Tuesday, November 01, 2016

What to do about market saturation?

You wrote:
“The thriller market is almost completely saturated right now. It's VERY hard to find room on the shelf, and I'm having a hard time finding books that knock my socks off to the point I want to wrestle with that bear of a category.”

Point taken.

You also wrote:

“If all the best selling authors have been published for 20+ years, that's a good sign new authors aren't getting much traction.”

Taken again.

So here is the question: I have noticed that EVERY business is saturated, unless the business is hunting deer in an empty field. I probably would not have much competition selling covered wagons at Star Trek conventions. I probably also would not have much competition selling condom vending machines to Catholic schools and universities. There’s probably not much dosh in it, either.

Oh yes, the question: what does one do about this? When I read you comment about best selling authors, what came to mind is that Stephen King is not allowed to publish more than one book a year. But then I realized if he has a long backlist it’s going to take a while for fans to work through every gory, disgusting, yukk-o thing he has ever written. Kudos to Laird Barron for cracking the horror market. Kudos to you for selling his MSS. Both of you have scored major triumphs IMO.

The reality that there is no room for new writers seems to abut oddly with the reality that you and other agents are actively searching for new MSS. From out here in the weeds that is very confusing. Yes, I know best selling authors die. But the Bible is still selling. People still read Homer.

Any random musings on this topic or expansions on the original thoughts expressed you might wish to share will be gratefully received.

A couple things to remember. Most people reading Homer aren't picking it up at the airport bookstore for a fun read on their way to Thessalonia.

And people picking up a Bible are likely to have a purpose other than something to read at the DudsSudser while the dryer rumbles.

In other words, you need to use examples from the commercial side of general trade publishing.

And you need to remember that people like us who have actual To Be Read piles of books, and read 20+ books a year, and talk about books and think about books, and write books (you) and sell books (me) are NOT the normal book buyer.

Most people who buy books buy five or fewer in a year.

Yea, let that sink in for a minute. (I bought five last week.)

That's not to say those folks aren't reading. I suspect many of them use the public library (at least I hope they do.)

BUT if you're buying five books a year, generally you're buying books you know you want to read. Thus, you're buying favorite authors, and maybe an author recommended to you by someone you like.

Which is to say if Lee Child is your favorite author, you're buying his book this year, and then four others.

If you love Lee Child and Louise Penny, well, there's two you're buying.

And if you love Lee Child and Louise Penny and James Patterson, that's the ball game.

Which is to say, if you're writing books that will be shelved with Lee Child or Louise Penny, we've got a tough road ahead to break in to that market. It can be done. It IS being done, but it's harder now than it's been in a long time.

One factor is that death isn't reducing an author's output. Estates are licensing the author's name and Robert Parker is still publishing books. If you like Robert Parker, there's one of your five. And that's years after his death.

Another factor is that it's an increasingly noisy marketplace. There are a myriad of places to find out about new books, and those places aren't all choosing the same books.

Years ago, before I slithered into publishing, the only place I went to find out about new crime novels was the New Arrivals shelf at the library. Crime novels didn't get reviewed in the newspapers I read, and even then, I liked the commercial stuff, not the high brow literary stuff that got review attention.

Now I can name sixteen places to find out about books, and I can access all of them from my bathtub in Brooklyn if I want.

So, what to do? This is where familiarity with your category comes in. Write the book that isn't there. I'm always looking for something fresh and new.  The "new" Lee Child isn't going to be a knock off Jack Reacher. It's going to be a fresh approach to "a stranger comes to town."

I can think of a dozen authors who wrote something that surprised me with a fresh take on an old trope. Charlie Huston. Jeff Lindsay. Chris Holm. Charlaine Harris.  Dana Cameron. And back in the day, Robert Parker is credited with revitalizing the private eye novel because he did something fresh and new with his protagonist.

So, look for what isn't there.  I'm looking for that too.


JeffO said...

One of the more oddly encouraging rejections I received from an editor included this line: "Unfortunately, the market's already pretty saturated with dystopia, and I don't know that this will distinguish itself from the horde." I took this as encouragement because, to me, it meant that I CAN write in a crowded market--it's just got to be really, really good (I chose not to get discouraged by the fact that this editor did not think I was really, really good).

