The Anatomy of the Publishing Cycle

If you ask an editor or an agent “What’s hot right now?” you are too late with the question. The nature of the publishing business is that what you see selling today are books that were conceived, written, published, and marketed over the past couple years or more.

That is why we, on this side of the table, avoid making pronouncements on current trends. In some ways the agent and the acquisitions editor are like the Scout who is sent ahead by the main patrol or army to figure out the lay of the land so they can form a strategy for the future.

Publishing often follows a cycle that become the engine behind a trend. Some are concept or genre specific while others are more generic in nature. Let’s explore, in a simplified fashion the anatomy of the publishing cycle.

Something Hits Big

Whether it is the Amish novel, the “parable” business book (Who Moved My Cheese?), Edwardian settings (i.e. Downton Abbey), heavenly visitation stories (Heaven is for Real), Twilight, Jesus Calling, or something like Fifty Shades of Grey…a book or genre will hit big. It can be either fiction or non-fiction. No one can predict how this happens or when it will happen. If they could they would manufacture the next big thing every week.

To the Races

When something does hit, the readers clamor for more and the machinery of writers, editors, and agents are galvanized to see if they can capitalize on the phenomenon after determining if what is selling has staying power. And not everything has staying power.

Chick-lit is the perfect example. Over a decade ago it was the “can’t-go-wrong” genre…until it wasn’t. The interest in that type of book died so quickly it caught a bunch of publishers holding contracts and forthcoming books by the dozens that were doomed.

Some writers are fortunate in that their interests and work is suddenly “hot” even though they had been laboring without success writing that type of book for years. This can be a wonderful serendipity.

The Inevitable Glut

Within a year or two the machinery noted above has lumbered its way to producing massive amounts of books that follow those trends.

Think of the number of “vampire” books that came out after the success of Twilight. Or the number of Amish novels that came out after 2006…so much so that it is no longer a “trend” but created its own genre! Or the number of YA dystopian novels that followed the success of Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner.

The danger here is that editors can become fatigued by all the “me too” proposals. To the point that over a year ago I heard multiple times, “No dystopian novels, please!” The irony is that the readership is still strong while the publishers and booksellers are less enamored.

The Winnowing Begins

Eventually the fatigue becomes real and whatever was hot is no longer “hot.” This means a new book of that type may sell half or less than what it would have if it had been released two years ago. It doesn’t mean the genre is dead, just that the threshold for a book to sell well is more difficult and the stories have to much better written.

Writers who stops selling as well are not re-signed by their publishers. And their modest sales numbers become part of their writing sales history that makes a new publisher reluctant to try them out. This is an ugly reality. I wish I could be a cheerleader and make everyone feel good, but this is what happens. We who’ve been around a long time have watched it time and again. Some writers adapt and shift gears and are able to re-start in a new or tangential genre. Others give up or fade away. Each author’s situation is different, and it is one way a good agent can guide you.

The Cycle Begins Again

I still remember a time when no publisher wanted new historical novels. No…I’m not talking about last week. I’m talking about the Summer of 2004. I had a historical novel proposal by a bestselling author and we shopped it around the industry. No one wanted it with rejection after rejection filling the in-box. They all wanted contemporary chick-lit. Eventually I sold the proposal after seven months of work. But that is not the “rest of the story.”

Ironically, a couple years later I was talking to an editor who asked, “I’m really looking for a strong historical project by a top author” and then named my client. I sputtered and said, “You could have had the author, but you turned the project down two and a half years ago!” We nervously laughed and talked about the inevitable cycle of publishing.

Chase the Rabbit or Stand Firm?

Trying to write to the trends is a bit like trying to catch a rabbit who doesn’t want to get caught. You might get lucky, but usually you’ll come up empty handed.

