As a book publicist, part of my job is to keep an eye out for titles that are similar to ours -- not just because it's important to keep tabs on the competition but because "two books equals a trend." I can often get more ink -- and more air-time -- for a book that's like another that's on shelves. And if their pub-dates match up closely, all the better.
But there's a second reason I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear of a title like ours. It's nice to know we're not the only ones who think there's an audience for a book on the topic. Even if some books are a bit too close for comfort, it's a form of validation.
Publishing is an odd business -- and I use the term "business" loosely. A wealth of market research there is not. Sure, we use Bookscan to check sales of the titles that authors list as comps in their proposals. But there are no focus groups, no hard data that says oral biographies are in and bildungsromans are out. And that's probably just as well, really. But it means we rely on our gut, and it means we rely on trends.
Remember when "microhistories" were the rage -- books like Cod, and Salt, and Coal, and Oak? They somehow gave way to "chick lit" (and its evil twin, "lad lit"), which in turn gave birth (no pun intended) to everyone's favorite, the "momoir." Nowadays it's "dog lit." In the wake of Marley & Me, editors have been chasing their own tails (sorry...) in search of books about pups. But don't just take my word for it. Check out USA Today and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Or go to your local Borders.
Are these kinds of trends good or bad for the publishing industry? Are we in an age of "It Lit?" And what if a book doesn't fit in a trend? Does that mean it won't get published?
In truth, if there's no trend we find a handle: "It's like Friday Night Lights, but with surfboards." "It's Anne of Green Gables, but in Rome." Hopefully not that silly, of course. But my point is this: We're willing to fly a bit blind if we have to. We'll buck the trend of the trend. But we still feel the need to locate a book in the literary canon before we sign it. And for better or worse if not the canon, at least the B&N shelf.