CynthiaMc said...

Look for what isn't there - I'm all over that. That gives me hope.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Sam Hawke gives me hope on this account. Fantasy is still being published. I simply must write what isn't there. I can do it. I can. I can. Off to do some NaMo'ing.

Thank you for your continued existence and tutelage, your Majesty.

Cindy C said...

Great advice, as usual!

Off topic--this morning I received an email from Amazon announcing "Best Books of November." First book on the list: The Education of Dixie Dupree! (Followed by Zadie Smith, Lee Child, and others.)

Congratulations, Donna!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I got nothin'.

Oh wait, yes I do.

I may be wrong, I may be off the mark so far you can't even see the line but I don't write for the market. I write what I want to write. I write what I think might entertain and touch the heart and what I would want to read.
Okay so I'm NOT the typical reader.
But I am a Reider.
If I am going to commit to a writing project I sure as $#it want to enjoy what I am spending my precious time on. Will it be a NYTBS, will it sell at all, will it be published, will I ever snare an agent with my brilliant (yet humble) abilities? Ha !

It's a journey boys and girls. Enjoy the ride. I am.
And to quote my dear departed dad, "That's what it's all about."

french sojourn said...

Sometimes, the timing of your posts is eerie. Needless to say I echo the above comments. I've had this beginning of a story taunting me lately, and there are infinite directions it could lead me. But there is one offbeat direction it's been pulling me. It's not the road less traveled, moreover the road common sense would steer you away from. Thanks, as usual, for the insight.


Kitty said...

I don't care about "fresh and new." I buy a book for its voice. Some books I buy after reading the first two sentences, like Nora Ephron's "Heartburn": The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn't think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it.

That voice just clicked with me. Most of the books I read are murder mysteries, but "Heartburn" was not. I would have read that book if it was a history text book. Even before Ephron died (God rest her soul), I was trying to get my hands on everything she wrote. To this day, "Heartburn" is my favorite book. I read it every year for pure joy; I never tire of its voice.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

With a part-time job and bills to pay, I'm one of those prolific library readers. I purchase a few books throughout the year and Christmas gifts? Books!

This is hopeful advice from Janet. Be fresh. Turn tropes on their rumps or elbows or noses. It certainly gets my little heartbeat pattering faster.

Off-topic: after 3 years of working through my novel to its third draft (except my first chapter, which has many iterations), I've put the story to rest and will get back to it in December alongside the evolving edit plan I pulled together. On to the next writing project.

Unknown said...

I agree with Kitty. It is about the voice.
When Harry Potter first came out it was that killer new voice that made for a godzillion seller. Similary, when The Fault in Our Stars came out it was that killer new voice of Hazel Grace that came out. I think that maybe the agents are always on the lookout for that killer new voice, which is very rare. But the agent who finds and represents that killer voice is probably going to do very well. That’s because when that book comes out, the average book buyer goes from buying five books to buying six. The average buyer who buys zero books now buys one. The market for these books is essentially unlimited, regardless of how saturated a genre is.
My guess is that while the odds of finding these books is really, really low, that agents already know whether the authors on their list are likely to produce this killer new voice, and that it’s more likely that this killer voice will emerge from a new and undiscovered author.

Donnaeve said...

I love how QOTKU dissects/analyzes/dispenses her take on this. It is true, fresh is The Thing. I've been puzzling out my outline for a new book for about 3 months now. I'm looking for The Thing. I'm actually contemplating a piece out of a FF contest to use. (this is why entering these is SO GOOD. Ya never know what you might get for future fodder)

On book buying. I had to put a stop to it, kind of... It was really getting out of hand. I've got BRAND NEW books sitting in the TBR pile that I've had for 3-4 YEARS I've not read. (yes, I'm yelling, only at myself)

And, what did I do? I still bought 15 books this year! That's not a lot considering The Shark's purchases - but for me (and my Goodreads goal for how many books I will read) that's a year's worth! I read at a moderate pace, but b/c I only read at night, some nights I get in 10-20 pages before the book whacks me in the face, some nights I only get in 2.

