Business Musings: Writing to Market

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Marie Force wrote a lovely blog post this week on the five-year anniversary of her major success as an indie writer. She busts a few myths about her career in the post, and she’s very clear about her numbers, and the events that came together to launch her success. She’s written something similar before, but not in quite as organized a fashion. Take a look with an open mind. You’ll benefit from it. (Thanks, Marie! And congrats!)

I’m going to mention a few of the myths she busts in that post, and then I’m going to look at one thing she focuses on, something that other writers either miss, scan over, or don’t understand at all.

An important myth, busted.

While Marie was traditionally published when she started her self-publishing career, she hadn’t been in traditional publishing for very long. She really didn’t have much of a platform. Look at the dates she lists in her blog, and realize that the publication of her “big” traditional books happened in the same period of time as her indie books starting up.

Some of her traditional publications were with a small press. The bigger traditional publisher who took her—Harlequin—had her in their Carina line, which, at the time, was e-book only unless a book took off.

So, her traditional publishing “platform” wasn’t really a platform at all. It barely counted as a dock at the edge of a shallow lake.

The build in her career—traditional and indie—started at the very same time.

Another important myth, busted

Marie Force kept her indie published titles secret in the beginning. She did zero promotion, because she was worried about “publisher retribution.” She didn’t want her traditional publisher to know that she was self publishing — even though contractually, she could self publish.

Smart woman. Traditional publishing is nothing if not unpredictable.

She was on the cusp of the ebook revolution, when there were a lot of devices, and not a lot of content. Her books were good, and they sold, primarily by word of mouth—word of mouth that she had nothing to do with in the first several months of her self-publishing career.

That free book

On February 1, 2011, her first publisher priced one of her earlier ebooks free for one week only. That move had a halo effect on all of her other ebook titles, including the two self-published books that she “hadn’t marketed in any way.” Her sales on those titles tripled, and the growth continued.

There are some important things about that free book.

  1. It wasn’t the only book she had published. When readers finished and liked that first book, they could immediately order another Marie Force title. Not only that, they had a choice of titles. They could find one to their taste.
  2. The book was free for one week. Limited promotions always work better than never-ending ones.
  3. It was February of 2011. The date is truly important here. I know it’s hard to remember five years back with any clarity, but I have a blog to help me remember.

The ebook revolution was just starting, and we had just come off the first “device” Christmas. A lot of people had received Kindles as gifts and most of those people were searching for content. The Kindle was an inexpensive and functional ereader, but it was not cheap—and, importantly, readers weren’t sure about this device. So they didn’t want to spend a lot of money on content while they figured out if they liked the device.

Free books, in that early 2011 heyday, sparked the gold rush.

As Marie says in her blog, “luck is the convergence of preparation and opportunity.” She was prepared—she had her own self-published titles uploaded—and the opportunity presented itself.

I had a similar free experience about ten years before. When digital audio books were just starting, I sold my Retrieval Artist series to Audible. We agreed that the first book in the series, The Disappeared, would be free for…I believe…one week. (It might have been ten days or two weeks. I’m not going to check.)

That free-for-a-limited-time promotion jumpstarted all of the audiobooks in the Retrieval Artist series.

A few years later, when Audible bought another long-running series of mine, we discussed whether or not to put the first book free. My editor there said that free books weren’t working as well as they used to, but we’d try for one week. And, guess what, he was right. The second promotion, after digital audio became commonplace, didn’t work nearly as well.

Now, Audible tends to offer free with the purchase of something else, or on different promotions…anyway…what I’m saying here is that Marie Force’s free ebook came in the exact right place at the exact right time—and…

  1. She’s a good writer. Readers like Marie Force’s books. She’s constantly improving her craft, telling stories that she loves to tell.

In other words, that free book was one of those promotions that’s really hard to replicate in the market of 2015.

Writers tend to miss that—the way that promotions change.

My Real Point

Writers tend to miss something else, in all these stories of wild success.

The successful writer does something new, and daring, and different.

Not in promotion. Not in cover design.

In the book itself.

From Marie’s blog:

I’ll never forget the reason my agent said the publisher gave for rejecting True North: “No one wants to read about a super model.” Those became the nine words that changed my life. At that point in my “career” I had received a lot of rejections. I’d need a third hand to hold them all. By then, every romance publisher in the business had also rejected Maid for Love, Gansett Island book 1. I’d grown accustomed to rejection, but the True North rejection made me mad. It made me sad. And it made me determined to take control of this ship myself.

Most writers see the last sentence of that paragraph as the all-important part of what she’s saying. While it’s important, it’s not the most important thing here.

What’s truly important is the fact that Marie Force self-published a book in a subgenre that traditional publishers believed to be worthless. The story of a famous person (insert your favorite noun here—super model, star quarterback, actor, high-powered CEO, singer) was considered unsalable in New York, for some reason I’ve never understood.

