The Writer and the Market

For any writer who wants to publish their work, possibly the biggest obstacle is the market. The Market, that we refer to as its own entity that wants mysterious and ever-changing things. The source of all the ‘they’s in ‘they say’ and the ‘everybody’ who knows. Writers spend a lot of energy discussing the market, what it wants and why, and trying to figure out ways to divine its conflicting desires.

Unfortunately, writers are also the worst people to do this. Not that we can’t get good at it, it’s just that we aren’t coming from the best starting position.

 

But wait, says the strawman I prepared earlier, how can that be? Writers spend so much time in the market! We’re often voracious readers, we like to keep at least an idea of what’s getting published at the moment, at least in our genres. We attend cons and talk to other writers and get angry about overused tropes that make no sense! Surely writers, being so attentive to the market, and understanding the craft of writing, are among the best equipped to judge these things!

 

Well, yes and no. We have all the information, yes. But we’re also very, very prone to bias.

 

Writers read differently to non-writers, as a rule. Writers tend to pay attention to the craft of the story as they read. They read not only to enjoy the story, but to find out how the author made us enjoy the story – we notice pacing, we look at how the author used tropes in their work, and whether they used the tropes in line with or counter to our expectations. Because we pay attention to these things in our own writing, it can be hard for us to stop that voice of critique when we want to read. Some people, like me, are nerds and enjoy this. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to not be able to ‘just sit back and enjoy the story’.

Those of us who do read, also tend to read a lot, and read deeply into particular genres we’re interested in. Then we talk about the market with other like-minded people – that is, people who also like reading critically (or need to read critically), who are interested in a particular genre or set of genres, and are in some way invested in the writing industry.

This, folks, is your standard echo chamber. Ideas go in, consensus comes out.

 

The thing is, there might be a lot of us on the Internet, but we’re definitely not the main segment of the reading population. Particularly in genre fiction. The casual reader makes up a much larger proportion of the readership. That is, the kind of person who really does ‘just sit back and enjoy the story’. To take the extreme stereotypes, the writer wants to read a book that’s got new and challenging things in it, whereas the casual reader wants to read a book that they know they will enjoy. A writer is more likely to read a book because it has an interesting premise they haven’t seen done often before, but the casual reader will read what is essentially the same story over and over again because they know that’s what they like. Obviously that’s the extreme stereotype; casual readers will still condemn books for being too bland and cliché, and they will seek out authors who use tropes differently, and writers will read unoriginal fiction for a variety of reasons, from ‘I like this particular author’ to ‘I feel like reading something that doesn’t require as much intellectual commitment right now’ to ‘I just really love these tropes and I’m not ashamed of that’.

 

Still, eventually the desire for new and interesting stories filters down into our writing advice. This trope is overused, that trope is overused. Don’t write about this, you’ll just be writing a [popular book] clone and nobody will read it. It seems perfectly reasonable. After all, everyone the writer talks to about these tropes agrees that they’re overused, and probably that the market is due for a change again. And yet, the books keep coming out in that vein. And people keep buying them.

 

The purpose of this blog post isn’t to condemn either writers for being elitist, or casual readers for being boring or pedestrian. After all, the book industry is huge, and there’s plenty of room for all of us to have our own preferences and still find more than enough books to keep us reading for our whole lives. It’s just a little perspective. The market is always both more innovative and more imitative than you expect it to be, the largest demographic is always someone else and they’re not reading wrong any more than you are. So keep in mind when you’re thinking about the market where you’re getting your information from. If you’re getting most of it from people who are just like you, then maybe it’s time to cast the net a little wider.

 

And as always with the Market, don’t gaze too long into the abyss. It might have very pretty eyes, but you won’t get anything done if you sit there all day.

6 thoughts on “The Writer and the Market

  1. I haven’t delved into the abyss of the market yet, but I prefer to stick to my guns (my writing genre) and then study the market to find where the right niche resides. Other people, like Nicholas Sparks, shape their craft according to the niche they’ve chosen. What’s your preference (although I think I know the answer), and why? What would you change of my method, if you could?

    • Damn, I wasn’t expecting such a great question when I came to check on my notifications today.

      OK, so my personal approach is pretty much like yours – I write what seems to work and then I have a look for where it fits. I mean, my writing is pretty mainstream for the fantasy genre, so I personally don’t have to go looking too hard for places where it fits.

      But I also think that shaping the craft according to the niche is a viable option, and Nicholas Sparks is actually a pretty good example of where it’s a good strategy. Wikipedia tells me he’s released 21 books at a rate of about one a year for the past 20 years. You can say the phrase “Nicholas Sparks book” and you know pretty much what you’re in for. He’s not an author anymore, he’s a brand, or maybe even a subgenre. At the very least, he’s the figurehead of a subgenre. It’s actively going to lose him money if he switches up his formula now.

      It also depends on your genre and your style. Some genres are more open to innovation, and readers are likely to pick up stories on the basis of “hey, I’ve never read that concept before”, while in some genres, readers are likely to pick up books based on “that looks like something familiar that I like, and the characters seem cool”. (Sometimes both types of reader exist for the same genre, but I digress). The type of reader you’re going for should be something you’re aware of while you’re writing, though you don’t necessarily need to craft the story with the intention of hitting one or the other of those groups, if that makes sense.

      As for what I’d change about your approach … I don’t think I’d change anything, but I’d emphasise that knowing the market involves trajectory as well as the current snapshot, so I see studying the market as an ongoing process that I do all the time, not just at the end of the novel.

      • When you said “It’s actively going to lose him money if he switches up his formula now”, a picture appeared in my mind of a battered Mr Sparks, tied up to a chair, blabbering: “But I want to write about ninjas–” and his agent slapping him in the face and shouting “PREPOSTEROUS!”
        Anyway, I agree with you: the market is made of people in constant evolution, after all.
        Another question: what are your methods for studying the market? Magazines like the Writer’s Digest? Amazon? Other websites, like Wikipedia?

      • That’s much the same as the image I get whenever J K Rowling tries to write something that isn’t Harry Potter, but instead of her agent, it’s the fans.

        My methods are a little less sophisticated than all of that! I get the Publisher’s Lunch e-mails (though I don’t subscribe to the site yet), I follow a few agent blogs and Twitters, and of course I regularly window-shop in bookstores to see what they’re stocking on the shelves (and for no other reason, why would I go into a bookshop except for research? Psh, madness!)

        My understanding of the market is very broad strokes – I can tell you what subgenres are on the fantasy shelves at the moment, but not which ones are most popular or sell best. I’ll probably start to collect more detailed data as I go over the next few years, but for now keeping a general eye on things is pretty much all.

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