Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Readers Don’t Get Fatigued; Editors Do.

Someone on Facebook pointed out that the zombie bestsellers right now are largely self-published titles. Even on the print side, where POD books are ruling the roost. I saw a thread on KB recently about how well someone was doing with clean urban fantasy (no graphic sex), even though they’ve been told nobody wants this.

You hear it a lot in this business. “Vampires are done.” “Zombies are tapped out.” “Nobody wants that anymore.”

Who is the “nobody” here? I don’t think it’s readers. There are new readers being born every second. There are new people hitting the age where they become absorbed in fiction. Right now, at this very moment, while you are reading this sentence, some child is hurriedly scanning the final paragraph of a great book. They just finished. They are now realizing that they haven’t been breathing. There is a gasp, a feeling like crying, like sobbing, an overwhelming joy at how frickin’ awesome that experience felt, a need to call a friend and beg them to read this book, but also a pit in their stomach, a hunger, an absence.

That person — they are real, even if we don’t know their name or where they live — is now a reader. They just had that experience that so many of us have had. And they are going to love a zombie story. They are going to love reading about vampires. Everything in the world is new to them.

This constant replenishing of the reading public means nothing ever grows old. It means your stories will be out there to be rediscovered over and over again. And it means we have to stop worrying about genres being “tapped out.”

I think what really happens is that agents and editors get weary of the same stories. They just decide one day that they’ve seen enough of this theme or setting, and it’s time to move on. They chatter on about this at conventions, and so it becomes self-fulfilled prophecy. Meanwhile, a new reader is being born. Someone else just turned to the last page. The process is still happening, still happening. These people are going to want new books to read. Whether that agent thinks those books are needed or not, I’m going to write them.

21 replies to “Readers Don’t Get Fatigued; Editors Do.”

Or, how about evil Rastafarians and gangsters? That’s my new book! A few editor types poo-poohed it, but my audience is getting excited about local flavor. Thanks!

I post a lot on the Goodreads fantasy message threads and am always surprised when someone hasn’t heard or read a book I found 10, 15 years ago. But then they’d probably be surprised at what I hadn’t heard of. And sometimes what’s old becomes new again.

Good post. I think that agents/editors will eventually admit that they don’t always know what readers want to read and when they want to read them. Looking at skewed sales figures based on short shelf lives will not tell them the readers’ hearts.

In fact, their letting go of that control would free them to be better agents and better editors if they stop telling authors what they can and cannot write. They’d have more books to publish, and the slush piles would be much reduced. There is gold in them thar slush piles. :-)

I believe that genre/subgenre popularity is cyclical. What’s hot now might not be hot next year, but might be the year after that. Because it comes and goes, all books in all genres should be written and published for the readers’ sake. IMHO, anyway. Like you alluded to, new readers are born every day.

I firmly believe that you can never be too rich or publish too many vampire romances or zombie apocalypse novels. Seriously, readers want consistent consumable books. If you like vampire novels, you’ll read them for years.

Well zombies work for me. And yes, all self-published.

Even if you think about you Wool series, and now Sand – there a heap of dystopian and post-apoc type sci-fi or sci-fantasy books out there going back decades and further, and lots of them touched on the various themes or idea in your books, but each in it’s own special way and unique voice. I think what grips readers over and over is another journey into a special place that is unknown, in whatever flavour they want. As a reader I love to revisit books I loved when I first read them, but what thrills the most is another, different tale in a similar genre or theme.

How else do romance readers chew up so many books? The vast majority of romance or urban fantasy or paranormal fantasy is all “more of the same” and it rings true in every genre. That’s what I want as a reader. Giv eme more of the same (but different)

And! If someone discovers Stephen King for the first time, they just found fifty+ books to read, all of which are entirely new – TO THEM.

“More” is the new “New” ? heh!

I generally write horror, scifi and fantasy, (kind of in that order or mashed up) but the series that earns me a living (all the books add to it but this one outsells the rest by a magnitude) and allows me to do this full time is the “Arisen” zombies vs special ops series. Actually it earns two livings because both myself and my co-writer Mike are working full time just based on the sales of that series. We released book five in November and the series sold just shy of $30,000 worth of just ebooks in December alone. An audio deal was signed for the entire series, and we’re now talking to paperback publishers. Our readers are god damn amazingly supportive. I love them.

For me – one book every month from here on. If people want to read my books, I’m damn well going to give them more than they can chew. Screw that one book per year malarkey. But of course it won’t be enough :) I get emails asking when the next book is out, on the day AFTER a book has been released.

