I always get a little twitchy when I see writing advice on Twitter that’s like, “Write what you love! Don’t think about the market! Write the story you want to read!”
It’s not that it’s entirely wrong. That advice is certainly well intentioned, and since you’re going to be spending a LOT of time with your story, I do think you should love it. And I also don’t recommend thinking about the market to the extent that you’re trying to chase a trend. By the time you’re ready to query, it’s entirely likely that trend will have died out.
But as an editor and former literary agent, I think one of my jobs is to advise clients about the business realities of publishing. And one big problem I've seen is with clients who have spent a year writing and revising a book…but still aren’t entirely sure what genre it belongs in.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I strongly recommend figuring out your genre before you start drafting and making sure you’re well read enough in it to understand its conventions.
To illustrate, I worked with a client recently (story told with their permission) whose book didn’t clearly fit into any genre. It had a strong romance plot, but it didn’t fit the conventions of that genre, and much of the conflict for the second half of the book wasn’t with the romantic relationship itself. There was a thriller subplot, but it didn’t dominate the book enough to be considered a thriller or romantic suspense. And the scope of the novel wasn’t quite broad enough for general commercial fiction.
I set out the various revision options in the editorial letter, and they ultimately decided to self-publish the book to allow for more flexibility with the story. That choice made a lot of sense, for numerous reasons beyond genre, and it’s definitely an option to consider when writing outside of genre or in genres that traditional publishers currently aren’t looking for, such as new adult.
Even when self-publishing, though, you’ll have to select a genre when uploading and market the book to readers of that genre, who will have certain expectations of what the genre entails. So you still aren’t entirely unaccountable to genre, and you may find it easier to gain readers, as an unknown author, if you’re writing more closely within the bounds of a proven market.
But if your goal is traditional publishing, it’s essential to determine where your book fits into the market. The nuances of your book will likely change during drafting and revision, so you may not know exactly what your comparative titles are yet (though I think it can only help you to have a rough idea from the outset). But your genre should be clear from the beginning.
Liza Dawson, a wonderful agent whom I worked with previously, described this as knowing where you’d be shelved in a bookstore. If stores don’t know how your book fits in with their existing stock, they’re less likely to purchase it—which means you’re less likely to get to that stage, since agents and editors will be considering that, too. And while you might think that the decline of physical bookstores and rise of internet purveyors have made that issue less important, it hasn’t played out that way so far.
So yes, I’d encourage you to write something you love…that fits within an existing genre. Books that break the mold are the exception, and getting published as an exception is never easy, especially as a debut. And if nothing else, thinking about this ahead of time will give you an easy answer when people ask what your book is about. “Oh, it’s a suspense novel in the vein of Megan Abbot.” Done and done.
If you found this useful, sign up for my newsletter! June’s installment will come out next week with tips on addressing the passage of time in your work.