Believe you me, writers for decades have butted their heads against that one. For every book that slipped through, like the Nora Roberts category Once More With Feeling that got me started reading her work to Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, that didn’t sell—just because traditional publishing “believed” that those books wouldn’t sell.

I put “believed” in quotes on purpose. Traditional publishers never do market research. Their prejudices come from their gut or from the results of a book badly published decades before.

So, when the country supposedly got sick and tired of the Western in the late 1970s, traditional publishers gave up on them. Try selling a Western to a traditional publisher these days. Can’t be done, unless the Western has another label—like Weird Western (western & fantasy) or Western romance (self-explanatory).

Somewhere along the way, publishers decided that romantic suspense didn’t sell, either, and that once-booming market has trickled—in the traditional world—into a handful of writers.

Why is the fact that True North, the book that launched Marie Force’s successful indie career, is about a super model important?

Because the book—in addition to being good—filled a gaping hole in the market. Readers were looking for famous-people romances, and they bought that one.

If you look at the game-changing novels that have been published in the U.S. in the last 100-plus years—and believe me, I have—what you’ll find is this: They are, to a book, stories that were unique, different, and (dare I say it) original.

There was nothing else on the market like those books.

They were not part of a major subgenre. They were not part of a trend. If anything, they were the kind of book that got rejected a lot, the kind of book the gatekeepers said could never, ever sell.

Ever hear of Harry Potter? The DaVinci Code? Presumed Innocent? The Flame and the Flower?—ooh, wait. That’s probably too far back in publishing history for you people.

All of these books surprised their publishers with the success. Just like True North surprised the publishing world with its success.

When you look backwards, you can see the germ of that publishing success. With 20/20 hindsight, that success is obvious. Fifty Shades of Grey took off because readers could read it on an airplane without their seatmate leering over them, asking if they liked it kinky. Fifty Shades was the perfect union of content and ereader.

But the seeds were there—erotica always sold well. It sells even better in ebook because of the “whatcha reading?” leer isn’t possible any more.

The Bridge of Madison County sold well because—oh, my heavens! Someone decided to market a romance to men, y’know, 50 percent of the population, usually left out of romance marketing, because men won’t read romance. (What I have found with my assignments for the craft workshops I run is this: Men love romance. Men seem to hate books with pink covers. Ergo, if you want to sell a romance novel to a man, stop using pastels and pinks. Have a cover like…y’know…the original cover for The Bridges of Madison County.)

Why am I making this point?

Because…over and over and over again, new writers talk about how important it is to write to market. Agents stress this. Editors want this. The sales force at traditional publishers demand it. (Because they’re lazy and don’t want to do anything creative.)

But it’s terrible, awful, horrible advice.

It came up again this week. Dean did a series of blogs on whether or not to watch sales numbers. He also talked about writers dropping away because they end up thinking What’s the point?

In one of those posts, and I can’t remember which one, he discusses how deadly writing to market is. No one argues with him about that in the comment section of his blog, but on new writer boards and on listserves and on aggregator sites, writers (courageously [she writes sarcastically]) speak out against Dean’s “stupidity” in his attitude toward writing to market.

Because, y’know, Dean knows nothing about writing to market. He found the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot of Writing years ago, and it made everything he wrote golden.

Dean started out writing his own original works. But for reasons I’m not going to go into here, after 1992, his entire publishing career was about writing to market. He wrote hundreds of tie-in novels, which was the ultimate in writing to market. What is a tie-in? It’s a specific market, with specific rules.

Under his many pen names, he was hired by traditional publishers to write to a particular market, to chase this trend or that trend, and sometimes, to write a book under the name of New York Times bestsellers who were too sick or too weary or too blocked to write another book themselves.

Dean has written more books to market than all of the writers who claim he doesn’t know what he’s talking about have written collectively. He knows writing to market.

More than that, he sees the sales figures for those titles—even the bestsellers written under other names. He knows how well those books sell, and they do sell well.

They’re good books. For what they are.

Books written to market.

But to do something memorable, to do something original, to do something that will get you fans for the rest of your writing career—and maybe beyond your death—to do those things, you need to write your own works, and more importantly, you need to believe in those works.

They might not be successful right away. Note that Marie Force wrote six books before selling her seventh traditionally. That book didn’t do very well.

By the time the ebook revolution came around, she had several books finished and unsold—books she believed in enough to market to traditional publishers. Better than that, books she believed in enough to publish herself, even back in the days when that was a dicey proposition. Read the blog again. See how many risks she took.

People who write to market are taking one tiny risk. They’re trying to make a living as writers.

But they won’t have a long career. I tell you this from the perspective of someone who has had a long career. Not because I want you to do things my way—God forbid. I made a lot of mistakes over the decades. (I wrote to market too, writing tie-ins and other works while writing original novels and editing. A lot of us did both—and jumped off that merry-go-round as soon as we could.)

