Nov 24 2011

Writing a Marketable Superhero Novel

One major obstacle to getting a superhero novel published is marketability–can your novel convince publishing professionals that it is likely to sell many thousands of copies?  This might be a bit counterintuitive.  Even though superhero stories have sold billions of dollars worth of movie tickets and dominate one branch of the publishing industry (comic books), superhero novels are not known for strong sales.  Here are some tips based on the superhero novels that have been most successful.

 

1. Please make your novel at least reasonably intelligent.  A superhero comic book or movie might conceivably become a bestseller despite being pretty idiotic.  (Batman and Robin sold ~$240 million worth of tickets, for example).  Comic books and movies have other things to fall back on besides the quality of the writing.  Novels, not so much.  For one thing, the target audience for novels is people that actually willingly buy novels, who tend to be more literate than the population as a whole.  Consequently, the most successful superhero novels (notably The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the Wild Cards series) tend to be more complex than just action. For example, Amazing Adventures and the first few* Wild Cards books  were historical chronicles and AA had more action for an artist escaping Nazi-occupied territory than it did for any superheroes.

  • Imagination.  Does your story have elements we haven’t seen before?  If we have seen plot elements before, are you executing them differently and/or more interestingly?  For example, Amazing Adventures deftly handled a stranger-in-a-strange-land with a great ear for the artist’s unusual-sounding voice and some interesting use of his cultural background.  In contrast, the Superman series bends over backwards to make Superman’s transition to Earth as seamless and undramatic as possible.  (Superman looks exactly like a stereotypically attractive human, his English is utterly nondescript, his superpowers don’t create enough problems for him, there are few if any cultural differences in play, etc).
  • The ability to make connections and offer themes that are not necessarily obvious.    For example, The Incredibles has a few scenes where superheroics get mistaken for adultery/inappropriate love.

*Thanks to John for the correction there.

 

2. It might help to consider a setting besides “pretty much any modern First World city.”  I think it’s more acceptable for superhero comic books to use a more or less generic city as the setting.  (Besides the names of the villains, is there anything that could happen in Superman’s Metropolis that couldn’t happen in Spider-Man’s New York or Green Lantern’s Coast City or vice versa?).  If you’re doing a novel, I’d recommend looking harder at more flavorful, distinct examples (inside and outside of the superhero niche) like Batman’s Gotham, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University (and probably Ankh-Morpork generally), Watchmen’s New York, Transmetropolitan’s The City*, Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, maybe Dresden Files’ Chicago and Making the Corps’ Parris Island.  Also, whereas most superhero comic books and movies are set mostly on modern Earth, quite a few successful superhero novels have experimented with historical settings (e.g. Amazing Adventures and Bitter Seeds are mostly about WWII and the buildup to WWII and the first few Wild Cards books cover the period from WWII to the present).

*Vastly more interesting than it sounds.

 

3. Three-dimensional characters are paramount.  Do your most important characters have combinations of traits we haven’t seen before?  Do your characters get opportunities to act differently than most other protagonists in their genre would act in the same circumstances?

 

4.  Who’s your target audience?  Generally, the core demographic for comic books (~16-30 year old men) is not a very reliable demographic for novel publishers.  If you’re really interested in writing something for that demographic, if at all possible I would recommend trying as hard as possible to appeal to older readers and/or women at the same time.  My crude overgeneralization there is that imagination tends to be more important in appealing to older readers because they’ve had more opportunities to read stories and get used to cliches.  (E.g. Eragon sold a lot of copies among young adults but I think most people that have read 10+ fantasy novels would frown upon a story that derivative).  As for ladies, I’m not really sure (and I’ve read too many of the hundreds of thousands of words that have already been written about “how do we get women to read superhero stories?” to think there are any easy answers there), but my crude overgeneralization is that it would probably help to include a genre besides action*.  For example, detective/mystery, romance, comedy, thriller/suspense, horror, zombie ninja romantic-horror, etc.

*Besides, superhero movies will almost certainly have more exciting action than a superhero novelist could conceivably write.  And a vastly bigger marketing budget.

