Friday, June 12, 2015

Trying to Sell Novels Outside the Mainstream

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A commenter asked...
"I would like to see you write about novels that are so original and different they fall outside the desired mainstream. I suspect there are a number of us who fear we just may have written this type. I would also like to see you address the issue of whether an agent will be interested in novels like this at all. Is this a non-starter?"
I'm going to preface this by saying I'm not an agent or editor, so everything I'm about to say is purely my opinion based on what I've read and conversations with those in the biz.

Publishing is a business, and there are well-established genres to help readers find the kinds of books they want to read. Bookstores arrange their shelves that way to help get the right books into the hands of the right customers. If a book falls outside one of these categories, it can indeed be hard to place, let alone know who to submit it to.

Let's tackle the first part of the question...

1. What do you do if you've written something so original and different it falls outside the desired mainstream?

At the risk of sounding harsh (my goal here is to help, not trash, writers), the chances of writing something unique (in the pure definition sense) are slim. Pretty much everything has been done before. The upside to this, is that means you probably don't have to worry about it. Odds are your work is either fiction or literary and you can market it to agents and editors who represent these categories. Plenty of unusual and outside the norm books are shelved under fiction.

On the off chance you really have written something unique, well, I think it all depends on how “unique.” If it doesn't fit in even a little with anything else in the marketplace, not even general fiction or literary, odds are there's no market for it. If someone was buying that kind of book, you'd see others like it. If readers aren't buying it, then odds are editors aren't either.

But that doesn't mean the book is doomed.
New genres and subgenres appear every year, and every genre had a first book to try that genre. Different types of books get published and shake everyone up because no one saw them coming. New twists to old tropes happen all the time.

To quote one of my favorite disaster moves, "There's no history of anything until there is."

Now, for the second part...

2. Would an agent be interested in this type of novel?

Agents are interested in great books they feel they can sell. If something unusual crosses their desk and they love it, and they think they can find at least one editor willing to buy it, they'll probably take it on. However, loving it isn't enough. You hear plenty of stories about agents who passed on a book they loved because they didn't think they could sell it. Some of those books went on to find homes (and sales) elsewhere, others never did. Selling it trumps loving it.

I do think it's possible to write something that is so different and out there that there's no market for it, and therefore it won't sell to a traditional publisher. If you have this type of book, you might indeed be out of luck if you want to go the traditional publishing route. Plenty of great products have failed because they were either ahead of their time, or just too different for the folks they were selling it to. Not just books, either, this happens with movies, TV shows, even products.


Ebooks and self publishing have changed the literary world. A novel that traditional publishing won’t touch can still find an audience all on its own if that audience is out there. Some small presses publish outside-the-norm novels, so writers have multiple options for a hard-to-place book. If the Big Five aren’t interested, try a smaller press, or go indie.

If you think you have this kind of novel, you have three options:

1. Self publish.

This is a viable option in today’s market. Authors are making good livings as indie authors, though it does take work, money, and a little luck. If you choose this route, remember—you’re becoming a small business (publisher) and the more you treat it like that the better the odds you’ll be successful.

2. Find things about the book that are similar to what's out there and market it toward agents who rep that kind of work.

One of the more frustrating phrases in publishing is “More like this, only different.” Editors are always looking for books just similar enough to what’s selling big, but with a new twist or different angle to set it apart. Maybe your unique book fits this niche (or can with a little tweaking).

3. Revise to make the book more marketable and submit to those who rep that kind of book.

Odds are you have something unusual, but not unique. Fiction is a perfectly acceptable category and it allows for all styles of books. If you don't know where your book goes, try general fiction and see what you find.

Even with an unusual book, something about it will be comparable to another book, be it the style, the tone, the setting, the plot, the premise, etc. You should be able to find something that makes it like something else, or at least close enough to pick agents to send it to. Think outside the box.

The "desired mainstream" is just what's selling right now. It changes on a whim, and you can't predict what will be popular. Harry Potter's first print run was 1000 books. JKR sells more than that a day now. The Shack was self published as a Christmas gift and then went on to bestseller status. The only thing you can count on is that readers want great stories. And what they consider great varies. A lot.

