Like the age-old query about women, this one has no simple answer, but a frustrated email from a colleague this morning made me think about it. Is it possible to quantify what readers are looking for? Is it possible--even remotely--to predict what readers will like? I suspect the best we can do is guess. Let's just call it speculation.
1) The smartest woman I know (my mom) says that at the moment people are looking for comfort reads. Recession, war, the feeling that we've lost our way as a country, all add up--according to Mom--to a wish to escape into books that are entertaining, light-hearted, not too challenging.
2) As a corollary, readers like historical fiction, such as that written by best-seller Philippa Gregory. The angst her characters suffered--and they suffered plenty--is at least over and done with.
3) Readers like to escape into colorful worlds where the good win and evil is vanquished. Harry Potter, the Twilight series, or cozy murder mysteries where the detective always gets her man. Or woman.
4)Thrillers are big these days. There are three of them in the top five New York Times bestseller list. What is it about thrillers, I wonder? Is it the build up of tension which inevitably resolves in victory for the good guys?
5) Readers want romance, of course. And sometimes they like a good dollop of sex to go with it. Or sex without it, you choose.
One of my fans--okay, she's my sister--asked me this morning why I don't just sit down and write a bestseller in order to broaden my readership. Did you laugh at that? You should have. My answer to this question is always to try to explain what publishing and show business have in common. No one knows why Nicholas Cage continues to get movie roles. And no one knows, really, what the next bestseller will be. No one knows what women want, and nobody really can tell us what readers will want.
As writers, all we can do is tell the story that's ours to tell, in the very best way we know how to tell it. Maybe we'll have a delightful surprise, as in the wonderful and unexpected book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Wouldn't we all love to write another of those? But it's a unique novel, with unique appeal, and it caught the zeitgeist in a way I don't believe anyone could have predicted.
So it's back to work. Who knows but what the next great thing will be historical opera-singer vampire novels? If so, I'm all set. I can pretend I knew the answer to the question.