Image by Jukka Zitting used under CC BY 2.0

As a literary agent at Trident Media Group, I see a plethora of science fiction and fantasy book ideas come across my desk, but only ideas that sell will make it to publication. Writers can find themselves in a stalemate when they’re writing more of a genre than readers will buy or publishers can handle. For instance, an imprint such as Katherine Tegen Books at Harper Collins only has room for one writer like Veronica Roth with a Divergent-type of book. The town ain’t big enough for two authors like her in a particular season or publishing year. Publishers don’t want to cannibalize their own book sales by creating competition among their authors.

That’s why it’s important for writers to ask if the genre they are writing is ideal for the market. Knowing the sweet or bitter truth of whether or not one’s own book genre is marketable, and how to roll with the punches, is a big step along the path to publication.

Hot Genres

Right now, literary agents and book publishers are most looking for these genres.

Fantasy:

  • dark fantasy
  • magical realism
  • historical fantasy

Science Fiction:

  • literary science fiction
  • military science fiction
  • post-apocalyptic science fiction
  • scifi thriller
  • dystopian

Cold Genres

These genres are currently out of favor with literary agents and book publishers.

Fantasy:

  • contemporary fantasy
  • epic or high fantasy
  • fantasy romance
  • alternate history
  • mythic fantasy
  • sword & sorcery
  • paranormal
  • urban fantasy
  • horror

Science Fiction:

  • scifi romance
  • superhero/superhuman
  • space opera
  • steampunk
  • time travel
  • weird west
  • scifi horror

For genres that are consistently over-saturated with submissions and have low sales, the readership generally keeps to household names. For instance, authors such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz practically have a stranglehold on the horror genre. This makes it a tough genre for writers trying to make a debut.

Popularity Changes Fast

By the time this article is published, the hot and cold genres could have changed. This is often thanks to pop culture. For instance, Hulu put out a popular TV show for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and our country’s selection for president has brought on collective panic. These recent events have resulted in Atwood’s book and George Orwell’s 1984 hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List, years after publication. That is rare for a backlist title. There’s a big readership now for near-future/dystopian scifi, but that has also made a competitive space for authors writing within that genre.

Hits can also make a genre more competitive for writers without increasing demand. Following Andy Weir’s The Martian and its film adaptation, publishers felt as though they had hard science fiction books coming out of their ears. The popularity of this work inspired people to write more hard science fiction than publishers wanted.

That attitude may last until the next bestselling hard science fiction novel changes publishers’ minds. This same thing happened in the aftermath of The Hunger Games. After its success, YA editors felt as though they had too much dystopia – that is, until James Dashner wrote The Maze Runner and Roth wrote Divergent. Just when you think a genre is out of style, you learn that there’s a hungry, under-represented readership out there.

The important question to ask is whether a popular story increases supply, demand, or both supply and demand – which is rarely the case. More often than not, when a publisher is surprised by a runaway bestseller, it simply means that the publishers were wrong about how well the genre would sell. After a hit, they change their minds.

Staying on Top of the Market

To keep up with trends within major trade book publishing, it’s my recommendation that authors look to bestseller lists, such as those published by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY and Amazon. Also, watching the new deals reporting on Publishers Marketplace and in Publishers Weekly is a great way to stay on top of what’s trending. To look at the book publishing industry in a more grassroots sort of way, I recommend looking at Shelf Awareness, genre-specific publications such as Locus, or even this very blog, Mythcreants.

Once there’s a tidal wave within a genre, it’s already started a slow decline from its highest point. It’s best to ride the crest of that wave, rather than coast behind it. Many imitators will follow in the wake of any successful genre hit, so a writer needs to be second in line or making their own waves. Once many more works like the hit are published, writers should move on to something else more unique or find the next hit to follow.

What to Do With Manuscripts in Unpopular Genres

Writers within struggling genres should not be discouraged, as literary agents and book publishers might still take them on. Rather than resorting to the perils of self-publishing or putting manuscripts away until those genres have a popular resurgence, I would suggest not explicitly referencing the genre. For instance, when querying a literary agent or when your novel is pitched to a publisher, rather than stating that it is a horror novel, one could say that it is a “dark and terrifying novel,” etc.

One particular client of ours, a #1 New York Times bestselling author, essentially elevated the vampire genre to upmarket fiction (where literary fiction meets commercial fiction). When our agency sold his trilogy to Ballantine/Random House, we never referred to it as a vampire novel, but rather as “an epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival.” We discouraged his publisher from referring to the books as vampire novels, since that genre was not in vogue. More readers were able to come to the trilogy that way.

Do you have a quick pitch you want to test to see if it is viable in the publishing landscape? Do you have questions about this article? Leave them in the comments below.

Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb currently works at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group. Mark has ranked #1 among literary agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.

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