On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Chasing the Market

Artistic Freedom Part Two…

Yesterday I talked about the wonderful artistic freedom this new world gives writers.

If, and only if, the writer takes the freedom and even knows how to recognizes the freedom.

I got a number of questions, mostly in e-mails, about what I meant by not writing to market in that post.

In short, writing to market means thinking that writing something you have heard is selling well only because you want to make money.

In other words, you write into areas you don’t know, don’t even much like, or even like to write, just for the hope of a few more sales.

Horrid writer death that way. Horrid and slow and painful.

I am watching it happen over and over to so many writers at the moment.

(And sadly some of them know it and feel trapped.)

Way back in a time when traditional publishing still held a slight glimmer of hope for a writer (2013), I wrote a chapter in one of my Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing books about this topic. (You can still read all the original blogs up under the tab at the top of my site.)

Thinking you need to write for money to make it is a huge, huge myth.

In that post I talked about editors directing what was hot, but now indie writers don’t have editors to tell them what is hot and what is not. Indie writers have something now much, much worse.

They have the rumor mill.

The rumor mill is other indie writers who look down at a writer if they are not chasing the new fad in promotion, in topic, in Facebook pixels or some such thing. These kinds of attitudes are deadly and hard for many writers to resist.

So out the window goes all artistic freedom. And the writer finds themselves writing into areas they don’t even read for pleasure.

Or spending far too much time on some sort of promotion that doesn’t fit who they are as a person.

Something that is good for one writer can be death to another. Writers are not all the same.

Artistic freedom is something we are now all given. But sadly, most writers won’t take it.

Why? Because taking it sometimes means fewer sales.

Taking artistic freedom in your work means you have to have a long-term vision for your career beyond next summer.

Taking artistic freedom means you have to actually be in touch with yourself and admit what you like to read and what you would love to write. And I don’t mean admit it to your friends or partner, but to yourself.

And taking artistic freedom with your writing career means understanding what you can and can’t do as far as promotion, production, and business. And then finding your way, not someone else’s way, to get around the blocks.

There is a really simple and basic guideline on all this.

If you bring marketing for any reason into your writing while you are creating, you are making a long-term mistake.

I don’t care what some young writer who happens to be making a few bucks right now says.

And if you are arrogant enough to think that you can be a prostitute with your writing for a short time and then go back, you might want to think that through.

Very few of us ever returned to our own writing from that ugly position.

I know, I did it. Took me almost fifteen years and I have still not completely recovered yet, which is why I write these articles like this.

My career was dead completely in 2005. I had spent far, far too long writing for money while pretending I wrote what I love. And sometimes I did write what I love with Star Trek, Men in Black, Spider-Man and so on.

And often I wrote only for money. Ghost books, a novelization of a Medona movie, and so on.

And I will never get parts of my soul back from those books. And the road back to being able to accept artistic freedom and regain my own voice has not been easy.

Do as I say, not as I did. Cherish the artist freedom this new world gives you.

Don’t squander it.

In the long run you will be very glad you did.
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  • Big Ed Magusson

    I think there’s a middle ground. If I love writing stories in two genres, but one genre sells much better than the other, I don’t think it’s compromising my artistic freedom and vision to focus my writing in the better selling genre. That’s not the same as writing a story to what I think the market wants.

    • James Palmer

      Agreed, Big Ed. Writing to market doesn’t mean writing a romance because it’s hot right now, when you have never read a romance novel in your life. It means finding the intersection between what’s hot and what you already like to read and write. And for me, writing without being mindful of the result I want will leave me with another forty dollar month from Amazon, and I’ll have no money to put into the next cover, the next promotion, the next book. Making money from writing is what enables me to write in the first place.

      • dwsmith

        James said: “Making money from writing is what enables me to write in the first place.”

        Actually, James, an interesting assumption. Most of us, me included from 1974 to 1988, wrote just fine without making much money at it. So saying you must have money before you can write feels like an assumption that you might want to challenge because it leads to exactly the types of decisions with your writing that I am warning about.

        For everyone, let me be clear. I believe that anytime money enters into the decision in any way as to what to write and how to write it, you are making a long-term mistake. Might work out fine in the short term. Might work out completely. But is very dangerous in the long-term and soul-crushing when it comes to artistic freedom.

        But that said, the word “freedom” is part of that “artistic freedom” and every writer is different in how we decide to spend that artistic freedom. And writing for money is one of the aspects of freedom. My point is simply it might not be the best way in the long term.