 

5. Try a daring premise.  If you described your story in a few sentences, would prospective readers want to open it up?  Please give your query (and eventually your backcover) more to work with than just “Superhero X needs to defeat Supervillain Y.”  If your plot is a bit banal, I’d recommend thinking more about character traits and motivations (as noted above) and it might help to try working in an unusual background.  If I could cite my own unpublished work, even though doing so is pretentious*, I think one of the elements of The Taxman Must Die that several beta-reviewers have mentioned favorably is that the main character is an accountant utterly out of his depth when it comes to superheroics.

*Like that’s ever stopped me.

 

5.1.  Stories that are not daring are probably on the fast track to rejection.  I’ve been reading a few submissions a month for the past few years and I’m already a bit queasy about “Nondescript high school student(s) gets superpowers and must defeat a routine supervillain whose only apparent motivation is evilness and only life experience is being evil.”  I can only imagine that full-time editors that have been reading submissions for 10+ years would be even more jaded (and almost certainly less receptive to superhero stories than I am).  Indeed, when you submit to a novel publisher or literary agency, it is highly unlikely that any of the people evaluating your submission have actually published a superhero story before.*

*How many adult superhero novels have been professionally published in the last 20 years? Maybe 50? At best we’re talking about 100 or 200 active editors that have ever worked with a professional superhero novel.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “Writing a Marketable Superhero Novel”

  1. B. McKenzieon 23 Nov 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Writing this article was unusually frustrating. I feel I have a pretty good handle on identifying some of the marketing problems facing superhero novels, but it was much harder coming up with concrete suggestions than usual. If you’d like to add your own advice, I’d love to hear it.

  2. John Bentonon 23 Nov 2011 at 10:44 pm

    One correction: Wild Cards really shouldn’t be considered a “historical” series.

    Yes, three of the books have stories which take place in the past. Each did it for a specific reason. Book one was a crash-course in the concept, book thirteen told the secret history of a new threat, and book sixteen was a history of deuces more than a history of the world.

    Otherwise, the novels were always written in the “present day.” If the first few novels seem to include a lot of Cold War elements, that’s largely because at the time we were still in the Cold War!

    I mention this because originally, I almost passed on Wild Cards because it looked like a historical series! Book one I just mentioned, while book two does open with a tale from 1979. But I dove in with the fifth, Down and Dirty, and got thoroughly hooked. Just waiting for Fort Freak to come out in paperback now…

  3. Johnon 24 Nov 2011 at 12:40 am

    This actually a really encouraging post. I’ve was worried no one would want to read my superhero novel about a 40 year old woman.

  4. Indigoon 24 Nov 2011 at 11:07 pm

    As far as how to get women to read comic books and/or superhero novels:

    -Make sure the characters are shown outside of crimefighting ( I think that’s a given no matter the gender though) We want to see different angles of the heroes’ lives and how they interact with normal people.

    -Romance is always good, as long as it’s not cheesy and cliche and obviously thrown UV there just to appeal to women. (We like action-filled scenes too!)

    -Girls obviously are more interested in feelings than guys are. Show us some insight as to how the main characters feel/react to certain circumstances.

    -If it’s a novel, we generally like to read descriptions of the character’s looks, hair color, clothing, etc. (At least I do! It helps me visualize the character better 😉 )

    -Other than that, basically the same things guys like to read comics for! We want to see action, cool powers, and epic battles! 😉

    Hope this helps 🙂

  5. anatomylasson 27 Nov 2011 at 1:29 pm

    “how do we get women to read superhero stories?”
    Stay away from stripper costumes, treat the genders as equals, don’t stuff the ladies into refridgerators. Really it’s a matter of not driving us off.

    Also like indigo said, complex characterization and your characters having feelings would help women buy your comic- but really it should help men buy your comic too, as that’s one of the marks of a good comic.
    I mean, take for example the new My Little Pony show which has inexplicably become internet famous. Males and females alike enjoy it because the ponies are interesting characters and surprisingly complex for a kid’s show.

