Identifying a profitable market niche says nothing useful about whether you yourself should write for that particular market. Even assuming you have the talent and drive to compete, any number of external factors will probably keep you from making a sale or attracting an audience. If you’re the kind of writer who loves the fruits of your own imagination, all the obstacles and uncertainties inherent in writing for a market may convince you to trust your gut and go your own way. After all, if you’re going to gamble on anything, you might as well gamble on yourself, right?
Playing the Odds
Because you’re such a nice person I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The odds of striking it rich as a writer by writing to a particular market are a million to one. Yes, there are plenty of people who get published, and a few who make a passable living as writers, but the number of writers who really cash in is extremely small. (By writer I mean writer-only. If you’ve exploited your celebrity for economic gain in the publishing industry, congratulations, but that has nothing to do with writing.)
By comparison, the odds of striking it rich doing your own thing are a billion to one — a thousand times worse. If that isn’t depressing enough, note too that success as a rebel doesn’t scale proportionately. You won’t be gambling on billion-to-one odds in order to make a billion, you’ll be gambling on billion-to-one odds to make a million or less.
If you’re the rational sort and determined to be smart about your writing career, you should definitely write for an extant market. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of cocky, self-directed nut who thinks you actually have something worthwhile or entertaining to say outside the well-worn industry ruts, then by all means do your own thing. Just remember that you’re trading million-to-one odds writing for the man for billion-to-one odds writing for yourself. But the choice is still yours.
The Market as Mine
Given the bleak prospects no matter which end of the marketing-sales spectrum you gravitate to, imagine for the moment that you’re a gold miner instead of a writer. You don’t care about producing creative works, but you are drawn to the excitement of exploration and discovery, to say nothing of the prospect of fame and fortune.
If you’re the got-a-great-idea-and-you-can’t-tell-me-otherwise type, you might very well start digging behind your garage. On the other hand, if you’re the timid sort who needs actual data to cling to, you might study up on geology and the prevalence of gold-bearing rock, the location of successful gold mines in your part of the world, and the best tools and practices for getting gold out of the ground.
In the real world, if you really did grab a pick and shovel and head out into your backyard to strike it rich, your friends and family would rightly think you a loon, no matter how deeply felt your convictions were. Why? Because it’s common knowledge that gold isn’t plentiful everywhere. Rather, it’s concentrated in veins of rock or in waterways that hold gold from eroded veins of rock.
The markets that make up the publishing industry are the literary equivalent of gold-rich rock. Intentionally refusing to learn about the conventions of publishing and the popularity of time-tested genres would be — and I’m choosing my language carefully here — idiotic. Particularly when learning everything you can about the publishing industry obligates you to nothing when you sit down in front of the keyboard.
There’s a reason publishers crank out romances by the gross. They sell. There’s a reason publishers flogged the vampire fad to death. It sold. There’s a reason publishers are leaning more and more on celebrity to leverage sales. It works. None of that means you should try to mine the industry’s gold-rich rocks, but ignoring those truths does nothing to further your cause.
Being less informed never furthers your cause.
With Freedom Comes Responsibility
If you want to write what you want to write I’ll never say that instinct is wrong. It’s your life and you get to call the shots. But there are realities to writing that transcend where you fall on the marketing-sales continuum. And ignoring those realities is not the same thing as choosing the path less traveled by.
One of the realities is that ego is no substitute for craft. Another is that writing is by definition a communication. If you’re not communicating what you intend then you’re blowing it, no matter how creative or visionary you may feel when you’re pounding keys.
Taking your intended audience into account when you’re writing isn’t selling out to the marketplace, it’s being responsible. If you speak to a crowd in English but all they understand is Japanese, that’s a problem. If you write a murder mystery and nobody gets killed, that’s a problem. If your prose is boring, confusing, insulting, or just plain incompetent, that’s also a problem. And all of those problems are your fault, not the fault of the audience.
I believe passionately in an author’s right to self-determination, but the idea that acknowledging audience interests necessarily undermines authorial intent is false. Being a rebel doesn’t mean you’re a good writer, and being undiscovered doesn’t mean you have more credibility as an artist than someone who made a sale or built a following. (If you really do believe the realities of the book business are a constraint, you need to sit with that thought until the light bulb in your cobwebbed attic comes on.)
It’s false that recognizing reality limits the originality, quality or expression of your ideas. Great writing is great writing: it’s not limited by audience or market.
The Ego Trip
Most people have awoken from a dream in which they felt they solved an important problem. The feeling of euphoria that accompanies such dreams often persists, even as specifics of the solution invariably defy recall. In some cases the feeling may be so compelling that people actually say, “If only I’d written it down.”
The difference between writers and normal, healthy people is that writers have ideas like that all the time, even when they’re awake, and they do write them down. Not only does a feeling of euphoria often accompany these experiences, euphoric feelings may persist or increase as the writer expands and revises the original idea into a complete work.
I know how powerful an idea can feel, and I know how much fun it can be to charge into previously undiscovered territory in one’s own mind. But there’s a difference between being a responsible pioneer and being the leader or a poorly-equipped, badly managed expedition that ends in cannibalism. A certain amount of obsession and mania may actually be a good thing for a writer, particularly while writing a first draft. But constantly grooving on your own creative opiates defines you as a junkie, not a writer.
