On Writing,  publishing

An Interesting Assumption

Thinking and Knowing Are Two Different Things…

Over the last week or so I have been talking about having the freedom, the artistic freedom, of being able to write what we want to write in this new world.

Both the good side of that freedom and the side I see as a problem.

And the area that the most people seem to get stuck on is my suggestion to write what you love, not to market. (You can go back and read my points on that topic over the last week. Read the comments as well.)

But tonight I wanted to point out one simple problem the people who write to market have.

No one in publishing really knows what will sell.

For a very long time, publishers large and small have been trying to stay ahead of the game of trying to figure out what will sell. What will be the next big thing.

And at certain points in history, meaning this month or this year, certain genres or sub-genres have sold more than others. But even at that large a target, the sales are a constantly moving target. (Ranch romances anyone? How about Spicy Mystery or Spicy Thriller stories? And science fiction was by far the largest genre for a decade or more in the pulps.)

The trends never last long.

Reasons for this are fairly simple to understand. Readers get tired of the same old thing in short order and move on.

I could list here some of the trends in publishing that everyone thinks is hot at the moment, from series selling better than stand-alone novels to dinosaur porn. Or whatever it might be today.

I know for a fact, a fact, that it will all change. After forty years (and by studying the history of publishing) the only thing I do know for a fact about publishing is that change will happen.

Entire genres come and go, sub-genres get hot, flash for a short time, and vanish. And on and on and on…

Makes me tired just thinking about it.

But what I find amusing (in my own sort of twisted fashion) are the young writers who shout out there that they know what will sell and they are going to write it and anyone not writing what they think is hot is stupid. (For some reason they want others to follow them for some twisted sort of validation I guess.)

Young writers would have never done this in the old days of publishing, but the indie world has brought this to the front.

Yeah, those young indie writers know more about publishing and readers and the market than all publishers combined in the last century of modern publishing. And some of them with large egos and no real connection to reality will defend their stance.

If anyone really, really knew what was guaranteed to sell, the big publishers and all the medium publishers, and half the indie writers would be all over it.

And, of course, if that happened the readers would soon tire of all the clone books coming out and the readers would move on and entire careers of writers (writing to market) would die.

So I laugh to myself when some young writer tries to tell me I am wrong, that they know what would sell and I am stupid for not writing what they know, they absolutely know for a fact, will sell.

I say nothing because I honestly have no idea what will sell from moment to moment in publishing. For all I know, at this moment in time, some of those young writers are correct.

For this moment in time.

Instead I just wait.

And in a few years todays batch of young, confident writers will be gone, to be replaced by a new batch of hot young writers, all knowing with certainty what will sell.

That batch will tell me I am wrong and stupid for not writing to market.

Again I will just wait.

And while I wait, I will be writing what I love, having fun with my own writing.


  • James Palmer

    Another great post, though I’m afraid I have to once again disagree with you on a few points.

    You can’t figure out what is selling by looking at traditionally published books. That is very true. The stuff out now from Tor or Baen was bought a year and a half to two years ago. You have to look at what’s coming out right now, and selling well, from indie authors.

    Amazon’s rankings will tell you how well a book is selling. Sure, you don’t know exactly how many copies someone is moving unless they tell you, but you know within a range. You know that a #1 book in a category is selling better than a book that is #397 in a category. And if you dig deep enough and look at enough books, it will even tell you whether or not there’s enough books to satisfy that hungry market.

    And that’s not what Amazon or me or some bean counter at a traditional publisher thinks will sell. That’s stuff that’s selling right now. In real time.

    I’m still writing what I want to write because that’s the stuff I like and it’s fun. I’m just slanting it toward what I already know is a hungry market. Writing is still fun, and challenging. What isn’t fun is getting an ACH from Amazon for six bucks for a book you slaved months over. What isn’t fun is having your phone turned off, and your car payment chronically past due, and your student loans unpaid ten years after you graduated college.

    Making what little money I do is the only thing that allows me to continue doing this. Otherwise I’ll have to go find something else to make up for the gaps in my day job income, and I’d rather spend that time making up worlds in my head and writing. Being creative while staying mindful and deliberate about the results you want isn’t selling out or stifling your creative urge.