Write the story you feel the most passionate about. Market it as best you can and submit it to those you think have the best chance of buying, repping, or selling it. That's all any of us can do, and as long as we keep trying, we increase our chances of success.

And remember…a "too original for mainstream" book from a debut author might be a breakout blockbuster from that same author after they sell a few more books and build a following. People are much more likely to accept different from someone they already know. It might not be a matter of originality, but of timing in the marketplace.

How do you feel about unique novels and novels outside the mainstream? Do you buy them? Write them? Would you give them a chance? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Janice, just wanted to say I'm finally getting around to reading shifter after purchasing it last year. And I'm so loving it!
    I also love your blog. Another great post.

  2. Great post. You see this sort of question a lot among newer writers, so it's good to hear some useful ideas.

  3. Great post! This should put a lot of minds at ease.

  4. I agree with atsiko. A lot of new writers think a brilliant work is a piece of cake to write, except those nasty mean publishers just won't 'get it.' Write the book first, then figure out if it's original. Personally, I think no one could pass up something well written with a plot--something too much literary fiction (which is considered 'original', right?) seems to lack.

  5. Great advice, Janice. Thanks for this

  6. This has been my exact ponderings lately, and thank you for your blog post. It makes me more optimistic about finding a place for my ms, and I'm in short supply of optimism at the moment!

  7. When trying to figure out what you write, consider what else could be shelved with your work. Even if it's not the same, what work has notable similarities to what you write (even if you have to say "but...")? What does your critique group compare it to?


    Shanna Swendson's Enchanted, Inc. series is best described as Bridgette Jones meets Harry Potter--and there are few titles that can compare to it on a story level. Despite the ADD bad guy, it isn't a satire, so not Terry Pratchett, and there's certainly no horror, so forget the UF label. NOT paranormal romance, and not for kids, though they have less objectionable content than most modern YA.

    Unique? Not exactly. It best qualifies as contemporary fantasy, and I can name a few books that resemble some aspect of it without trying so hard. I consider the "but..." a good thing, when you're describing something. That's what makes it worth reading (in my book).

    The publisher marketed it as chick lit, but they could've also been put in fantasy.

  8. I meant to preface that with: There is nothing new under the sun.

  9. So much of it is timing. I remember thinking the same thing about Swendon's work. I found her while researching Kristin Nelson's clients, and was shocked that I'd never heard of her before. She seemed so "fantasy" to me but that wasn't how the book was sold.

  10. Thanks, another informative post.

  11. I've noticed that many of the most acclaimed books, and some of the best sellers, break the mold. And they're not all by established writers. It's the same with movies, TV et al. We actually love it when someone does something stunningly strange or intriguing. The problem is finding the right agent or publisher, which is something I'm looking into. I've found a couple of publishers that insist they want the books that other publishers might not take--literary fiction that doesn't "conform." And I'm looking for more.

    I've listened to so many interviews with writers and producers and other creative folk who did something totally unorthodox, stuck to their guns, and became legends for it. And often it was their first foray into their fields. So it may be risky, but I've been writing long enough and had enough bylines et al to be patient and give it a shot. Good luck to all my fellow "oddballs." Don't give up just yet!

    1. Indeed. Or they do something classic but with a twist. There are readers out there for everyone. It's just about finding them.

  12. Before a writer breaks the mold, they should understand that mold completely.

    What I've been seeing in the self-pubbed books I've been reading is that writers don't understand that mold/formula is more about what the reader wants than what a publisher wants. All the mold breaking often just annoys the reader who wouldn't touch another of this author's book if it was offered for free.

    (See my diatribe with examples on this subject: )

    There's also the question of not knowing genre definitions well enough to properly define what kind of book the author has written. I've seen a New Adult with science fiction elements called Urban Fantasy, and, today, I read a promotion about a "cosy thriller." (Marilynn bangs head against desk)

    1. I'd agree. Fits the adage, know the rules before you break the rules. I do think there's a difference between a true "rule breaker" and a book that doesn't know what it is.

      Cosy thriller? That's a new one to me!