author – activist – faculty – mom
So I’ve been on the hustle to get a literary agent for my novel since 2010. I had contacted one agent about my work in 2005 and again in 2008, but I had a friend that knew the agent. So, in 2010, I had to educate myself about the industry, and figure out how to break in without the friend of a friend hookup. I learned about the query letter, the slush pile, and how difficult it is to sell a debut novel these days.
As part of my research, I also joined Publisher’s Marketplace, a website where you pay to have access to insider industry information. They publish book deals that agents and editors have made, types of books and even amounts paid. You can search for the deal history of a particular agent, agency or editor of interest. They also have a daily email that reports all the books sold the previous day.
So I used this paid-for service to research agents I was interested in. But one of the unexpected gains was insight into what types of novels were selling these days. Each deal had a little blurb, a short elevator pitch for the book. I started noticing trends. Here are three actual excerpts from posts, taken at random from that time:
“a girl discovers her nightmarish visions are caused by a telepathic link to a twin she didn’t know existed…”
“a tale of historical intrigue …during the American Revolution…”
“spiraling down a vortex of fear and anxiety, a woman finds [a] hero who rescues her from the hands of a sadistic stalker…”
I plan to address the stalker trend in a separate post, but for this post, I want to look at the first two: fantasy/futuristic and historical.
I was surprised at how many books were “set in a world where…” zombies, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, etc. The second category was books “in which a woman has the ability to…” read minds, raise the dead, teleport, etc. Some were also set in a post-apocalyptic future. On the other hand, there were many set in the past. The 50s, WWII, the 20s, the Civil War, etc.
After reading the deals for many months, it became clear that people weren’t buying books about the here and now. Our current society is a tough place to pay attention to. Epic violence of all types, ecological destruction, economic collapses, health pandemics. In the literature, it seems that people are interested in the past, the future, the paranormal, but can’t quite face what’s happening in this historical moment.
Pleasure reading has always included escape. But I was surprised at the magnitude of the escapism. I was also dismayed to see that, in particular, a lot of the young adult books were either about a contemporary teen facing personal problems, or a fantasy/futuristic epic tale of worlds at battle/good and evil. In other words, few stories of teens as changemakers in a our world. It’s hard to take inspiration from Twilight on how to face the challenges of global warming or family home foreclosure. In contrast to the girl with the ability to freeze time, it’s hard for a young woman to know how to take action on sexual harassment at her school. I’m not criticizing any of these individual books or their authors. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be written, read or enjoyed. I’m just commenting on the bigger picture, and the implications for the actual future. Some young people may find these books incredibly inspiring and apply the abundant lessons about courage, connection, faith, and boldness to the challenges at hand. However, I see much more activity in buying the tie-in merchandise, logging into the fan fiction website, and discussion boards about the world of the book.
Writing about the now…
Most of the books in my dozen half-written arsenal are set in the present (a few are set in the late 80s when I came of age, and I may have one Victorian England novel in me). However, the loosely connected trilogy I’m working on now are all set in present day. These are stories with separate protagonists, set in a connected world. The protagonists from the 1st and 3rd play key roles in the middle book. I realized that what all the books have in common is that they are stories of women of color confronting the challenges of our current time. The first is a Robin Hood story in response to the disappearing safety net. The second is a hunt em down and get the money back tale of a CEO who ripped off his employees. The third is a tale of fighting for environmental and racial justice. All are about communities of color. All have a group that has to work together. All have some vision of social justice at the heart of them. The latter two, in particular, have reluctant heroines. But I like that. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about a young woman who just wants to stay at home and read futuristic novels, but the current day battles going on around her her drag her kicking and screaming into the present.