Belief and Artistic Choice
Belief Can Cause Interesting Results… Sometimes Wrong…
Another post in this loose series of posts about how writers have artistic freedom in this modern world. And about the choices artists make with that freedom.
I have noticed an interesting pattern over the last four or five years about belief and the choices writers make because of a belief. And I am not talking some religious or political belief. Nope.
But I am talking about belief based on little-to-no information or facts.
And decisions based on myths that appear true to the observer, thus making the observer believe them.
Now I have done a number of books beating on some of the major beliefs writers have. I call those beliefs “Sacred Cows” and there are a bunch of them. And I am about to start thinking that this belief that a writer knows what will sell is another sacred cow.
A new one and a big one and a deadly one, sadly.
But I covered that in a few of the posts in this series and got some great comments from writers on both sides.
So on this short post, I want to just point out a narrow focus on the same topic.
Belief: If I write a certain type (name it) of fiction, I will make more money.
Proof: I am making money. So my choice to write a certain type of fiction must have been valid.
Uhh… no… Maybe… not necessarily…
Your belief is blind and not based on facts.
Usually it goes like this… Writer writers a novel or story or two or three in one area, no sales, thinks about going to another area because they are in a hurry to succeed in a business that takes a decade to learn. So writer writes a few stories, gets some sales in a write-for-money area.
So proof, right? One area sells, one doesn’t?
Let me give you just one of the most glaring reasons you could be wrong. Your first stories sucked. Your covers sucked. Your blurbs were passive and dull.
Your newer work in a “sales area” has a better cover, sales copy, or blurb that readers will put up with. And you are a better writer after some practice.
LET ME SUGGEST that maybe, just maybe, if you went back and took the skills from your writing-to-market area and applied them to your area of love, you might actually sell there as well, maybe more.
We get better as writers, early on from story-to-story. Our covers get better. (Blurbs will always suck unless you focus on learning how to write sales, another language.)
So say you go back to an area you love, take a chance, write some stories there with good covers, good blurbs, correctly branded, and your more advanced skill of storytelling. Might they sell more than the others???
You don’t know. Because your belief and fear of not making money is stopping you from even giving it a fair try.
And this is only one area that you could be wrong. Maybe in your write-for-money you have a character readers like, but in your write-for-love you start off with a character no sane person will invite into a house, let alone read about.
There are thousands of reasons some story sells and a thousand reasons why they do not.
If you are thinking you are selling because you simply made a choice to go write in an area for money, you might be wrong. You might be right. You honestly don’t know.
But my guess is there are dozens of other factors involved.
And that your base belief in one cause for your extra sales is wrong.
A suggestion I’m definitely taking. Because when several reviewers or readers chat you up on FB and say, “Hey, I just finished your last book and your writing is so much better, I hope I don’t offend you saying that, I still love your first book, BUT-” yes, I take that as an indication that perhaps the books that aren’t selling kind of suck.
I am strangely okay with that. A year ago, I would’ve been torn to go and “fix” them, but now I am resigned to them being what they are. Writing them brought me pleasure. They brought others pleasure, albeit the head count isn’t very high yet. There are just too many new stories to write! Yey, this is so awesome!
Nobody knows why anything sells (except some ripoffs that follow in the wake of a huge hit). Just write what you want.
There is an argument against your theory–namely, that some markets have larger audiences and some markets have naturally smaller audiences.
For instance, poetry typically doesn’t sell in large amounts (typically). Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write poetry–merely that your expectations should perhaps be tempered, since most folks nowadays don’t run out and buy books of poetry.
There are large markets where there should be plenty of available customers, such as sci-fi, romance, mysteries and thrillers.
But sometimes an author’s natural inclination is to work in a niche, such as–I don’t know, gothic horror or a young adult sports from a boy’s perspective. Those, in my mind, would have smaller audiences as compared to the major markets. Boys generally read less than girls, young adult is a tougher sell for indies, and sports is yet another niche.
Put those all together and you get a naturally smaller market from which to draw readers, and I think that absolutely could impact sales.
