The Writer and The Market Should Be Friends


FriendsTo market to market to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again jiggity-jig.
To market to market to buy a fat book,
Or download that sucker on Kindle or Nook.

– (apologies to Mother Goose)

Today we ask one of those perennial questions anxious authors pose to agents and editors at conferences or online, viz., How much attention should I pay to the market when deciding what to write?

A couple of blogs recently addressed the issue. Dean Wesley Smith seems to fall on the side of writing what you want without too much consideration of the market. If you don’t watch it, he warns, you might develop an “addiction” to sales numbers, which is “deadly to your writing and your career for the long term.”

When you are sitting at your computer, your creative voice really, really wants to write a certain story or a new book in a certain series, and you hear yourself think, “What’s the point? It won’t sell.”

Oh, oh…

Trust me, folks, I am not immune from this in the slightest. When I realize that one of my books or series is selling better than others, and yet I am firing up a book that is in the poor-selling series, I hear myself ask that question.

How I get around it is tell that tiny part of my critical voice that is trying to stop me that maybe this book in this lower-selling series will be the one that explodes. That answers the question, “What’s the point.”

And makes the critical voice crawl away whimpering.

But over at Writer Unboxed, Dave King recognizes that there is a reason to consider what is selling in the market:

Of course, in some ways you can’t help writing to market. The point of writing is to give readers something they’ll want to read. This is especially true if you’re writing in a particular genre. Readers of romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy all expect their novels to deliver certain tropes, and it’s up to you to provide them. If you give your readers a mystery without a crime, detective, or denouement, then you really aren’t giving them a mystery.

Yet King rightly notes that mere formula is not enough. Otherwise a story can become what he terms “hack” work. To avoid that:

When you bring something original to the mix – an approach to your characters that stretches the boundaries of the genre, a plot that doesn’t simply string together the usual twists – then you are more likely to reach across genre lines to a larger market.

However, some market consideration is essential:

Completely ignoring the market can be as dangerous as pandering to it. If you deliberately turn away from your readers to follow your own, eccentric vision, you might wind up with something no one else will understand — or think is worth the bother.

King’s conclusion:

I understand the temptation to focus on the market. If you’re having a hard time breaking into print, the siren song of the hack – boil down readers’ expectations to a formula, then never color outside the lines – can be hard to resist. But bending your story to the market’s will is a shortcut that won’t get you where you want to go. The best way to reach the market is to throw everything you’ve got into telling the story you want to tell.

My conclusion is as follows:

First, the pro writer always considers the market, because it’s just another way to refer to people who buy books. If you don’t want to reach people who buy books you can certainly write for fun or therapy or to keep your fingers limber. But I’m going to assume you do want readers to buy your stuff. If so, it’s essential to find out what’s being bought.

But then! Marry those considerations to what you love to write. Figure out that area where love and commerce come together.

It’s like this Venn diagram. The sweet spot for you is right in that middle.

Venn diagram for books

Definitely “tell the story you want to tell” but tell it with VOICE. As I argue in my book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing, voice is what elevates and distinguishes one novel from another, and turns readers into fans.

So it’s not a matter of what you love versus what will sell. It’s a matter of finding that exquisite intersection where you’re happy to park yourself and hammer out stories readers are actually going to buy.

Of course, selling (or selling a lot) may not be your goal. Maybe you’re more interested in absolute, insular creativity, and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Great! You can write despite the market. You can decide to take that risk. You might even hope that big publishing, which is suddenly placing some risky bets, has a look at your novel. Once in a great while such a book goes huge. Most don’t. But if you don’t mind those odds, go for it.

(One nice thing about self-publishing is that you can experiment a bit, with short-form work, and see what takes wing.)

But there are many writers, as in the old pulp days, who are doing this to put food on the table and kids through college. They write for a market and they figure out how to love what they write.

Since I began this post with a ditty, it seems fitting to finish with another (with profound apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein):

The writer and the market should be friends,`
Oh, the writer and the market should be friends.
The writer likes to spin a plot,
The market likes to sell a lot,
And that’s the reason why they should be friends.

Now it’s your turn. How do you go about deciding what to write? How much do you study your genre and the market? How do you propose to do more than what’s been done before?

27 thoughts on “The Writer and The Market Should Be Friends

  1. I write what I want to read, but because I also read books in my genre and blog about crime, forensics, etc, I have a solid understanding of what’s out there. So far so good!

  2. I couldn’t agree more about voice and how important it is to enthralling readers, but, to a certain extent, no one really knows the X factor that makes readers want to tell everyone about your book. We know that a great concept, voice, compelling characters and structure are super-important elements, but even stories with those elements won’t necessarily sell in a big away.

    Right now, I have a character whom I love to pieces, but she’s sure making the plotting of her story a great challenge… because she wants to write a story that might just lead me too far away from the thriller genre and its tropes. We’re in an epic battle together.

    I’m the writer; I should be able to win this battle, but I love her so much, I don’t want to hurt her or change her, except in very subtle ways.

