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So what do editors want?

20 January 2014

As well as being the season for book industry leaders to forecast what kind of year they think we're going to have, it's also been a time when editors are looking into crystal balls. They're not coming up with many answers and most trends seem to be a continuation of what's already happening.

Literary fiction seems to be grabbing more of the headlines, which is the advantage of having two literary prizes slogging it out, with the Man Booker extending its range to include books in English from all over the world and the first of the new Folio Prizes going for roughly the same eligibility criteria - although the way the books get onto the list in the first place is quite opaque. Publishers and agents are worrying that this will make it more difficult for native British talent, but it's not clear yet whether this will really be a major additional opportunity for American writers of literary fiction.

On the basis of wanting what's just been a bestseller, an old publishing trend, books which capture personal suspense such as Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep are on everyone's shopping list, but imitations may fall well short. This seems like an updated take on the good old ‘woman in jeopardy' genre but with the threat coming from the heroine's nearest and dearest rather than an outside menace.

Genre publishing continues to blur into the mainstream but several significant genres - crime, romance and fantasy in particular - are going strong because they have found a ready audience in ebook form, the ultimate disposable format at a lower price - and perhaps because readers these days don't care much about the slight stigma which used to be attached to reading pulp fiction.

Erotic fiction has found a more mainstream audience after Fifty Shades of Grey but is now past its best as a fashionable genre. Erotic romance is going strong and various new lists have been launched, showing a strong market and good opportunities for writers working in this genre.
Thrillers can work well, but need to have an up-to-date theme and setting.

Non-fiction has more varied responses. Cookery continues to be very strong, there is apparently endless demand and cooking at home is very fashionable. History and biography are variable, depending on subject-matter. Business books are not much in demand unless the author has something new to say but current affairs and economics may have more of an ongoing audience than they used to.

A good way of looking at what editors say they want and tailoring submissions to individual editors (but, be careful, most of these editors' publishing houses will not accept unsolicited submissions) is to look at the superb series of short responses to the question of what editors want put together by the Andrew Lownie Agency in London, see below. These provide plenty of food for thought and give a real sense of what is happening inside publishing.

Everyone wants originality of course, but that is the hardest thing for an author to exhibit and for an editor to recognise.

What UK fiction editors want
What US editors want
What UK non-fictions editors want especially useful this one, as the individual lists can be so different.