For the blissfully unaware, there are several steps before a traditional publisher acquires a manuscript. Often, the editor who wishes to buy the project pitches it to a marketing team. The team then speculates about how the finished product would sell by looking at figures for similar titles. They might also discuss how other titles they have already purchased would sit alongside a book they are considering. If the books are too similar the publisher will not acquire the new book because they do not want to split their resources.
Sometimes, amazing projects–ones editors love–never get the green light. Entire genres (new adult and apocalyptic come to mind) can be “hot” one year and then considered “tough sells” the next. A book can be too similar to something that already exists, or it can be far too different, which creates another issue as marketing teams consider sales of past “comparable titles” when deciding how to budget for new books.
Established authors might have more flexibility, but debut authors are considered riskier, and their books must face additional scrutiny. So, what’s a writer who wants to debut to do? Well, considering how incredibly unpredictable it is, I would advise you NOT to write to market. Unless you can draft (and revise revise revise) at the immeasurable speed of changing tastes, by the time you finish your manuscript, something else will be in demand.
You CAN study the books that are performing well in your genre. You’ll start to see patterns emerge, elements that readers who enjoy these kinds of books expect to find when they read. For example, if you write a “sweet romance” without a happily ever after, the people who enjoy this drama might have some very unkind reviews to leave for you.
When I was revising MIND LIKE A DIAMOND, I read several YA Contemporary Fantasy novels that I really liked and thought could be shelved next to my book. I wrote down the beats of these stories, taking note of the rise and fall of the action. Then I did the same thing with my book, noting where sections were a little too long or short and editing to be more in line with the books I loved. Though plots should all be vastly different, audience attention is more universal, and following classic story-telling structure (of which there are several) is one way to anchor your story so readers will not become confused and lose interest.
But most importantly, you CAN write the stories you want to read. And you SHOULD! Editing has taught me that authors read the same manuscript OVER and OVER and OVER until it’s perfect.
Consider Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose brilliant novel Mexican Gothic made her seem to many an overnight success. The truth is, Morena-Garcia has a long backlist. She had been writing the twisty, atmospheric novels she enjoyed writing long before there was a huge demand for them. And I am SO glad she didn’t change her style to be more “mainstream” otherwise, she might have watered-down what makes her stories so special.