    What do you do when a character possesses you like this?

    • a great concept, voice, compelling characters and structure are super-important elements, but even stories with those elements won’t necessarily sell in a big away.

      Yet the chances of success are greater when a book has those, and virtually non-existent for a book that does not. Which is where craft comes in.

      Re: your character. Eventually you’re going to have to assert your authority or she’ll become like that party guest that’s entertaining at first, but eventually wears out her welcome. Give her some rope, let her play on the freeway if she wants to. But when the accident happens you’re going to have to do some heavy duty surgery!

  3. Interesting that this topic comes today. I occasionally have arguments with myself that I should care about the market and doing what the market wants, but that argument always loses.

    As several people have at times mentioned “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, I finally got around to reading that this week and at one point he says:

    “I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting.”

    My main reason for writing is to write what I can’t seem to find in the market. I already do what I don’t want to do 14 hours a day for my day job. And I believe I have a passion for certain things that other writers of historical fiction don’t–at least not any writers that I’ve discovered. And that nails it for me. It would be nice to be a million-selling author, but I’m going to trust in my vision for my books. If I stick to that vision, with a lot of practice will come my authentic voice, and I believe that will sell books—in whatever numbers.

    P.S. Since the ‘kick in the pants’ post a couple weeks ago, I’ve met my writing quota for the last 2 weeks. And yesterday I had a lovely and rare opportunity to spend the entire day brainstorming a novel series. It was so nice! 😎

  4. My main reason for writing is to write what I can’t seem to find in the market.

    Since that is your main reason, BK, and you recognize it may lead to “in whatever numbers,” you’re going in with eyes open. That’s the main thing I want writers to have–open eyes, informed choices.

  5. I think hitting the “sweet spot” between marketability and self-expression is a useful target. It’s not an absolute, but something to keep in mind.

    In fact, I’d argue that working within the constraints of market demand challenge us to find new ways of expressing our ideas in surprising ways. The poet John Ciardi, who wrote free verse, once confessed to writing sonnets as a discipline that helped him break through obstacles in composing.

    • Mike, that’s an excellent point! Working within “constraints” and fighting to bring something fresh and new can be the best growth experience of all.

      My high school English teacher taught me about sonnets, and I used to write them. They will never be mistaken for Edna St. Vincent Millay, but the discipline was good for me.

  6. Jim, Because the process of writing a novel can take several months to over a year, and traditional publishers then take a year or so to bring out a manuscript once accepted, I think it’s almost impossible to “write for the market”…at least, via the route of traditional publication. Why? Because the market may change by the time the book comes out. If my most recent novel could have come out when Ebola was in the news, it would have been ideal. But it took my publisher a year to get it released.
    Self-publication has become common enough now that a knowledgeable writer can do it in a far shorter time. The most important step, though–whichever route one chooses–is to write the best book possible. Whether this is influenced by the market may be less important than the quality of the work. Just my two cents’ worth. Thanks for sharing.

    • Doc, you make in important point, and I want to be clear about it. There’s a subtle difference between writing for a market, and chasing a market trend. It’s always the case when the next hot thing comes along **cough**chick lit**cough** they get inundated with like MSs, and soon that trend is over. And as you say, with trad pub’s glacial system, a writer trying to chase the trend will usually be too late.

      I do love, as you mention, the self-pub speed that allows a writer to spot a plot and get it out there sooner.

      Also, “write the best book possible” to me always means with the READER in mind. How can I best relay them the story I am wanting to tell? If I do that well, then I am, perforce, writing with a market consideration–the readers.

  7. One foot in each camp, I say. At the beginning of my workshops I often ask the group who, via a show of hands, intends to become a professional writer, to make a career of writing books people will happily pay money to buy and read. Of course all hands shoot skyward, quickly and enthusiastically. I then ask, who here believes they can do that by writing anything they want, any way they want, without regard to genre expectations or the framework of dramatic theory, but with an expectation that this will sell. Several hands almost always show up for that, too, thus declaring themselves the next Big Thing.

    And thus, too, the discussion begins. It’s like playing a game, one that has lines on the field of play. Or engaging with the arts, music or dance, which also has a framework to perform within (it’s called a stage). Go outside the lines, you lose. Even “free” jazz has a framework. It’s how creative and powerful you play and perform within those lines that create the win. Taking chances, outsmarting the other guy (which translates to surprising the readers), seeing an opening and pouncing on it with power, all of it without stepping out of bounds… these are the things that writers can do within the lines and still feel the freedom of inspired creativity.

    • Larry, your comment puts me in mind of Bill Belichick, who plays within the rules – – except when he surreptitiously tapes other teams’ practices – – and goes right up to the edge and finds ways to innovate within the framework. He is not playing a new game, but bringing fresh ideas to an old one.

  8. The market vs story ideas is something I struggle with a lot. I either seem to be writing something that the industry declares dead and over, or something so much of a genre mash that is doesn’t seem to fit any one category.