Of course there are exceptions to everything–and there have been books of poetry that have been huge hits, and there have been hit boy YA sports novels too. It’s just more rare, and as I said, the audience sizes do vary in real ways.
You’ve got an interesting point G, but what about all the people that say a market with a larger audience simple means that more writers are present and therefore you have an even smaller chance of getting discovered (too much competition). It still seems to be the best bet is to write something you are having fun with and enjoy and just keep producing.
Hey Cora, I think one of the other commenters here made a great point recently. Basically, they said there is an entire spectrum between “write to market” and “write what you love.”
Dean may be on one side of that spectrum and I on the other, but both choices are valid, as are all the choices in between.
What I advocate for, is knowing what you are choosing. My view is that there are market considerations (such as my poetry example) which do factor into our writing choices–sometimes sub-consciously. Many of the kinds of stories our minds gravitate towards are already determined by what we see in the marketplace selling…
But for someone like me, the market is everything. That’s an extreme, to be sure. I don’t think everyone is cut out to do what I do.
As for market saturation, it happens–but the very large markets tend to have a lot of room to work, even when they get saturated. There are just SO many customers that you can usually find some audience somewhere. But it’s always possible that a niche gets totally blown out–in which case someone like me simply changes to a less deluged part of the market.
There are plenty of authors who tend to write mostly what they love and conform to market demands more as a side note or something they keep in mind but don’t overtly focus on. For me, the market has been my total and complete fixation.
It has its pros and cons but it has worked out well financially. It’s a really, really awesome job. But it feels like a job.
For some that would be horrible–but I still am my own boss and I work when and how I please. Right now, for instance, I’m in sweat pants and a sweatshirt at my kitchen table at 11:05am on a Friday. Not too shabby, imo.
I have a counter argument to your logic, G, but it requires a long view. When I published my first book 18 years ago, it was with one of the first ebook publishers. They started because the industry didn’t think readers would buy paranormal, science fiction, or fantasy romances. But there was a group of us whole loved writing and reading those genres. Eighteen years later, paranormal romance is a huge subgenre in romance, one I suspect people are “writing to market” in now. And thanks to Game of Thrones fantasy romance is a growing subgenre. But all those years ago, the people who thought they knew what would sell said our subgenres were too niche and small.
Also, small presses had to prove there was a market for erotic romance. There was, and it was going strong in the small presses, even starting to move mainstream, when Fifty Shades came along. When Fifty Shades hit it brought a whole knew group of readers to the market and catapulted a few authors into the stratosphere because they _already_ had books out to feed those new readers, books they’d written because they loved the genre.
Finally, even though poetry isn’t a big modern market, we’re a 140 character audience now. I could see that one day translating into a resurgence for poetry. You never know. (Grin)
Point is, no one knows what will happen over the long haul. Writing to market is soul destroying (been there. It burned me out big time). If a writer wants to keep telling stories for longer than 5 years, its a much more pleasant journey if they write what they love. And if their little niche suddenly explodes one day, they’ll have all these books already there for the readers, plus they’ll be able to keep writing in that genre successfully since they already love it. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the years.
Thanks, Isabo, you said it so much better than I have been doing.
Thanks, Dean. I’ve been loving this series of posts. They’ve really resonated with me.
I never said there was anything wrong with the long view of writing. But if you’re writing poetry in the now, there’s a good chance that you will have difficulty moving units.
Nobody argues with that.
I’m not saying to stop writing what you love.
For some of us, the things we love did not tend to sell as well as the things that OTHER people loved. And so we wrote for them instead, and sold more books.
I’m not ashamed to tell stories that other people enjoy. Why would I be? As for it being soul destroying, it definitely can be challenging at times.
But then again, all writing can be challenging. I think it’s more of a “pick your poison” kind of thing. And yeah–I am fairly certain my way makes more money generally speaking.
I have totally seen this. For some writers the growth across a few books is astonishing. It’s always funny when I get hooked by a current release and go back and start reading their older work and it’s just not very good.