    My point is this: We all come at this from different places. You came into it with a backlog of work you own the rights to. I came in from nothing. You are doing what works for you, and that’s great. You have created other income streams. That’s also great. I am working on doing the same. We each have to decide what success means to us. Someone else might not want what you have built. You are doing what resonates with you. Should anyone else do any less?

    I would never tell you that you should do it my way. We all need to learn from each other but take only those things that resonate with us personally and leave the rest.

    • dwsmith

      James, wow what a false assumption on me. I came to this with a backlog of work? Seriously??? Snort. I came to this just over three years ago with ONE BOOK. And an first novel I didn’t want to republish at the time and some short fiction, most of it I don’t want to republish either.

      I wrote MEDIA, James. I had no rights to that work because, oh, let me think, I WROTE FOR MONEY.

      I now have almost a hundred feature titles up in just over three years because I wrote what I love. And they are selling and I’m making more than I ever did writing for money.

      But unlike what you think, I started from scratch just as all of you did, just as any young writer did, three years ago. The four years before that I put up some of my short fiction and Kris’s novels.

      Sorry to take away your excuse about me. The only reason I make as much as I do in three years is because I worked harder than anyone else. Go ahead, fill your own magazine, 70,000 words, every month, with only your own work for three straight years. You’ll make some money as well. Trust me on that one.

  • Vera Soroka

    As long as Trad and TV tell writers what is hot, it will continue. I’ve seen Indies milk it too by writing a lot in their series. One gal I follow is on her 36 th book in her series. I would be tired of it by then but the readers are licking it up so I guess I see it. Now she’s trying to find a slice of the dystopian market and be the next hunger games. I wish her luck. Plus she is amazon exclusive and I wonder sometimes, how long is that going to last?

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    No one in publishing really knows what will sell.

    Thank you!

    A couple years ago, there was a commenter on The Passive Voice who was adamant that writing to market was the way and the only sure way to financial success. She shared her own experience as proof: she’d been writing what she loved and selling little, and then she switched to a different genre, based on her evaluation of the market, and made boatloads of money.

    I’ve been writing what I love all along, but I had to wonder as I read this writer’s comments: how did she know what would sell so well? She didn’t share how she evaluated the market to draw her conclusions, and she didn’t share which genre she’d been writing in or which one she’d switched to.

    Based on what you say, she just got lucky.

    She has since admitted that writing to market led to burnout, just as you predict.

    I continue to love these posts on artistic freedom. I love writing what I love, but I’ve sometimes second guessed myself, wondering if I should try writing to market. Your posts have buried that “should,” and I’m glad of it.

    • G

      This sounds like it could be me. Either that, or it’s someone who had a very similar career trajectory to me, including posting some on The Passive Voice and recently admitting to some burnout.

      Writing to market does in fact work–although it’s never a guarantee. Writing to market essentially is the simple premise that market size and market demand matters. Simplistically, if your market has very few readers, you must factor that into your calculations around possible sales.

      It’s simple supply and demand. When supply outstrips demand, it will become increasingly difficult to make sales. This could happen if a genre has a very tiny audience or even a large genre that is saturated.

      However, let’s also put burnout in context. For instance, I’ve been writing seriously now for a decade, but my first four years or so were geared toward traditional publishing and only the last six have been for my indie business.

      My business is flourishing and expanding and I’ve achieved many of the milestones that I set out to achieve when I first started writing–just not in my genre of choice.

      Life is not simple or easy. We can’t always dictate how things will play out. I took the roads that looked best at the time and I don’t regret those choices. However, I do admit that Dean has a very strong point about the potential that writing strictly to market has in killing a writer’s voice.

      That’s a real concern and I think that in the past I minimized it because it didn’t fit so well with my experience.

      And yet, many writers who write “for love” or “for passion” also quit, because of rejection or not making money or not finding any audience. Writing is a tough business whether you write for love or money.

      I reckon that despite my admitted writing burnout, it’s very possible I could have and would have experienced similar issues even had I continued working in my chosen genre. Look at someone like John Green who admitted to experiencing writers block for the last three years, etc.

      Again, it’s a tough business all around.

      • dwsmith

        Yup, it is tough. I was watching a youtube video tonight and Ray Bradbury suddenly appeared and said simply, “If you figure out what you love to read and love in the world and write about that, you will be happy and love writing and eventually you will sell and make money. It never works to write for money.”

        I saw that and started laughing.

