Chip MacGregor

February 19, 2013

What fiction trends are coming and going?


I’m trying to catch up on the hundreds of questions people have sent in. Someone wrote to say this: “The popularity in genres seems to go in cycles, with perhaps the exception of romance, which always seems to sell well. Where in this cycle do you see the historical fiction genre right now? In the near future?”

Fiction goes through a cycle with publishers: produce some, watch it grow, produce more, produce too much, cut back, start selling again, produce some, watch it grow, etc. Right now one could argue that there are more historicals being sold than there used to be, but I agree with you — that’s simply a cycle. People love reading about other eras, so while we may be trending down a bit right now in some genres, it will trend back up. That’s how fiction works. In a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals were doing well. Now that the economy is brighter, we’re seeing a swing back to more contemporaries. Suspense, which also had an explosion with the growth of e-books, seems to have been waning a bit, but since it’s cyclical, they will come back. 

Another reader sent me this: “Is there a certain sub-genre of historical fiction (fantasy, romance, thriller, mystery) that you think is selling best now? And is historical fiction fading out?”

A sub-genre that seems to be trending up is the romance novel with a strong suspense line. Another has been the romance with fantastic or supernatural elements. Some historical periods continue to sell, so there is renewed interest in the Edwardian and Victorian periods (thanks to Downton Abbey, an entire period of time that’s been overlooked is once again popular). And despite slowing, plenty of readers are still in love with the Amish and all things simple. Romance novels set in Texas seem to outsell other settings (no idea why — I find the state flat and hot and not terribly interesting… but I only say that to bug the people from Texas). But historical romances are definitely still a category that sell. Don’t give up on it. 

One reader asked, “Since trends do seem to come and go, would you advise a writer of historical fiction to write in other genres as well?”

I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. A better question would be, “What’s the right place for me to write?” If you have a particular voice for romance, you should be writing romance. If your voice is literary, you should be writing literary. Frankly, it’s tough to create any sort of brand for yourself if you’re all over the map. (And now the caveat… that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you have to write cross-genres to make a living. Such is the life of the artist.) 

And someone asked, “When we see a print run of multiple thousands of copies (for example, this week on Publishers Lunch I noticed a publisher announcing they’re going to print 100,000 copies of a book), where are all those copies going?”

A publisher is only doing a big print run when they’ve spoken to accounts and know they are going to see a lot of big orders for a book. So those books are printed and sent to accounts to fulfill orders, or they are shipped to warehouses in order to be ready to fill re-orders when the book starts selling quickly. In today’s publishing world, where you can go back and quickly reprint books, publishers don’t want to be sitting on tens of thousands of unsold copies — so a big print run means a big marketing budget and a probably bestseller. 

And someone sent me this question: “As online retailers are selling more and more books, have distribution and ordering practices changed much? Are things different from when you started?”

Things are significantly different from when I first started in the book business. (Dinosaurs no longer roam the earth, for example. And the whole “movable type” idea has speeded things up.) In my view, the change in book distribution has been the biggest shift I’ve seen in my twenty-some years in book publishing. First, book readers moved from independent bookstores to mega-stores. That led to the decline of indies and created the rise of Barnes & Noble (and Borders, who didn’t survive). Second, they began buying books at Big Box stores, so Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Costco suddenly become players  in the industry (even though you wander through the aisles and can find few employees who apparently know how to read, let alone answer anything about books). Third, Amazon came along and created the online bookstore, so that now you don’t need to leave home to buy books. And fourth, the advent of e-books reshaped the patterns again, as Kindle and Nook and iPad owners simply have books downloaded digitally to their devices.

