Trends are a major force in commercial fiction these days. Forum threads, blog posts, magazine articles, even how-to-write books are teeming with theories on how to spot, find, catch, ride, avoid, etc whatever the hot new trend is. Dystopian is dead, the nail’s in the coffin on vampires, and we’ve found the cure for lycanthropy.
But it’s actually a lot more complex than that. Vampire books are still being picked up, dystopians are still coming out, readers are clamoring for the next John Green-style YA contemp. And there’s a good reason for that. The anatomy of a publishing trend can be summed up in a few easy steps:
- Someone, probably long ago, wrote a story. A novel or not, doesn’t matter. The knowledge of it has survived until now. There may be a few similar books, but no one really connected them before now.
- Someone, pretty recently, wrote a story. It happens to have some elements in common with our previously discussed story. There may or may not be direct inspiration involved. The story sells, possibly for a lot, possibly for a little, to some publisher. The publisher puts some marketing behind it–or doesn’t–and it’s a huge success. It might take a few years, but eventually, the book hits its tipping point and suddenly everyone is reading it. It struck a note, embodied the zeitgeist, whatever. Suddenly, whatever the topic is, it’s hot.
- Several people, with previous novels, novels in the pipeline, or novels on sub wrote similar stories. They were probably tapping into the same spirit. Whatever the reason, these books are now hot. They’ve managed to get in ahead of the trend. If their book was previously published, now it’s getting a bump from comparisons to the hot novel. If it was in the pipeline, their publisher is sad they missed the trend-setter, but glad they have a quick follow-up, bound to be successful. If the book is on-sub–and decently-written–agents are chomping at the bit to snag it and pass it off to a publisher for the big bucks.
- The follow-ups come out, make bank, for more or less than the original. People were hungry for more of what the original gave them, and these feed that hunger, more or less. Now we have a full-blown trend. Everyone wants more, movie deals are going out left-and-right. Now anybody who ever thought about writing a novel, or writing this kind of novel jumps on their computers, starts typing. Inboxes are flooded with queries, everyone jumps at the shot for more money. The market gets flooded with books.
- Publishers buy, put out new books as fast as possible. These books also sell well. People who rarely read normally buy into this new hot thing, especially after seeing the movies. The market hits saturation. Agents stop asking for these books. Writers keep sending them. Maybe some really good ones get picked up. Some sell to publishers, some of those do well; many do badly. Trend is “over”.
- Nobody wants these anymore. Agents and publishers are all booked out. Authors still send them. Some are still trend-chasing but have missed the window. Others are just writing what they want to write and had bad luck with timing. They get told no one is looking for those books anymore. Maybe, if they’re really lucky, and have a great hook or fantastic writing, they might get picked up.
- The trend is dead. And then someone writes a new book. It’s great. Most people only remember one or two of the trend books, probably including the original. (Twilight, for example.) The book gets picked up; rinse and repeat.
We’re around step 5 or 6 for YA dystopian right now, near step 7 for paranormal romance. Traditional high fantasy is around 7, as well. This cycle is faster now, tending towards around 5 years from first book to first book, and around 3 years from first book to step 5. And while you may have to update a few things between cycles, there will never be a point where a book becomes forever unsaleable based purely on having missed the trend cycle this time around.