The Living Market
By Michael Kabongo, OnyxHawke Agency
The science fiction-fantasy market is a living, breathing albeit occasionally dysfunctional thing. Calling it a market is actually a misnomer. It’s not a misnomer in the absolute sense because it is a commercial continuum. It is doing it an inadequacy to name it a market because that implies that it is a constant, and not a mutable engagement.
The endeavor is more of an ecosystem than anything as predictable as the market for black dress socks, diapers, or over-the-counter pain remedies. All three of those, with very rare exceptions, probably have very similar sales of units year to year. But like any commodity based on artistic expression, subjectively winnowed, and arbitrarily arranged in the consumer buying space, the book market is highly changeable. The changes can be both short term as measured in months and even a few years, and long term in decades and generations.
For a short-term example one need look no further than the cycle of the Harry Potter series. These were seven books that were published in about a decade. When they began there was little on the market that was similar, by the third book’s success there were several, before the launch of the fifth many. Six months after the seventh book the number shrank rapidly. There are two causes for this: Writers writing to market, and publishers looking for that elusive golden snitch in their slush piles.
Long term, one need only look at the cycles of different subgenres. The Big Fat Fantasy of 200,000 words has had its time in the sun. Urban fantasy has reigned supreme. Colonization and exploration of other planets lived the high life for a while. And do we even need to talk about the explosive growth of word count? 1984, A Brave New World, and The Martian Chronicles could all fit nicely inside Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance. All four books are a bit well known.
What always baffles me is writers who say they don’t read the genre they claim they want to succeed in. I can’t think of any other profession where one could get away with even saying this without being laughed out of the building. Can any of you imagine Tim Thomas MVP of the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins saying “Naw, I never watched hockey as a kid, it was mostly tennis and detective shows because I didn’t want to pollute my style.” I’m guessing you can’t, even with his outlier style. No one, not even me, tells writers you must write like …but if you aren’t aware of how the ecosystem is going to respond to you releasing a new life form into it, you’re probably wasting time.
Just try telling farmers across the southern plains, Georgia, or other affected regions you’re thinking of releasing a few hundred wild pigs into the area. Really, just give me enough time to make sure I’m not standing within fifty feet of you. Why? They are unwelcome. They are a (tasty) varmint, with a population already over capacity. I suspect you’d be just as cheerfully rebuffed if you said you were going to release camels or rabbits in Australia.
The publishing ecosystem changes in the same way as a purely biological one. Sometimes the change is because of the death of a writer. Sometimes it’s just that readers stop buying a particular slice of the spectrum. Other times the publisher that is best known for subgenre-X will fold or have a change of staff. Not being plugged into the market is pure foolishness, utter insanity, and very nearly a death-and-taxes level certainty of irrelevance. Some few writers have managed to succeed at any given genre with only cursory contact with it, but that isn’t even something as frequent as broken-clock syndrome, it is more a Haley’s Comet-level event.
Michael Kabongo is the driving force behind OnyxHawke Agency, he is also a salesman, 4- Leader, music lover, bibliophile, history & psychology buff, and first class hockey nut. One day he'd like to learn to play the saxophone. His sense of humor is often lower than a politician's honor.
I hope you have enjoyed this agent’s perspective on the realm of publishing markets. If you don’t mind, please do share with us what you do to keep in tune with your genre.