ouch, harsh.”
So what do you do if you’re grouped in with the great “X” no agent seems to want? Scrap the novel you spent however long on and start on something it seems agents actually want? No and no.
The first thing all authors have to remember is publishing is a business. Our novels are our babies. Something creative that we see (most of the time) as great/worthy of being read. Publishers, sadly, don’t look at manuscripts with an eye towards what they think the world should read, they look at manuscripts trying to find something that will make them money. If that means thirty-thousand vampire novels or the same generic love story over and over again, that’s what they are going to pick up. Since agents only get paid when they sell your story to a publisher (or at least should only get paid when they sell your manuscript, if not get a new agent) they need to look for things they think publishers will think are going to sell. This is not to say publishers are some faceless, greedy, corrupt organizations–most people get into publishing because they love books–it’s simply if they can’t sell what they publish, everyone’s paycheck is going to bounce and they’ll soon be out of a job.
And so agents/publishers often end up buying on trends. A couple years back vampires were hot. Judging on new books I know are coming out/what many agents seemed to mention in #MSWL, time travel is the next thing on the rise (as far as fantasy goes). Obviously these aren’t the only kind of stories that will be published during the life of the trend, but if they are what publishers are finding sell, they’re going to be easier to get published.
So you should set your other novel aside and get to work on a time travel novel, right?
Again…no. The tricky thing with trends is that they’re fleeting. They don’t all last the same amount of time, but each one always hits a point where it starts dying off and publishers stop buying them as much (if at all, depending on how saturated the market gets). And publishing takes time. First you have to write the book. Then you have to edit it. Then you have to make sure it’s polished. Then you have to submit it. An agent might take a couple of months to get back to you and ask for a full manuscript. Then they might take another month to let you know if they decide to take it. Then they may want to work with you to polish it even more. Even if you get through all of this and get to start shopping your manuscript while still at the height of a trend…you’re already too late. It’s taken you several months at this point after however long it took you to write the darn book in the first place, and it will take at least another year for it to come out (the publisher will send it through several rounds of edits, it has to go to layout, a cover has to be designed, you have to pre-market…publishing is a slow, slow beast). If publishers only start looking at your manuscript at the peak of the trend, they will probably assume the trend will be dying by the time your book gets out, and will be just as likely to pass on it as any other book at that point. Following the trend hasn’t given you quite the edge you were looking for.
So the only way to capitalize on a trend is to already have a completed book ready to shop when a trend hits. And since there’s no way to know when a trend is going to hit, what good does that do you? It just seems like dumb luck whether or not you have written a book that ends up being “on trend”.
And yes, yes it is. Like much else in publishing, hitting a trend or not is mostly just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
So why even bring this up? Just to be more depressing?
No, to make the simple point: Don’t force yourself to write a story just because it fits whatever’s big at the moment. Maybe you want to write a time travel story. Great, then go for it. If it’s a plot that interests you, you might do something amazing with it. If you’re only trying to capitalize on a trend, however, you’re likely to be disappointed. You forced yourself to write something you only sort of wanted just because it would sell–and now no one wants it because you’re too late to the party. Trying to find an agent and publisher can be frustrating enough as it is. No need to add to that frustration by making yourself miserable during the fun part (actually writing the thing).
And so, I think a tip @KMWeiland posted earlier today on Twitter fits the moral of the story perfectly:
“Don’t worry about what the world considers the perfect novel. Write your perfect novel, and let the world come to you.”
Who knows? Maybe by the time you’re finished, you just might catch the next trend.
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