Writing to the Market — Or Not

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, November 2011.]

Words of Wisdom

The best advice I ever received as an up-and-coming writer was to read – read a lot.  Read in my genre and out of my genre.  Read books that made the bestseller list, books that won awards, books that became book group darlings.

The unspoken corollary to “read” was “write”.  My mentors were telling me to write books similar to those that I was reading, books that would call out to the same audiences, that would achieve the same high levels of success.  They were teaching me to write to the market.

Now, though, fourteen books into my publishing career, I can modify my mentors’ advice:  Read.  And write.  But don’t always write to the market.  Rather, write to your strengths; then, find the market.

What is Past is Prologue

“The market” is a good thing.  The market is a known entity, a distinct target.  It is a proven destination, an identifiable stream of readers and income.  When an author writes to the market, she builds on an existing platform, reaching out to readers who have been carefully coached by marketing departments, sales forces, critics, friends, and family to buy, buy, buy.

We’ve all seen “the market” in action.  To take one small example, remember the piles of chicklit novels that followed on the heels of Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Entire imprints were created by publishers to take advantage of the reading public’s seemingly insatiable craving for funny, first-person stories about young women finding their way through the urban thickets of their personal and professional lives.  New authors were launched on the strength of their chicklit novels; established authors dabbled in the hot new field.  Readers could walk into a bookselling superstore and have their pick of dozens of new novels every single month – pink or yellow cartoon covers that clearly indicated their content.  Academic, literary authors produced an anthology entitled This is Not Chick Lit.  A responsive anthology appeared within months:  This is Chick-Lit.

Many writers followed the conventional wisdom:  they wrote to the chicklit market.  They drafted manuscripts that fit the mold, finding new corners of the sub-genre to explore.  They polished their stories, working with critique partners, making sure their books were perfect.

The Market Crash

Alas, we know how this story ends.

Chicklit died.  Nearly overnight, the vast readership dried up.  Book orders plummeted.  Established authors’ contracts were bought out or simply canceled.  Imprints died.

And authors – especially new authors who had hoped to break into a field that they knew and loved – were left with chicklit manuscripts they had no hope of placing.

So, if my mentor was wrong, and if it’s dangerous to write to the market, what should we authors do?  How can we best protect ourselves?

Do What You Do Best

First, authors should constantly evaluate the state of the market.  It’s not enough to read intensely for six weeks, and then ignore all future books that sell.  We can’t take a single pass through a city’s remaining bricks-and-mortar bookstore and then call it quits.

Rather, we must constantly examine the changes in books offered up to readers.  How many titles are being released this month, compared to last?  How are those books presented – with what cover art, which blurbs?  Which books are making it to which bestseller lists, and how high are they climbing?

We learned how to ask all of these questions when we started on this journey.  Now, we have to remind ourselves to ask early and often, repeating our analysis on a regular basis.  Our obligation to track the market continues, well past the start of our writing career.

“Write to the market” simply does not go far enough.  The market constantly changes, constantly moves.  We have to write to where we think the market will be, and the only way we can make that prediction is to study where the market has been.

Second, authors should consider whether a specific market has truly transformed, or whether it has merely changed its surface appearance.  Common wisdom says that chicklit is dead.  Nevertheless, “light women’s fiction” continues to be a market force – just ask bestselling author Kristan Higgins.

The savvy author will ask whether her out-of-favor manuscript can be transformed to meet the current market favorites.  Can first person narration be shifted to third person?  Can an urban setting be transferred to a rural one?  Can the heroine’s job transform from one formerly-hot field to a different one?  Can the hero’s?

Most authors are accustomed to editing their work, to strengthening their plots, characters, and specific use of language.  Authors should add another category to the list of revision goals:  targeting the market.  Just as authors adjust their prose to reflect the fact that they have learned more about their craft while they write, so they should adjust their market target, keeping their manuscripts current up to the minute that they go out on submission.

Third – and admittedly somewhat contradictorily – authors should remain true to their own artistic vision, crafting the strongest authorial voice possible.  Over and over, editors say they search for distinctive “voice”.  They want strong writing, regardless of the specific category.

“Voice” transcends “market” every day.  “Strong writing” regularly trumps specific sub-genres.  After all, today’s hot new market is going to fade, only to be replaced by some new (or resurrected) favorite.  And who can better lead that charge to a new front leader than an author who is writing what she loves, telling her stories with her greatest passion?

Of course, not every new frontier will succeed.  We might not sell every manuscript that we create out of passionate love for our unique sub-genre.  But we aren’t guaranteed a sale when we write to the market, either.  By balancing familiarity with emerging markets, revising our work to meet new targets, and maintaining a flair for our true authorial loves, we consistently better our chances to sell our work.