Chip MacGregor

September 3, 2008

What’s Hot?


Ben wants to know, "Are there any genres that are hot right now? If a new writer is trying to break into the market, is there any merit to ignoring the type of books he or she would normally like to write, and focusing on books that are in a hot genre, in hopes of being more likely to get published?"

Sure, there are genres that are hot right now. In Christian fiction, it seems like all you have to do is to put an Amish person on the cover of the novel and it will sell. In general market circles, there seems to be a huge growth in vampires (also Obama, Sarah Palin, Batman, and Eckhart Tolle). And that goes to show the silliness (in my view) of chasing trends. I suppose you could try writing a book in which Eckhart Tolle becomes a vampire and attacks Sarah Palin, who tried to escape the media attacks on her family by fleeing with Obama to an Amish community, where they are saved by Batman, but… I don't know. The idea of Obama becoming Amish seems far-fetched.

I rarely see authors achieve success by chasing the market, Ben. It always seems that by the time we've all recognized a trend, it's too late to contract another book on the subject. That may not always prove true (certainly there are plenty of Christian novelists who have sold books based on little more than having an Amish setting), but as a rule, I don't see authors breaking out with this sort of thinking.

Carolyn wants to know, "How does a writer find out how many copies of a book sold? Someone told me recently that an author had sold 'millions of books.' How can I find out for sure?"

It's hard to get a firm number. If you have a connection to the author, you can ask him or her. If you have a connection to the publisher, you can ask the house. But most people who tell you sales numbers really don't know — they're guessing. And possibly being hyperbolic.

You should know that it's even tough for agents to get a firm number. There's a couple of tools that track sales by ISBN numbers — one that works in CBA stores, another that works in general market stores. But neither tracks special sales, or any sales in a big-box store like Wal-Mart, Costco, or Target, nor can they track author sales (which for a celebrity or a popular speaker can be significant). Both of those tools give partial data and are extremely expensive to subscribe to, so nobody but publishing houses and perhaps a handful of others subscribe.

Oh…and I'm frequently asked by an author, "How can I get MY OWN sales numbers?" — a question that amazes me. It's your book. Ask your editor. There is no good reason for your publishing house to withhold that information from you. (It should also be on your royalty statement. If you can't decipher your statement, ask an agent to assist you. I swear some statements were designed by lawyers who don't have English as a first language.)

Carol wrote to say, "You earlier said that three niche books probably don't equate to being 'established,' and that it would depend on the success of said books. What numbers could be deemed respectable?"

My comment wasn't aimed at the number of titles an author has produced, but on the number of books the author has actually sold. So, for example, a niche book that sold 10,000 copies would certainly be considered a respectable showing. A self-published title that moved 20,000 copies would have to be given serious consideration by a publisher.

But understand that's not the usual case. I receive self-pubbed books frequently from authors who want me to read it because they sold 2000 copies and think it must be God's gift to publishing. I sometimes get niche published books (for example, I recently received a knitting book) that might be good within their particular niche… but if they don't have broad appeal to the rest of the market, I'm not going to be much help.

I've self-published a couple of books of card tricks. There are roughly 10,000 people interested in card magic in this country, and I sold 1000 copies of one book. I figure that's a huge success (imagine if your spy novel sold to 10% of everyone who enjoys thrillers). But the book's success wouldn't translate to a broader market. It was a technical book, for those who are interested in making a living as a cardician. By sticking it onto the stores at Borders, it wouldn't suddenly find another 40,000 readers.

In the "comments" section of a previous post, Sharon noted, "I have a manuscript that isn't quite ready for agent or editor meetings at the big book show I'm attending next week. But since I already have meetings set up with people at that show, should I keep them? And if so, what should I ask of them?"

I would definitely keep those appointments, Sharon, since it can not only establish relationships, but it offers you great practice in having conversations with agents and editors. So by all means show up, show them your proposal or the first couple chapters, and talk to them about your words. You can feel free to say, "This isn't ready, but I'd love your comments on my idea / proposal / writing." You can ask them to read the first page and talk about your writing. You can talk to them about what is working in the market, or chat about your career. You can ask them what they like to see, and how they would recommend you re-shape the material so as to better fit their house.

I have frequently listed questions you can ask agents (check the "agents" category over on the right hand side of this blog), so I won't repeat them all here again. But I will mention that the big picture in meeting an agent is usually to make a connection and figure out if the two of you are a fit, while the big picture in meeting an editor should be to try and learn something, to improve so that, when you are ready, you'll know exactly how to pitch them a book they can't reject.

Speaking of the right side of this blog, I want regular readers to make sure and notice a couple other blogs… Stuff Christians Like is simply a riot — the funniest blog I know. And if you're not a fan of Jenny B Jones, all you have to do is visit once — you'll be hooked. Jenny B is a hoot. Claudia Mair Burney's Ragamuffin is thoughtful, reflective, and wonderfully written. Mark Bertrand's Write About Now and the other two sites listed are great resources for writers. Try them out.

Speaking of writing, my friend Chris Coppernoll (whose second novel is coming out soon) sent me this wonderful bit about the Inklings — a famous writing group in Oxford that contained C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkein, and others: "Meetings were not all serious. The Inklings amused themselves by having competitions to see who could read the famously bad prose of Amanda McKittrick Ross for the longest without laughing."

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