Last note – I’ve been dying to do something unheard of, and that is go back and completely restart and rewrite one of my books. Not get rid of the old version, because I love how it turned out, but start with the same exact beginning, same first few pages, and then write a completely different novel. Don’t know if I’ll do it.

Nah, not unheard of at all! I’ve often pondered on how ones way of thinking changes so much. I’ve always loved the idea that someone could write a book, then restart and end up with a completely different book.

On a slightly different but not so dissimilar note, I’ve been meaning to rewrite the ending of Dust for my own personal use. Not that I think the current one is bad, but my imagination keeps telling me of an alternate ending.

Now here’s a funny for you. I love NON fiction; mostly economics and history. I gave up on fiction a long time ago. I felt that if you read one romance, you’ve read them all. I still believe that actually. The problem I had with fiction is that I could get the gist of the book in the first chapter; dates, props, and little things change but basically the same plot. Now if you would have told me a year ago I would have enjoyed a Zombie book I would have rolled my eyes. Well I was wrong. I found the silo saga absorbing and compelling on so many different levels. And I hate to admit this but I loved/hated ‘I Zombie’. I have rediscovered fiction. There are not many I really enjoy but when I find one that gets my head spinning, make me ask myself those profound unanswerable questions and suspends time and reality; well now that is a treat. And a Zombie book? Who would’a thunk it. I find I like the dystopian aspect because it so feels like the earth is infested with humans. Something needs to happen to thin the heard.

I absolutely love dystopian novels, but I feel the same about mystery/detective style novels as you do about fiction in general. I’m not in it for the good guy/bad guy chases…. I’m in it for the thought processes and themes.

I think your observation is right, but I think it even goes a little deeper than that. I think an editor keeps an eye on the trends so when they see a trend, they start forcing themselves to take a ton of those types of books all at once. Let’s just use Twilight as an example. As soon as that started to hit big, you started seeing tons of either Vampire Teen Dramas or just Teen Dramas with some supernatural element in general. Then by the time the rest of the writing world sees that, they start trying to hurry their brilliant Supernatural Teen Drama through the gatekeepers, but by then it’s too late. The editors feel they’ve saturated the market enough in that subgenre so then you start hearing the comments of, “Vampires are out,” in rejection letters when you are scratching your head thinking, “But everybody is reading Vampires.” It’s not so much that editors are sick of a particular subgenre, though I’ve no doubt that factors in, but since we all know that at some point editors morph from book lovers who want a good story, to hard nosed business people who are only worried about the bottom line, they start making business based decisions rather than quality based. They are trying to zig before the market does and capitalize on the next trend. Since print books, in those days anyway, had such a limited shelf life, they were forced by the nature of their own beast to behave this way. If they signed a bunch of new Supernatural Teen Dramas now while the trend is at its peak, and it takes them two years, to get those out to market, by the time they do they risk the trend being over.

But in the self publishing world, there is not shelf life. We are the long-term investors to the big 5/6’s day traders. We can invest in a book, leave it on our virtual shelf forever and ride the peaks and valleys of genre/subgenre trends. They need to show a profit, this month or this quarter while we are simply saying Book X has made me 10,000.00 since I printed it a year ago and it’s all profit for me. Their bloated overhead makes it a much riskier game for them than us. So like a day trader chasing the latest hot stock, they are bound by their model to try to chase a trend to it’s peak, predict where said peak is, and pick up a new trail before the original one has even started to grow cold. In that way, they sort of defined the very trends they were chasing or at least influencing them once they started.

“But in the self publishing world, there is not shelf life. We are the long-term investors to the big 5/6′s day traders. We can invest in a book, leave it on our virtual shelf forever and ride the peaks and valleys of genre/subgenre trends. They need to show a profit, this month or this quarter while we are simply saying Book X has made me 10,000.00 since I printed it a year ago and it’s all profit for me. Their bloated overhead makes it a much riskier game for them than us. So like a day trader chasing the latest hot stock, they are bound by their model to try to chase a trend to it’s peak, predict where said peak is, and pick up a new trail before the original one has even started to grow cold. In that way, they sort of defined the very trends they were chasing or at least influencing them once they started.”

That’s a brilliant analogy. Deserves its own blog post.

Many years ago—long enough I can’t cite this figure—I came across a reference that stated the average shelf life of the average novel is three years. (Please note, the keyword is “average.”) A new novel from its first publishing date will sell well during this period, but sales will fade by three years. Over the years, I kept my eyes on some novels or authors that stood out and noted that they indeed did disappear from the shelves after about three years.

