Nov 24 2011
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.*