I had a reader question about how I do research for a book, so in the next couple of writing posts I'll address that. I do three kinds of research: market research, idea generation research and fact research. This time, I'll talk about market research. I'll address the other two next time, since they involve similar reading but for different purposes.
Not every project needs market research, but if you're just starting to write or if you're writing something different than you've written before, I think it's a good idea to research the market. From the business perspective, it's good to know what else is out there. An editor making a pitch to her bosses to buy your book will have to present "comparable titles" and their sales figures, so you should probably be familiar with the books that might be considered similar. I think it can also help your creativity because if you know what's already been done, then you'll know for certain that the idea you thought was innovative really isn't, and you can force yourself to stretch a bit or come up with new twists. You'll also be familiar with what the likely readership for your book has probably already read and you'll get a sense of what they want and what they expect.
Here are some books to look for when you're researching the market:
1) The current bestsellers and award winners that are similar to the kind of book you're writing.
These are likely to be the books currently carrying the standard for your genre. They're the ones that will be used as comparable titles to sell and promote your book, may be written by the authors who will be asked to provide promotional blurbs for your book and are the ones the market will be most familiar with. This can give you an idea for what's selling well, as well as what readers may be starting to get tired of. They may tolerate a particular trope in a long-running series they're already invested in, but may not really welcome that trope in other books.
It's not always easy to find which books in a particular subgenre are selling well because the major bestseller lists tend to be skewed toward literary fiction. The USA Today bestseller list covers all books of all types, and on the web site they list the top 150. Amazon rankings aren't necessarily an indicator of overall sales, but the top twenty or so of the various genre bestseller lists can give you a sense of which books are hot (especially now that the free e-books are being ranked differently). For awards, check the various genre organizations for honored books in those genres.
2) Recent books by authors at your career level.
Bestselling authors can get away with a lot more than new authors can. If it's the tenth book in a series and all the books in that series go straight to the top of the bestseller list, then that author can get away with spending the first fifty pages on the characters in their daily lives. A newer author can't, so you should compare yourself to other authors like you. If you've never sold a book, look at new books by debut authors. If you're switching genres or writing about a different subject, look at a new book by an author who's recently made a switch. That will give you a sense of what's catching editors' eyes when it's about the book itself instead of the author's name.
3) The classic books in your genre and your genre's antecedents.
This isn't something to base your writing on, necessarily, but I think it's good to know the origins of your genre and have a working familiarity with the books that the people working in your genre and reading your genre will likely know. It's a great way to spot which recent books are drawing on the old tropes and to learn where the genre standards came from. I also like to know where even those books originated by looking into things like folklore and mythology or classic works that pre-date the genre entirely.
For example, if you're writing epic quest fantasy, you really should read The Lord of the Rings, and it's a good idea to also look into Norse and Germanic mythology and folklore -- or you could look for quest stories in folklore from other regions to give your story a bit of a twist. If you're writing romances set in the Regency period, you should read Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. You probably can't use their kind of pacing and language and sell today, but you can see where all the standards of the genre originated.
What if there isn't something like your book out there, or if your subgenre is too new to really contain classics? If your book is absolutely, totally new, with nothing at all like it in the entire history of publishing, then you've got an uphill battle ahead of you. It may end up being a huge breakout book that starts and defines a genre, but it will probably get rejected a lot along the way. Somehow, though, I doubt that every element of it will be totally original. There may be facets that are similar to other genres, and you can research those. If you're blending elements from several genres, then you'll need to do all this work for each genre you're working with. Before I started writing my Enchanted, Inc. series, which is fantasy with a chick lit tone, I read a lot of fantasy and a lot of chick lit, in addition to all the contemporary fantasy I could find (which wasn't much at that time).
For a relatively new genre or a twist on a genre, you may also have to draw from a variety of sources. For instance, steampunk seems to be hot now, but it's new enough that I don't think there's much of an established canon, and the books that have been published have been all over the map, some using just hints of the setting to tell another story, some taking the post-apocalyptic approach, some going with alternate history and some going with secondary world. To research this market, I'd keep up with everything I could that has been published so far (which is a small enough amount at the moment that you could almost manage to read all of it). I'd also read the antecedents, like Jules Verne and HG Wells (the people writing science fiction during the actual period), and I'd read novels that were written in approximately the period of that era that I was planning to use, especially those that were in a similar setting. I might also read representative examples of whatever story I was trying to tell in the steampunk setting (vampires, mystery, adventure, spy, gothic, etc.). For a trend like this, in addition to reading the books, I'd look into communities relating to it. There are a number of steampunk blogs, online magazines and community groups, and reading those can tell you what the people who are really into that sort of thing are looking for (participating can also give you a boost on promotion if your book sells). You can find similar sites and groups for many genres.
Chances are that if you're interested enough in a genre or type of book to be writing it, you've already done a lot of this reading, and that's what led to developing your own story ideas. If you look at this list and groan at the reading you'll have to do because it's not books you might have chosen for yourself anyway, then maybe you're writing the wrong thing.