Trends in Novel Genres

Chip MacGregor is a “book guy” by his own admission, and he runs the MacGregor Literary Agency.  He was asked recently: “Can you tell us the latest trends you’re seeing in fiction?”  Here is the (abbreviated) answer from his blog:


Chip MacGregor

The continued growth of romance — particularly historical romance. Let’s face it, last year the publisher who saw the biggest growth was Harlequin, and they did it in a down year for most publishers. Readers in a bad economy like to escape by reading romance novels. You can roll your eyes if you want to, but it’s the truth.

Thrillers aren’t selling like they used to.  James Patterson and other bestselling novelists can still move large quantities, but once you move away from the bestselling authors, it’s much slower (and, frankly, much harder to place a new novelist). 

There is a renewed interest in Americana, particularly during sunnier days. We’re seeing interest in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, for example (assuming it’s fair to use British terms for American history). That seems to be a trend away from seeing so many wartime sagas — perhaps a reflection on our fatigue with the never-ending war in Iraq. 

We’ve seen a lot of growth with fiction that surrounds historical events. Not a retelling of the events, but of stories that touch on history. So, for example, we’re not seeing novels that re-tell the assassination of President Lincoln, but we ARE seeing novels that have to do with people who were in the vicinity, or who knew John Wilkes Booth, or who were at Ford’s Theater, or who were part of the chase to catch the conspirators, etc. Again, not so much focused on the event itself, but on characters who were influenced by the event. 

Literary fiction is definitely a growth category in American publishing. Take a look at any bestseller list, and you’ll see a lot of literary fiction. Not only that, but many of the books have a clear spiritual thread — something I don’t see many people recognizing or reporting on. 

One of the most-reported growth trends has been in paranormal fiction.

 I see mixed signals in the horror category. Some think it’s up; others think it has run its course. I don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other. 

Of course there has been huge growth in the Christian/inspirational category over the past 7 or 8 years. The incredible growth has slowed, making some think religious fiction is hurting, but that’s just not true. Christian fiction is still a HUGE category, and there is still growing interest from those houses who were late to jump on board during the heyday. So while, yes, we’re not seeing the big growth in titles that we did a couple years ago, compare the number of titles and the number of genres and sub-genres to what we saw just three years ago. 

One of the most visible areas of growth in the inspirational category has been Amish fiction (or “bonnet novels”). Some people have said that it’s going to fade out, but I don’t believe it. I think it has established itself as its own sub-genre. What Bev Lewis started and Cindy Woodsmall followed has turned into its own category of fiction. That sort of thing happens sometimes — consider Louis L’Amour creating the giant interest in westerns, or Edgar Allan Poe basically establishing horror fiction. People are still buying it, so it has clearly found its audience. 

He goes on the mention the growth of small presses (including those who specialise only in the production of e-books) and the growth of e-books themselves.  He continues: “I don’t think ink-and-paper books are going away any time soon — most every reader still loves printed books. But I’ve got three kids in their 20’s, and all of them are comfortable reading a book on a screen — even an iPhone screen. That tells me when their generation is in charge, the e-book will be a core business, not a side business. It will be a major part of every publishing decision, not simply a sub-rights discussion. 

I can comment on two genres mentioned above: thrillers, and spiritual literary fiction.  Five of the soon to be seven books I’ve published are in these two categories.  The three thrillers I’ve written are all pretty gripping, and realistic.  But, I’m beginning to feel ‘been there, done that.  Sable Shadow & The Presence is spiritual literary fiction, and it has won eight (minor) awards to date.  Writing it and the reaction I’ve had to it have motivated me to (nearly) complete my seventh novel, which has a definite spiritual dimension, and is set in the Middle East.  In spite of the fact a tremendous amount to research was required, I greatly enjoyed the experience.  I’ll tell you more about it as soon as the publishing contract is signed.

What Makes a Best-Selling Novel?

I just stumbled on this article from The Daily Telegraph of 9 January 2014 and written by Matthew Sparkes.

Scientists have developed an algorithm which can analyse a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.  A technique called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, was found to be “surprisingly effective” in determining how popular a book would be.

The group of computer scientists from Stony Brook University in New York said that a range of factors determine whether or not a book will enjoy success, including “interestingness”, novelty, style of writing, and how engaging the storyline is, but admit that external factors such as luck can also play a role.

By downloading classic books from the Project Gutenberg (a library of over 50,000 free e-books) archive they were able to analyse texts with their algorithm and compare its predictions to historical information on the success of the work. Everything from science fiction to classic literature and poetry was included.  It was found that the predictions matched the actual popularity of the book 84 per cent of the time.  They found several trends that were often found in successful books, including heavy use of conjunctions such as “and” and “but” and large numbers of nouns and adjectives.

