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.