Fashions and trends are just a part of human nature. One year it’s the avocado, the next it’s the acai berry. One moment fashion says pastels and preppy, the next its neon colors and sportswear. A business that doesn’t cater to what is hot now isn’t going to last long. Ford doesn’t make the Model-T anymore, they make the F-150. Nobody makes Victorian swim dresses today because everyone wants bikinis.

Publishers are absolutely going to look for stories that reflect the current trend, because it makes for easier and better sales. It’s classic supply and demand—and demand and supply. When Tom Clancy hit the markets with “The Hunt for Red October” and “A Clear and Present Danger,” military suspense novels became all the rage. Let’s say some nobody ;-) came out of nowhere with a dystopian story of a bunch of people living in a hole in the ground with the wool pulled over their eyes and it became a huge hit. Sure as Shakespeare, you know the market is going to get flooded with similar stories, hoping to ride in on the coattails of that first author.
As a publisher, if you have anything similar, you’d throw it out there and hope to get peripheral sales based on the success of that primary book.

Of course, this can also kill a trend. The market gets absolutely flooded with similar stories and people get bored with it and move on to something else. Even I put my pet rock out to pasture. (It has since grown into a boulder and its progeny grow each year in my garden, attacking the rototiller.)

So, three years on the shelf of a store is about it for most books. But a good story rises above all that and continue to sell copies, year after year. These are the books that endure and become classics.

This is where ebooks really serve the market. There is no cost for storage or shelf space. They take up no physical space (on the human scale). Keeping an ebook on perpetual sale has no further cost after the initial setup costs—ignoring electricity costs for the host server that is also storing a million other books. There is no reason to take an ebook “out of print.” It can continue to generate income for the author/publisher long after print sales may have dried up.

Completely agree! I have a grip of rejection letters from agents saying my story isn’t a fit (meaning they don’t think they can do anything with it, probably) yet the thousands of readers who have enjoyed it and are clamoring for more seem to indicate otherwise.

We should all just write what we want and stop worrying about what other people think. If the story is good, even if it’s an “overdone” genre, it will sell regardless. Zombies and Vampires are just plot devices, the drama/thrill/horror/humor of the story and characters is what makes it sell.

What I’d like to see is a Robocop vs. Zombies fan-fiction hit the top charts, lol. =)

How many times I have heard at a conference a world weary editor or agent state what they are looking for, then add–no vampires (terrorists, westerns, werewolves, you name it). as you say, because THEY don’t want to read it. no thought whatsoever of what the reader wants. there is a lot of space in the world for a good story.

Yup. This. They make the mistake of thinking the next manuscript needs to be a book for all the current readers out there, the people who have read the same books the agent has read. They forget that there’s always new readers coming through. If a book is good, it’s good. Forget what came before.

As a first time novelist, one who is in the throes of completing her first MS, I find your blog and this thread in particular, very inspiring. Thank you for helping us, especially us newbies to keep going. We need to hear there are many roads that lead to publication. We need to know if one road doesn’t lead to our goal, there is another way up the mountain.

I agree on both sides of this argument.

I’ve been tired of vampire stories since 2006. I worked at a prod co. To give perspective on how far back that goes — the pilot script for TruBlood was the last vampire script I read before completely ODing.

Yet, as a reader, I love reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. (Also reading Holly Black’s Coldest Girl in Coldtown — another vampire story. Oops. How did that happen?)

I think publisher and prod co’s often don’t get enough credit in terms of originality and looking for the next thing. They are. Constantly.

Considering a typical development slate could be anywhere from one year to fifteen to get a movie made (Notice that highly paid directors and writers are generally booked 2-3 years out… so that’s your average if you’re looking at a major Hollywood blockbuster that’s rushed through development)– it’s pretty easy to see why they might get tired of some ideas. They’ve either spent their time on it already and it worked out, or not. But either way, it feels like treading over the same old ground. And trust me, the work, effort, time put in to something derivative is no different than that on something fresh. (in before: The Asylum! There are exceptions–on both extremes.)

When you read a book, you’re with it for hours, maybe a few days, maybe a week. When you’re done, if it was good, you just want more.Publishers and producers live and breathe these things for years. It’s hard to get excited when the project(s) start feeling like “just another vampire movie/book/film.” When they are done, good or bad, they’re just plain exhausted.

I could not agree more with you, Hugh. This is also exactly why one should concentrate on telling the story one wants to tell, regardless of the tons of other stories with similar worlds or same genre already out there. The first goal is to write a story that someone would enjoy reading. The goal of publishing comes after that. You can obviously manipulate some plot details and some structure of the story to fit your publishing requirements (like whether you want to publish it in 10 parts or 3 or as a single novel) but everything starts with writing a good story that demands an audience. I believe that a well written story gathers its audience entirely on its own.

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