  • Jason M

    I agree about writing what you love, Dean, and making it the very best it can be…


    Let me play devil’s advocate. If you’re watching a new bestseller race across the land, doesn’t it make sense that some enterprising writer will pen a quick copycat novel, compose a similar cover, and put it up for sale within a month or two? Indie publishing allows us to pivot that quickly. And couldn’t that result in some decent sales, for a while?

    It won’t mean a career, or an individual voice, both of which are won through years of sustained work. But isn’t it one way that someone can make a few bucks?

    • dwsmith

      If copying someone else’s work is the type of writer you want to be, sure, it’s a choice. Pretty sad choice, though.

  • Maree

    I was apparently having a synchronous day today. After I read this post I had a conversation with a friend about whether her particular brand of cynical romance would ever find a market, and then I came across a link to a blog post of another writer I admire, Rachel Aaron. Can I quote the thing she said?

    However, if you focus on writing something you like, something that makes the reader you happy and excited and ready for the next book, not only will you have a grand time writing the thing, you’ll end up with a book that is, in fact, written to market. The market of you.


    I think that perhaps my own very specific taste in what I read is tangled up in my writing voice, and if I tried to write a book I’d never choose to read, then me as a unique writer would fade away. How could I write with any voice in a place that I have no opinion?

    • dwsmith

      Maree, darn I wish I would have said it that way. Thanks. Just perfect and in her post she tries to walk a great balance, a logical balance, and her solution of writing for herself, the reader, is a wonderful solution.

  • Teri Babcock

    What I’ve noticed after 7 years of reading blogs, and looking at people’s books is this: the whole ‘write what’s hot, write to market’ push is the domain of the less experienced writer. People who are at most, intermediate level with craft.
    You don’t see late stage 3 and stage 4 writers talking about this, interested in this at all. And it isn’t smug silence because they’ve figured it out and won’t tell you. It’s because they don’t care. It isn’t important to them. They know how to hold a reader, how to entertain them, make them want more. Their books will sell.
    Will their next book sell big or BIG? They don’t know and couldn’t care. They write lots of books — often many more books than people know, under other pen names — and all their books are quality, and will find readers.
    And the writer will make a living. And because they are masterful story-tellers, they are actually the ones most likely to create the next ‘hot’ niche. But not because they were trying to. They were just telling themselves stories they found interesting.

    If someone’s craft isn’t there yet – and the vast majority aren’t – then it’s tempting to find another way to get the sales. And maybe their storytelling is good enough that they can make a few bucks they wouldn’t have made. Maybe they’ll even enjoy writing it. But making that choice over and over again isn’t the route to a long-term writing career.

    One thing that the literary/academic writing community does right is, they don’t expect their writing to fund itself. They don’t expect to pay for writing courses out of their writing income. They don’t expect to justify their writing time by that it makes them money. I understand financial prerogatives, believe me. But I think the expectations in the indie genre-writer camp about income are actually doing harm.

    Nobody tells 12-year-old Jimmy, ‘hey kid, that’s a great song you did on the violin. I recorded it, we’ll put it out on CD, and when you’ve sold enough, we’ll get you more lessons.’ And Jimmy the violin prodigy would never say, ‘Hey, Mom, I don’t feel like practising Bach cause the CD didn’t sell. Maybe we should do some market research and Facebook ads, figure out what’s hot, record that.’

    It sounds silly, possibly even insulting, to compare an adult writer to a child. And yet Jimmy the 12-year-old violin prodigy who has been playing since he was 4 years old, probably has way more hours of practise under his belt, and a better work ethic, than many many writers who feel they ought to be selling more.

    • dwsmith

      Teri, very good point. Long term writers and more experienced writers never think of writing to market. Very good point. I hadn’t noticed that in that way before. Thanks.