In the course of that long career, I have seen hundreds of successful writers leave the business. They burn out. They hate writing. They loathe their readers.

These writers never write their own original works. They are continually chasing the hottest, latest trend. They’re constantly afraid of missing out on whatever it is that’s hot. They’re trying to force themselves into a box that they don’t fit into.

Every once in a while, a writer who chases trends finds the box she does fit into. If the writer is smart, she’ll continue writing in that genre, with love and enthusiasm.

But most trend-chasers aren’t smart. They don’t see what’s in front of them. So the writer who finds her niche will look at the greener grass in another genre and abandon that niche, rather than improve her skills and refine her craft and write what she loves.

Writers who have long-term success do take risks. And all of those risks are similar to the ones Marie Force outlines in that blog.

Those risks come from believing in yourself and in your work. Getting mad when someone says something stupid like “super model books don’t sell,” rather than hanging your head and saying, “Oh, yes, you’re right. Stupid me. I should write more books about English dukes in the Regency period, because those books do sell.” Even though you know nothing about the Regency period. Even though you’ve never been to England.

Chasing trends and writing to market work. For a while. And maybe you’ll end up like Dean. Dean burned out. He quit writing for a long time. He came back to it when the ebook revolution hit because he realized that the marketplace had changed, so that he could write what he wanted and he could treat those books like he would treat any other investment.

Why do I use the word investment? Because he pointed out something really important in a blog this week. He pointed out that because of the changes in the publishing industry, writers who indie publish are not engaged in manufacturing. They don’t make one product, and then sell that product.

Writers are creating assets.

Here’s the nifty thing about assets. The money that you put into an asset (generally speaking) remains in that asset. This means that you can sell that asset outright twenty years later and recoup your expenses plus.

When you’re in manufacturing, each widget must recoup its cost (a different measure) with its single sale.

A book doesn’t sell once. It can sell a million times, and still remain on your balance sheet as an asset. To sell a million widgets, you need to produce a million widgets.

Writers are not creating widgets. We’re creating a single property that can then be used in hundreds of different ways—and still remain in our hands as an asset, year in and year out.

Why is that important to this discussion?

Because trend-chasers believe they’re making widgets. And to some extent they are. They’re writing disposable goods, things that will probably not have much of a long life because they were produced to disappear. Trend-chasers writing things that are just good enough.

Readers will probably enjoy them. But will they go after that author’s works like they will go for something Marie Force will write? Nope. Because readers are reading those works while waiting for the next Marie Force novel.

Here’s the real key from the writer’s perspective.

Writers who chase trends are writing books that they believe will make money.

Writers who do not chase trends, writers who write books of their heart, are writing books they believe in.

Books they will fight to the death for. Books they will take risks for. Books that might not succeed the first time out. True North certainly didn’t. Had the ebook revolution never happened, True North might not have seen print for years, if at all.

Lots of long-term writers had books like that before the ebook revolution. Often those books would hit print once the writer had success elsewhere. Or those books would come out through a small press once the writer made a name for herself.

Since 2009, however, more and more of those books—those books of the heart as the romance writers call them—have been self- or indie-published. And some of those books have gone on to huge success, like True North. Some, like my novel The Death of Davy Moss, have yet to find their niche.

Ah, well. I believe in that book, and the people who have read it love it. I’m happy it’s in print. It earns a little bit for me every now and then, and garners some of the best fan mail of my career.

The difference between me and writers who have chased trends for a few years is this…

I love going to my writing desk every day. I can’t even use the word “work” to describe what I do. I play. Sometimes my play is successful, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I write something so challenging that I’m not sure it’s readable. Often I doubt anyone will ever read it and enjoy it.

My job is to finish that project, and put it on the market. My job is to let the readers decide what they like and what they want to give me money for.

My job is to respect those readers enough to continue writing and playing. Sometimes I will continue to play in the worlds those readers love, and sometimes I’ll invent a whole new world just to keep my playful brain happy.

If I wanted to chase trends, I’d work in Hollywood. Or in advertising, which I really have a gift for. I’ve done both. I actually had a career in marketing for a while. (And that skill set keeps rearing its ugly head every now and then, calling like a siren for me to return to that particular rocky island. Occasionally, I answer, and regret it.)

Writing is fun. Creating assets is play. Making those assets work for me is a game that I enjoy more and more as the years go by.

My advice to those of you who’ve read this far in the blog is pretty simple: Put yourself in the position to have long-term success. Believe in your work the way that Marie Force believed in hers.

That can mean years of no money. It can also mean success beyond your wildest dreams.

Take risks with your art. Never forget that you are an artist. Artists have original visions and original voices.

I know, I know. Telling you to be yourself as a writer scares you. If it scares you too much, then maybe this profession is not for you.

Write well. Write often. Write what you love.

Have fun.

That’s the secret to a long career.


