Everybody has one of those friends: the one who’s dissatisfied with their operating system as soon as the manufacturer announces work on version 2.0 (and who'd scheduled their DVR to record that announcement a month in advance); the one who trades their perfectly good iPhone in the moment the newest model is released; the one who got their Google+ invite the day it went live. By the time you’d even heard of Pinterest, they had a thousand followers and over fifty carefully curated pinboards. And for all they seemed to know about what Steve Jobs was doing on a day-to-day basis, you wouldn’t be surprised if they’d actually spent time hiding in the bushes outside his mansion with a pair of binoculars.
The tech world refers to them as early adopters, and startups and megaliths alike count on them to serve as first customers, testers, and champions for new technologies and networks. If they don’t drive you crazy talking about the next big thing, chances are they’ll spot the trends before you do and serve as a gateway into those with staying power.
Except by the time you get there, they’ll already have moved on.
Most of us in publishing are on our second or third e-readers by now—or, more likely, struggling with the crumbling hard drives on our ancient first-edition devices as we try to avoid forking up any of our precious salaries for the latest version. So it’s easy to forget that 2011’s holiday season was the first one in which a significant number of Americans unwrapped packages containing a Nook, Kindle, or iPad. In other words, though those closest to the publishing and technology industries have long since grown used to e-reading technology—perhaps so much so that we’re beginning to get bored and look for a newer and better solution—2011 was the first year in which the average American, the casual reader, embraced it.
Take a second to expand the chart on the right and you'd see that early adopters make up only a small percentage of the ultimate consumer base for most trends. Most new trends tend to follow a pattern in which the early adopters move on from a trend before the majority discovers it. And for habitual early adopters, it’s easy to forget that the fact that being ahead of the curve means that more people than not are behind them—not just in taking an interest, but also in losing it. Blogs all over the net label the tendency “Early Adopters Syndrome,” and caution those who come first to a trend against losing sight of where the core audience for those gadgets sits in relation to a trend.
Wherever we stand in relation to technology (I still have what I affectionately call a “dumbphone” and I couldn’t explain FourSquare to you if I tried), it’s important to remember that those of us who follow the publishing industry—as employees or as adamant readers, writers, and bloggers—are all early adopters within our field. As employees we read the next big hits as submissions or as proposals for acquisition one to three years before they come through the editorial and production processes and actually hit the market. Writers have often critiqued, workshopped, or traded ideas for those projects even before the industry sees them. And bloggers see those trends take shape in early reading copies long before finished books hit shelves. For those of us as deeply entrenched in this community as you and I are, it can be easy to forget that while we’re all talking to each other about our early-adopted trends, whole different conversations are happening outside of the community.
Early in my career, I sat in my fair share of acquisitions meetings thinking “Why are we even discussing vampires/steampunk/angels/love triangles? Isn’t everyone sick of these by now?” Even recently, when someone asked if I thought the dystopian trend was on its way out, I caught myself thinking “Well, duh.” And yet the fact that The Hunger Games is selling tens of thousands of copies each week, even two to three years after its paperback release, proves me wrong. In truth, with the Hunger Games movie just around the corner and hundreds of thousands of teens and adults who aren’t regular readers sharing the excitement, many would say the dystopian trend is just beginning.
It would be one thing if the publishers and readers and writers and bloggers most closely caught up in publishing were the industry’s only market, but they aren’t and in fact they can’t be. In order to sell enough books to justify the cost of doing business, publishers have to strive to reach the casual reader—the average consumer who comes to a trend on the heels of the early adopters. And just as, by deciding everyone else is as sick of scanning QR codes as they are, the early adopter can miss a valuable opportunity to use them just as their reach has become significant, we as publishers do ourselves a disservice if we move on from a trend before truly evaluating where it sits with the masses.
That’s not to say that every trend will achieve the mass popularity that vampires and dystopias are enjoying in the wake of the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, or even to imply that every trend will reach the masses at all. And for the writers reading this, I certainly don’t wish to contradict the many wise industry members who have cautioned you against writing to the trends instead of writing the story you’re most inspired to tell. But even as we enjoy the benefits of the great community that surrounds the publishing, writing, and reading industries, let’s not forget to look outside of it as well. And let’s not miss the opportunity to give every reader what they want.
Who do you talk to most about books and trends you’re enjoying? What trends are you completely sick of, and which ones do you think have staying power? How do you keep in touch with trends outside of the book industry, even as you keep up with the latest in writing and reading?