Less successful work tended to include more verbs and adverbs and relied on words that explicitly describe actions and emotions such as “wanted”, “took” or “promised”, while more successful books favoured verbs that describe thought processes such as “recognised” or “remembered”.  To find “less successful” books for their tests, the researchers scoured Amazon for low-ranking books in terms of sales. They also included Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, despite its commercial success, because of “negative critiques it had attracted from media”.

“Predicting the success of literary works poses a massive dilemma for publishers and aspiring writers alike,” said Assistant Professor Yejin Choi, one of the authors of the paper published by the Association if Computational Linguistics.  To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first that provides quantitative insights into the connection between the writing style and the success of literary works.  Previous work has attempted to gain insights into the ‘secret recipe’ of successful books. But most of these studies were qualitative, based on a dozen books, and focused primarily on high-level content – the personalities of protagonists and antagonists and the plots. Our work examines a considerably larger collection – 800 books – over multiple genres, providing insights into lexical, syntactic, and discourse patterns that characterise the writing styles commonly shared among the successful literature.”

What I find surprising about this study is statistical correlation between ‘writing style’ and popularity.  Eighty-four percent is a strong correlation!  Conjunctions tend to keep the action moving, hence their frequent use.  We’ve heard for some time that the use of adverbs is to be avoided, and that it is far better to choose a more accurate and descriptive verb.  The frequent use of adjectives makes sense; after all we’re trying to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, and well-chosen adjectives will improve the clarity of the picture.  It is interesting that verbs which convey action or emotion are less successful than verbs which convey thought processes.  Perhaps this is because it is easier for a reader to ‘tune in’ to thought processes than it is for him or her to feel the action or the emotion.  Is the corollary of this proposition a finding that thoughtful characters are more popular than active or emotional characters?  No.  I think this would be carrying the thought process too far.

It would be interesting if the algorithm were able to spot clichés or commonly used phrases, because these are thought to be a real turn-off for readers.

What do you think?

Payments to Authors

There was an interesting article in The Daily Telegraph two days ago about the payments authors receive from the publishers of e-books, as follows:

“Professional writers could become and ‘endangered species’ unless publishers start paying them properly for e-books, the Society of Authors has warned.  The society said lovers of literature would soon be left with less and less quality content.  In an open letter to publishers, the society called on executives to treat authors more fairly, drawing up less punishing contracts and paying them more.  Research has shown that the median income of British authors is £11,000, which the society argues is far below the ‘level deemed necessary for a socially acceptable living standard’.  Nicola Solomon, the society’s chief executive said: ‘Unless publishers treat their authors more equitably, the decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success and cultural reputation of our creative industries’.  The society calls on publishers to give authors ‘at least 50%’ of revenue from their e-books, as opposed to a ‘mere 25%’, and not to ‘discriminate’ against writers who do not have powerful agents.”

If I look at the 100 Kindle edition paid best sellers on Amazon, the top price is $14.99 (3 books), and the cheapest books were $0.99 (20 books).  There is another list of the 100 Kindle edition free best sellers.  The books selling at very low prices are there because their authors are trying to promote them into best sellers.  This way the author gets ‘fame’ if not fortune.  But if one looks at the best authors, the prices seem to start at $8.99.  There are five J K Rowling books for sale at $8.99.  So, it’s fair to note that authors have some control over the price at which their books are sold as e-books, and, presumably, also some control over their level of royalties.

The problem, it seems to me, is for the relatively unknown author who is trying to make a living from writing good, serious literature.  Let’s say s/he can persuade the publisher to sell his/her e-book at $6.99, with a 25% commission.  If so, s/he will earn $1.75 a copy, and to make £11,000 per year,  s/he has to sell 9,400 copies per year.  This will put his/her book on somebody’s best seller list.  The point is that it is very difficult for a good, serious writer to make a living selling e-books, unless s/he has a best seller.  So, I think the Society of Authors has a point.

What can be done by whom?  I think it’s pretty unlikely that the publishers will all agree to raise their prices enough to give their authors 50% of the price.  They’ll be afraid of losing volume.  Besides, there’s plenty of margin for the publisher in an $8.99 e-book.  Production costs are far less than a dollar, so their major expenses are corporate overheads, author royalties, and advertising, over which they have control.  It’s even less likely that an ‘author’s union’ will be able to force through price increases.

But I think that once an author and a publisher have reached a basic deal to publish hard copies, there’s room for negotiation on the price of the e-book.  This negotiation would recognise the author’s per copy royalty on hard copies, the publishers costs, volume assumptions, and the sensible price differential between hard copies and e-copies from a user’s point of view.  For example, if the hard copy is selling for $17.50, and a Kindle fanatic wants the book, why wouldn’t s/he pay $12 for it, so that the author gets $4 per copy and the publisher gets $8?