Thursday, February 19, 2009

History Repeats.... picking the bestsellers of tomorrow

History Repeats

Much has been made lately of the economy and the future of book publishing. You can’t possibly be a writer, or even an aspiring writer, and miss it. But then, you can’t be alive and miss what’s going on currently in the economy.

What I notice in writing circles is that you have two brands of people and thoughts. Optimist and pessimist. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about the sky falling and just as much, “hey, people have always needed stories!” I tend to fall into the camp that thinks people will always need stories – but I’m aware that the times are changing which means that there is a need for new and different skills in getting where you’re going.

Taking the current economy out of the equation for a minute: writers have a habit of wanting to stay on top of the trends. There is a lot of wisdom in staying up to date on current selling authors in your genre, and in the literary world in general. First, we tend to like to read anyway. But in researching our markets, a smart author is aware that their art is also their product, and it helps to stay abreast of the current trends in reader needs and wants.

On the other hand, though, the trend this second will change. Looking at the current best seller’s list will not tell you what readers will want in two years (which is about how long it’ll take a novel to get to the shelves AFTER it’s picked up... and you should be including writing and editing and querying time, which might make it more like four years). Even if you pass all of those hurdles, how many books riding that trend will be published between the time it starts and the time yours hits shelves, and how ‘over it’ will your prospective audience be by that time?

So, general wisdom today is to be aware of what’s selling, but write what you feel is strong rather than relying solely on a gimmick to carry your tome. Especially since world events can change rather quickly, which might make readers’ sensibilities and wants change as well.

So I started thinking about how to see into that crystal ball and judge what the better sellers might be in the coming years. You can’t really do this, I know. There’s only so much you can know about how a work is going to be received before it happens. I’ve heard a lot of authors say that they think fantasy will top all of the best sellers’ lists, because in troubled times people want an escape. I should note that most of those guesses were ventured by fantasy writers.

On a whim, I decided to look back at our historical landscape and see what times most closely resembled this one. Everyone automatically thinks of the Great Depression... most people who lived through the Great Depression would likely want to slap us silly in our pampered crepe hanging. They were forced out of homes, without food, often shoeless and with little clothing... now some of us are worried about serious financial issues, but few of us are in the state of standing around shipping yards with hundreds of other men in the hopes of getting one of three jobs offered for the day.

By the way, the economy hits recession status about every 7 to 20 years. I chose not to look at anything before the 1930’s because the book buying market was so vastly different in the late 1800’s. Considering that most middle to low income families only owned a bible, if that, the book buyers were largely relegated to the wealthy class for most of our publishing history prior to the last hundred years or so... So what I did was look through the best sellers from the 1930’s and then in a more recent recession, 1980-1982 (which was pretty similar to our current economic climate with heavy job cuts, though much higher interest rates and inflation).

Best Sellers of the 1930’s

Cimarron by Edna Ferber (1930)
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931 – 1932)
Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen (1933 – 1934)
Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas (1935)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936 – 1937)
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Of these 7 books:
4 are historical
5 can be considered sweeping epics, usually family epics.
The theme of the importance of the earth or property repeats in 5 of them
The Yearling is the only one that can be classified as YA or coming of age – and there was no YA category of that time, so perhaps the example there is that there is always room for a new genre or perspective.
Repetitive themes in every single book – survival against great odds.

What I got from each of these, and most of them were historical, but not all. Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 and set during the dustbowl of the thirties. But what kept coming up is that each of them mirrored the climate of the day. The main characters’ grit and determination was something spectacular through harsh times.

With the exception of The Yearling, each novel dealt directly with fortune. Losing fortunes, but learning that there are more important things than money. Making fortunes during terrible times. The characters you root for come out on top financially, or the characters with money are pitiful and eventually fail. But fortunes, and vast fortunes, are a recurrent theme in most of the literature of the time; probably because it was so on everyone’s mind.

Best Sellers 1980 – 1982

The Covenant by James Michener (1980)
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)
Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon (1980)
Noble House by James Clavell (1981)
The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (1981)
Cujo by Stephen King (1981)
ET – The Extra Terrestrial Storybook (1982)
Space by James Michener (1982)
The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum (1982)
Of these 9 best sellers:

5 can be classified as epic sagas
2 are historicals (Covenenant spans 500 years)
1 is horror
1 is a book based on the blockbuster movie (ET)
6 deal with political or international intrigue

When reading through the full lists for each year, I noticed a lot of spy novels and novels that deal either directly or indirectly with the Soviet Union... if you remember the climate in the 1980’s you’ll note that the authors were able to utilize a common concern in the American mindset for their fiction.

