I was talking about my writing goals to someone in a Facebook group the other day, and they told me that I should never write to market. Of course, that word “never” made me think of bad writing rules and I knew I had to blog about it.
Today’s post is more relevant for those of you who are thinking about traditional publishing. There are fewer barriers to self-publishing, but that’s a post for another day.
What it means
When someone talks about writing to market, what they mean is focusing on subjects or genres that are trending or known to sell well. Some people interpret it as putting profit over story and they believe it’s a creativity killer. But there’s a balance to it that those people are missing.
My interpretation of writing to market
I don’t force myself to write popular genres or subjects. First and foremost, I write stories that are entertaining to me. However, I have a few common sense guidelines that I like to try and follow while I’m writing so I have a better chance of selling my stories in the future. This is still writing to market, but it’s a very loose version of it.
I try to keep three things in mind while I’m working on a story that I hope to one day publish. That’s all. None of it is major, it’s just little things.
Having a good awareness of your genre helps you find an agent. Most agents only represent certain genres, so if I know my story is a fantasy then I shouldn’t try to query an agent who only reps chick-lit and mysteries. I don’t choose a genre because I think it’s going to sell, though. I just try to make sure I’m aware of how an agent would classify my novel.
Some genres, like fantasy and romance, are perennial sellers. They’re always in demand. Others, like westerns, tend to rise and fall. Certain sub-genres within those popular genres sometimes fall out of favor, though–like vampires were out for a while, but now people are saying they might be about to make a comeback. We’ll see.
Publishers have rules about word count because the longer a book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Taking on a long book from an unknown author is a gamble. Acceptable word count ranges are tied to your genre and target audience, and you can find those with a quick internet search.
This is one aspect of writing to market that some people really hate, but the truth is that forcing yourself to stick to a word count helps you write clearer, more concise stories. It makes you use words that matter and helps you minimize bloated descriptive passages and info dumps. I keep word count in mind because I don’t want to have to go back and cut a lot of material later. If I’m getting close to the top of my allowance, I know it’s time to reevaluate what I’ve done so far and how much I still need to do. Sometimes it’s a matter of trimming scenes and cutting out junk words. Other times I need to find a good stopping point and divide my book in half.
I’m over my word count goal for the novel I’m writing now, and having that goal helped me realize that I need to rework the beginning of the book. The opening scene is fine, but the next several chapters don’t do enough to move the story.
The last thing I like to keep in mind is whether my material is suitable for my target audience. This also touches on finding an agent. Much like genre, some agents only accept material for adults, while others prefer to represent books for children. When it’s time to look for an agent, you need to be sure your material is suitable for your target audience.
It’s not wise to put graphic sex scenes into a book intended for children, for example. You’d think this is common sense, but it is not….I once got boxed into a long and very uncomfortable conversation with a woman who said she was writing a children’s book about incest, of all things. That was a bus ride that couldn’t end fast enough. (I realize that I’m breaking my own “bad writing rules” rule here, but I’m saying it anyway: Do NOT do this. NEVER write this book. If you think writing incest porn for children sounds like a good idea, please get a therapist.)
Things that don’t concern me as much
I only worry about whether I can tell an agent that this story is, say, fantasy and not horror. Beyond that, I don’t care if it’s steampunk or elemental magic or urban fantasy. Some agents will still weed you out if they don’t like certain subjects, but I’m not going to sweat that. For me, this is the extreme side of writing to market; it’s the creativity killer. My current novel has elemental magic, which is not a big seller at the moment, and I don’t care. If I can’t find anyone to represent it, I’ll either hang on to it until the market comes back around or I’ll self-publish.
I also don’t care about popular tropes or what’s in right now. Traditional publishing is slow. By the time my book is in print, what’s popular now will most likely be a distant memory. Some people are good at predicting trends. I’m not, and I’m not going to waste my energy trying to write a story that’s going to fit into a mold that hasn’t been invented yet. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Certain kinds of criticism
The last thing I don’t worry about is how “PC” people think I am. I write books that have diverse characters. This has nothing to do with marketing, and everything to do with the fact that we live in a diverse world. I try to make sure I include characters with different cultures, appearances, values, backgrounds, ages, sexualities, and so on. I also have characters with chronic health conditions like alcoholism, depression, and physical disabilities. Some people say that sort of thing seems forced, and it makes me wonder how they look at the world outside of their immediate social circle. It takes all kinds, y’all.
Writing to market is not for everyone
At the end of the day, whether you decide to write to market or not is something you’re going to have to figure out on your own. Some people out there are probably fortunate enough to be able to hammer out stories that are on-trend and make buckets of money doing it (probably self-publishing because that’s faster, but maybe not). I’m just not one of those people.
Your focus should be to write pieces that are meaningful to you. Just be aware that sometimes you might have to make compromises if you want to publish. You don’t need to force your stories to fit a certain stereotype or business model, but you might have to change your publishing approach if you can’t meet some industry-supported criteria. Some pieces just aren’t likely to find a home at a traditional publisher. Self-publishing gets bigger every year, though. If you can’t find your niche, maybe you can make one.
I hope this has been an enlightening addition to my bad writing rules collection. It’s not a bad thing to keep the market in mind while you’re writing, although you shouldn’t fixate on it to the point that you find yourself feeling stifled. If you have any questions or anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment below. As always, if you liked this post, please be sure to hit those social media buttons, too. Thanks!