  6. B. McKenzieon 27 Nov 2011 at 2:23 pm

    “Also like indigo said, complex characterization and your characters having feelings would help women buy your comic- but really it should help men buy your comic too, as that’s one of the marks of a good comic.” I agree 100% on complex characterization. I don’t think most men think in terms of feelings, though. If a guy was impressed by a story’s characterization, I think he’d be much more likely to explain that in terms like “The characters did interesting things,” “The characters had interesting personalities” or “The characters made interesting decisions” rather than “The characters had interesting feelings.”



    In terms of works with appeal to both genders, some works that strike me as notably successful are:
    The Dark Knight (48% of the viewers on opening night were women)
    –Harry Potter
    –Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    –Lord of the Rings?
    –Sailor Moon?
    –Calvin and Hobbes

    I am pretty confident that all of those have at least 40% men and 40% women. I’m not familiar with My Little Pony at all, but if a story about ponies* had 40% men, that would be helluva impressive. “Sign me up for that marketing class” impressive.

    *I suspect that the ponies with the most masculine appeal are the Indianapolis Colts, and only because their nightmarish 0-11 record makes everybody else feel better about their team. Even Vikings fans!

    PS: In terms of gender appeal, Superhero Nation itself is about 43% women, 57% men, which I think is unusually close for a superhero-themed website. (Writing websites, on the other hand, tend to draw mostly women).

  7. Indigoon 28 Nov 2011 at 11:54 pm

    I for one love Dark Knight-can’t wait for Dark Knight Rises!
    Oh yes, Sailor Moon, one of my old favorites 😉

    Guys like My Little Pony?? This is news to me…

    I’m glad to hear we are about half and half with the gender ratio of Superhero Nation!

    And I also agree with Anatomylass-stripper outfits are an absolute no-no if you want women to buy your comic

  8. Contra Gloveon 29 Nov 2011 at 4:39 am

    For novels, I don’t think pure action is a good genre. Novels are prose media, so each action has to be described in some detail to be satisfying; however, doing this too much can confuse the reader and actually slow the pace of the story, as I learned when I wrote fanfiction once. Thus, you need something other than action simply to keep the story interesting and move it along.

    Comic books, movies, and TV shows, on the other hand, are visual media, so they can show lots of action quickly and efficiently. They can get away with fight scene after fight scene; look at Power Rangers or Naruto to see how this generally goes.

    P.S.: I liked Sailor Moon as well.

  9. B. McKenzieon 29 Nov 2011 at 11:15 pm

    “Comic books, movies, and TV shows, on the other hand, are visual media, so they can show lots of action quickly and efficiently.” I agree. I think it’s also easier for visual media to interrupt (visual) action with (mostly nonvisual) dialogue. In contrast, I think novelists have to think really carefully about how to incorporate dialogue into fights without it feeling jarring and/or unrealistic that somebody is fighting or doing some other all-out physical activity while talking.

    In contrast, Hollywood can show an actor brawling as he’s talking and it looks totally believable/natural even though it’d probably be out of the question in real life. It’s easier for me to subconsciously accept “Talking is a Free Action” in a visual medium than in a novel.

  10. Fritz Freiheiton 01 Dec 2011 at 9:35 am

    On your note “How many adult superhero novels have been professionally published in the last 20 years? Maybe 50?”, I did some research earlier this year on just that topic (after finishing my first superhero novel — I was curious about whether my guess about the number of superhero novels was accurate). Your guess of 50 (with a few caveats) is a good one. For more details you can check out my article at:
    http://fritzfreiheit.com/wiki/A_Brief_Overview_of_Superhero_Fiction

  11. B. McKenzieon 01 Dec 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Here are some other candidates to look into:
    –Other People’s Heroes
    –Captain Freedom
    –Empire State
    –Hard Magic
    –The six Psi-Man books (yeahhh, Peter David! In my opinion, his Writing for Comics is definitely one of the better books on the subject and Potato Moon is one of the more creative shots at Twilight).
    –Confessions of a D-List Supervillain
    –Chicks in Capes
    –After the Golden Age
    –Maybe Bitter Seeds (the supervillains are more clearly supervillains than the heroes are superheroes)
    –All My Friends Are Superheroes
    –Shades of Grey

    I’ve only read about half of these and am not sure that all of them are professionally published. (I’ll check tomorrow, if you’re interested, or you can just type them into Amazon and see for yourself).