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“Business Musings: Writing to Market,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2015 by CanStock Photo

29 thoughts on “Business Musings: Writing to Market

  1. OMG. I needed this so badly, Kris. I know this isn’t new. I know you and Dean have said this forever, but something about this post finally hit home. I can’t write to market. I write strong women who don’t need a man and a thousand times a week I look at whatever book’s about ready to publish and I think, What in the eff am I doing? This won’t sell. I look at the top 20 in contemporary romance right now and mine aren’t anything like those…

    Thank you. Thank you. Going back to work now.

  2. Waving a hand as the historical Western romance author who benefited from publishing two books in April of 2011 that I had two agents try to sell to NY for years. Even though book one in the series had won the 2001 RWA Golden Heart award, the books didn’t fit the market because they were not sexy and they were historical Westerns. Those two books took off, and I’m 15 stories into the series with more still in my head. I make a nice living from the series no one wanted. 🙂

    I love my historical Western series, and I also love my fantasy trilogy, which did not take off but makes me more in a year than if I had sold to a traditional publisher. In total, I had 5 books already written when I began self-publishing.

    But even though I’m writing my stories, told my way, I am getting tired. It’s more about the deadlines–both the publisher’s and my own preorders. I’m hybrid now. Deadlines of my own choosing, and perhaps my own undoing. What I’m looking forward to is slowing down, branching out in the spring after the deadlines are over, and finishing some nonfiction books, my space opera trilogy, and another screenplay. Will they be as lucrative? No. At least not at first. But like you and Dean have experienced, like Marie has, and like many others, I’ve seen (and experienced) what happens when you take risks and put stories out there. Opportunities and luck abound–if your books are good. (And that is a big IF.) You don’t know what the next turn in the road will bring you, or the turn ahead of that, or 5 or 10 years down the way. I’m looking forward to exploring that other path, knowing that my other books will do fine to support me, with an occasional addition to my steady series.

    And I do have income from a small psychotherapy practice and some corporate crisis/grief counseling, which I can expand if need be.

  3. This is a very well written, interesting post, which is why it’s so important to respond to. I don’t think it’s scary; I think it’s positive and uplifting for all the wrong reasons. I think it’s exactly what most authors want to hear and exactly more of what they don’t need. Authors write the books they want, the books they believe in, that they are passionate about – and they fail. Usually because nobody else wants to read them. And after failing for many years, they start wondering whether they should maybe find out who actually buys books, and what they like to read, and maybe think about writing something those people will love. For me, the difference between a professional and a hobbyist is that the professional is building products that sell, to earn money, as a measure to indicate whether or not what they are producing is valuable.

    Failing authors love to hear that they should just keep doing what they’re doing, even if they aren’t see any success at it. The point about building assets is a good one – you need to build something great that people like, and it will earn money for a long time. IF people like it. Building things that suck up time and money but don’t earn a return on investments are liabilities.

    The questions shouldn’t be “products or assets?” The question is, are you spending more money publishing books than you’re making? Is it an asset or a liability? Or is it an investment? When does it have to start paying you back, before you make that decision?

    After you’ve published 10 books that don’t earn money, and everything is still hard work, and nobody is responding to your books, at what point do you recognize that your books have no monetary value (sure they are worth blood, sweat, tears and experience, plus part of your soul, but those are just the things you’ve put in, not what you’re getting back).

    For me, the problem is in the term “artist.”

    “Take risks with your art. Never forget that you are an artist. Artists have original visions and original voices.”

    Most writers and authors consider themselves artists. And we love the idea of artists, because some of them were poor and unappreciated but died and are now geniuses with work worth millions.

    And we consider classic books like Moby Dick that weren’t appreciated for a hundred years, and then finally caught on. So we think, even if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong… I’ll just keep going.

    All or nothing.

    Do or die.

    That’s not publishing, that’s gambling.

    The majority lose money, there a handful of big winners, and the house wins biggest.

    Kris says to “put yourself in the position of long-term success. Believe in your work the way that Marie Force believed in hers. That can mean years of no money. It can also mean success beyond your wildest dreams.”

    The implication is that publishing what you “believe in” is the way to publish profitably – it just takes a while, so don’t give up. And this seems kind of true, because unique fiction sometimes does incredibly well (like The Martian). Because readers do want something kind of new and fresh.

    And if “write to market” = “write crap that recycles garbage and hope it’s a bestseller”, I agree, that’s not a good idea. The danger is, most authors take it to mean you shouldn’t care about your readers, you shouldn’t care about what they like, you should try to entertain them – you should just write what entertains YOU.

    The majority of bestselling, super successful books are in popular, mass market categories. Are you writing in one of those categories? Are you writing stuff that’s similar to the bestselling stuff? Of course it needs to be new and fresh and unique, and better than anything else, but it still needs to be something that hits all the same buttons and takes readers through the same kind of experience. (And it will almost always – fiction in every genre – have the same basic plot architecture and character progression). If your book doesn’t do that, it won’t satisfy readers. Is that really what you want?

