If you’re an author hoping to get traditionally published, you might have asked yourself if you should try to write to market. Is it necessary to worry about what readers want in a novel—well, maybe we should say what literary agents and major publishers think readers want in a novel—or should you not care at all?
In this post, I make a futile attempt to tackle these questions. Bear in mind this is mere speculation. I’m not asserting anything in this post to be the absolute truth. I’m merely exploring the topic of what readers want, what agents and publishers want, the different types of readers, what makes a bestselling novel, and whether or not authors should write to market. Don’t take any of it seriously. As with everything I post on this blog, I’m just exercising my thoughts, trying to explore the underlying nature of the publishing industry, and, most importantly—I am a writer as well as an editor, after all—making my fingers move.
That said, let’s ramble.
What do readers look for in fiction?
If we really want to know what readers want in a novel, it might be a good idea to look at the bestseller lists. But I would hesitate to assume the top titles on this week’s lists reflect reader interests at large. A big marketing push by the publisher can launch a new release to the #1 spot, but the book might fall off a cliff by next week. Similarly, a household name might have the readership to top the bestseller list for a few weeks, but the book turns out to disappoint the fanbase and doesn’t continue to sell—or the fanbase is so loyal they’ve become a little too forgiving of the author’s mediocre efforts of late.
Instead, maybe we should look for those titles that have been on the bestseller list for dozens and dozens of weeks, the books that have over 100,000 reviews on Amazon. These are the books that might contain the secret to what readers generally want in a novel.
As I’m writing this post, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Verity by Colleen Hoover, and It Ends With Us, also by Colleen Hoover, are topping the New York Times Bestseller List, and these are probably the bestselling novels of 2022.
But why? What is it about Colleen Hoover’s latest novels that have them racking up over 100,000 reviews apiece on Amazon, when previous releases didn’t come close to that number?
Why is Where the Crawdads Sing enjoying 169 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List when it defies everything literary agents say they want in a debut novel? I know I’ve probably talked about this book too much on my blog, but Where the Crawdads Sing blends multiple genres. It has a simple and slow-burning plot. Its twist is entirely too predictable for mystery readers. Romance readers complain that its love story is missing plot beats. The courtroom drama in its finale feels tacked on, according to some readers, and Kya’s observant point of view, which is integral to the narrative style throughout most of the book, completely disappears, leaving the reader feeling distanced from her.
The answers to these questions might lie in the rather disparate reviews on Amazon. While five-star reviews say things like “an incredibly immersive experience,” one-star reviews pick apart the plots, point out alleged inconsistencies, and complain about predictable twists or the ending falling flat. And when you read those particularly negative reviews, the reviewers sound like they’re, um, not wrong.
So what’s going on here? Could there possibly be a divide between reader interests? Could certain kinds of readers be looking for one thing while other kinds of readers are looking for something else?
That’s what I’ve come to believe. I think there are three kinds of readers out there in the world, and their unique priorities are key to what makes a mega bestselling novel.
Let’s take a look at them and see if I’m full of it.
The three types of readers, according to me.
Let’s call them the Occasional Reader, the Avid Reader, and the Loyal Reader.
The Occasional Reader: You know this person. The type of reader who reads a book once in a while, maybe one book a year. Usually it’s because the book became a mainstream cultural phenomenon, or they saw the movie adaptation in the theater and really loved it. This is basically a non-reader who is occasionally inspired to read a book, and they’re generally open to reading almost any genre.
The Avid Reader: Self-published authors love this type, because this is their market. The Avid Reader reads voraciously, often in specific genres. Romance readers, crime fiction readers, fantasy readers, sci-fi readers. The readers who finish the last page of a book and then immediately pick up the next in their TBR pile. Some of these readers read widely, but many, many of them prefer specific genres.
The Loyal Reader: This is the reader authors want. A Loyal Reader can be an Occasional Reader or an Avid Reader, but one thing is for certain. When that one author is releasing a new book, this reader preorders it. A Loyal Reader might only read that one author, or they might be an Avid Reader who sets their TBR pile aside when their favorite author releases a new book.
So how big are these readerships? Well, the Loyal Reader is defined by their commitment to a single author, so they’re not really a pool of readers. We’ll have to set the Loyal Reader aside for a moment.
Avid Readers are a definable, measurable market, and they generally do most of the book reading. However, what’s interesting about the Occasional Reader is that the size of this market is potentially much, much larger than the Avid Reader market—for any given book, at least.
