Any prospective author should start with some knowledge about the publishing industry as an entity.
Until researching for this post, I had always assumed that the publishing industry was too nebulous a thing to produce any helpful statistics for strategic planning. Boy was I wrong. I went through a handful of books on the subject in the last few years, but found that they often glossed over some of the rather important nitty-gritty. The stats, however, are there to find.
I highly recommend that you check out this awesome infographic from writetodone.com, which summarizes some of the material I’ve collected here. For the rest of the post, I’ll be breaking down some stats from the industry and discussing their possible implications for those of us interested in publishing someday soon.
I’ll provide that same admission up front that I did on other posts: I am not an expert–not even traditionally published yet–but I am well read and introspective like many of you. It’s the researcher in me that makes articles like this possible. Take it how you will.
Wherever you look, you’re likely to see the same three world leaders in number of books published: China, the U.S., and the U.K. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these three countries have also been listed together among the top five world economies. This raises a somewhat obvious point. Where we try to publish might have implications for the prospects of having our book picked up by an agent or publishing house. This is one of those really big picture concerns, however and, in my opinion, isn’t worth worrying over excessively as an author. Still, there’s a good principle to be found here.
Knowing your available resources, your market, and the state of the economy can inform your strategy when it comes time to approach agents and/or publishers. Granted, waiting to publish until the economy improves is guaranteed to get you nowhere. Just be smart. Keep in mind that this is a business as well as your passion. You’ll never publish a bestseller if you’re not willing to take some risks.
“Audience” as a theme in both academic and popular writing is the living essence of the publishing industry. It plays one of the largest roles in creating or eliminating demand for certain types of books. A book can be tremendously successful under the right circumstances or an abject failure under the wrong ones. You just don’t market Tom Clancy to 5th graders. Similarly, teenage dramas about high school love triangles may not receive much attention among your typical career-established adults.
Lines are frequently drawn between audience groups on the basis of age. A 2013 study of American reading habits illustrates this point. Which group your novel falls into will depend on your novel’s content, complexity of theme/language, and literary genre among other factors.
Ultimately, what we want is to write something that people will love (or at least like). Targeting a particular audience is a big part of getting our work into the hands of the readers most likely to appreciate our labor of scribbled love. From what I’ve observed, it’s a big part of snagging an agent as well.
As an extremely soft suggestion for which I’ll provide no concrete evidence here, Young Adult lit appears to be one of the biggest major markets for traditional fiction writers. Based on my querying experience, the sheer number of literary agents actively seeking authors of texts for this age group suggests that this is one of the leading audiences here in the States. However, don’t mistake audience and genre for the same thing.
Not all genres are created equal—at least, not as far as the dollars are concerned. In the future, I will definitely be talking more about genre. For now, I just want to look at it from the perspective of the publishing industry.
Everybody has an opinion on genre. Ask a Star Trek fan what he thinks about Star Wars or vice versa. Brace for impact. I’ve never read romance before. My conception of it is almost entirely informed by the stereotypes. My one experience includes cracking open a random example on a bookstore shelf one time. The imagery was very… visual. And sweaty. I’ll be forever content with my Millenium Falcon and Mt. Doom instead. It’s just my preference.
The most popular genre is Romance—at least in terms of income generation, but this doesn’t mean you have to write it. I prefer (obviously) Sci-Fi/Fantasy, which falls into 4th place in the money race. No. 2 belongs to Crime/Mystery and No. 3 goes to Spiritual.
Having some idea of your preferred genre may help you in writing your book. Agents typically provide a list of represented genres on their submissions page. It seems wise to heed this. If an agent has never represented Romance before, and doesn’t even like it, why would you try to convince him to represent your Romance to publishers?
“Never tell me the odds!”
– Han Solo (Star Wars)
I will tell you the odds: they’re really not good. In fact, they’re bad. Supposedly, only 4% of manuscripts are accepted by agents. Being agented doesn’t guarantee anything either. They run the whole length of the spectrum in terms of experience and savvy. Their job is to convince a publishing house that your book will sell. They don’t always succeed in this task. That’s why so many authors have talked about the importance of persistence in this business. We have to catch the right people at the right time, make the right connection, have the right type of novel… You get the point.
Acceptance rates of particular agents appear in various resources both online and in print. I really enjoy using the Guide to Literary Agents. If I remember right, it has them, but my copy is buried in a box somewhere at the moment and I can’t easily check. Regardless, it has way more information than just that. Naturally, resources like this change frequently to adjust to agents’ evolving literary tastes or the market. It still seems to really be worth the $22 if you’re planning to query soon.
Naturally, we want to be the exceptional case, the one-hit wonder out of nowhere. This probably won’t be you and it won’t be me either. I should also note that there are good ways and bad ways of querying. I’ll talk about my experiences at another time, including some of the mistakes I’ve made, and I’ll also go over what the real experts have to say about the subject.
Regardless, 4% chance of success over a period of time… the so-called odds have to pay off eventually… right? I’m banking on it. Just don’t look for a quick buck in this business. You’ll end up eating Ramen.
As in most of my projects, this article has become a little larger than I anticipated and I can’t conclude here. I’ll be back soon with more of my thoughts on the publishing industry and writing. I can’t promise that it’ll be the next article, but soon. On another note, I have no current professional affiliations or obligations. The links I provide (and purchasing suggestions I make) are really just because I think the resources are good. Thanks for reading, and I would greatly appreciate any comments sharing helpful insights or thoughts of your own! I’ll probably even respond.