    Are you writing something completely off-genre with no built in readership, something different than readers of your genre would expect, something that you believe in but readers won’t get or enjoy? If so, why? Do you want to be an artist, even if you never make any money? If so, that’s fine. But don’t cling to passion and keep writing the books you want to write expecting fame and financial success, because you’re not running a business, you’re paying for a hobby.

    A business meets the needs of an audience and delivers an experience worth paying for. If you’re asking for money but not delivering a satisfying experience, you’re running a charity, for yourself. And again, that’s fine. But every author I know loves to hear the advice to keep writing without worrying about market, but also grumbles about how frustrated they are that nobody buys their books.

    If “writing for market” is too negative a word, at least ask yourself the following:

    Are you writing to entertain or educate other people? If so, you may deserve to earn some money.
    Are you writing to entertain or educate yourself? If so, you’re probably going to lose money, but you have a very, very slim change (roughly a million to one) of making it big (but only if you’re writing in mainstream genres)

    I think choosing either answer is silly. But they both need to be considered. Authors are veering very close to the point where they scoff in disdain at every book that’s actually earning money, because they think their own “art” is better, or that failing and not making money somehow vindicates and verifies a body of work.

    I’m writing YA. I’m writing in every popular YA genre (dystopian, vampire, time-travel, paranormal, mythology, etc). I’m writing to market – as in, I know exactly how many people read these genres, how many books they buy, what they’re looking for, what they want more of, and what they’re sick and tired of. It’s not hard to research these things. I love writing, I believe and am passionate about my stories, AND my only aim is to entertain my readers, to give them a story that’s similar to but greater than all of their favorite books. (If I can’t do that, I don’t want to take their money.)

    If readers don’t like my writing or my stories, I’ll find out why and do better. If they DO like my writing and stories, I’ll reinvest all earnings in marketing. What I won’t do is keep writing them anyway, even if nobody seems to give a damn.

    You can’t give up too early, before anybody has seen your work. But it’s easy to put up $10 in Facebook ads and get a few thousand free downloads from your ideal readers. There is no excuse for not getting the validation from your target readership. If they don’t like it, you either need to find a new market who likes your books, or write books that your market likes. What most authors do is price high – above $5, get a couple sales a month, which means their sales rank is above a million and nobody ever sees their books, and they get little website traffic, so they need to keep spending money to make a few sales, and since they’re not doing free campaigns (because some authors say they don’t work or that they devalue books), they never get over 1000 people to even read their book, so they have no idea whether anybody really likes it

    If people like your books and you’re not selling, you need to make it available to more people at a lower price, or increase traffic and demand. Since most authors are incapable of increasing traffic and demand, and since most paid promotion or advertising doesn’t work (if you don’t know what you’re doing), low price or free could be the ONLY way authors can find readers. Most mid level or successful authors stop using it, because they don’t need to. It’s kind of like training wheels. Free balances out all the things you’re going to screw up the first time around (like ugly covers or an ugly website). Once people find it, love it, review it – then you can charge higher and earn more money.
    </END RANT>

    Nearly all successful books are written to market. There are a handful of outliers we like to hold up as examples, because they suggest that people can write their passions and get successful with luck and some hard work (and a lot of persistence). It’s true, it happens. But not often.

    Believing that “belief” is all it takes to be successful is willful ignorance. Yes you need to believe in yourself and your books, because writing is hard and otherwise you’d give up. But you also need to be writing in popular genres with a large readership (at least a million maybe), and you need to over-deliver on the expectations of that genre, and you have to design your book to look like – yet stand out from – all the other bestsellers in your genre, and then you have to put your book in front of those readers and they have to like it. That’s how publishing works. That’s where success comes from. It’s hard, and you can do it, if that’s really what you want to do.

    If you don’t want to think about readers and just want to write your books, and it makes you happy, keep on doing what you’re doing. If the frustration from not selling starts to overcome the mood-boosting effects of writing, consider writing something that more people are going to enjoy. Write a conversation, not a monologue.

    1. First, to everyone else: I’m letting this through because he’s saying some of the things that others have said to me in private emails. I want you to see the kinds of letters I get, people who believe they can come to my blog–my space–and insult me.

      Now to you, Derek.

      I believe it takes years to learn a craft. People who are in a hurry will always find a way to justify what they’re doing. I find it insulting that writers believe they should succeed at something after a handful of books and only a few years. These writers wouldn’t be able to become small-town professionals–lawyers or doctors or teachers–in the amount of time they’ve spent writing, and yet they believe know everything about their craft after a few years and ten books.

