As a writer, I spend a lot of time trying to suss out what publishers are looking for. I read what they put out and try to figure out what characteristics of that book or story prompted an editor to say, “I want to publish this over all the other submissions I’ve received.” I also until recently worked on the editorial staff of a literary magazine, trying valiantly to figure out which stories in the slush pile I should send up to the fiction editor and which ones I could safely assume she wasn’t interested in. I’ve also had the opportunity on many occasions to directly ask an editor or a publisher what they want.
You know what I’ve found out?
That “I know it when I see it” answer you so often get when you ask really does sum it up pretty well.
Most editors and publisher can’t define what they want in anything but the broadest of terms. “Science fiction with a literary edge” is actually pretty specific. “Stories about cyborgs” is one extremely specific call that’s out there right now. As you can imagine, within those parameters, there are myriad possibilities. Most publishing houses don’t get anywhere near this precise in their calls for submissions.
Now, editors and publishers certainly know what they don’t want. When you visit a set of guidelines and they have the list of “Things we’re not interested in,” or “Stories we’ve seen too often,” they mean it. Don’t take those lists as your writing prompt. But as for what they do want, all too often they don’t really know — or if they think they know, all too often when they get it, it just doesn’t appeal to them and they don’t know why.
So, rather than trying to write to what the industry is looking for, I’m going to suggest we take a different approach.
Ultimately, what an editor or publisher needs is something they can sell. If readers don’t buy books or magazines, there’s no industry. If there’s no industry, there’s no income for the editors and publishers. So whether they’re conscious of it or not, every time an editor is considering a manuscript the ultimate question is, “Will readers pay money for this?” (or “Will enough readers want this that advertisers will pay money to reach those readers?”). Publishing is a business, after all. So, instead of trying to figure out what concepts or literary conventions or whatever are in vogue at the moment, let’s instead look for a way we can figure out if a reader will want to buy what you’ve written.
So the first step is to identify your audience. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not you should write for a specific audience. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter. But you’re going to have to know who the audience is when you’re done. So who’s the audience? “Everyone” is not the answer. No book appeals to everyone. (Want proof? Look at how many Harry Potter haters there are out there, and that’s a series that allegedly appealed to everyone.) It’s actually quite challenging to identify a core audience, because there’s no longer a single demographic buying science fiction and fantasy. People who have degrees in English and report only liking literary fiction are reading speculative works. Housewives who only read romances are reading fantasy novels. Even the core “white, male, nerd” audience has splintered into fans of various different sub-genres. So, start paying attention. Who’s reading the sort of thing you like to write?
Then, you want to start your market research. That means talk to those readers. Get involved in social networks, online and in person, where you can find real-world readers (not just your writer friends) to interact with. Ask them what they’ve really enjoyed recently, and why they enjoyed it. You’re not asking to figure out what you want to rip off (i.e., if they say how much they love Games of Thrones, don’t go off and write a high-body-count epic fantasy called Players for the Kingdom). You’re trying to see what adjectives they use, and what details they seize on. If many of them say, “It was heartbreaking, and I just love this character so much,” that’s very different than if they say, “The action was intense, and I really wanted that babe in it, too.” (These two groups of readers could even be describing the same story, for all we know.) When you’ve talked to enough of them, you’ll start to see patterns emerge. Some love larger-than-life characters. Some want to see fascinating science concepts. Some prefer comfortable, old tropes.
Next, ask yourself if your story or book could be described that same way. If yes, you’ve found your audience. If not, you either need to look for a different audience or consider a re-write (or abandoning the project, if you’re in the “write to a specific audience” camp).
If you’re trying to sell a book, you want to pitch it the way you would for that audience. Your pitch should include those adjectives and core ideas that your reader guinea pigs used. It’s even O.K. to say, “…will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife.” (By the way, that’s a much better way to sell a speculative literary piece than a science fiction novel.) That way the agents, editors, etc. immediately have an idea of how to market it. If they know how to market it, they can imagine who would buy it. And if they know who will buy it, they know how many copies they can realistically sell, and your book becomes much easier to make an offer on.
For those, like me, who prefer to write short fiction, we don’t get to do a pitch to sell our stories. A great many publications don’t even read cover letters. But that doesn’t mean this market research is wasted. Once you’ve found your audience, ask them a simple question: “What’s your favorite magazine/venue for short stories?” Chances are you’ll get an earful about what’s wrong with each of them, but at least one (more likely two or three) clear winners will start to emerge. Submit there. You don’t need to sell the editor on the work you’ve done to appeal to their core readership. They’ll recognize it in the story.
It sounds simplistic because it’s actually pretty simple — at least in concept. The actual doing of it is going to require practice. Some authors are naturally very good at it. Most of us aren’t. But once we get the hang of it, it’s a lot more effective than chasing around trying to guess what stories we should be writing to appeal to the industry.