Instead of chasing the rabbit, my encouragement is to stand firm in what you are called to write and to your strengths as a writer. That doesn’t mean there will be a magic moment when everyone lines up to buy your book…you may need the time to learn the craft or the industry. I know of one author who spent ten years going to writers conferences learning the craft and the editors. One day, one of those editors moved to a new publisher and in a meeting someone said, “We should be publishing this type of book.” The editor raised her hand and said, “I know someone whose been writing that very thing and he’s not under contract.” The phone call was made and that author has since won two Christy Awards and published nearly twenty novels.

At the same time, there is a difference between standing firm and being stubborn. There are proposals I’ve seen that simply do not have the commercial “zing” that publishers are looking for. But the author doesn’t hear that and doubles down on the same manuscript  hoping that the market will change. Unfortunately I can only render my opinion based on experience and an understanding of today’s marketplace. You must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine if your project is one that should be set aside for another time or if it is truly something that will work some day.


11 Responses to The Anatomy of the Publishing Cycle

  1. Avatar
    Richard Mabry March 22, 2015 at 6:07 am #

    Steve, You’re absolutely right, of course, but this is yet another facet of publishing that frustrates authors. We spend six months or more, sometimes a year, sometimes even longer to write a novel we think is worth reading. Then we may have to put it aside and start work on something else until it comes back into “fashion” again. Oh, I know that agents keep trying to sell these books that just miss the trend, but it’s got to be frustrating for author and agent alike.

  2. Avatar
    Caroline March 22, 2015 at 7:33 am #

    I love reading things like this. Insight into the anatomy. Thanks.
    Being one who has not even come close to the publishing arm of the writing world, I find it facinating. I am a lover of stories. I have chatted with and read comments of other story lovers and writers. There is such a variety of preferences and choices in Christian fiction – I know of many who love the historical-pirate stories with firm, powerful God- love weaved throughout. Then there are the ones who love nothing but the Amish fiction. I find it a bit sad when there is a trend in one area, because if it’s not the genre I care for, the authors with books I do enjoy are dropped by publishers. In a happy-reader/writer world, all good books would be published and all story lovers would be satisfied.
    I prefer those of us who are not trend followers in any area of life – and agree with your comments about chasing the rabbits. “… stand firm in what you are called to write and to your strengths as a writer.” Beautiful truth.
    It’s too easy to get caught up in the chase that we lose sight of the purpose.

  3. Avatar
    Chris Malkemes March 22, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Thank you for revealing the truth. You work so hard because you’re in a hit or miss business. Read this the other day and it focused me. Writing is for the writer. Publishing for the publisher. The marketing for the reader. It is a good agent that helps you balance these balls with good results. Praying for your success.

  4. Avatar
    Virelle Kidder March 22, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    I always trust your perspective, Steve, and your many years in the industry. Thank you for your honesty. I write a book when I feel “pregnant” with it. That means a commitment to see it through and leave this baby in God’s hands. You are the one who then delivers it to the “expectant” publisher. Moving on to the next project is part of writing. So is waiting by faith. Every part of this process involves obedience, sensitivity to God, and lots of hard work. Thank you for doing your part better than anyone I know.

  5. Avatar
    Davalynn Spencer March 22, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    The quote I take for the day: “You must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine if your project is one that should be set aside for another time or if it is truly something that will work some day.” Indeed.

  6. Avatar
    Joan Bannan March 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm #

    Well said. Thank you for sharing wisdom from your experience. It gives hopes to us who have chosen to write as God leads us, regardless of the spectacular popularity and economic success of vile sensationalism.

  7. Avatar
    Steve Laube March 22, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Sorry all. This should have posted on Monday the 23rd, not Sunday the 22nd. My mistake. I try not to post blogs on Sunday, for obvious reasons. Thus I took it down upon discovering the error and reposted it on the correct date.


  8. Avatar
    Jessica Nelson March 23, 2015 at 3:33 am #

    You said it straight! Thanks.

  9. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks March 23, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    Thank you for the insight. I concluded with the idea to lead with writing – not to follow.

  10. Avatar
    Jackie Layton March 23, 2015 at 6:56 am #

    Thanks for the encouraging post. I’m willing to be flexible, but I also hear you say stick to what you’re passionate about.


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