It’s About What’s Selling

I appreciated everyone’s responses to my question on Friday about what frustrates you in the publishing industry right now. Everyone has valid concerns, many of which I share, and I’ll address some of them on the blog in coming days.

I’m thinking that since it’s summertime (and the livin’ is, supposedly, easy) I want to lighten up on the blog posts a bit—not fewer of them, but shorter. So I’m going to try and keep my posts short and sweet for the next month or so. Of course, I’ve said this before but I never seem to be able to do it! I’m naturally long-winded, I guess.

On to today’s (short and sweet) topic:

On Friday, a few people wrote that they’re frustrated by the publishing industry’s focus on “hot” genres, whether it’s paranormal romance or bonnet books (or whatever). Timothy Fish remarked: “The simple answer is that it is a business decision, but that business decision is based on what publishers believe readers want to read.”

True enough, and it’s something everyone should remember. But more importantly, you should realize that decisions to focus on hot genres aren’t based on what publishers think people want to read. It’s not a guess. It’s based on what’s actually selling.

Every publisher has stories of trying to go “out of the box” and publish books and genres that aren’t yet proven commodities or simply aren’t “hot” right now. And every publisher also has stories of how the sales of those books were dismal and simply not enough to justify continuing.

In this day of economic woes, publishers must take fewer risks (notice I didn’t say “no risks”). They’ve got to publish the books they pretty much know will sell. In fact, this is often heartbreaking for the editors and publishers who have to make these decisions. Sometimes it means turning down manuscripts they love in favor of those that are “sure things.”

You may not like the fact that what’s “hot” isn’t what you’re writing. But I think we all need to be happy that millions of people are still reading books, and more importantly to us, buying books. They’re buying some genres more than others, obviously. But they’re still buying them, and for that, I’m thankful.

P.S. Below 400 words! I did it!

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Savannah on September 25, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    You could certainly see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times go after your heart. “We may pass violets looking for roses. We may pass contentment looking for victory.” by Bern Williams.

  2. Hilary on July 4, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    >This is a great post, and I'm interested in everyone's take on it.

    For myself, since this is not my bread and butter, I find it most fulfilling to write what I love and worry about placing it later. And after all, everything old is new again. In five or ten years, my unfashionable work may become the latest and greatest trend.

    This is not to say that if I can spin a story into a more profitable genre, I won't give it a try. But no way am I turning my back on a great story, simply because it's not what people are buying at the present.

    Still, writing doesn't pay my bills. I can completely understand the point of view of a writer who must look to the trends as part of the job description.

  3. Anonymous on July 4, 2010 at 5:16 AM

    >They can't have it both ways. Publishers can't want new, refreshing ideas and yet say they only want stuff that they know reliably sells.

    That only makes publishers look like the know-nothings that we all know they are.

    They fluked Potter and Twilight because of a couple of enterprising agents, and outside of those blockbusters they publish the same old drivel that sell a safe number of copies.

    Othewise, 'nobody knows nuthin.'

  4. Anonymous on July 3, 2010 at 8:53 PM

    >I don't just ask a question once, by the way – I ask twice.

    (Sorry about that.)

  5. Anonymous on July 3, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    >Okay, so what's selling?

    Is there a list of the stuff that I should write about?

    If I were to write a novel in a genre that's hot, what are the odds that this genre will no longer be hot by the time I finish?

    But, yeah, what's the list? Tell me what the list of hot stuff is, and I'll personally write that novel for you.

    Twenty years – that's how long I've been in apprenticeship. I know how to do this. I know how to create a story arc. Just tell me what you want me to write. You need to spell it out for me.

  6. Anonymous on July 3, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    >Okay, so what's selling?

    Is there a list of the stuff that I should write about?

    If I were to write a novel in a genre that's hot, what are the odds that this genre will no longer be hot by the time I finish?

    But, yeah, what's the list? Tell me what the list of hot stuff is, and I'll personally write that novel for you.

    Twenty years – that's how long I've been in apprenticeship. I know how to do this. I know how to create a story arc. Just tell me what you want me to write. You need to spell it out for me.

