Whatever your art, craft or business, and whatever your interest in reaching customers, core aspects of your products or services are probably not going to change no matter what you learn about audience or customer preferences. Even when cash-rich corporations like Microsoft or Google decide to enter new markets, they still tend to favor businesses that reflect core interests, leverage strengths or offer an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.
Microsoft doesn’t make a ToastBox because there’s nothing to be gained by entering the toaster market — or at least nothing to be gained that can’t be gained by other, more synergistic means. Google doesn’t make a Fish Finder because there’s no way to tie Google’s advertising and search business to the echolocation of catfish or crappies. Both companies have the muscle to enter any market they want to enter, but even if an exec proved a profit could be made it’s unlikely they would pull the trigger.
Why? Because somewhere along the line a simple question would be asked: How does Product X fit with our goals as a company? If it couldn’t be shown that the ToastBox or Fish Finder was part of the company’s mission, the product would be shelved and resources devoted to something else.
Sales and Risk
Authors need to keep these same concerns in mind when thinking about their individual goals. Just because a market exists, or knowledge about market preferences becomes known, that doesn’t mean you should change what you’re writing in the belief that doing so will generate sales. Even if the potential for profit is real, there are serious risks associated with listening to voices in the marketplace. For example:
[James] Wilcox, who wrote humorously about the denizens of the fictional small town Tula Springs, Louisiana, was persuaded (in the hope of selling more books) to move one of his characters to Manhattan to introduce his writing to a wider audience. The gambit backfired, alienating his small audience without picking up more readers.
New York is the epicenter of the American publishing industry. It is a massive consumer market unto itself. It is a game-changing, reputation-changing arena for any writer. But all of that potential means nothing if that market proves disinterested, or if molding your work to that market turns off readers who already like what you write.
Recognizing that a market exists says nothing about a writer’s ability to exploit that market. To whatever extent you may be willing to gamble on the strength of your own authorial vision, altering that vision to appeal to a potential market does little or nothing to eliminate overall risk. Why? Because you won’t be the only writer trying to exploit that perceived opportunity. Where your personal authorial interests might define you as a long-shot outsider (or genre-busting original), writing to recognizable markets or fads means you’ll need to stand out and attract attention in a much bigger crowd.
The great majority of publishing dollars will always be spent on markets and authors that have already proved profitable. Any publisher would be foolish to do otherwise. But that doesn’t mean your individual risk as a writer is reduced by chasing market-allocated dollars. Not only will you be competing with many other writers, but the number of titles devoted to any niche will always be finite and dominated by writers who got there first. Simply recognizing that a market exists doesn’t mean that market is a realistic opportunity for you.
Chasing the Market
If you’re a writer committed to your own vision you’re probably not going to make a lot of market-driven changes no matter what the potential upside might be. If you’re a craftsperson you might be more open to market influence on your work, or to targeting specific markets. And if you see yourself as a businessperson first then you’ll probably be eager to meet the market on its own terms, to the extent that those terms can ever be known.
Whatever kind of writer you are — and your perspective will probably change from project to project — there are a lot of questions to ask before you decide to shape a work to the perceived preferences of a market. Could doing so hurt your reputation? Could it hurt the work? Could the changes distract you from long-term goals that are important to you? Is the market data reliable? Are you trying to time the market or write to a fad? What’s the downside risk if you make changes and the project doesn’t sell?
I want to stress that there is no purity test for sales and marketing. You’re not a better person if you write for artistic reasons as opposed to chasing cold hard cash. What’s important is understanding how you feel about each project and following through on your vision for that project. You’re the only person who has to live with the choices you make no matter what course you follow — and at the end of the day all of your marketing efforts are still going to lead to a fixed product that must sell in the marketplace, even if your selling price is zero.
The point here is that there is no way to outsmart the market, or to avoid that moment when you have a finished work in your hand that must sell. Even if you treat every aspect of your work as an opportunity to accede to market demands, you must still sell your vision of those market preferences. There is no way to avoid this eventuality.
The Sales End of the Spectrum
It’s assumed that people who make art or practice a craft are somehow different from the makers of gizmos and doohickeys. That assumption is wrong. Many writers and storytellers have something to say that they won’t alter in order to appeal to a broader market, but that’s not a function of craft, it’s a function of intention. There are plenty of writers who don’t particularly care about the words they write or the stories they tell, but who enjoy any paychecks or applause that comes from meeting market needs. (See also Samuel Johnson.)
Again, there’s no right or wrong here. The only relevant question is how you feel about each particular work. For example, my short story collection, The Year of the Elm (TYOTE), is one of the most artistic things I’ve ever written. By contrast, the next book I intend to publish is my spin on a murder mystery, which involved meeting the established conventions of that genre — albeit in my own way.
As a writer I always give my best effort no matter what I write. In both cases I had things I wanted to say that were not up for negotiation with the intended audience. But if you plotted both works on the sales-marketing continuum there would be clear separation between the two. TYOTE sits closer to the sales-dominant end of the spectrum not because it’s a literary work, but because I paid no attention to the conventions of the literary genre in writing it. (Literary fiction can be as slavish to genre conventions as any other genre, and even more responsive to trends and fads.)
In writing TYOTE I made no concessions to the intended reader that altered my intentions for the work. In the case of the murder mystery I don’t remember making changes that negated artistic choices I wanted to make, but my a priori assumption of the genre’s conventions helped mitigate any potential disputes. In effect I voluntarily (and happily) wrote the work with reader expectations in mind, which moved the work a bit toward the marketing end of the sales-marketing spectrum.
Writing to Sell
In each case, however, I had an intended reader in mind, and by extension an intended market I wanted to sell to. Whatever it is you intend to write, the things you believe are inviolate about that work are the things that define what you will be selling. I don’t believe there’s an abstract artistic truth that needs to be protected against market forces. I do tend to believe that market-targeted works are usually devoid of the things that interest me personally, but that only defines me as a market segment. There’s no inherent validity to my views when compared with anybody else.
What’s important for you as an author is to locate each of your works on the marketing-sales spectrum. What is it that you care about, and what is it that you don’t care about? From my perspective the particulars are all good as long as that’s what you want to do as a writer. (I’m assuming here that no one is using money as a carrot to leverage creative concessions from you. If that’s what you’re up against it’s a different situation, but the question is the same. What are you willing to do to satisfy that market?)
If you have something you really want to write I encourage you to protect your vision. There is always an oversupply of writers who are writing to any extant market demand. While breaking the conventions of a genre is obviously risky relative to writing within established lines, there is always something to be said for originality and passion.
Life is short, despite its interminable interludes. At the end of the day, failing to say what you wanted to say is probably the only real mistake you can make as a writer.
— Mark Barrett