        • James Palmer

          Thanks for your comments, Dean. I respect your experience and your authority as a voice in this industry. I should probably clarify something. What I should have written above was making money from writing is what enables me to continue publishing. Book covers cost money (well, they cost me money anyway, since I suck at doing them).

          We all come at this from different places, and we have to define what success means to us, and only us. I work a boring, dead-end job. I have piles of student loan and other debt, and I’m using writing as a way of one day digging my way out of it. Maybe that’s crazy. After all, there are easier ways to make money, as I’m sure you know. But those opportunities aren’t exactly falling from the sky either. Good paying jobs are increasingly hard to come by. So I am taking the long view with my writing but being mindful about where I want it to go and what results I want to have. I’ve managed to build up a small indie imprint of sorts that manages to pay for itself. I’m bootstrapping. Any money for book covers or marketing has to come from money I’ve previously made writing and publishing books, or these new books just won’t exist. That’s not an assumption, that’s my reality.

          Do I write just for money? No. Of course not. All my life I’ve wanted to be a writer, and indie publishing has finally allowed me to do that unencumbered by bean counters and gatekeepers. I’m writing to market, but in a genre I already love. I haven’t sold out. It’s challenging, fun, and since I published my first novel in a popular indie genre I’ve had the best sales month ever. I’m sure it’s hardly a drop in the bucket compared to an average month at WMG, and it’s hardly life-changing for me. But it’s a start. And I will continue to do what I think is right for me as a writer and my business as a whole.

          • dwsmith

            All seems great to me, James. Keep having fun is also a key.

            When Pulphouse failed, Kris and I were a quarter million in debt in 1992. We turned to writing to work our way out of that debt and we paid it all back and did it while living. (In 1996 we even bought a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean as well.) You can make money at writing. We made some bad mistakes because of that money pressure. And in hindsight, the books that made us the most money were the books done for love. Not just for money. So this is my experience talking, just trying to save others the pain. (grin)

            But freedom means just that: Freedom.

  • Maree

    The sort of writing to market I’ve come into contact with is a bit more benign that this. More about thinking about what is hottest in the genres and sub genres that you enjoy writing, and choosing the next project with that in mind.

    But even that has been stifling for me. I was telling a friend that I was thinking about turning a short story into a larger work, and she told me that was a great idea because that sub genre was hot right now, and mentioned some other similar style things, books and television, that were doing well.

    She thought she was being helpful, but what it did was add a layer of stress, I’m not even sure why, but now working on that project is extremely stressful, when before it was just a cool idea. Yet another reason to keep my ideas to myself until after they’re written I guess.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Maree. Good lesson to learn. Sorry it had to be painful. A real artist never shows work until it is finished. Ever. Protect the work, right down to the idea stage.

      One writer I knew who was a mother of a couple of kids thought of her projects as babies as well and protected them from any contact with the real world, including her editor and agent in New York, until the book was completely done. Not even a word about what the book was about. Nothing.

      Notice the only thing I say about books I am working on is the series and a cover I have done. I talk about the writing process and how I might be stuck, and the word count, but never about the content as I write it. That level allows me to protect the work yet share the process without the two crossing over. Only a couple people over the years of me doing this have noticed that. I only talk about process, never content, never the book, until it is done.

      • Maree

        Haha, see I thought I was okay. The short story was done, she’d already read it. I was just blowing smoke.

        And I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself a true artist. I dont want to. I’m too firmly grounded in my trade identity. I seem to miss out on a fair bit of writing angst this way. Trade school is, huh, yeah, it totally follows Heinlein’s Rules.

        Tradie, not artist.

    • Kate Pavelle

      Yes! Me too! At this point, sharing what I might write next is the best way to kill an unwanted book idea, you know, the kind that wants to distract me from the “finish and publish” part of what I do. I get a lot of helpful suggestions from family, along the lines of “you should write about…” I helped my husband publish a book he wrote. It’s a good book, but it sells as poorly as you’d expect for a new writer. I tell him, “Just write the next book.” The suggestions have, strangely, stopped.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Yeah, this. Thank you, Dean! I’ve been introspecting on this for quite a while, and I’ve been reading your and Kris’s business blogs, and I came to a sad realization.
    I’ll have to be inconvenienced with pen names after all.
    After some study and querying, I’ve come to decide that I can’t be writing YA under the same name as rather spicy romance. That’s trouble. Ditto for general-audience thrillerish stuff. So I have 3 names, and they aren’t a secret on my website, but they won’t be connected on sales sites. WIBBOW? Well, not really. Not when I’m stalled on no fewer than 4 UF and 3 crime suspense works because I know, in the back of my mind, that marketing them under my current name wouldn’t get me far.
    Key words and SEO and blurbs will take me only so far when it comes to making sure my reader’s expectations aren’t thwarted. What a bummer! And here I thought I was off the hook when it comes to the issues of maintaining multiple websites, newsletters, etc. I’m still planning it all out just so the system is clear to the reader, yet not to cumbersome to maintain.
    Sometimes, artistic freedom requires more work on the back end of the business.