      • J. D. Brink

        I agree. Fantastic point, Teri! Very well said.
        I like your comment about writing one thing and finding it attracted attention, so you gear everything toward it. Forget about writing to your heart or passion or even to whatever path or story you had in mind, now that this one thing seems to have sold a few copies, you must gear your future toward that dollar.
        That mindset doesn’t make sense to me. I can see why it would make sense in the short term, if all you’re watching is your financial bottom line TODAY, but whatever hot spring you might have tripped over today will run dry tomorrow, or next week. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some good time out of it, but eventually it’s gone. Then you’re left with a dry well–just one, because you never invested in those long term projects you dreamt of before chasing that dollar down a single rabbit hole.
        Okay, I’m mixing metaphors here, but you get the idea. (And got it better from Teri.)
        Not to plug my own blog (forgive me, please), but I was just thinking about something similar the other day. (Or maybe I’m just imagining a parallel because it’s been on my mind?) Personally, I think you’d be better off just writing, writing EVERYTHING that comes to you, and sending it all out there. Some will catch on now, some later. Some will end up just being a stepping stone that helped you get to where you are five or ten years later, but never really sold much itself. And that’s okay too! It can’t all be gold! And that’s kind of the point of my “Simpsons writing theory” (if you don’t mind the slight tangent): https://brinkschaostheory.com/2016/11/30/nanowrimo-and-the-simpsons/

  • Shantnu Tiwari

    Great post as always, Dean.

    One think I’ve seen is that these write to market types dont see the readers as humans. They see them as statistics. Hence things like Blah Blah blah is the best selling genre, with 40% of market share, so we should write in that .

    Since they dont care about the readers as humans, they see no reason to write to them. All their writing strategy is driven by Amazon keywords.

    And thanks for talking about series. As someone who loves to read and write stand alone novels, I find this blind focus on writing series very sad.

    One bestselling indie author said something like: Make sure you end your 1st book on a cliffhanger, or with some plot points unresolved, so readers will buy the next book.

    I found this so deceitful I quit following her (though Legacy publishing did this as well. Look at Hyperion by Dan Simmons). Again, it comes from seeing the readers not as human beings, but as walking piggy banks.

    These writers claim to be writing to the market, but in truth, they have nothing but contempt for the reader.

    • dwsmith

      Just one post ahead of me, Shantnu. I’ll do that one tomorrow or Sunday night. I would have tonight but wrote on the novel too long. (grin)

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      A little while back, I read a science fiction book that I was enjoying and – since it was the first in a series – planning on reading book 2. But then, after wrapping up the story very satisfactorily in the second-to-last chapter, the author essentially undid all of the sense of good resolution at the end of the story by starting a new adventure in the last chapter that undermined the protag’s success.

      This was not in a preview of the next book. No, it was last chapter of the first book. Nor did it read like she’d just slapped the first chapter from the next book onto the first book. It felt like a last chapter. But it ruined how I felt about the story. So much so that I don’t trust the author to do better in subsequent books and have put her on my do-not-read list.

      I wonder if she was following this misguided cliffhanger advice.

    • Marion

      I just discovered these posts from a link through Kris’ most recent blog post. Shantu, you are so right about the indie publishing belief or blind allegiance to series. Also, I’ve heard a lot of “write to market” on various indie publishing podcasts recently. It has always struck me on an instinctual level as false. I did not know why and these posts by Dean had clarified that gut instinct. Thanks Dean!

  • Sheila

    I can see a sort of Catch-22 issue with the whole “write to market” thing, doing series too: are readers snatching up these books because it’s what they really want to read, or because it’s all they see of the kind of stories they want?

    To be honest, I’ve been very down about writing for a while now. I keep trying to forge ahead, to stay positive, but sometimes the series is the key thing is damned depressing. I personally don’t like to read series, and it’s almost impossible for me to even come up with ideas for them. I’ve been researching how to write series and I hate it.

    Reading these posts over the last few days has been helping, Dean, so thanks for doing them. I know you probably get some back lash for going against “what sells”, but I’m grateful for them.

    Anyway, enough pity, party of one. Keep on doing you, and I’m going to rewrite my 2017 plans — again — and try to follow in your footsteps. After all, as I remind myself, the writers I admire don’t write to market, or do never-ending series.

    • dwsmith


      Yeah, series seems to be a holy grail kind of thing to many young writers. But that too will fade back to series just being a part of things. If you like them, write them, if you don’t, don’t. Same thing I tell people about short fiction. If you read it and love it, write it. If you never read it and don’t love it, don’t bother.

  • Author aspirant

    Markets are not fixed – they grow and change all the time. New markets can emerge as a result of a writer innovating rather than just following what everyone else is doing.

    I tried for years to find the books I wanted to read but they don’t seem to exist. Maybe that means no-one else is going to want to read them but me, because at the moment there certainly doesn’t seem to be a “market” in place. But I’m writing them because dammit, I want to read them.