THANK YOU, Sisi!!! How awesome is that, right? Publicity mentioned it Friday, and said I had to keep it "mum" until today!

DeadSpiderEye said...

The good news about market saturation is, is that it's saturated with pap because the stuff you write is just so much better than the dross on the shelves. Of course it's a relative comparison, your stuff is better because you wrote it, so unless you fell into the trap of writing stuff you don't wanna read, you gotta be near the top of the pile. So now we know that you're on of the top five fiction writers in the world, in your particular category that is, we need to realistically asses the market for that category. Then comes the tricky part, getting a publisher on board with your vision. That's tricky because they're like petulant children, they will kick and scream, 'Bwah but I don't wanna make money--I'm in it for the art!'.

Deal with them firmly, 'Shut up and eat your top five best seller listing, it's good for your shareholders'.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

This post could've been taken as a downer... more depressing stats from the world of publishing. But really, Ms. Janet, you've presented it in an uplifting and inspiring way. YAY and thank you.

I buy as many as 15 books a year... I will admit, due to a desire to save money, many of them are from the local used bookstore and/or Goodwill. I do, however, support authors I'm friends with and always, always buy new to help their sales. I just purchased five new releases via amazon, all titles of friends.

And Donna... Talk about YAY! Congratulations :-)

Colin, I've forgotten your instructions on making something BOLD. And I can't find the little tutorial you offered awhile ago. Can we have a refresher?

Donnaeve said...


To the left (or beginning) of the word you want to bold, use this "<" followed by the letter "b" and then ">"

And this on the right of the word (or end of word) "<" and then / followed by "b" and last ">"

Change "b" to "i" for italics...


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Or I'm rebuying old favorites I've lost/don't know where are/have new editions out (has anybody scoped those new Penguin Classics of NEUROMANCER and DUNE and some others?). I've done that a number of times. I still buy books. But my reading is broken :(

Bethany Elizabeth said...

It's funny because almost everyone I talk to about books says, "I should be reading more." They want to read more. Or they want to be more well-read, which is a little different.

We're not just competing against other books. It's a saturated market, sure, but it gets even worse when you think about what people are doing instead of reading. Netflix has a lot of very entertaining shows in practically every genre, and it's like 8 bucks a month. That means books are more expensive, more time-consuming, and less accessible than competing entertainment.

It's discouraging to think, as a fantasy writer, I'm not just writing for a category saturated by brilliant authors like Rothfuss, Martin, and Erickson. I'm also 'competing' for a spot on a bookshelf when a large percentage of readers would prefer to stay home and watch GoT.

Andrea said...

Let's check... I bought 65 books so far this year. I've read 44. Some of those 44 are books I bought this year, some are books that have been on my shelves for a while. Living in Spain means I depend on The Book Depository or Amazon for buying books in English, and there's no proper library nearby, so I'm building my own library. My partner is actually o.k. with living among books (we have a small apartment and somehow always find space for a new bookcase) and when I need cheering up or when there's something to celebrate he doesn't buy me flowers, he buys me a book :-)

Which reminds me... recently there was a competition held by an English bookshop and the prize was free books for the rest of your life. The first prize winner would be sent a new book every month. And I was like, one book a month??? That's nowhere near enough!

CynthiaMc said...

So far I'm on my 58th book for 2016. I can't afford many new ones (but I just got a raise - hurrah!). I have an entire room of bookshelves plus my TBR bookshelves by the door, ostensibly to remind me not to buy more books until I've read those. It isn't working. Yay for libraries, yard sales and thrift stores. I've found many authors that way that I couldn't take a chance on at $20 per book but sure can for 99 cents (and then went on to buy the expensive ones).

Colin Smith said...

This is something I can't allow myself to think about. All I can do is write what I write, and hope it resonates with people in some way. You can't write to the market because a) you don't know what the market will want in three months, let alone twelve, and b) the moment you adapt your writing to other people's expectations, that's the moment you stop being true to yourself.