So the business isn’t the same at all. There are fewer people to ask about books, and more pooled ignorance on Amazon reviews,, and a far worse shopping experience than when you could wander the aisles and talk with salespeople who were readers. There’s much more of a willingness to order and wait for the books to be shipped to your home. Publishers are now selling directly to consumers, which they used to eschew, and they’ve had to realign their thinking about book sales. Some say there are fewer book stores (and there ARE fewer brick and mortar stores), but I would argue there are MORE bookstores than ever, since every computer is now a bookstore. Sure, those brick and mortar stores order fewer copies, and they can return the books they don’t sell (which is unlike just about every other industry), they have to still pay freight and stock inventory — making it an expensive business that’s hard to survive in today’s retail environment. For the consumer, your book can be delivered overnight to your door or instantly to your device through the airwaves (presumably by the magic of faeries). So… yes. The industry has gone through a revolution in the past ten years.  

My question for you: What do you LIKE about the changes in today’s publishing world?

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  • Kathy Rupff says:

    Thanks for your blog and the great information, Chip!

  • Great post! My answer: there’s not much I like about the changes! I feel we’re too much in the hands of Amazon’s book discovery system (copied by all other online bookstores) whereby the first thing that’s thrown at customers is the sales rankings! Add to that the simple fact that “genre” classification is full of errors and misleading and you have an explosive mixture, designed to reduce the market to about 200 titles out of the two million or so that are available out there.

    In other words, book discovery is dead! Yet, Amazon would have the technical capability to fix that…Hopefully, they will some day…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I don’t know that book discovery is dead, Claude. But it’s tough to do it adequately just by visiting Amazon. Appreciate your comment very much.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Thanks for the insight and the encouragement about historical novels. My current WIP (in progress forever it seems) is a historical. You’ve given me a shot in the arm.

  • Charise says:

    I like digital books and real books. And I like the scramble to figure things out and make things better. And you didn’t ask but what I don’t like is the sort of myopic panic within the industry that the sky is falling because of digital publishing. Change is constant. Hand wringing just gives you sore hands. Move on to solutions.

    I never connected the rise in historical fiction with the economy’s downturn. That’s really interesting to me. The interest in Amish I understood (not personally but culturally), but had not heard that about the economy and “simpler times”. It makes a lot of sense. There are studies showing a connection between women’s roles in our culture (economically and politically) and fashion-advertising trends. I’m now wondering if that is true for fiction too. Hmmmm…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I definitely feel that is true, Charise. Our reading habits reflect our culture. And you’re right about change — it’s constant, and it’s been happening in publishing since the invention of movable type.

  • Chip, that’s a great point that every computer is now a bookstore, and quite a valid one. I would have to say I like that best about modern publishing. Of course, everyone is a writer now so you have hacks like me around, but still the cream will always rise to the top so to speak. And, yes, faeries do deliver books to your nook…very small ones, with long sideburns. 🙂 Peace and Love, Stevie

  • Pam Halter says:

    I didn’t think I’d like reading on a Kindle, but I got one for Christmas and am enjoying it. I still like a hard copy on my shelves and in my hands, but it was so nice to be able read in the car on our trip last week after dark. And it’s kinda cool to order a book and have it on my Kindle in a matter of seconds.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for writing. I love a real book in my hands as well, Pam… but you get used to an ereader, and you can’t beat the convenience. (I probably am more comfortable with an old telephone receiver in my hands, but I got used to my iPhone.)

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Thanks for continuing to share your insight about the ever-changing field of publishing and writing. It feels like things are moving/changing at lightning speed these days – in everything, actually, not just publishing – and no sooner do I finish one project, but the rules/procedures have changed again. It seems to me, however, that with these changes, especially digital and online publishing and being able to tap into international markets with such ease, that the field is wide open for all of us, from writers to publishers, both big and small. To me, it’s kinda exciting.

    Question for you (because you might be running low…): You said, “Sometimes you have to write cross-genres to
    make a living.” As an agent trying to sell “branded” authors, what is your take on using different pseudonyms for different genres – think Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think an author has to be very careful using more than one name, Becky. Remember, the publisher is going to expect the author to support the book with marketing, and that means website, emails, Facebook, Twitter, and the like all have to be done with an alternate personality. You’ve got to be careful before committing to that. Can it work? Sure (Nora has proven that). Is it simple? No way.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    I know that, at writing events (conferences, etc.) I’ve heard agents and editors encourage historical fiction. They are certainly totally sick of the vampires and zombies and that genre would have to be extremely fresh and well-written to gain attention at this point.

