A friend of mine (writing as a sheepish anonymous poster) recently wrote about not writing for “the market,” and thought I might take offense at that. I’m sure he didn’t really think I’d be offended, but was instead referring to a strongly held belief of mine that you shouldn’t try to write what sells unless you hope to sell what you write. Today I thought I’d post about the difference between writing for “the market” and writing “what sells.”
First of all let’s define the two directions. I do not believe there is any such thing as THE (note the effective use of capitalization here) market. There are lots of markets. The romance market, the fantasy market, the middle grade market, the non-fiction market. In fact there are really more markets than there are genres, because you can combine them. How about little old ladies who only buy paperback medical romances? That’s a market. And if you could corner it, you could make a decent living as a writer.
When people talk about writing for the market, they generally mean it in a negative way. Writing a book with the intent to sell a lot of copies. Or selling out for the sake of a buck. For example an author who put extra sex scenes into a book, or profanity, or gratuitous violence, or a profusion of crabapples. (Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.) Let me just say that if all you had to do to sell a million books was insert x, y, or , z, 90% of the writers out there would be writing for “the market.”
The truth of the matter is that no one—not even publishers or agents—know what the next big thing is. Could you have predicted prior to Twilight that everyone and her daughter would be buying vampire books? Prior to Harry Potter, the NY Times bestseller list wasn’t forced to pull children’s books off their main list. Since no one really knows what the market wants, how can you possibly write for it?
The second direction is writing what sells. I know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t you just say that nobody knows what sells?” Yes and no. It’s very difficult to predict what the next big seller will be (other than books by established authors or things like movie tie-ins.) It is much easier to predict what will not sell. Think about it. You may not be able to guess what the next fashion craze will be. But you could probably look at neon green spandex neckties with leather fringe and say, “It ain’t that.”
A certain smaller publisher I know has determined that their bestsellers are mysteries/thrillers, romance, historical fiction, and nonfiction. If you want to write for them, it would be a smart idea to do your homework and not send them a memoir of your first thirteen years living in a beach house on the coast. If you want to write your memoir, by all means go ahead and do so. But just understand, your chances of selling it to this publisher are pretty slim.
One of the first things an agent or publisher wants to know about your book is who you are marketing it to. In one of my recent polls, I asked what type of book you like. The general answer was a story which meets the guidelines of the genre you are reading, but that stands out from the competition. If you are writing a romance, have the two get together at the end, but do so in a unique and unexpected way.
Two recent movies are very good examples of the problem with not understanding the market. Iron Man is a fairly typical super hero flick. Was there really anything in the movie that made you go, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that before?” Probably not. It was somewhat predictable. But it had a solid script, solid acting, and a storyline that was easy to fall into. In other words, it met the needs of the super hero/action adventure crowd.
Next, let’s look at Speed Racer. Even critics who didn’t like the movie admit it had good acting and incredible special effects. The script wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t significantly worse than Iron Man. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while the plot was just as predictable as Iron Man, the style and cinematography was superior. So why did Iron Man rake in the bucks while Speed Racer flopped? Don’t tell me it was because today’s audience doesn’t remember Speed Racer. Today’s audience hasn’t read any Iron Man comics for the most part either.
I believe that the difference comes down to understanding your market and meeting its need. The super hero market is easy to define. It’s been done dozens of times. It’s not hard to see where some succeeded and others failed. But who was the market for Speed Racer? Was it a kid’s movie? Was it a chick flick? Was it an action adventure? Was it a family movie? At different times it was all of those. But the trailers didn’t nail any one target audience.
Here’s what I’m trying to say. First and foremost write what you love and love what you write. If you find yourself adding scenes to make your book more sellable, you are probably not writing what you love. But once you know what you love, read the books in that genre and find out what works. I’m not saying copy. I’m saying study. Learn why Harry Potter succeeded while so many YA fantasies bombed. Read not only to see what has worked before but to give you ideas on what hasn’t been done yet. Understand the rules of your genre and know when and why you are breaking them.
It’s hard enough to succeed in this business. Don’t hurt your chances any more by deciding you will only write what comes from your heart and who cares whether anyone likes it or not. Again, I’m not saying that people who write just for the fun of it are wrong. What I am sick of hearing are people who think that publishers only want to buy what sells. That’s like the authors who whine that their readers don’t understand their work. As an author, my job is to write something that people will read, love, and buy. If they don’t understand my work, that’s my fault not theirs. And if I am so condescending as to think that they should all come around to my way of thinking, I’m in the wrong business.