I make a ritual of going to the book store every two weeks. Of course the main goal is to find treasures for my own collection, but I do spend a certain amount of time and energy on research. By research I do not mean taking What Life Was Like In Roman Times into the store restroom with me, but instead I mean investigating the world of published works.
There are a lot of books out there, each one representing anxiety and legwork. An editor and an agent and a writer and a publisher all had expectations and demands for each shelved novel. What I like to do is look at the execution. It's no secret that every book that is published isn't great. This gives me hope and anxiety at the same time.
One of the first thing I pay attention to is how the book looks. I try to look at the layout of the cover and the placement of the title, author name, publisher's logo, and blurbs. Of course I try to evaluate the art and design to the limits of my untrained eye. I try to find patterns of styles and formats that seem to have become a standard. This means an idea has been shown to work or has at least not been deemed a critical mistake.
My biggest investigation, especially in the sci fi and fantasy area, is genre. All writers have a little anxiety about their work. They have a big idea but fear no one else will see the brilliance in that same idea. The last thing you want to do is finish a novel that folks find boring or derivative. You want it to stand out and to be fresh.
As one walks through a fantasy section, it would appear that the world could survive just fine if another epic fantasy novel is never written again. So I try to pay attention to what has been done. It isn't enough to find something under served though, because sometimes a premise is not repeated for good reason. If the market does not have enough demand for an idea, the idea will not sell.
What I have discovered is encouraging for the projects I have on the to-do list. There are not a lot of western fantasies, and the ones I have discovered seem to lean more towards steam punk (or oddly enough, soft erotica). My upcoming debut of my New West setting looks to be unique enough that it may work as a salable concept.
Another thing I was able to isolate is that Ancient Rome hybrid genres have a faithful readership. Like westerns, I suspect the audience can smell a Wikipedia cut-and-paste a mile away, so there is a lot of dedication to research required to tackle this genre. I still intend to do a follow up to Carthage, and am encouraged to see a few books here or there utilizing historical Rome.
One last observation I'll share regarding fantasy; it is fiercely competitive and difficult to stand out without being top tier. I feel like Cardinal Fates has a chance to find an audience as it will offer an less-traveled setting, but ultimately I am not encouraged that I'll be Tor's next big thing. There is a lack of Egyptian or pirate flavored fantasy, and horror pulp adventure is sorely under published. It seems to be decades ago that there was any real trend to Burroughs-esque fantasy adventure.
What is a genre you wish there was more of? Is there a setting you love that you feel is under published.? Is there a genre you have gorged yourself on and wouldn't seek out, even if highly regarded?