    As for the brick-and-mortar vs. online: I’m a mix. I spent years “living” at my local Barnes (literally, it was my “office,” I know most of the employees and regulars, and it’s a BIG B&N). There is little I love more than being surrounded by thousands of tangible books, walking through the aisles and talking to people. I’ve purchased countless books that way (usually waiting for a coupon plus my member discount).

    I, too, purchase books online, typically through Amazon and Quallity Paperback Books. If I can’t find it on the shelves (or in stock) at Barnes, I order it, and although I would rather support Barnes, I often buy them from Amazon because they tend to cost less and, of course, availability dictates, too.

    One thing I will say is that I will no longer pre-order books through Amazon. They usually deliver books very quickly, but when you pre-order it takes much longer. I don’t want to wait for a book I REALLY want on release date!
    P.S. I’m SO not an e-book person. I want to see and feel a real book–turn the pages, have the comfortable experience of reading off a paper page and not constantly be exposed to the EMFs of electronics. Someday, if I have the money and somehow start travelling, I’m sure I’ll want one for convenience, but I prefer being surrounded by actual books, whether on shelves or piled on my nightstand 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      We all enjoy printed books, of course, Donna Marie. That’s what we’re used to. But ebooks are convenient and inexpensive — two things consumers want. So the change is on. Nobody is saying paper books are bad or endangered (though I suppose you could argue ebooks are saving trees and ink, and don’t pollute the air because of shipping via diesel fuel). Ebooks take up less space and are easier to move than boxes of books. Are they perfect? Nope. I’m just saying all things are moving toward digital formats — contracts, royalty statements, books, taxes…

      Remember when we said, “I don’t trust the internet to pay my bills — I write a check, so I have my own record of it”? Now we send the money electronically because it’s fast and safer and doesn’t rely on the USPS. Books are similar…

  • Ginger Garrett says:

    Setting aside your woefully uninformed comments about Texas, which is only flat for about 1,325 miles, and there is most definitely a lovely hill near Austin, because I’ve seen it…

    About publishing, I love that great writing teachers are always available through books, seminars and YouTube. I love Robert McKee and the writers who are placing such emphasis on becoming a great artist.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Ginger (and you were one of the people I was thinking of when I joked about the Great State of Texas). I’m with you — there are a BUNCH of good writing teachers out there right now. Appreciate your comment. (And for those who have not read Ginger Garrett’s novels, you’re missing out on one of the ten best writers in CBA.)

  • Jan Cline says:

    What I like about the changes is that agents and editors are so willing to keep writers in the loop. We depend on professionals to help us decipher the ups and downs of trends and mood swings in the industry. I like that I can follow so many new blogs and websites that keep me informed. As for historical fiction….whoo hoo! That’s my genre and I love it. I was told last year at Mt. Hermon that Victorian was out. Now I’m hearing it’s in. Time to dig out that Victorian manuscript stuffed in my drawer – always did like that story.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate the comment, jan. My personal feeling is that you want to be leery of anyone making pronouncements about what to write or not write. Tastes changes, we get surprised by books, and nobody really knows what will be popular next week or next year.

    • Jan Cline says:

      You are so right. I’ve been given totally different opinions lately by several professionals regarding historicals. So I guess we just write our hearts and keep moving forward, then jump through the window of opportunity when and if it opens.