  7. Ezmirelda on July 2, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    >@ Amanda- off the top of my head I do remember some, 1 of which was on everyones required reading list for the past couple of years-The last book in the universe. And of course who can forget The Giver. They are both very well known dystopian-fiction novel. 🙂

  8. Sheila Cull on July 2, 2010 at 6:37 PM

    >Oh no. I'm at 60,000 words with my first memoir but my last addiction memoir. Would you consider addiction memoirs, still hot? Or maybe not?

  9. Photographe à Dublin on June 30, 2010 at 3:40 PM

    >I've just found your fascinating blog.

    Many writers discuss the ups and downs of publishing at the moment and I have been following the debate with interest.

    Irish writers have taken to the thriller genre in the past few years and readers are buying their book and reading with enthusiasm.

    Here's hoping this creativity continues.

  10. Amanda G on June 29, 2010 at 9:52 PM

    >@A. Grey: For other relatively recent YA dystopian novels, check out Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), Susan Beth Pfeffer (Life As We Knew It), Scott Westerfeld (Uglies), James Dashner (The Maze Runner), Michael Grant (Gone), M.T. Anderson (Feed). Of course, this isn't an exhaustive list. I have the vague feeling I'm missing an enormous (as in, better selling than some of these) title here… but I can't think of it.

  11. Anonymous on June 29, 2010 at 8:56 PM

    >I do have an agent and a novel out with editors as I type. This book won an award, but there are no vampires, werewolves or trappings of other "hot" genres in this story. As a result, my agent says editors don't know what to do with it.

    Editors love the book, love the story and give me lovely rejections, but so far no one is biting. One editor passed because, and I quote, he/she didn't know how to break the book out big in hardcover.

    To say I'm torn over hot genres is an understatement.

    Forget what I as a writer want to write, as a reader I buy fewer and fewer books because I can't find anything I want to read. It only took two or three of these hot genre books before I knew I never wanted to read another one.

    I often wonder if these "hot" genres sell so well because they are all you can find on the shelves of the chain bookstores.

  12. Stephanie Shott on June 29, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    Congratulations on keeping it below 400! I'm still working on that one, myself.

    But I have a question. I see a lot of info on what's hot in fiction, but what do you see the trends to be regarding nonfiction? What's hot and what's not?

  13. Lyndieb on June 29, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >It would seen that one of the writer’s greatest challenges is to tie our beloved work with what is ‘hot’. I think the challenge is in taking what we believe to be a completely unique work and labeling it with one of the handful of basic stories. This action seems devaluing to our ‘art’, but is necessary to turn our art into commodities. Perhaps we have to adapt a 16 year old male’s evaluation to our art.
    I asked my 16 year old nephew why he thought “Twilight’ had should great appeal. His answer- ‘It’s a love story.” I said, “But it’s more than that. It’s about a partner willing to deny at their very core who they are for the relationship.” He said, “It’s a love story.”
    The simple pitch for ‘Twilight’ would be -it’s a teenage love story, which, by the way has vampires.

  14. Rowan Spence on June 29, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    >What tools are you using to measure what's hot right now? Is it Amazon ranking? Pub Scan? best seller lists? Are you looking at trends over the course of years or within a year?

    I just want to better understand what your measurables are so that my query letters are more in line with how agents, including you, view the world.

  15. Lenore Buth at on June 28, 2010 at 11:18 PM

    >So true. We always get to choose whether we see our "glass" as half-empty or half-full. Thanks for the reminder. Otherwise we're playing games with ourselves.

  16. iheartya on June 28, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    >How do the publishers stay ahead of the trends? For example, in clothing, the fashion designers determine new clothes which set the sales for that particular season. When/how does the shift to the next "hot" genre happen? I imagine this is a combination of readers/marketers/publishers.

  17. Em-Musing on June 28, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    >Love your straight shooting short comments.

  18. Kelly Freestone on June 28, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    >Too true. We must be thankful most of all.

    Publishing is a business. They're going to make money. That's the reason I work, that's the bread and butter of the thing.

    But what are the writers who aren't selilng "hot cakes" supposed to do?
    Keep on forging ahead? Hoping for a change of market?

