Thursday, August 02, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, August 02, 2012 13 comments
I write contemporary YA and have been reading heavily in the genre for years--the humorous, the romance-driven, the heavy-hitting "issue" books, the lyrical coming of age. There's a lot of diversity. There's also (may I say it?) a lot of sameness. As Blake Snyder notes about "salable work" in Save the Cat, "give us more of the same, only different."

A few of things I noticed aren't being published in contemporary mainstream YA--cross-generational relationships, grieving someone other than a peer, characters struggling to mature in a faith tradition and make it their own (rather than rebel against it).

I looked at Christian-market YA and didn't see anyone coming from mainline or reformed Protestantism. Apparently all fictional Christians are low church evangelicals or Amish, despite the fact that among the billions of Christians worldwide, they're a minority (in the case of the Amish, a tiny one; see the numbers here). The characters are almost never urban, except for the African-Americans. They don't interact with Christians from other countries except in missions contexts.

I realized my novel didn't fit many of the cliches/tropes publishers seem to want. I have an Anglican teen from NYC who has lost a parent. Her relationships with extended family are are as important to her healing as her relationships with her peers. She's not another secular/non-denom suburbanite who loses a best friend/sibling and heals by hooking up with dream boy. (Sorry if that sounds snarky--I've seen this formula quite a bit.)

I realized I could abandon the story, spin it in ways more palatable for one market or the other. Or I could go it alone.

When you write outside the box, there's risk. But there's also opportunity. Because outside-the-box stories have the potential to build a readership among those tired of or bored with current cliches/tropes. The trend-setting books are often ones no one saw coming.

And when traditional publishing isn't willing to take the risk, you now have other options.

Have you assessed the market fit of your work? Do you like to read outside-the-box stories that push against reigning tropes in a genre?

13 comments:

  1. Your insight is fascinating, Laurel. I have a book that doesn't quite fit the market right now (I had an agent tell me, "I love everything about this but I have no idea how I'd sell it in today's market"!), so it's interesting reading your take on it. I've stopped querying it for now and am working on another ms, but I do wonder what will happen with the previous one...
    After reading your previous posts, I don't think I have the time or drive necessary to successfully self-publish...but you've given me lots to think about.
    And I can't wait to read your story! It sounds beautiful!

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    1. I got a fair amount of the same mixed messages from agents. I think the question for you to ponder is whether you want to create what they want to buy, or do you believe you can find your readership on your own. Conglomerate publishing is trend-driven and risk averse. You can hope to stumble on someone who has a more visionary approach to get your foot in the door. It seems these days that small presses are one of the few places that welcome visionary thinking.

      Keep in mind that more and more turnkey solutions are popping up for entrepreneurial authors, so going it alone is far less the overwhelming option that it once was.

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  2. I keep reading from authors and others to write what you want to read. So that's what I do. It may not be mainstream, but I don't care. If not now, someday, hopefully.

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    1. Frankly, I get a little frustrated with this advice. The folks I see being welcomed into the big leagues learned how to spin stories to trend. They studied what succeeded in the past and did a riff on it. Risk-averse entities generally want more of the same of what has already proven success.

      That isn't to say there aren't breakouts and surprises along the way. But they come along far less often. Should the economy have a big upward surge, we might see more risk taking among publishers. It's a matter of how long any out-of-the-box writer is willing to sit it out when they could be building readership now by going it alone.

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  3. I love out-of-the-box work. I've seen way too many of those formulaic dream-boy-hookups that you mentioned, and I've actually always wanted to write a story about a Baptist Christian (which is what I am) who doesn't want to go secular. Wonderful post. :)

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    1. The risk-aversion I see in secular publishers strikes me as even more profound among Christian publishers. Portraying any particular denominational strain seems anathema--that they fear offending anyone, so we get a very vague soft of Christianity.

      As someone who's reformed and liturgical, I don't feel offended per se by the non-denominational bent, I just don't find it at all compelling to read. I'd rather pick up, for example, Jan Karon's Mitford books (Penguin published) about Episcopalians in the South. It's the specificity that makes them interesting.

      I find it compelling to learn about many different practices among Christians in various places. Heck, I even enjoy reading about Jewish characters when I get to see how their particular practices shape their lives. Jennifer Weiner's _Certain Girls_ was wonderful that way. I learned so much about Bat Mitzvahs, and that enables me to relate better to my Jewish neighbors.

      I'd love to read about characters shaped in the Baptist tradition, with as much specificity and realism as possible.

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  4. I totally agree, Laurel, that what we see in mainstream publishing is more of the same.
    In my case, because I am from Spain, my characters are not mainstream American twenty-first century girls. I do this on purpose because I write Medieval fantasy and try not to create anachronistic characters. Apparently that is what publishers want.
    If you want to try a small press, I recommend Astraea Press. For what I know about your novel, I think it will fit right in.

    Best of luck!

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    1. You're not the first I've heard becoming frustrated with the state of "historic" fiction lately. I use the scare quotes because it seems the pressure to play very fast and loose with history is strong. The ability of books to educate while entertaining seems an idea of a bygone era.

      I decided against the small press route for the moment because I have such a strong vision for how I want to present this work to the world. If I didn't, I'd be more inclined to seek a team approach.

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  5. I have an lit fic novel that I'm currently shopping to agents--it has a Dutch reformed protag dealing with all the challenges of WW2. We'll see what happens...

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    1. Ooh, that reminds me of one of my hubby's favorite books, which I can't for the life of me remember the author or title (sorry!). In Christian publishing, at times it is possible to go directly to the denominational press without using an agent. So the small press route might become an option if the agent route doesn't pan out.

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    2. The book I was thinking of is The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz, and it's about Swedish Lutheran pastors, covering three different time periods. So kinda tangential. Oh well, good book, my husband says. It was published by Augsburg, a denominational press for Lutherans.

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  6. Yes! I absolutely love that we have options now for the work that doesn't fit within the box!

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    1. As I understand more of the economics of publishing, I can see why the big guys are only interested in works they believe will have enough mass audience to justify the expense of doing things their way. This is one reason why the nimbleness of new self-pubbing models make the most sense for outside-the-box stories, genre-busters, and experimental work.

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