Writing to Market: Bad Advice?

Throughout my career I’ve seen various responses to the advice that declares “Write to market!” In other words “write what sells” because that is what is most important for a writer. Is this good advice or bad advice?

It is both.

Here is when it’s bad advice: When you’re made to feel you have to write a certain type of book just to break into the market, any market.

If you think, for instance, that any lame brain can write a romance novel, but hey, romance authors are millionaires, then the romance novel market is not where you need to be. You won’t respect your readers or give them your best.

So if writing to market means you’re slogging away writing a book you loathe in hopes of entertaining riches, then you’ve taken bad advice.

Then when is writing to market a good idea? It’s a good — even great — idea when you are:

  1. writing your best work, giving your readers your all.
  2. creating a timeless story.
  3. staying within your targeted publisher’s word count, as shown in the publisher’s guidelines or advised by your agent.
  4. choosing a setting to which your intended audience can relate.
  5. selecting a time period you are passionate about and can make come alive for your readers.

I won’t say that any and all fabulous books written by passionate authors will be published to greatness. Whether we like it or not, a wonderful 300,000-word book set in Antarctica in the year 789 is likely to find the market inhospitable. (That statement guarantees someone will sell a book fitting this description tomorrow!) The general rule is that most successful writers study current market parameters and write books that make sense for the market. Editors will often say to me, “I see something there,” when they spot writers they want to work with, even if the project itself isn’t quite right. Those authors should try again. And again, if necessary.

In my view, it’s best to write a story that excites you. Show us the result. Then let’s see what happens.

Your turn:

How do you write to market?

What publisher are you targeting? What is your biggest challenge in writing for them?

20 Responses to Writing to Market: Bad Advice?

  1. Avatar
    Kara I May 10, 2012 at 3:12 am #

    When I first started writing, first person chick-lit, was hot hot hot. It was all anyone was talking about.

    When I finished writing my first draft a couple of years later, chick-lit had been pronounced dead and first person fallen way out of favor.

    So off I went to rewrite my manuscript into third person. Took a year. Finished that and deep third person pov was now the big thing. Back I went.

    I’m very grateful it happened like that, because with every rewrite the manuscript got stronger and deeper and made me really examine every scene, but oh my gosh I almost lost my mind doing the tedious work of changing every “I” to “she” and present tense to past. Never again!

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    Laurie Alice Eakes May 10, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    In the April edition of the ACFW Journal, I have an article on writing for the market while writing from the heart. Sometimes, when the market doesn’t want a time period or place–European set historicals aren’t that popular in the Christian market, then see how you can change your story to make it fit what the market does prefer.

    My first midwie book was supposed to take place in England. But when I realized that would likely be a tough sale, I did some more research, changed the focus of the heroine and set it in America with my hero pretty much the same. I just had to find a plausible reason for bringing an Englishman to America right before we went to war with England in the early 1800s.

    The result, I think, was a much stronger story and sold rather quickly.

    I wrote a story of my heart that was easier for a publisher to slot into their perception of what readers want.

    • Avatar
      Jeanne May 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      I enjoyed that article, Laurie. Thanks for sharing how you took a story you wanted to write and figured out how to also make it work for the market.

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    Rick Barry May 10, 2012 at 6:41 am #

    Sometimes I hear new writers at conferences getting excited about ideas that I’m sure have no market. (For example, the woman whose plot involved a reincarnation of Charles Dickens who must write a best-selling novel in the 21st century to save the souls of family members from the Devil… “Nobody has ever done anything like it!”)

    Not wanting to sound like a know-it-all, I don’t usually comment. It seems to me, though, that if you’ve never seen anything remotely like it in the marketplace, then there might be a good reason for that.

    • Avatar
      JennyM May 10, 2012 at 7:13 am #

      Reincarnated Dickens saving souls? Okay…no. IMHO, that could be filed in the “Can’t Really Approach Publisher” file.

      • Avatar
        Rick Barry May 10, 2012 at 7:26 am #

        Jenny, I was glad I wasn’t an editor who had to listen to that pitch. I was merely a fellow conferee, so it wasn’t my job to burst any bubbles. However, she certainly was enthused!

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      Timothy Fish May 10, 2012 at 10:49 am #

      I’m not sure I like the Charles Dickens thing or the Devil thing, since neither fit with a Christian world view, but I’ve seen the plot before. A few years ago, I saw a story about a writer who didn’t know his daughter very well, but some kidnappers refused to let her go until he wrote help one of them correct the problems with a novel the kidnapper was writing.