I sincerely hope there's a market for my work. Like everyone else, I want the validation and the assistance with bills that comes with a career as a published author. But I'm not going to sweat about finding something new to write that doesn't come from who I am as a writer, and what I love to write. Perhaps out of the next ten novels I write, one will be that oddball that captures the market's attention. I guess to find out, I'll have to keep writing... :)

Colin Smith said...

Melanie: Donna's directions are spot on.

Dena Pawling said...

I read 2-3 books per week, but most of those come from my library. I buy maybe one book per month, and only about half of those are new.

I like your phrase “look for what isn't there”. That's something to consider when outlining new WIPs.

>>Now I can name sixteen places to find out about books, and I can access all of them from my bathtub in Brooklyn if I want.

I visualized a bathtub Tardis. Did that come with your apartment, or was it a tenant improvement?

Julie Weathers said...

This jumped out at me: "I probably would not have much competition selling covered wagons at Star Trek conventions."

The first thing that came to mind was a scene from Firefly where Mal and Jayne are in a covered wagon. Who knew space cowboys would become such a cult classic?

I've been watching Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell and though I don't really need any more books, I've bought over 200 this year, I'll be buying the book. (I'm afraid to even look at how many books I actually have now.)

Supposedly fantasy is saturated, but people keep publishing in it. Witness Patrick Rothfuss books and the aforementioned Strange and Norrell.

Take it as a challenge. Make your book unique. Create the next sensation.

Linda Strader said...

Interesting and timely post. I just heard this about my memoir not too long ago. Did it make me want to turn my book into fiction? Heck no. Like Colin says, I'm going to write what I need to write, want to write, and it will find a home.

Susan said...

There are millions of voices on this planet shouting to be heard. Why do we keep speaking up anyway? Because we all have something to say.

There are millions of books to be read. Why do we keep writing? Because we have stories to share.

Just because the market is saturated doesn't mean your book isn't meant to be written. So keep writing the book you want to write. Even if millions of voices are shouting and you're the only one whispering, your voice is your own, and it still matters.

That's my personal pep talk of the day. Off to work on the book I've always wanted to read. Happy NaNoWriMo!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

One more quick thought - a really fun way to think of new ideas is to look toward the video game industry. There's so much innovation going on there right now. A lot of it is hardware (books mastered the art of 3D ages ago with the much-admired pop-up book) but there are some great story innovations as well.

And just to add on to what Julie said: I think fantasy is one of the easier genres to find an area that hasn't been written about. We've heard of futuristic fantasy, but what about historical science fiction? Well, bad example, because that's basically steampunk. But still! So many choices!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yee Ha Donna,
Though I preordered Dixie I'm still waiting for my copy because we changed our address and I never updated Amazon or UPS. I'm such a dork sometimes.
I'm trying the bold thingy. So if this looks weird y'all will know why. And if it looks plain, y'all know I screwed up, again.
I tried and deleted, I just don't get it.

Beth Carpenter said...

When Melanie asked how to make something BOLD, for a moment I though she was talking about writing, not posting. Because that's basically what Janet said, isn't it? To boldly write what no one has written before.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Another library reader here. I'm on my 73rd book. Most are audiobooks.

When I buy books I donate them to the library here in Paris. But there are some I like to carry around and photograph. Donna's book will be one of those. A book sighting, in strange places.

Others said that voice is key. Agreed. This year I found black crime writers have the freshest voices. Street lit and urban lit are not mainstream. I love K'Wan Foye's voice so much I tweeted to Gallimard that they should publish his stuff. I want to read his work in French.

Way to go Donna!

And to all those doing NaNo, I'm rooting for you.

Craig F said...

Double down on the hot diggity damn for Donna

I was alive and a reader twenty years ago. The market was damn close to just as saturated then as it is now. Then those now carrying water did something that got them those buckets.

They wrote something that transcended the market. It is time for a new order to do it again.So get to work fellow Reiders. You are the kind of people who will make it happen. I have faith in us (yes I include myself).

That whole long rant and the name Sandford isn't in it. The shame.

BJ Muntain said...