      As I’ve said to others, talk to me in five or ten years. See if you have continued to have success in all of that time. Because people I had this discussion with in 2011 are mostly out of the business now. And same with the folks who said these things in 2000. And in 1995. I’m in this for the long haul and I’ve seen the results of people who write what they love. They have careers that last more than five or ten years. People who write to market usually move on to other pursuits, things that make them fast money with less work and some more scheming.

      I do think about readers–after I’ve finished what I write. As every single artist who has come before me has done. Art is individual. Always has been, always will be. Yep, some writers write collaboratively. But very few who write to market with input from others create something that will last years.

      Good luck with what you do.

  4. Love the post Kris. Fantastic, and really enjoyed discovering Marie’s blog too. That was fun to read. And I agree with Dayle, The Death of Davy Moss is a fantastic book. Love it! Then again, I’m one of those readers that loves following what you do from one book to the next, regardless of genre. Fortunately you’ve written so many books that I’m not going to run out any time soon.

  5. Kris, I’m one of those beginning writers who’ve been feeling down and like giving up. I haven’t actually done it — I’m still hanging in there — but my production has slowed way down. My sales (which were growing for a while) have fallen through the floorboards and are somewhere in the basement now. In addition, a friend of mine let me know that my work isn’t as “God-honoring” as he thinks it ought to be, although he didn’t provide any details as to why. Lol. Anyway, I let his voice get in my head and it really blocked the he!! out of me because my books have graphic sex. All of which is to say thank you for this post. It really helps to be reminded of the long view, and to remember why I write in the first place. It’s about the stories, not the market.

  6. I remember reading an article (maybe essay or introduction) by Donald Westlake talking about how when he started writing it was generally accepted that newer writers wrote erotica. I’m paraphrasing his words but since the readers were not buying for the writing and so a writer could hone his or her skills while still producing a selling product and no-one would really notice or care that they weren’t reading a master writer. (please note I’m not saying that erotica can’t, or shouldn’t be well written). On the flip side, Michael Crichton claimed to have paid his way through med school writing medical thrillers. Then he got burned out with the medical practice, dropped out and started writing what he wanted too. You can’t tell me he didn’t hone his skills writing those thrillers, which he says were written to market.

    I’m not disagreeing with Kris about risking burnout and asking yourself “What’s the point?” but we all (well, I’m guessing most of us) run the same risks in our day jobs that we are longing to replace with a writing career. The difference that I see is that Westlake and Crichton were both writing for income that they were not getting elsewhere. They couldn’t exaclty AFFORD to practice on the writing things they weren’t sure wouldn’t sell. Basically, they made writing a job and used that job to practice the skills they needed for their later ‘dream job’.

    I’m lucky enough to have a job that pays my bills while burning me out. I am fortunate enough to be able to practice writing things I want to write instead of something that will definitely sell. If ten years from now I still haven’t found my reader niche, then maybe I’ll have to risk burnout knocking out some written to market stuff. But until then, why work two jobs when I only need one?

    Thanks, Kris, for reminding me to be grateful for the things I far too easily resent…

    1. Well, your history is a bit skewed, Byron. Westlake and all the other porn writers (let’s call it what it was at the time) wrote those books because the other publishing markets for genre fiction had collapsed. These writers were already making a living, and their markets went away. Some writers wrote porn novels to earn money; others took day jobs. You should read Bob Silverberg’s essay on his reasons for taking the porn jobs in Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties. When that book came out, Westlake was still alive, and he refused to write about his experiences. He didn’t claim most of those books, which he wrote under pen names.

      Almost all of those writers took those jobs in desperation, and put the most positive spin on the work as they could. Bob actually admits to typing in the same paragraphs of description over and over again. That’s not learning craft, nor is it something to emulate.

      My question to you is: Why are you writing to market in this age of unlimited freedom? You can write whatever you want, and publish it with no barriers to publication whatsoever. Your chosen markets won’t disappear. Have you ever thought that maybe if you write what you love with your own original voice you might do better and make more money than you would if you only write stuff you believe will sell?

      If you’re not being forced by outside problems (like the collapse of the distribution system, which was what happened to Westlake and Silverberg and all of those writers) to write to market, then why aren’t you trusting your own abilities and your own voice?

      As I said above, it is a career choice, and it’s your career. I’m just rather stunned that writers, faced with unlimited opportunity, chose to put themselves in tiny boxes instead of grasping for the stars.

      But to each his own…

      1. Thanks for clearing up my vague history, Kris. I didn’t know about the markets falling apart, I remembered in the essay I read Westlake saying that it was the only work beginning writers could get. Perhaps I misread the “beginning” part in there and misunderstood that he was saying it was the only work available for writers of all levels.

        I’m sorry I was not clearer about stating my point. Everyone needs a certain level of income to support themselves. For some people that means a day job. I don’t see why writing to market couldn’t be the equivalent of a day job (if your work sells, obviously).

        Luckily for me, I already have a day job that doesn’t involve much writing, to market or otherwise. So in my off time I practice my writing skills writing what I want. Thanks to my day job, I don’t need my writing to produce an immediate return.