  12. Fritz Freiheiton 05 Dec 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I would like to add my effort at a marketable superhero novel, Dispensing Justice ( http://novagenesisworld.com/wiki/Dispensing_Justice ), just published today and yesterday. Hopefully, I’ve addressed all the talking points.

  13. Danion 28 Jan 2012 at 2:26 pm

    I am assuming this would be the best post to ask on. How marketable would a superhero fiction piece set in 1500s early pre-colonial America be? Worth the time to write? Market unresponsive unless I toss in some steampunk? Just want to get some feedback if this sounds interesting.

  14. B. McKenzieon 28 Jan 2012 at 4:53 pm

    “How marketable would a superhero fiction piece set in 1500s early pre-colonial America be? Worth the time to write?” It might be worth writing (if you really enjoy the story and/or want to practice), but I’m not sure what the target audience would be. Personally, I think I’d have a hard time selling it. I could sort of envision a target audience for historical fiction set in pre-colonial America, but I’d have trouble pitching them a superhero story.



    Then again, Naomi Novik sold enough copies of an early 1800s dragonrider novel (Napoleonic dragons are a hit–who knew?) that Peter Jackson optioned the series for movies. I will note that it’s generally easier to sell a story WITH dragons than a story ABOUT superheroes, though. And 1800s Europe sort of vaguely feels modern.

  15. YoungAuthoron 28 Jan 2012 at 6:05 pm

    i agree with B. McKenzie. While it may seem like a fun topic for you to write about and it may be good practice, it kinda seems unmarketable to me. Then again, thats just my opinion.

  16. Danion 28 Jan 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Yeah, it seemed like an interesting concept but it is like I feared – no interest in it. All the good stuff no one cares about. Lol I might take the idea and bang it around some more, see if I can fit it somewhere else. Or maybe just write it as a side project. But for now, it will sit in the corner.

  17. YoungAuthoron 28 Jan 2012 at 8:19 pm

    if it helps you can try what i’m doing. take a popular theme and then add your own ideas to it. theres an idea if it helps

  18. Danion 28 Jan 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Young Author, would you mind elaborating on that? Or actually, maybe not. It might clutter the topic. I will take a look at your forum for myself. 🙂

  19. YoungAuthoron 28 Jan 2012 at 9:24 pm

    ok, feel free to comment and leave helpful ideas and/or critisism. all is welcome.

  20. Tesson 31 May 2012 at 7:46 pm

    How to get women to read Superhero stories: no cheesecake, let female characters do something useful, make that something useful something other than being the love-interest and providing emotional support (I would go so far to say that male heroes probably don’t consider having to save damsels in distress (DiD) as “useful”). Pepper in Iron Man got to help Tony download that stuff thus angering Tony’s business rival (I don’t remember off hand his name). A little DiDing after that is ok. Mostly, we want our gender in on the action.

    Even better, make a main (and super) character female. Buffy, Dark Angel (TV show, Jessica Alba does well in this, whatever your opinion of Fantastic Four), Elektra (it had some poor reviews but I thought it was good, though it is not what most would expect from a “superhero” film), V for Vendetta, the Captain America film, and Watchmen (comic preferably) were all good and had important female characters. Season 2 of Batman Beyond introduced “Max” Maxine who did some hacking/tech related support, going undercover, and occasionally helping kick a**. She wasn’t a romantic interest as Terry (Batman II) was already dating Dana. I wouldn’t worry about stuffing romance in there as a tacked on romance never made anyone happy.

    Female audiences want in on the action. We want to be able to use the movie/comic/novel/what have you as escapism too. It’s easier when there’s someone we can fantasize being that’s the same gender.

  21. B. McKenzieon 31 May 2012 at 10:19 pm

    “I wouldn’t worry about stuffing romance in there as a tacked on romance never made anyone happy.” Yeah… some authors that are not particularly enthusiastic about romance insist on spending thousands of words on (half-ass) side-romances. I don’t understand that decision. (My personal rule of thumb would be that authors should not attempt a side-romance unless they’ve read a romance novel before. If not, it will probably detract from the work).

    PS: The business rival is Obediah Stane.

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