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    Candy Arrington May 10, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    My focus on this topic is slightly different. I am a nonfiction writer, yet in the current market, fiction is selling. My attempts to write fiction feel like writing left-handed. My strength is nonficiton. I am totally sure of that. So should I force myself to continue writing ficiton? I ask myself that question a lot, but haven’t settled on the answer.

  5. Avatar
    JennyM May 10, 2012 at 7:23 am #

    I am targeting the bigger Christian houses, simply because I want my work to sell well. Having one of their names on the spine or back of the book immediately adds an enormous level of respect and integrity.

    I write with a set formula in mind (adversity, incomprehensible suffering, impossible hope, salvation, unexpected twist, kick in a bit more fear and then, BAM, joy and happiness and an awesome ending) but I think I’ve got enough of a fresh perspective that my work will be published.

    The biggest challenge is getting a foot, toe, perhaps a small microbe of my DNA, in the door of the agent’s office. Although I know one agent who I will never query (not here) who said in regards to a comment on a blog that my heroine/hero’s relationship was “extreme” simply because one was Native American and the other was white. Extreme?

    Thanks. Thank you so much. Why not tell that to someone who doesn’t have Native ancestors and who’s father is quite brown. It’s 2012, people.

    • Avatar
      Heather Day Gilbert May 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

      I agree, Jenny, it seems like fiction of this nature wouldn’t be extreme, but representative of the diversity in our country!

      • Avatar
        JennyM May 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

        Ohhhh Heather, one would hope!

  6. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel May 10, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    Great post, Tamela. I write contemporary women’s fiction with romantic elements, and I think my story fits into what traditional Christian publishers would want to see. It’s hard to know whether certain elements of the story are “hot” right now, but I think that if a story is good and would resonate with an audience, there’s a good chance for acceptance.

  7. Avatar
    Timothy Fish May 10, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    If staying within the range of a certain word count is considered writing for the market, then I suppose I’m writing for the market. Aside from that, I write what I want to write. I write because it’s fun, not because I care how much money I can make at it.

  8. Avatar
    Jeanne May 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    I appreciate this post, Tamela. The way you describe “writing to market” gives specific parameters while tying in a writer’s love for their story. think I’m following most of what you’ve described for writing to market. I am targeting a larger Christian publishing house. After I finish my first draft of this story, I plan to do more research about one I specifically desire to target to make sure I fit their requirements. Am I doing it backward?

    BTW, the thought of your Antarctica story selling tomorrow made me chuckle. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

      Jeanne, Actually, I think you have an excellent way of working! Glad you like the post. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Elaine Stock May 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Tamela, thanks for writing this post. It really spoke to me, encouraged me. I wrote a love story (not romance) between a couple that isn’t your typical Christian market couple… since its first round of agents I’ve been honing my craft and my author’s voice and its now at several publishers for consideration. Now I’m working on another story that a few may thing pushes the Christian market envelope… but the story is gushing out and I must tell it. I can only continue writing in faith that my work will find a home and readers.

  10. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert May 10, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    I like to think I’m ahead of the curve! Wrote a paranormal (spec fic) before the CBA came on board w/the genre, and now I’ve written a novel about a time period I’m passionate about (Viking era, circa 1000 AD), about a real Christian Viking woman whose willingness to travel w/her husband(s) went down in history. I definitely stayed within the word count parameters, since my first novel (a NaNo novel) was too short. Hoping the CBA will get on board w/my vision and I’ll find a publisher soon! You don’t want to be too forward-thinking and push yourself right out of any niche, but then again, most great books started out way outside any niche (This Present Darkness springs to mind!).

    • Avatar
      JennyM May 13, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      Vikings? COOL! I’d read that for sure!

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    Deb Kinnard May 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Heather, I hope your work finds favor! And I also hope the niches fall apart, splinter into a million pieces, and crash to the ground. We need more breadth in Christian fic, not more prairie romances.

    • Avatar
      Heather Day Gilbert May 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

      Woah, Deb, thanks so much! I know there are loads of people interested in different time periods/settings than the standard fare. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just nice to have different choices integrated into the whole, spanning different time periods. God has been active since the beginning of time! Grin.

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