        1. You’re welcome. Writers write essays like that, leaving out the hardship stuff most of the time. It’s like A&E’s old Biography show, which would skip 5 years of no work with a commercial break. 🙂

          It’s always better to have a day job that doesn’t use your writing skills so you’re fresh when you come home. That way, you’re not tired and burned out, and not interested in writing. I clearly misunderstood your previous comment on that level.

          Back as I was starting out, Dean is the one who told me to get a real day job as opposed to supporting my fiction with nonfiction. I took his advice, and that started me selling fiction regularly because I wrote more of it, and I wasn’t tired when I did so. Plus, I was writing what I wanted to write rather than something that ultimately bored me (even though I was good at it).

          The long haul works. It just takes time.

  7. You’re just saying what indie authors want to hear. I’ve believed in all my books since 2011 and it’s got me no where! While the books of friends who do write to market are making best seller lists and earning actual royalties. I’m just tired of feeling motivated by words rather than doing the right thing and writing what the market wants. I’m getting fed up. I highly doubt my bestseller friends will get sick of writing to market enough to stop earning loads and gaining prestige. I’m tired of living in a dream world that one day some one out there will like my books.

    1. So, you’ve been doing this for four years. If you want to be a small town doctor, you’ll only be an undergraduate at the end of four years. You wouldn’t even have gone to med school yet. This is an international profession, Suz. Why do you think that it will take less time to be successful as a writer than it does to become a professional in other fields?

      Nothing is stopping you from writing to market, by the way. It’s a choice. Just realize what you’re choosing. You’re choosing to treat your writing like a day job. That’s like being in college and seeing that your friends with high school degrees are earning a living wage. Yep, they are. And at some point, their careers will be limited by that choice.

      If you decide that writing to market is for you, then do it. As I tell my students, we’re all responsible for our own careers. I put information out there because I prefer that writers make informed choices. If you write to market, you risk burnout and hating your writing…in four to five years…if you’re successful. If you’re not successful, you’ll have a lot of unmarketable dated stuff you don’t believe in.

      And as to pandering, as you accuse me of in your first sentence, nah, I’m not pandering to indie writers. I’ve been saying this for my entire career. I happen to believe it. Just like I happen to believe in my own writing–the successful stuff and the unsuccessful stuff.

      1. This is such a good point about how long it takes to be educated in other fields, Kris. I’ve been writing fiction for 12 years, only 7 of those years as a published author. It took years and years and years of NOTHNG to get to SOMETHING. But no one ever wants to hear that. Oh well.

    2. Suz, if you are willing to listen to feedback, I hope you take mine. I looked you up on Amazon (.ca, to be clear). You should probably be in the sweet spot for me in content, and I buy a lot on Amazon, but nothing about your books grabs me.

      1) Your covers are…well, not great. The text is hard to read, and frankly not that attractive. There’s no continuity through a series. The covers for the romantic comedy shorts series in particular are a big turn off for me. Garish colours and someone sitting on a toilet for a book called Dumped? Ick.

      2) Your descriptions are vague, and don’t grab the reader. More importantly, they don’t signal what kind of book you have written. The Eve Eden series I would have guessed as horror with some comedic bits, but the reviews suggest it’s YA romantic comedy. By the description I would not have guessed Eve was a teenager, but the reviews talk about her prom experiences. As an adult buyer, expecting adult horror/comedy from the description and cover, that would seriously jar me.

      3) Your prices are uniformly pretty high. $6.53 Canadian for Kindle, which is far above my impulse threshold. That may work for books once you’ve grabbed a reader, but there are no ways in for a new reader like me. There’s not a single book priced at an entry-level, or in Kindle Unlimited. I need one of those before I would give your books a try, even with the covers and descriptions solved. (The shorts are cheaper, I know… But ‘Jingleballs’??)

      Just to say that I get Kris’s point about marketing, but I don’t think it erases the need to signal with cover and description what the book will be about. And pricing is still important to grab new buyers. If the first of the Eve Eden series was cheap (or in KU), I might buy it based on reviews, since those look good.

      1. You don’t like my books because they are books that I like to write. They are not written to market. That’s why I’m saying I should write to market, because most people don’t like my unmarketable books. I have fun writing what I do, but if I want to make money at it I have to write what the market wants.

        1. She’s not saying she doesn’t like your books, Suz.

          She’s saying that your design package–the cover and the sales blurbs–aren’t conveying what’s inside the books. She’s saying that the marketing on your existing novels needs improvement…not that the novels themselves need improvement.

          That covers and blurbs are a problem for you. Because even if you write to market, if your covers and sales blurbs aren’t very good, your written-to-market books won’t sell either. Sometimes we as writers diagnose the wrong thing. The problem isn’t your content, if Ginna is correct. The problem is the package you put around the content.