HTML is easy, really. Most tags have this construction:


Where ( is actually <, and * is the important part of the tag, whether it's b for bold or i for italic or any other tag. Some tags - like the link tag - have added information, as in (* http://yourwebsitelink.com)linkname(/*)

The / basically means 'end' or 'close'. The first tag is how the computer knows to bold it, and the / tag is where the computer knows to stop.


For the people saying, "We don't need fresh or new, we just like a good voice.": You don't think that that good voice may be what is fresh and new about that book?

Freshness isn't necessary in only saturated markets - though it's more important there. It's important in every market, every genre, every novel. While many readers do like familiarity, that usually lies in the characters and the authors. But how do you become the author that people want to keep buying? You're not going to get that way writing just any PI story with a jockey detective or a fantasy with a bunch of people going on a quest in a medieval European world. What's different between you and Dick Francis or Tolkien? If people want to read Tolkien, they'll buy Tolkien (or Terry Brooks, or any number of similar authors.) Why should they pick your book out of the hundreds?

Something new. Something fresh. A sense of humour? A fresh style? A character you love to hate? A character you hate to love? A plot twist that tears your heart out? What makes your book different from any other similar book?

Helen DeWitt said...

Now that I know agents are looking for a fresh new voice I know why it's so hard to find something to read when I have finished the backlist of a writer I like. "X is a shameless but pitch-perfect rip-off of Lee Child's Jack Reacher series" - thanks to the blog I do know that you don't say this in a query, but it would definitely get me to LOOK at the book. (And if I agreed with the publisher's assessment that it was indeed a shameless but pitch-perfect rip-off, I would buy it.)

Lennon Faris said...

I second a few others here: reading, I'll continue because of the voice, even if I know the 'gist' of the story already. Writing, I can't think too much about this topic or I stop writing.

One thing to remember: there are so many books out there, but there are a LOT of readers, too. Every time I look out an airplane window crossing over a city at night, I think about that. Even if you don't become a 'bestseller,' there are people out there who will probably enjoy your story. So, write your story.

Yay Donna!! That's huge!

Steve Stubbs said...

Brilliant post. Extremely helpful and thanks for posting.

AJ Blythe said...

Okay, I'm still trying to get my jaw from the floor. FIVE books a year?! Oh, wow.

Craig F said...

So you have a million reiders who buy ten books a year. Add in a million of those other kinds of people who buy no books a year. That makes five a year an average for all.

I was going to make this somewhat political but decided that we already get enough of that crap. Make it be over.

Colin Smith said...

Just a quick completely OT note to say I just got back from Donna's book launch. She did really well! Lots of people came out to see her. I'll post some pictures on my blog, maybe Friday... :)

Anonymous said...

Some of your words that immediately stuck with me and keep me encouraged, QOTKU, were to assume I'm the exception. Sure, it's a crowded market, but I can do it. Sure, it's tough to break in, but I can do it. Be prepared for failure, but if you don't operate off the assumption that you can do it, you're the assumption, you're getting in your own way.

That's why I politely thank anyone for their advice that the market for my book is tough right now, and then keep on writing. I can't change the market. If that book doesn't sell, I need to sell a different one. But I'm not going to stop writing just because it's tough right now. It'll always be tough. Maybe not as, but it won't ever be easy.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Covered wagons at a Star Trek convention also caught my eye.
Because when Roddenberry first pitched the idea to Desilu, his working title was 'Wagon Train to the Stars' because Westerns were the big thing at the time.

"Take it as a challenge," says Julie. "Make your book unique. Create the next sensation."

Yanno, that just might work.

Julie Weathers said...


Late tot he party as usual, but what fabulous news. I am so thrilled for you. You are headed straight to the top.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Covered wagons at a Star Trek convention also caught my eye.
Because when Roddenberry first pitched the idea to Desilu, his working title was 'Wagon Train to the Stars' because Westerns were the big thing at the time.

"Take it as a challenge," says Julie. "Make your book unique. Create the next sensation."

Yanno, that just might work.

Catherine1216 said...

Five books a year? I can't imagine that. My husband would probably appreciate it as my to read pile is at 605, but I can't help it. I love books and read about 150 -200 books a year.