Writing to the Market: “Should I write what I like or what I think will get me published?”
This is a very tricky question that has caused many writers anguish and stress because the answer is complicated—if there is an answer.
My general feeling is that if you try to force yourself to write novels you don’t care about, readers won’t care about them either. So, here are thoughts on this issue . . .
Case in point. A few years ago, JC and I had some writers over for dinner, and one of them was a sadly bitter person who’d been writing novels for years and he had not been able to land an agent or a publisher. After dinner, most of the people at the party went outside to play croquet with JC.
I stayed inside to wash the dishes, and this writer stayed in the kitchen with me. He was telling me how frustrated he’d become, and I felt so sorry for him. I know how awful it is for someone who loves to write, and who’s hungry to get his/her work published, to just keep hitting brick walls. I really felt bad for him.
However, just then, he caught me totally off guard by giving me a derisive look and saying, “But I suppose I could always lower myself to writing a vampire novel, and I’d have an instant best seller.”
I stared at him for a second, and then I nodded and smiled politely. Wow. He knows I write vampire novels. But on the inside, I was thinking, “Yeah, baby, why don’t you give that a try and see what happens?”
Trust me. This man could not sell a vampire novel. And why? Because he’d hate writing it, and he hasn’t got a single clue “why” some people read vampire novels. You cannot force yourself to focus your fiction on something for which you feel nothing but scorn and derision.
Having said that . . . right now, hard SF is tough to sell, so is straight horror, and big epic fantasies are not as easy to sell as they used to be. At this moment in time, dark urban fantasy (ala Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, J.R. Ward, etc) is all the rage.
So, when you write a first novel and you’re trying to get your foot in the door of the publishing world, you need to keep two things in mind.
Landing an agent: Okay, so if you read blogs on the writing/publishing industry, you’ll see some folks counseling against getting an agent these days. At present—meaning this moment in time—I would disagree simply because your chances of getting your manuscript in front of a real editor at a New York publisher are pretty slim without an agent. So . . . let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re trying to land an agent.
When an agent looks at a manuscript, he/she is not looking to be wowed by your beautiful prose or the fabulous greatness of your story. The agent has one (and only one) question on his/her mind: “Can I sell this?”
That’s it. That’s the only question. The agent takes 15% of anything the writer makes, and so an agent won’t bother with a project unless he/she is pretty darn certain it can be sold to a New York publisher. This is about the agent being able to make a living.
Selling to a publisher: Not surprisingly, the editor looking at the manuscript has basically the same thing on his/her mind: “Will hoards and hoards of people flock to buy this book?” That is the only question.
A publishing house has a huge overhead of costs and salaries to pay, and the only thing the folks there care about is how much money a book might be able to earn.
Seriously, that’s it.
The most common form rejection letter from a New York publishing house will read: “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we do not feel we would be able to make this book a commercial success at this time.”
That’s the crux: “to make this book a commercial success.”
So, my best advice here to write something you enjoy (or no one else will enjoy reading it), but you have to keep in mind that is a business, and everyone on the other side of it is trying to make a living, and they will only pick up a project that they believe will “sell.”