  8. Thanks for all this advice, Kris. Really appreciate it. It comes at just the right time too. I started publishing a weird western series last month and I knew I was jumping into a small subgenre. I’m passionate about the genre and my work, and I love what I’m writing and publishing. The money may or may not start coming in, but I won’t lose the joy I’m feeling and the sheer fun it is to write and publish and make connections directly with readers.

  9. That pretty much reflects my existing thinking. I cannot write to market. I’ve tried. When I’m bored, I can’t write. Yet, even if I do write to market, putting all the appropriate beats and tropes in, my brain purees the genre, producing its own take. So even seeking genre, I don’t hit genre. So my only choice is to get good at this idiosyncratic mess that I’m producing, and hoping that there are folks who will engage with it and enjoy it.

  10. Thanks for the shoutout, Kris! I’m honored to be included in your blog. It’s been an amazing five years, but the one thing I say to anyone who asks for the “secret”–It”s the books, the books, the BOOKS. All the marketing in the world won’t matter if we’re not writing books that people want to read. I’m thankful every day for the readers who love my books. Thanks for all you do for authors and the writing community.

  11. Dear Kris,

    After fifteen years of writing ONE novel, I’m doing something similar: I’ve written and published a book one of whose main characters is a disabled writer, and the other two are an actor and an actress – and I knew from the day I started I would have a horrible time with a traditional agent/publisher.

    Fortunately for me (I hope), the publishing world changed completely between 2000 and now, and when I was sure it was ready and polished, all I did was put it on the market.

    It’s still going to be incredibly difficult to market – but the readers I do get tend to swallow the whole 167K words in a couple of days, and it’s designed for both men and women, and some of my best readers have been guys.

    Now all I want to do is to finish the other two books of the story – and get them out, too. I’m hoping to keep that under five years, but with my problems, no promises.

    Time is spent much better writing than agonizing about submissions. I did that with my first novel (back in the previous century) – and I will NOT go on that rollercoaster ride again.

    Thanks for a great post – and lots more details, as always.


  12. Sometimes I think you and Dean follow me around with a notebook and write about what’s most on my mind. In the old days it was a constant struggle between writing what would sell to editors and writing what I wanted to write. Now it’s a struggle between writing what I want to write and risking having it not sell, or writing what is hot and getting some extra sales. I’m sure most writers struggle with this. Did you ever read The Gift by Lewis Hyde? It’s about producing art in a commercial culture. There are lots of conclusions do draw from his premises, and one is that art is a gift that passes through the artist. While producing art, the artist shouldn’t think about the commercial aspects of the art work. I haven’t re-read it since the Indie revolution, but I know in the old days when selling to editors was the only option, it kept me focused on what mattered: The art.

  13. “Traditional publishers never do market research. Their prejudices come from their gut or from the results of a book badly published decades before.”

    Wow, Kris. That certainly rang a bell in my head. And so true. Smugness begats wilful ignorance and inaction. Indie authors, on the other hand, do market research constantly. Limited free ebooks, cover tweaks, websites, and blogs (like yours). They’re not afraid to try things. Just the opposite is true in Trad Pub. So it’s no surprise that Trad Pub is on a downward slide, while Indies are climbing the mountain.

  14. In the olden days, a writer wasn’t considered “real” unless published.

    Nowadays, a writer isn’t considered “real” unless that success quantifiable with numbers or money or awards.

    I’ve struggled with this myself. We want to be popular. We need a roof over our heads. And we all need to feel legitimate. In a world where gatekeepers no longer hold the same power (20 vs. 80% of Marie Force’s income alone), a lot of indies seem hooked on counting sales, downloads, sales rank, and cash and saying, “Look at me!”

    But in the end, I absolutely agree with you: it’s about the work. Truly good work is original, not a cash crop.

    I’m looking for readers who want intelligent books that challenge as well as entertain.

    Will I find them? I hope so. But in the meantime, I write the best mother#$^$@#%$@TT$@$% books I can. And I hope everyone else does, too.

  15. Applause!

    Thank you so much. I see so many authors, at least on the one writer’s forum I visit, talking about writing what sells if you want to be a full-time writer. It’s very nice to hear another perspective from someone who is also a successful author, and was before 2010 or so. (Many of the ones saying this got started and earned a ton of money under KU 1.0, before the change.)

    You and Dean do so much for writers. I can’t even imagine the hubris of someone calling one of you “stupid” because they disagree with something you’ve said. I’m of the view, “Come see me in forty years. If you’re still as successful and Dean and Kris are, then you’ll deserve the floor.”

    Until then, a little respect, please.

    Thank you for all you do. You and Dean have changed and resurrected my writing.

  16. I must be the oddball. Marketing is part of the fun for me. I like coming up with original ways to promote the things I make. Maybe it helps that I have an easy time keeping writing, editing, and promotion separate. None interferes with another.

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