    I know I’m supposed to be able to just ignore the voices and write what I love, but it’s honestly been a struggle. Especially when I’ve also struggled with issues of perfectionism.

    I read a lot in the genres I write in, and I also read outside of SFF widely. I hope that this knowledge of what’s been done currently and in the past, coupled with my excitement for the project will help alleviate some of the marketing issues.

    I think writing to your passion is important, but completely ignoring the market will most likely lead to heartbreak in the end. Even if you’re writing purely for the joy of it and don’t expect to make a dime, you still want to reach readers. That is, after all, the point of writing and publishing. If you didn’t want readers, you would just write in your journals and never show a soul.

    It’s a constant struggle, but I’m making progress, especially with the ease and ability to self publish professionally. If I write something and every agent/editor loves it but can’t sell it, like a friend of mine, I can always release it myself.

    Great topic Jim!

    • “I think writing to your passion is important, but completely ignoring the market will most likely lead to heartbreak in the end.”

      I think you have nailed the essence of my post, Elizabeth. If one has a desire to make writing a career, but thinks that the market can be completely ignored, said writer is in for a rude awakening. I like my awakenings to be polite and civil.

  9. Diana Wynne Jones said, in one of her essays, that one must take a good, hard look at what everyone else is writing. Then she said to take the tropes, rotate them 90 degrees, and write that. Which is why her books are so fantastic (and why she and Neil Gaiman were pals).

    I’m writing paranormal romance, always having been partial to Beauty and the Beast. They all have certain tropes that they have to hit–as well as certain tropes that are old and tired. I’m having great fun rotating tropes, and lamp shading the old, tired ones. Like love triangles. I despise love triangles.

  10. Jim,

    This is of course an ongoing topic on the Kindleboards, with a number of authors there being very candid about chasing market trends, and going after readers with very specific tastes.

    Indie author Susan Kaye Quinn published a great little e-book earlier this year called “For Love or Money,” which looks at the spectrum for writers these days, which runs from writing strictly what you love all the way to writing for money (being “mercenary guy or gal”). My favorite is her mid point, “making what you love more commercial,” which really speaks to me, personally.

    Excellent little book, and a great compliment to your post here.

  11. Another great post and good discussion.

    I love your diagram of the intersection of love and money, and finding the sweet spot.

    And being a manic, I also would argue for a little variety, i.e. writing some stories for “love” with no expectation of sales (probably short stories). I’ve recently had the addition of six grandchildren in three years. Writing stories for them has been a real joy. And after all “all work and no play makes…”

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Right on, Steve. I write my Sister J and Jimmy Gallagher stories for just that reason. And they actually bring in some dough, too. Self-publishing has brought back short-form, pulp-style writing.

      Lucky grandkids!

  12. I write what I enjoy, but I need to live off my writing. I started writing dark mysteries set at a newspaper, the Francesca Vierling mysteries. Next, I wrote the Dead-End Job mysteries, funny traditional mysteries that do well. My publisher asked me to write two or three cozies, which turned into 10 books. Now I was writing two books a year, cozy and traditional. I wanted to return to the dark side, but I worried my readers wouldn’t follow me back there. I polled 2000 readers by Survey Monkey. The overwhelming majoritry wanted me to go back to darker books. My Angela Richman Death Investigator series debuts this August. We’ll find out if I made the right decision.

    • Elaine, I love that you brought your readership into the decision. Smart! And shows good, up-to-date thinking re: authors having a real relationship with fans. I think already you made the right decision!

  13. But … but … the market NEEDS another thriller about an alcoholic cop with a primer-splattered pickup truck, a houseboat, an ugly dog and a recently deceased wife who becomes the love interest of a beautiful but haunted young woman in the sights of a ritualistic serial killer. Right? This is an underserved niche!

    • There’s even a shelf at Barnes & Noble tagged Alcoholic Cop with a Primer-Splattered Pickup Truck, a Houseboat, an Ugly Dog and a Recently Deceased Wife Who Becomes the Love Interest of a Beautiful But Haunted Young Woman in the Sights of a Ritualistic Serial Killer

  14. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-26-2015 | The Author Chronicles

  15. Well, in my typical clueless style, I wrote a book without realizing it had a market at all. By that I mean, I wrote it for one market, then learned it was not that kind of book. Luckily, there turned out to be a whole genre world of “chick lit” and “cozy mysteries.” The first time someone read my draft and asked me if it was a cozy mystery, I got offended and replied, “Certainly not!” I had never heard of cozy mysteries, or chick lit, for that matter. I actually thought she was insulting the writing. Then one day I was wandering down an aisle in a bookstore, picked up a funny, snarky mystery featuring a female sleuth, and suddenly realized. “Oh, wow. This is just like my manuscript–and it’s not in the “Thriller” aisle.” Once I made that little discovery, I was able to send my manuscript to the right people and get it published. I believe this experience proves that I am entirely too stupid to think about markets in any way. I will continue to write what I feel like writing, and then figure out which “market” it belongs to. 🙂

Comments are closed.