A friend of mine e-mailed me recently, asking whether I knew about any recent publishing trends that he could incorporate into a talk he was planning to give today. I ended up writing out a fairly coherent e-mail to him, and then I decided that, hey, wouldn't it be neat to post it on my blog too. So with his permission, I'm going to paste the e-mail in below.
I'll just add the standard disclaimer that my words are not gospel; they're just my opinion of the publishing industry right now, and I'm sure there are people out there who may disagree with me.
It's really interesting that you ask about this, since I've been having a series of running discussions with Lori Perkins about this. Basically, I think there's an overall trend in publishing right now that's based on the lagging economy; if you compare the number of deals being posted on Publisher's Marketplace now, to the number of deals being posted last summer, they've pretty much been cut in half. This doesn't necessarily mean publishers aren't buying as many books, but it could mean that they're buying them for less money, and thus the agents aren't posting the "nice" deals as often. I don't think the industry has been drastically affected by the economy yet, but I think that if we do slip into a recession, you're going to see that reflected.
In terms of sf/f, I've heard a couple of things floating around. One editor is looking for an urban fantasy, a la KITTY AND THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, with a male protagonist. Another is still looking for sexy vampire and werewolf stories. Overall, I think the trends are definitely going more towards urban fantasy at the moment, particularly because it has such crossover appeal with paranormal romance. And although I'm not sure the publishers are taking this into account, romance and women's fiction sales tend to remain strong during times of economic downturn, so that may be another reason urban fantasies are doing well. Epic fantasies are having more difficulty selling, even when I've felt the books aren't really epic in nature; if the publisher can put that label on it, it's making it harder for the editor to buy it, even if they like the book.
Will any of this change? I think it's cyclical, and that it will eventually swing back around again. I've only talked about fantasy, but science fiction is still being bought and read--just at a much lower consumption rate than fantasy novels. Sci-fi seems to be doing well in terms of military/espionage books, as well as ones that trend in the utter opposite direction, and are uber-intellectual (think Charlie Stross; at least, he seems intellectual to me).
Anyway, I hope this helps you! I was just thinking that it's not a bad explanation I've written out, and if you don't mind, I'd like to post it on my blog.