  • Clint Hall says:

    As an author, I like that I have nobody to blame but myself. The availability of digital self-publishing, while possibly not always the best option, means that there is nothing standing between me and putting my book out there. I can’t blame politics or opinions. I can’t blame unfair circumstances. If every agent and publisher in the world decides to pass on my project, there is no reason I cannot create, publish, and market a quality book if I am willing to put in the work.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And, like everyone else in America, I blame you, Clint. It’s YOUR fault. I’ve been trying to get the country to notice and start sending you nasty notes for years. People! It’s time to rise up and march on Clint’s home! HE’S TO BLAME for all that’s wrong in publishing! (Thanks for fessing up.)

  • Anne Love says:

    A: I have to admit as much as I love browsing a brick and mortar bookstore, I LOVE Amazon. We have a great little brick and mortar store in my hometown, and I confess I feel guilty every time I hit the one-click purchase button on Amazon.
    Q: For historical romance, it’s been an acceptable practice for the author to skip all over the map for story location, but what about skipping through the centuries? Deeanne Gist did a colonial, but most of her more recent work is 19th century. My thought is –if its good writing, readers won’t care. But do you think that is true?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think a writer has to write the story that’s been given to them, Anne. Sometimes the writer may need to shift scenes or locations or eras (for a myriad of reasons), but the writer really has to write the book idea they have, do their best, and hope readers take to it. (If that means changing eras sometimes, so be it.)

  • Susy flory says:

    I like, no LOVE, hearing about a book through a friend’s recommendation, a blog post, or a book review, and being able to download the book and read it within 60 seconds. This is heady stuff. I love books and bookstores, but my visits to physical stores are dwindling, mostly limited to occasional forays while on vacation or when killing time before a movie at a shopping center. I am torn and feel guilty about buying most books online but it’s just too darn convenient. And cheap.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree, Susy. Thanks. (And for those not in the know, that would be New Your Times bestselling author Susy Flory.)

  • Cheryl Russell says:

    I live in a small town with no local bookstore, so the “point, click, bring it to my door” option is great. The UPS guy likes it too. 🙂

  • J. Thomas Ross says:

    Since I’ve been off my feet for a month due to foot surgery, I really appreciate the convenience of being able to order – from the comfort of my chair – and immediately receive ebooks I want to read. I prefer to wander through a book store and check out the books, but when that’s not possible, the convenience of ebooks is a big plus.

  • Karen Morris says:

    Thanks for the insight on trends, Chip.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    The correlation between the economy and the trending genre of the moment is interesting. It makes me think of the Great Depression when so many spent their afternoons at the theater to forget their troubles. But since it takes approximately two years to get a book to print, it’s also frustrating. I need to dust off my crystal ball.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You know what historians say are the two great cultural growth areas during the Great Depression of the Thirties, Meghan? Movies and libraries. Both gave the opportunity for people to escape and be entertained during a terrible period in history.

  • Wen Scott says:

    Ditto to CJ Darlington. I also love the fact that ‘out-of-prints’ are re-appearing as PODs or ebooks. Now when I find a great author or series, I can catch up on whole bodies of work, regardless of original publication date.

    On the down side, as for ebooks, reading devices should be free (included with, say, first three ebook orders), if retailers continue to impose DRM on digital publications. In the meantime, my smartphone and iPad work just fine.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent point about oop books, Wen. Thanks. As for ereaders, we’re going to see someone offer a free device with a certain number of book purchases. Hasn’t happened yet, but we’re heading there. (As for DRM, I keep thinking it’ll go away. Helped kill the music business, and publishers MUST have learned that lesson, right?)

  • C. J. Darlington says:

    I like that the industry has brought readers and authors much closer together. Often, especially in the case of ebooks, there is only one degree of separation from the author to the person who will buy and read their work. Now that model is also fraught with its own set of problems (authors having to shoulder all the marketing muscle when they self-publish), but overall I am choosing to look at the changes as just that … changes. Oh, and as a consumer I love how easy it is to buy books. I don’t even have to leave my chair.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What a great point, C.J. I heard Daisy Hutton, the fiction publisher for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, say that the gatekeepers (basically bookstore owners) used to get the final vote as to what books were available. Now READERS get the final vote… and that’s a good change to see.

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