    I know one thing, someone had to start the trend…

  19. Timothy Fish on June 28, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    >As a kid, when I read more, there are some books that I would reach the end of the book, turn to page one and start reading it again. Even now, there are some stories that resonate with me and when I finish the book or movie I want to find a similar story. Most television series follow a formula that is very noticeable when watching the series on DVD and yet I find myself watching one episode after the other. If most readers are like that, it isn’t so strange that publishers would focus on what is currently selling. But as writers we can’t just photocopy an existing novel and send it in. There are some things that readers want to be the same and there are some things that the writer is free to change. It is our job to know the difference.

  20. Simon C. Larter on June 28, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    >The livin' is only easy if your daddy's rich and your momma's good lookin'. Otherwise, it's kinda hard. Just sayin'.

  21. Aamba on June 28, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    >You really made me look at this in a new way. Thank you! I'm one of those people frustrated that what I am passionate about writing has no particular niche or audience and endlessly my relatives and friends tell me to write what's popular, but I can't do it! Now I can at least see the other side.

  22. Barbara's Spot on the Blog on June 28, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    >When I read your post and the comments I can't help thinking that e-books are by far more realistic cost-wise for publishers. Wouldn't more books be likely to be published if the costs were lower? Maybe I'm oversimplifying.

  23. Anonymous on June 28, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    >When I go to bookstores, I see mostly teens buying YA and older adults buying mysteries or romance. So why do publishers focus all their energy on YA books? They're going to grow up and their tastes will change…

    ps/Let's support BORDERS and buy more books there so we'll have options as readers.

  24. Brother Cysa Dime on June 28, 2010 at 10:19 AM

    >All of this is caused by the weakening economy. I am afraid that we are in for years, or possibly centuries, of economic decline. One of the main drivers, technology improvements, are few and far between because technology is mature. Downward pressures will be servicing the increasing levels of debt, natural resources becoming scarce and their price rising, and other countries having increasing populations and wanting the natural resources for their internal use instead of for export.

  25. Saloma on June 28, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    >Isn't the argument that the publishers are using "what is actually selling" to find out what topics are "hot" the same argument that GM used to sell big pickup trucks? Has anyone tried to buy a small pickup truck lately? It's not easy…

    The same argument could apply to genres/topics that are different from the known "hotties" in writing.

    As an example: I wrote a memoir about growing up Amish. After more than ten years of working and reworking it, I knew when it was right to market it. I tried selling it through agents, who kept handing it back to me. Finally I pulled out all the stops and sent it to 33 independent publishers myself. Lo and behold, on the same day one publisher accepted it for publication, another one asked to see the whole manuscript.

    Here is the kicker: when this book does well with a small publisher, the bigger publishers are going to want to buy it, because then it'll be a known quantity. But because there isn't much out there "like it" on the market, no big or medium publisher wanted to take that chance to start with.

    I've heard of cases in which large publishers had a bidding war over a book that did well with a small publisher or as a self-published book, as in the case of Jordan E. Rosenfeld's book BEWITCHED. Where is the "savings" in that? The only thing it saved them in this case is taking the risk. As a result of this propensity to allow others to take the risks the big publishers are not willing to take, some of the better books are being self-published or published by independent publishers these days. The big publishers are losing out, in my opinion.

  26. sharonbially on June 28, 2010 at 9:56 AM

    >I like the shor-n-sweet format! User friendly. I also like that you give it to us straight: yes, it's about what's selling.

    But I can't help thinking that changes in the way the industry functions functions might create more margin for error and room for experimenting. For example: why pay advances to authors who haven't proven they have a readership yet? That's a big sink of resources. And yet, once an advance is paid, little is often done to help publicize most books. This too, should change — even if it simply means encouraging and helping authors to find an independent publicist. And how about more e-books and niche-market targeting? My list goes on and on. I do believe a better allocation of resources and better management practices would help open more doors.

  27. Teenage Bride on June 28, 2010 at 9:29 AM

    >Way to kkep it short, and way to look on the birght side.

    It always warms my heart to see someone reading. Reading is such a joy to so many people, that should make us all smile.