What’s different from this list than the original one in the 1930’s is that many of them are completely commercial and faster paced. Plot that moves was more noted than literary meandering. The lists of the 1930’s were full of Pulitzer Prize winners... not so much the best selling fiction of the 1980’s. There was more genre in this list than in the previous one, as well.

Still, family saga, epics, and historical epics are plentiful on this list. Spy and intrigue, action filled fiction, takes the place of some of the old historicals... though the theme of surviving against all odds replays... yet again.

What’s my verdict?

I don’t think human themes change. The running themes in well-placed novels will be ones that resonate with the current climate. Socio-economic equality, I think will be a critical, if not commercial success as far as themes go in the near future. Dealing with fortunes, whether showing characters of great wealth lose out to better caliber of characters without, or a character finding his/her fortune against great odds is likely to repeat.

I’m not picking a genre, people. What’s common in all of these novels is that they are well –written and they mirror the current mindset. I think mirroring your setting with what’s going on in the reader’s world is a great thing all around, but perhaps more so in times of great stress. I think readers love a good read that will make them forget their lives for a day or two... but they remember the ones that feel like they’re part of them, the works that make them feel like they can succeed or prosper.... the characters that feel like they’ve been fighting in the same foxhole together.... those are the ones they’ll remember.

That’s my two cents... What’s your prediction?


Shelly said...

I have no real prediction for what is going to work in terms of genre, either. I kind of think that whatever sells in the next few years will be about survival, as you say, but it is also going to have a big of a sarcastic edge to it. One way or another, I think you are right that good writing and audience resonance always work. Understanding where we are will help the writer put together a piece that is not only of good quality, but also salable.

I am not always good at predicting which pieces of my own work others will like. It seems like, if I send in 5 poems, I might think one is the most likely to get rejected, and then it will be the only one of the lot accepted. (That just happened recently.) It can be hard to figure out, especially because we are often too close to our own writing, but I figure you just have to keep sending work out there, tweaking it when it needs it, and sending it again.

Of course that's all talking about poetry. Which is just another way of saying that the best seller list isn't something my work would ever see. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

I can't predict what readers are going to want either. Will people want a message of hope? Will they want to read about others who've gone through harder times, or will they take refuge in fantasy? It does interest me that all the bestsellers of the Depression years had a message of hope -- and survival against great odds.

You are so right about this being different from the Depression. Both of my parents lived through the Depression and I've heard their stories. God forbid we ever find out what it was really like.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Shelly,

I think you're right about the sarcastic edge... collectively, the tastes in literature have changed a great deal over the years, and I think a lot of the better selling literature combines an excellent grasp of language with fast-paced story and wit.

I don't think you can use any of this kind of information to pick out a story to write that's a guaranteed seller... I don't really believe in formulas. I could be wrong, but I think the better selling fiction is well-written, has a message that's paramount to the author, and hits that lucky place where society is collectively on the same page.

The thing most have in common is great writing. And that doesn't necessarily mean high brow or elite literary skills... it means the author has the ability to connect in a way large segments of the population can identify with... communication is less about impressing and more about being understood.

I can't judge my own writing at all... which might explain the lack of publishing credits... then again, I do very little with short fiction and maybe I should have been spending more time on those submissions.

Hi Mary,

No, this is definitely not the depression. Actually, I'm not looking forward to the hardships in the next few years, because I think there will be some... but at the same time, I really think it's almost Darwinian and necessary. Society had a collective mindset of too much emphasis on living above their means and material possessions trumping everything. Personal responsibility has been bread out of a lot of people in my generation and under... I think we needed a wake up call. Besides, the housing prices were ridiculous. It's terrible that so many people are losing large portions of the worth of their homes, but if it kept accelerating at that rate, the next generation would be hard pressed to buy a shack, even on what should be a professional salary.

It'll come back around. I think we'll all be better off if people got back to basics and remembered what's really important.

Merry Monteleone said...

Personal responsibility has been bread out of a lot of people

Oops, that was supposed to be "bred", obviously... no yeast necessary. :-)