Because there are millions and millions of Occasional Readers out there–a market the publishing industry only occasionally reaches. And it takes drawing their interest to make a book sell fifteen million copies.
When you look at the one-star Amazon reviews for Where the Crawdads Sing and see complaints about plot and pacing, I believe you’re seeing the opinions of Avid Readers of mystery or romance who were drawn to the book by the promise of these plot elements but were disappointed to find that the book doesn’t deliver the way they expected. As avid readers of these genres, their expectations are high, and they demand certain plot beats and story arcs.
But despite these seemingly valid criticisms, the book continues selling millions of copies because it’s risen beyond the Avid Readership into the Occasional Readership. People who only read one book a year are reading this book—and they’re loving it to death.
Why, though? How can these readers be satisfied when the Avid Readers are pointing out so many problems?
In my opinion, it’s because the Avid Reader prioritizes plot, and the Occasional Reader prioritizes character and setting. The Avid Reader wants a minimalist writing style and a fast pace so they can race to the end and then pick up the next book. The Occasional Reader wants a more indulgent, immersive writing style and a slower pace, because they don’t want the book to end.
I feel like I’m going to catch hell for this, so I thought I’d clarify that I’m speaking in averages here. I’m talking about the average Avid Reader and the average Occasional Reader. If you’re someone who reads all the time, I’m not saying you don’t care about character or setting. I’m saying your reading habits incentivize you to move on to the next book quickly, while the slower reader has more potential to become emotionally invested in a book and linger with it longer—that when you become emotionally invested in a book, it affects how quickly you move on to the next one.
We don’t even have to conceptualize it as Occasional Readers and Avid Readers if that’s too much of a stretch. Let’s just say readers who prioritize plot and readers who prioritize character.
The question for the writers reading this post is, What do literary agents look for in a novel? If there is a split in reader priorities, to which side do agents and publishers cater?
What do literary agents and publishers think readers want?
Literary agents and publishers are risk-averse, which is why I believe when they think of the market, they think of the Avid Reader. Agents and editors see the landscape of potential readership in terms of genre expectation, required plot beats, and high concepts that make a book stand out amongst similar titles.
Let’s not forget those comp titles, am I right?
It makes sense that literary agents and publishers go by what they perceive to be the demands of the Avid Reader, because that’s a reliable pool with established standards. The problem is, in order for any given book to become a mega bestseller, which everyone wants, the book has to appeal to the Occasional Reader—a much, much larger potential market.
And it looks like Avid Readers and Occasional Readers don’t necessarily want the same thing.
If major publishers release a book, it’s going to fall into the hands of Avid Readers first. If they tear it to shreds, it’ll never reach the Occasional Reader who has to be inspired to pick it up.
A book needs to satisfy the Avid Reader’s rigid genre expectations, but it also has to have that truly immersive quality that the Occasional Reader needs in order to sell millions and millions of copies—something that can’t be achieved if the book isn’t allowed to take its time, worldbuild, defy word count restrictions, prioritize realism over Hollywood-style action, be its own thing rather than fit the mold of a genre.
So what is a debut author who’s trying to get a literary agent supposed to do with this information?
To write to market or not to write to market.
It’s a tough question. On the one hand, agents will say, “Write the book you must write.” On the other hand, the same agents will say, “You need to read widely so you’ll know how your book fits into the market.”
Considering we’re mortal beings and time is not on our side, that’s contradictory advice. We have jobs, kids, bills to pay, health problems, world problems, etc. It’s hard enough to get life out of your head long enough to truly slip into your fictional world and get some words down. Now you’re supposed to commit a huge chunk of your life to following market trends in publishing?
Which is it? Write in isolation and bring something that’s uniquely you to the world? Or be influenced by what’s succeeding in the market?
Be a fresh, original voice? Or write while conscious of plot beats and genre expectations?
Write what you want and hope it will appeal to the Occasional Reader, or read what the Avid Readers are reading and try to emulate those books?
I don’t know. Maybe a debut author has to do both. Or maybe you have to write what you want without regard for the market, and then be the lucky one who accidentally writes something that satisfies the Avid Readers enough that the Occasional Readers notice it, and then they word-of-mouth your novel right to mega bestseller status.
Or maybe trying to figure this out is a fool’s errand. That’s what makes the most sense to me.
I am a developmental editor who specializes in helping authors prepare their manuscripts and query letters for submission to literary agents. See my Manuscript Critique and Developmental Editing Service page for more information.