    I try to think of it this way. Reading material, like clothing, follows trends. As long as you are not writing about something totally off the wall, chances are the trend will come around. Patience, patience, patience.

  28. Daniel F. Case on June 28, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >400 words?

    I think you can cut that by 10% if you try.

    Sorry, I just couldn't resist. 🙂


  29. katelovesbooks on June 28, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >It feels like you kind of need to anticipate the market as a writer. I might have a passion for vampires or angels but if you start writing that now, you're chasing what's selling. It almost feels like I need to anticipate what hasn't been written, what might sell, and write it before someone else has the same idea.

    But, I don't write because it's easy! 🙂

  30. Susan Bourgeois on June 28, 2010 at 8:10 AM

    >Congratulations! You wrote a nice post in less than 500 words. I have to try that today on my blog. My eldest daughter keeps reminding me that I need to keep my posts short. She said many people want valuable information but they're busy and don't always have time to read a lengthy post.

    I don't always do it but when I do I feel some sort of small achievement.

  31. kathy taylor on June 28, 2010 at 7:24 AM

    >It's so hot down here I figured Southern fiction has to be hot. Not much out there: apparently it's not!

  32. A. Grey on June 28, 2010 at 6:47 AM

    >Okay, not to sound whiny, just hoping you can give me a little insight on this.


    I know the market goes off of what's selling, as explained in this post. I work with horses and our breeding program is the same, we breed for what's hot in the show ring NOW, even though the offspring won't hit it for several years.

    I also know that you write what you know, what moves you etc.

    And that agents choose to represent based off of their own feelings as well as the market.

    What confuses me is that I wrote a Dystopian YA which has gotten some great interest from agents (some of whom were genuinely upset about having to turn it down) but I've also been told that they feel like Dystopian YA has 'been done'.

    Now, I wrote this book while the Suzanne Collins books were 'somewhere' in the publishing stage. I started sending out queries about a month before The Hunger Games hit stores. The timeline for all of this is something like a year or two ago.

    My point is this:

    Suzanne Collins aside, I just don't see a 'massive glut' of Dystopian YAs out there. If I were sending out queries on a 'my boyfriend/best friend is a vampire/werewolf/faerie' manuscript and agents told me that they felt it had 'been done' I would be able to see it.

    But when they tell me (after requesting a full) that my book is 'smart, commercial, a new take, engrossing even, and that I have a great voice' and then say 'but I feel that with the market like it is Dystopians have been done' I get confused.

    Am I missing something? Are there going to be hundreds of Dystopian YA books released in a year or two and they've 'been done' in agents' minds because there's a glut already in the system that I can't see?

  33. scarlettprose on June 28, 2010 at 6:28 AM

    >I'm with you, Lisa. By the time I finish writing what's hot, it might not be hot anymore. We just have to keep writing what we write best, and hopefully it will be so good they can't turn it down(as long as it's not left-field risky, right?). That said, I'm about to start on a YA. Not because it's hot, because the story won't leave me alone. One day, the market and my book will intersect, I think.

  34. Lisa Jordan on June 28, 2010 at 6:16 AM

    >You said a lot in less than 400 words. Knowing people are reading makes me happy because it gives writers job security. I have a friend who isn't a Christian, but reads Christian fiction because it doesn't have the graphic elements found in secular fiction.

    I'm not in a position where I can be a full-time writer yet, so if I write for what's selling, chances are that market will be saturated by the time my novel is finished. I found that with chick lit. I'm thankful romance sells, no matter what else is hot. If I write it, hopefully God will place it.

  35. Adventures in Children's Publishing on June 28, 2010 at 6:06 AM

    >It's hard to remember this business is ultimately about sales when you're somewhat removed as a writer. Your points about it being difficult for editors and agents who love a book to have to yield to the market are encouraging. This should serve to help us to remember the advice to stay on top of what's selling.

    Thanks for a great post!

  36. Amy on June 28, 2010 at 5:24 AM

    >Isn't there a saying of, "If I had more time, I would have made it shorter"? 🙂

    Amy Boucher Pye