First, it was boy wizards. Then vampires, especially teenage ones. Werewolves had a bit of a resurgence for a time, and then there was kink brought to a wider audience of bored housewives who devoured it like nothing else. There were books about codes hidden in religious texts or artistic masterpieces, teen heroes chosen to save the world from a dystopian reality game, and on and on and on.
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you’ll recognise these examples as major trends that have swept through the world of publishing and movies. They spawned bestsellers and then a million copycats who flooded bookstore shelves until we were saturated and moved on to the next thing.
So, what is an aspiring author to do if they want a guaranteed publishing deal? Write whatever matches the current big trend, of course, so they can get in front of publishers who want something that is proven to sell!
Well, no. Actually, that’s an awful idea. Here’s why.
The trend you’re following has already passed
The first reason is something that we pretty much touched on above. When a big trend becomes obvious, publishers will rush to put out similar books as quickly as possible — which can mean that within the space of a year, the market is already oversaturated with very similar material. Less than that, if they have some inkling beforehand that it might break out.
What this means is that the market rapidly reaches a point where there’s no further desire for the same kind of material. Publishers will stop looking for the same kind of work a lot sooner than you might expect. You see, they only put out a certain number of books every year, and they don’t want to have their own titles competing for space.
This means they’ll likely only accept one, or at the most two, books which have the same kind of theme as the current trend. They won’t want to overburden readers with too much of the same thing, as this could negatively impact their sales. If you’ve missed the boat — and if you’re only thinking about it now that you’ve seen the success, you’ve probably missed the boat — then the opportunities are gone.
It takes longer than you think to get a book published
Let’s say that you ignore my above warning. Your take on the latest hot genre is so new, so fresh, so innovative that it’s going to stand head and shoulders above the crowd, and you can get it written in just a couple of months if you really knuckle down. Then you’ll beat everyone else to the deals that are out there and you’ll be signed immediately!
First of all, if this is your first novel, it’s likely to take you more than a couple of months. You don’t know what you’re doing yet. Even established authors can spend a lot longer than that toiling over their works. I don’t, but I’m an experienced ghostwriter with more than 55 books under my belt, so I have the process down. Do you?
And even if you do somehow manage to turn out a masterpiece in a very short time, you have another hurdle in your way. If you’re looking at publishers and thinking they don’t have a book out yet that hits the trend, that doesn’t mean they haven’t already signed several.
It takes a lot longer than you probably think to get a book to market. With most publishers, you’re looking at a year or so just to get it through the editing process, laid out, designed, and marketed for launch. You may think a publisher hasn’t jumped on the trend yet. They may have been working on a title for six months already.
Your work shouldn’t be derivative
It’s also important to note that your work shouldn’t be based just on seeing what’s popular and copying it. No one wants to read the same thing over and over again — and while the occasional fanfiction author has made it big (in one notable case, even spawning a new big trend from their fanfiction of an old big trend), they are the exception rather than the rule. And, you’ll notice, their work had to go through major changes in order to get mainstream publishing success.
In other words, don’t copy others. Do what Austin Kleon says and steal like an artist. Be inspired, don’t downright copy. Your teen hero battling other teens in an arena while a dystopian government watches on and rich people are entertained by the spectacle might not be called The Hunger Games, but we can all tell where you cribbed it from.
If you love a genre and genuinely want to explore it, fine. But don’t copy something just because you think it will make you successful. If you do end up with a publishing contract, what it’s likely to make you is sued.
You should write from the heart
Finally, and carrying on from that last point, remember that successful books don’t tend to be halfhearted efforts to cash in. Sure, it might happen from time to time, but most authors — especially those who make long-term careers — actually like the stories they write.
(Well, maybe they suffer from imposter syndrome and are inclined to think their stories are total dross — but that’s a whole other issue. What we mean here is, they write vampire books because they actually LIKE writing vampire books, not because it sells. At first, anyway. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle can serve as two great examples of characters getting a little more successful than the author intended, but let’s skip that one for now as well.)
If you don’t like vampire books, have never read a vampire book, and think readers who read vampire books are idiots, it will absolutely be obvious from the quality of your work. So, unless you’re writing satire or parody, it’s better to write from the heart. Write a story you believe in. A story you can stand proudly behind.
After all, that’s what made those big breakouts into trends in the first place: a great story and characters that readers fell in love with, because the author combined skill and feeling to make something worth reading.
If vampires are your true love, go ahead and write that book. You can even try shilling it to publishers as a great way to cash in on the latest trend, if you want. But write what you love.
And, as a final point, if you really are interested in making a lot of money with a book that is guaranteed to sell… don’t look for trends. Look for classic themes that have proven to sell well over decades, things that aren’t going away any time soon.
That way, you might actually have time to write your book before your theme is chopped liver.