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5 Tips for Writing for the Literary Market

I originally published this article in July 2016 on the website of Caffeinated Press, the now-closed niche press that I co-founded and which operated 2014-2019. Because the content remains useful, I’ve reposted it here, but without significant modification.

I recently enjoyed a lovely email conversation with a local author whose book we at Caffeinated Press declined to publish. She successfully passed the first hurdle in the query chain — she had a good pitch, with a lovely sample — and on the strength of that query, we solicited the entire manuscript. Yet after reviewing her magnum opus, we concluded that the project wasn’t a good fit for us, despite that the work was well-written and certainly relevant to a West Michigan audience.

The novel included very heavy Christian Reformed themes. Too heavy for us, but not quite pure enough for the local religious publishers.

The book is worth reading. It’s worth publishing. It’s not aligned with our catalog, unfortunately. And, on reflection, I suspect the author will have a really tough time positioning the work in its current form with any publisher.

The problem that this author experiences is by no means uncommon. Writers write what they write, but not everything that gets written can be positioned effectively on the open market. It’s therefore imperative for authors who intend to seek publication that their work aligns with the current market needs of publishers. (Of course, if you’re writing to self-publish, or writing for the sake of the art, this rule obviously isn’t as salient.)

Some thoughts:

  • Avoid fusion genres. A “fusion” genre is any story that mixes genres — e.g., a sci-fi/horror/romance/Western blend. The challenge with fusion is that publishers (and, much more importantly, booksellers) must pick a dominant genre category. Most retailers don’t have a separate fusion shelf, because fusion isn’t a recognized category in ISBN metadata. So if you write that sci-fi/horror/romance/Western novel, where would the book be shelved? For people interested in the genre, a mixed-metaphor novel is unlikely to attract much attention; after all, if you enjoy Westerns, do you really want to try a Western with liberal sprinkles of sci-fi, horror and romance themes? Probably not. There’s not much of a market for fusion because people like what they like. Fusion usually works better within themed anthologies instead of stand-alone long-form publications.
  • Follow genre conventions. When you write within a genre, respect that genre’s template rules. In a romance novel, for example, the typical plot arc involves people meeting, falling in love, struggling to keep the love burning against the odds, then overcoming the barrier. A romance that consists of people meeting, falling in love, separating when the going gets rough and then agreeing to “just be friends” isn’t really that compelling. Reviews will tank, along with sales. As restrictive as genre conventions can be, for readers of genre fiction, the audience (usually) stays loyal to the genre because they expect to get something specific out of their reading experience. As a self-published author, you may deny your readers their reward at your own financial peril; as an author seeking a publisher, the publisher is unlikely to risk a contract on a potentially low-reputation, low-revenue project.
  • Didacticism is a double-edged sword. Some authors write to make a point; that point infuses whatever genre and plot/conflict matrix they elect. Didactic writing can be extremely powerful — but it can also be offputting to publishers or agents who either don’t agree with the philosophical point, or who understand that the point might poke the bear for a fairly large swathe of the potential readership. Writing with themes works, sometimes, with literary fiction and science fiction, but the degree of toleration for message-based stories remains heavily genre dependent.
  • Lit-fic doesn’t sell, usually. People who write poetry or literary fiction for the mass market are unlikely to see significant revenue absent criteria like being already famous, winning some sort of award or major favorable review, or publishing with a large imprint. Small- and mid-sized publishers generally don’t sell literary fiction well because there’s not a huge buyer’s market for it, like there is for throw-away romance or horror novels.
  • Biographies or memoirs of non-famous people don’t sell well, either. Your family history is interesting, but it’s unlikely to sell well with strangers. The more hyperlocal the content, the smaller the audience, until the audience gets to be so small that the project won’t even recover its production costs.

Your best against goodness-of-fit rejections? Look at what the market already supports. If you can position your work solidly within a constellation of known sellers, you’ll do a better job of convincing a hesitant agent or publisher to give you the green light.

Publishers generally complete an estimated profit-and-loss budget for any given title. Part of a P&L is to level-set sales expectations based on sales for the nearest competing titles. When you write material whose nearest competitors perform poorly in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore environment, the odds you’ll win a contract decline precipitously.

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