Here’s what I know about bandwagons…they’re noisy, crowded places. It’s difficult to stand out, at least in a good way. Depending on school rules, you may not be allowed to stand at all.
Yet at nearly every event I do, someone asks, “What’s hot?” and everyone leans forward in their seats, eager to hear the answer. I did a piece on “The Next Big Thing” last year, but that was a year ago and, anyway, I’m talking about more than genres here. There is one absolute; one thing that will be as true six, twelve, eighteen or more months down the line as now: original is hot. That’s not to say your zombie alien steampunk murder mystery time travel romance is in. While I know one or two brilliant minds who could probably pull that off, for most this would be a hot mess. I’m not talking about those works that cross so many boundaries you can’t even see the passport for the stamps, I’m talking about the truly unique concept or protagonist that potentially defines a new genre or subgenre. If you write young adult vampire fiction these days (guilty), you’re going to get compared to all those who’ve come before. (The inevitable question in all my talks as author, “Were you inspired by Twilight?”) That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about vampires if that’s what calls to you and you have a unique take. However, you’ll have to be aware that given the popularity, there’s already so much fanged fiction on the shelves and in publishers’ inventory that your work might have difficulty finding a home. If publishers can’t figure how to distinguish your work in their catalogues and on bookstore shelves, they’re going to pass.
If, however, you have an amazing concept or an amazing voice, your book will pop. If you have both, you’re golden. I’m going to offer an example from non-fiction so that I’m not playing any favorites among the fiction writers with whom I work: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. Intriguing topic…at least to me and probably to the gazillion or so people like me who watch forensic shows religiously and who thought Six Feet Under was a work of genius. But her approach and the way she expresses herself are what make the book transcendent. You know right from the introduction that this is not going to be any stodgy, intellectual discourse (though it is one of the most informative books I’ve ever read): “The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.”
I see this same bandwagon effect with digital self-publishing. There’s a lot of hype about those few authors who through extensive research and their own inexhaustible efforts have become self-published bestsellers. I stand in awe of them, because I know the work it must have taken. Amanda Hocking has even blogged about it several times (examples here and here). But there are others who seem more interested in elevating their own stature by leading a crusade that indicates that all the pros do is take authors’ hard-earned money. Very few talk of everything publishers and agencies do to earn their percentage. In most cases, authors earn more money through the agent’s efforts and the publisher’s polish, distribution, connections, publicity and promotion than if they’d published on their own, even if they make a smaller percentage on each individual sale. Note that I said most. Some authors, as mentioned, have the skills or the platform to get the attention their work deserves. But it’s difficult and it’s not for everyone. The stories we don’t hear much of are those where the author has sold only a few dozen to a few hundred copies of their works and barely made back their initial investment in the cover, copyediting, formatting, etc. And if an author doesn’t focus on cover and on giving the public a really polished and error-free product…well, they might sell that first book, but word will spread, and growing an audience will be unlikely.
I will assuredly get some of the e-book gurus’ disciples over here telling me that I’m wrong, wrong, wrong and that traditional publishing is dead. Thing is, they’re wrong. How do I know? Royalty statements, offers, advances and my kid’s college fund. I can’t find any way to say this so that it doesn’t sound like bragging, so I’m just going to say it: our sales at The Knight Agency have increased every year. There’s still a lot left of 2011 and we’ve already far outpaced our 2010 sales. Our authors have lit up the bestseller lists and appeared on ABC’s Beyond Belief (Don Piper, author of the three-years running NYT bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven) and TBN with Matt & Laurie Crouch (Cherie Calbom, author of The Juice Lady’s Turbo Diet, also featured in Woman’s World and First for Women), Omaha’s The Morning Blend (Chloe Neill, author of the NYT-bestselling Chicagoland Vampires series). They’ve been guests at national and international book fairs, like Imaginales Festival in France (N.K. Jemisin, author of the award-winning debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), the Rio Book Fair (Rachel Caine, author of the NYT-bestselling Morganville Vampires series), and interviewed in multiple publications. I’m sure I’m missing a few dozen mentions here.
In other words, we’re all still going strong. I’m seeing adaptation much more than upheaval. Now that the major rush and the first major wave of change has come through, things are settling out and we’re all learning how to successfully navigate the new waters.