Chip MacGregor

November 18, 2014

Know the Competition: Why You Should Be Reading in Your Genre


brick green no smile b:wA reader sent in this question: “I’ve been told more than once that I need to be reading new releases in my genre (Young Adult), but I have a really hard time justifying spending time on something that doesn’t help my platform or my publishing efforts. Where is the value in reading books similar to mine?”

If you’re a repeat visitor to the MacGregor Literary blog, you know we’re fans of reading around here. I mean, besides the fact that our jobs ultimately depend on people buying books, we have counseled writers time and again to read as a means of learning their craft– to learn how to write dialogue, read someone who does dialogue really well, to develop an ear for voice , read authors with great voice, etc.  Reading to improve in specific areas of your craft is easy in that you can pick up craft insight from any author, regardless of genre, e.g., a thriller writer can glean voice tips by reading literary fiction.

Now, leaving aside the whole “you can always learn from other writers” argument, it’s fair to say that there might be some unpublished writers out there who are writing at the same skill level as a lot of published authors in their genre– folks who don’t really stand to learn a lot about writing by reading their peers’/competitors’ works. And yes, if you don’t have a strong need to improve in a certain area, it can be hard to justify spending your limited time reading authors whose only claim to superiority is that they’ve been published. The key word here, however, is writing— it’s my guess that the people recommending you read in your genre aren’t making the recommendation because they think you need to learn about writing, but because they want you to learn about the current publishing scene for your genre.

Regardless of criticisms that can be leveled at any of the new releases in a specific genre, you can’t argue that the people who are currently being published are doing something right in terms of navigating the market and the interest of publishers. By reading the most recently published titles in your genre, you can discover a lot about the scene you’re attempting to break into and identify some ways you can make your story/proposal a better fit for that scene.

Think about trying to get published in terms of an undercover mission. Like any good heist movie tells us, the key to successfully infiltrating a bank or a technology company or a spy ring is to stake it out– to pay close attention to who is coming and going, what the security measures are, which guards will accept a bribe (note: that’s a metaphor. Do not attempt to bribe an editor.), etc. The more information the rascally-yet-honorable thief has about the target, the greater his chances of success. The same is true for your publishing efforts: the more you know about the kinds of books that are being published in your genre, the types of stories that editors are currently acquiring, the types of approaches that are in vogue, etc., the more productive your efforts are going to be.

If your suspense novel starts with three chapters of backstory/everyday scenes but the majority of new releases in that genre jump into the action on the first page, your manuscript is going to raise a red flag for an editor who is interested in maintaining a certain brand of suspense novel in her imprint. If you’re telling your contemporary young adult story in the third person when the vast majority of contemporary YA is being told in first-person, you run the risk of being perceived as off-trend by the editors acquiring all those first-person stories. You get the idea.

Dos this mean you re-write your entire book just to follow a trend or to make it fit “the mold?” Definitely not; the rule about writing what YOU write best regardless of what’s trending remains true, but at the same time, it’s worth considering whether a tweak such as a new jumping-off place for the action or a revamped approach to your story might make it a more relevant contender in the current publishing environment.  Knowing who else is out there and what their books are like gives you the upper hand when choosing comparative titles in your proposal, helps you get a feel for the taste of individual imprints and publishers, and can help you determine which aspects of your story or your writing you want to play up when pitching to an editor or agent– if you’re leading with the love story when books are selling based on the subplots or settings, you want to restructure your query to highlight the ways you are already “on trend” with your writing.

Though it can seem like an unproductive use of your time, think of it as an investment in your book: reading to know the current publishing scene in your genre can ultimately make your marketing and pitching efforts more productive.

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1 Comment

  • Iola Goulton says:

    This advice isn’t just good advice for writers seeking traditional publication, but for those planning to self-publish as well.

    I’m a reviewer, and I can give you today’s example of a self-published author who’s got it wrong. His “Christian romance” (which has a hand-painted picture of Jesus on the cover) starts with a man running over a cat (not exactly the “cute meet” romance readers want), and the opening places more emphasis on the relationship between the hero and his older male next door neighbour than the girl. It might be a great novel. But if he read Christian romance, he’d know his novel is women’s fiction with a romance subplot (and an off-genre cover).

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