Terry Pratchett is a funny example of that. Ask any fan of his what book you should start with and they’ll practically yell, ‘not the first one!’
But I also think that the whole writing to market thing can be a sort of red herring. Something I hear a lot from people is annoyance with readers because the book they spent 7 years laboring over isn’t selling nearly as well as the thing they tossed off in a few months, as a break from the serious and important writing.
Sometimes it’s easier to say that the ‘silly’ book was written to market, rather than admit that they’d rather be writing the silly books, or to admit that the first book isn’t very good.
The same sort of thing goes when someone says that their true love is literary fiction, or some genre that they deem more impressive, but that they write Other Thing because that’s what sells.
That’s not writing to market as far I’m concerned, it’s mental gymnastics to give permission to write what they actually enjoy.
Really good point, Maree. Max Brand was an example of that kind of thinking going back to the 1930s. Max Brand was his pen name and crap writing. Of course, we still remember and read that to this day. (grin)
Michael Alan Peck
Prompted by this, I was just going to ask about your overall view of the write-to-market approach. But then I had a novel (no pun intended) thought: how about searching on that term to see what he’s written already? Lo and behold, here are all these great posts I somehow missed, most likely because I have way too much stuff in my Feedly subscriptions.
Thanks, Dean; now I have a lot of interesting reading to do.
Yet, there are underserved markets where books will sell well for a time–until the market corrects itself.
“Writing to Market” seems to have many nuances and definitions. Yesterday, David Farland sent out a set of character age suggestions in his “Writing Tips,” where he is very specific about what will NOT sell:
I realize he’s a well-respected voice, just like you are. You two don’t necessarily agree on everything. However, have you ever consciously determined a characteristic such as age, race, etc. ahead of time, or do they just come to you as you write? (They come to me as I write, and then when I read lists such as these, I always second-guess myself.) Not all YA books will be about 16-year olds, and not all thrillers will be about experienced people pushing 40.
I feel uneasy about lists such as these, because they are telling me I have a very small chance of success if I deviate from the norm. OTOH, I hate the idea of maybe missing out on making my book 10x more popular if I just change the age. But if I change the age, why not change everything else? Slippery slope ensues.
Dave is a good friend and you are correct, we do not agree on some things. And giving out a list like that is just silly in my opinion.
For every thing he says will not sell, someone can find an example of it selling or in two years it might will be the hot area.
Dave has a different way of helping new writers than I do. I believe in the bluntness, he thinks the path beginning writers go through to get to being long-term writers is the same one he and I took. He has a theory. I try to save writers time, he thinks writers need to spend the years rewriting and chasing trends and learning craft and business that way and if they survive, they are hardened and can make it. If they make it through that, they will be around.
We don’t agree on this but his method has valid points. I made it through seven years of no sales and rewriting everything to mush because I thought I knew what I was doing, but really had no clue. So did he. We both have been screwed by New York publishers and Hollywood and bad contracts. But we still stand. And we both write what we love most of the time and do what we love most of the time. (He loves editing, I love teaching.)
So he has a point. I just don’t agree that all writers need to go through a trial by ugliness and disappointment and scams to become major writers in fifteen to twenty years. But I managed to make it, so did Kris, so did Kevin Anderson and many other writers who came in at the same time and did what Dave is teaching. So can’t argue he has a point. We just differ.
I love your approach, Dean. You have indeed saved my time by showing the worthlessness of rewriting (I wrote non-fiction and never rewrote so I got that easily), finding developmental editors, chasing trends and underpricing your books. I am sure you would have saved the career of many writers. Keep up the good work. 🙂
A comment on the point that poetry doesn’t sell:
Song lyrics can be poetry. Song writers can make a good, and even a great, income. And win the Nobel Prize (Bob Dylan).
That’s a reach. We’re talking about books, not songs.
When it comes to books, poetry is not a big seller at the moment. However, there have been some books of verse (particularly YA) that have sold quite well.
My point was that generally speaking, if you just write what you love without market consideration–and what you love is poetry or some other not very popular niche–you will have much more trouble moving units then you would if you were to work in a more popular category.