Saturday, January 10, 2009

A New Take on Writing for the Market

Writing for the market is a concept I’ve avoided until now, partly because I believe it’s a useless argument. Writing for the audience, or market, is very very hard. You have to spot a trend before it gets popular. Then you have to write a novel. You had to edit it, submit it, get accepted by an agent, and then get bought by a publisher. All before the trendwave crests and begins it’s descent.

Time isn’t your only problem. There’s the soulnessness of trendsurfing (if I can call it that.) You would need to be inspired to write the particular kind of story, right as it starts to get popular. The chances of that are nill. Most trendsurfers don’t have the luxury of inspiration. And if you’re not inspired, the story is bound to drag. This is one unavoidable rule of writing. A story may have all the potential in the world, but if you aren’t passionate about it, no one else will be either.

Trendsurfing has it’s benefits. If you decided to write vampire books a few months before the Stephanie-Meyer/paranormal craze hit, you would have made it huge. You could have written a series of paranormals. You could have launched your career. Hit the right trend, at the right time, and you could be set for years. Trendsurfing is like riding the stock market, I think, except harder, because analyzing the economy is much different than trying to analyze personal taste and mood.

Now lets swing to the other side of the pendulum: writing for self.

Writing for yourself is widely encouraged. If you write what inspires you, the story is infused with passion. Such honesty connects with readers. A story that you love has a drive behind it, a kind of unstoppable force that compels people to read. Editors love this in a novel: honesty, passionate rendering, drive.

But it does have it’s downs. Following your heart may mean writing something no one will read, no matter how passionate it is. Sometimes a story can get too real. Too edgy. The topic may be more than a mainstream audience can handle. No audience, no market. No market, no contract.  

The whole debate is actually similar to the literary vs genre issue. When you start saying that –

writing for the market = commercial = bad, and

writing for self = art = good,

  it’s not about craft anymore. It’s about your ego. And this is the point where I usually take a deep breathe, turn around, and walk the other way. These kinds of debates aren’t worth it.

But today I read P&W’s newest interview with the four upcoming literary agents, and I have to say, it threw me off some. One part of the interview goes like this:

ZUCKERBROT: I have an officemate who has this wonderful nonfiction writer who…picked some subject matter that was so obscure. The agent said, "Who is the audience for this?" The writer explained that he or she was really passionate about it. The agent said, "But who's supposed to read this? You may be passionate about it—"

BARER: But you do want people to buy the book.

ZUCKERBROT: Right. It's not that you have to write for your audience. But you have to keep your audience in mind.” (from page 2 of the interview)

That really struck a chord with me. All this time I’ve been slaving under the belief that I should write what I love, just write it, and worry about marketability later. So I have. In particular, this came into play with my latest novel, Shatterbox. It’s been a strange premise from the beginning. In the back of my mind, I worried about who would want to read it. Who was my audience?

But I always knew Shatterbox had potential – maybe even lots of potential – which was enough of an excuse for me to avoid thinking about my audience. I told myself I could worry about it later. Unsympathetic protagonist? Worry about it later. Was I the only person in the world who liked this story? Worry about it later.

I wasn’t just writing my story, anymore. I was ignoring my audience altogether.

This is where we have to be careful. Often, we swing from one side of the pendulum to the other. There’s a middle ground. Write what you love, but keep your audience in mind. Watch the market, but make sure you retain your passion.

My question for you guys is, what if you can't find that middle ground? Should you stick with your story, or move on? 


- Creative A


Rafael said...

Again, great post. I think one serves the other. That is if you write what you like and then market yourself successfully you may, in fact become a trend setter. It is all about the marketing.

Oh and I will add this annoying bit:

Tag, your it!

Creative A said...

One definitely does serve the other. I have this great quote by Joe Lansdale that goes, "Real authors create their own genre. Stephen King is his own genre. You have to throw out your conceptions of genre and develop a voice and an honesty about the human condition that becomes its own genre.”

So I think you're write about trendsetting - if you develop enough of a style, it becomes it's own market. But I think even then you should have a sense of the audience, even if that sense is just "people like me."

(Tagged from where?)

Rafael said...

Oh certainly you have to keep the audience in mind. The curious thing about print, unlike all other forms of art (except for music) is that is a deeply personal experience for both the writer and the reader.

Were as other types of art are designed for mass consumption, for a sea of people as the audience, writing is like a phone conversation or a letter, a one-to-one thing. That may narrow the focus a bit to much, but it is part of this subset of art.

So no matter how popular a book may be, it fails or succeeds at the individual level, the level of the intimate communication between author and reader.

So in that sense audience is best described under genre. Stephen King might be considered his own sub-genre but he is first and foremost a Horror writer and writes for that audience.

Again the key is marketing. You write the book, then as part of your revision process you study it and break down its elements. Does it have romance, violence, flights of fancy, real life mysteries, etc.

Sometimes it's easy. I just written a story that has elves, knights and giant robots in space. So, my audience should be people who like science-fiction/fantasy, who are not afraid of mixing the two (the so called purist would not probably like it).

Also effective Betas and agent/editor/publisher input should help. They tell you what they see and like and based on their experience you can market the book.

I think the risk is that if you worry to much about the "market" your book might die stillborn, especially, if like me, you find yourself not knowing in what genre a specific manuscirpt fits into.

I just thought of something. Think of your book as the entry element of a media franchise, that is, the story serves as the basis for other media, such as TV or movies. These forms do have a mass audience as their base. So converting/imaging your book as, let say (theoretically of course), a movie might give you a clue of what genre/trend/audience does it serve.

Also remember that the best trendsetters are not trend starters. That is, someone else starts the trend, it picks up speed and if they are lucky enough they can ride the trend wave. Just look at HP and Twilight. Do you think they started the trend? No, but they came along at the right time to ride the wave and well, set the trend.

(I hope this doesn't get swallowed up by the spam filter! I would hate to write it all of it again).

As for the tag:

Creative A said...

Agreed. You have a lot of good thought here. I liked when you said, "So converting/imaging your book as, let say (theoretically of course), a movie might give you a clue of what genre/trend/audience does it serve."

Because, this is something I've done, and it helped quite a bit. It sort of forces you to think of the story in terms that you normally wouldn't have.

(and thanks for the link. I checked your blog before, but didn't see the meme, so I wasn't sure what you meant.)


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