I’ve been getting all sorts of interesting (if sometimes random) questions from readers lately, and wanted to offer some notes on genres, writing style, and the contemporary publishing market. Here are some questions that came in recently:
What do you do when your story doesn’t fit into the box of any specified genre? For instance, if characters and/or objects in a story symbolize something deeper, but the story can also be taken as a literal story (e.g., The Le Petit Prince or Pilgrim’s Progress), is it going to be classified as inspirational, or drama, or children’s story? Is there some other genre out there that I’m missing?
If you have a story that uses characters or objects that symbolize something deeper, you’re probably writing an allegory. And right now there is very little market for allegory. A bit, perhaps, with “business fables” that teach organizational principles, or the occasional sci-fi novel, possibly with some children’s books. But for most part, allegories are one tough sell.
I am a freelance editor and writer, so editing is what (barely) pays the bills, but I have a couple of novel projects I feel need to come out of me. However, my writing style tends to reflect the style of books I love to read—the descriptive, long-sentence style of Dickens, for example. Dickens is one of the greats, but nowadays the passive construction has a bad rap and “show, don’t tell” seems to be the motto of the industry. My question is this: is there a market for descriptive writing anymore?
The truth? Not much of one. Maybe you could capture a new audience and re-start it, but no, the culture has moved on from that style. Remember, writing is art, and art needs its own new expressions in each generation. That’s why it’s hard to go back and read James Fenimore Cooper – his prose just doesn’t work in contemporary culture. (For that matter, try going back just fifty years and reading Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway – great writers, but they feel dated to most contemporary readers.) The same is true in any art – most of us probably aren’t listening to a lot of Gregorian chants or hanging wall art of medieval paintings. You might do so occasionally, because you value the artistry of another age, but few people want a steady diet of art from another era. I’m a huge Dickens fan, and love reading his stuff, but I realize he’s a tough sell in our own generation.
Would you please tell about publishers who market only to the Library Market?
There are some publishing houses that have a direct-to-library division. These imprints usually produce expensive (roughly $35) hardcover books with sturdy bindings – perfect for the rough handling many library books get. The printed books are not carried by bookstores, though sometimes print copies can be ordered from Amazon (again, they’re a bit pricey). The ebook was formerly not commonly available, but is now often made available not long after the print release. These imprints are usually looking for topics that might appeal to schools or enthusiasts, but which would not have a broad commercial appeal. I’ve done sports books, history, and memorabilia titles with library imprints.
What would be the average number of copies they would print for an average book, or print run?
That depends on the size of the publishing house and the projected sales of the book. A small house may only print 500 copies of a book that is seen as having limited sales potential, but may print as many as 2500 copies of a book they are hoping finds a readership. A medium sized house may print as few as 3000 copies of a debut novelist, but may print 10,000 copies of a book they think will have some breakout potential. A large house may start with as few as 5000 copies of a book, will often have two or three times that in the warehouse, and has been known to print hundreds of thousands of copies on a surefire hit.
Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Send it in, and we’ll try to get to it this month!