The more determined you are to go off on your own as an author, the more you need to know about writing and the writing business, not less. Writing at the sales end of the marketing-sales continuum demands that you be self-reliant, not simply self-determined. On your solitary forays you’ll need to be able to trust your own editorial judgment, your range of technique and your mastery of craft because you won’t have genre conventions, fads or industry practices to rely on.
No matter what you write, if your writing is weak you’ll have a hard time finding an audience compared with people who are more effective at communicating their ideas. Setting aside the pulse-pounding high of your authorial vision to think about how you can effectively communicate with an audience may seem backward or boring to you, but it needs to be done. Thinking about your intended reader doesn’t corrupt your vision, it completes it.
A reminder: in this series of posts the marketing-sales continuum speaks to your intention as a writer in creating a work. People who are sales oriented listen to the market less when writing, and people who are marketing oriented take the preferences of the marketplace more into account. Neither approach is morally superior and both approaches demand the same level of authorial commitment and skill.
The two biggest factors in an author’s decision to tackle a particular title are personal expression and potential reward. Personal expression covers the enjoyment of writing, the passion of making a meaningful statement and the personal satisfaction of doing the best you can. Potential reward covers financial and critical success, as well as the very real enjoyment of connecting with and affecting other human beings.
Again, not only is neither superior to the other, but in this case the two are not mutually exclusive. If some writers primarily write for internal motives, and some write for external rewards, there are also plenty of writers who do both.
I consider myself fortunate in that I like writing as a process. The journey is at least as interesting to me as the destination, and that means I usually feel fulfilled whether I’m working on a personal project or something for a client. Even writers who are fueled only by internal passions, however, may still be able to direct those passions toward a market or genre that increases the likelihood of audience interest as well. (If you really do see obscurity as purity, I can only wish you well.)
Market Targeting for Free-Spirit Authors
If your passion is flash fiction set in doll houses populated by animated dolls, that’s great. But that’s not a genre or niche an agent, editor or publisher will recognize. I’d be the first person to tell you to go with your bliss, but your bank account may have other ideas. If you’re determined to take that kind of authorial gamble you may want to shade things in your favor by targeting your work at an already established market.
I would understand if you decided not to go down that road, but only after you demonstrated that you really understood all the options and what they would require of you and your work. If it turned out that converting your flash stories to a different genre or form didn’t affect what you personally cared about, what reason would there be for not doing that?
When contemplating a new work, a fully-informed writer can more profitably choose among the ideas under consideration. If you’re trying to decide between a story you care passionately about, another story you care less about that’s aimed at a mature market, and a third story you care passionately about that’s tailor-made for a mainstream audience, isn’t that the kind of knowledge you’d like to have before you decide how to spend the next six months (or six years) of your life?
If so you’re going to have to take a hard look at the publishing industry to see how it works. You may never give your creative life over to the whims of the market, but if you decide not to go in that direction you’ll do so as a matter of informed choice rather than ego. And I think that’s always a good thing.
Writing With the Market in Mind
Assuming an author wants to take advantage of market knowledge as much as possible, how can that be done? Solutions for authors who want to write their own titles run the gamut from parroting successful works (in a way that won’t land you in court), to tagging along with the latest literary fad or genre craze, to identifying a market or niche that’s underserved.
There is another option, however, and that’s to look for work writing books that someone already wants to publish. Called writing for hire, the question of what to write is answered by the client, who pays for the finished work subject to various performance contingencies. How you might find this kind of work is another subject altogether, but being open to the possibility is part of the equation.
The point I want to stress again is that none of this should be seen as selling out or necessarily compromising your ethics, vision or standards. Writing to a market or writing for hire doesn’t mean you capitulate on everything you believe in. Just as great art can be created from a limited color palette, so too can a great book be written in any genre or on any subject. Being told what to write about is not an excuse for phoning it in when you write. It might be the reason you don’t want to take that kind of job in the first place, but if you take the gig you need to knock it out of the park. Paying attention to the needs of a market is not an excuse for hackery.
While there are some artists who follow their muse completely, there are many, many more artists who acknowledge the needs and interests of the markets in their work. Most of the great masters had their paintings and sculptures bankrolled by wealthy interests that were clear, if not explicit, about what was and was not acceptable. (Michelangelo didn’t always have free reign. He often worked for the man, but that didn’t keep him from being one of the all-time greats.)
Today you can wander into any SoHo or CapeCod or Carmel gallery and find painting after painting showing the local scene because that’s what sells in the local tourist market. But that doesn’t mean the artists on display don’t also do experimental works or deeply personal paintings. Don’t let what you see or don’t see in the book business convince you that you have to make a polarized or emotional choice about whether or not to listen to the market. It’s not that simple, and you’re not that simple.
The Question in Context
Before you get hung up on all of this, remember that no matter what you decide to write you’ll be gambling on a long shot. Some people feel reassured by their own ideas, some feel safer in the herd, but it’s all a mirage. Fame and fortune are beyond rare, there’s steadier work in the gold-digging business, and anybody who says otherwise is a liar.
Figuring out what to write and why should be a deeply personal process. To pretend to be a rationalist by constantly citing market forces in the publishing industry is like pretending to be a rationalist about stock prices: you can be as emotionless as you want to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of the things that will make or break you are outside your control.
It’s important that you know why you want to write. If it’s because you have something to say, then say it and don’t let anybody dissuade you. If it’s because writing is enjoyable — or at least more enjoyable than digging holes in the ground — then acknowledge that. If what you want more than anything is to be published or famous and you don’t care how you get there, that’s something you need to admit. But only to yourself.
— Mark Barrett