  • David Anthony Brown

    “And if you are arrogant enough to think that you can be a prostitute with your writing for a short time and then go back, you might want to think that through.”

    I’ve never been a prostitute, but I’ve done jobs for money and opportunity that turned out to be soul-killing in the end. Took me a long time to rediscover why I love science, because around 10 years ago I was arrogant enough to believe I could fit my square-peg personality into a round hole. I didn’t get very far in the academic and scientific worlds, partly thanks to the Great Depression, partly because I was killing myself slowly. I’m now a hobby enthusiast for science and statistics, which gives me a quirky skill set that’s not particularly useful when writing a resume.

    Coming into the publishing industry when I did was a total boon, and I have enough world experience to appreciate what I have. I have zippo desire to bend myself into a pretzel again, for the sake of building a career. Knowing myself, I know I’d be done as a writer if I had to pitch novels to the Big 5.

    That was a bit ranty, but I’ve spent part of my morning using the five elements from the Expectations workshop to analyze why I’m enjoying a certain erotica author’s stories. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between “writing for the market” and “writing for the reader.”

    • dwsmith

      David, yeah, writing for the reader is an awareness that there are people on the other side of the typing. One of the aspects in this topic of writing to market that comes in about writing to reader is the care, the love, the passion in the writing. Writing to market seldom allows a writer to transfer the passion through to the reader. The focus is wrong.

      The focus on writing to market is how much the writer will get in return in money. The focus on writing for the reader is what can you do to make the reader have a better experience through your story. Very clear and very different. And seldom mixed.

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Thank you for saying all this, Dean. I found your experience of writing for money only – and how it affected you – to be very moving and powerful. I understand better now some of the excellent guidelines you’ve shared in the past. I tend to learn best from example, so I appreciate your frankness.

    I’ve encountered the scorn of writers who believe that writing to market is the path to success. This post from you will help me to better resist their siren lure. 😉

    • dwsmith

      J.M., best way to resist is to just look at how long they have been around. If under five to ten years, they know what works for them but not for anyone else. No writing for market lasts very long. I had about ten years and I was lucky to make it that long.

  • Leah Cutter

    My “marketing plan” such as it is for my writing is very simple: Aim for Planet Leah.

    That’s it.

    If I write stories that are truly mine, with my voice and my take on things, I get the best response. Yes, they’re weird and out there. Don’t care. Always want to achieve Planet Leah.

    For example–I was recently invited to write to an anthology. Love the theme. Editor was bitching about the types of stories she was getting. Proposed mine. It’s *completely* different than everything else. And while she loved the idea, I’m also aware that I’m coming out of left field, as it were. My story isn’t going to be like any of the others.

    Maybe that will be good. Maybe she’ll take it.

    Maybe it will be too different than everything else she’s gotten, and she won’t be able to take it.

    Doesn’t matter. I’m still aiming for Planet Leah in everything I do. There will be people who love it.

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    Really good essay, Dean. As usual. 🙂

    It’s a nice reminder to hear. Especially the part about it being so damned hard to come back from “prostituting your writing”. Because let me tell you, there are a LOT of people out there who are happy to tell midlisters about what they OUGHT to be doing to make money.

    So far, every book I have ever written is something I would enjoy reading. Every single book is a “for the love” book. Sure, I sometimes consider which of the dozens of cool ideas floating through my head might hit the market best right then. But at the most it’s about finding the sweet spot in the Venn diagram which represents “things I love” and “things I think readers will love too”.

    It’s hard to avoid the temptation sometimes, though. The siren call to “make lots of money”, to cash in on the writing skills we have, it’s a hard thing to resist.

    The reminder that doing so can be REALLY bad for us in a variety of ways is a good and timely one. Thanks.

  • Prasenjeet

    “The rumor mill is other indie writers who look down at a writer if they are not chasing the new fad in promotion, in topic, in Facebook pixels or some such thing.”

    This is so true, Dean. And well said about Facebook pixels. You really got me (grin). I constantly hear some indie writers say, “I would rather spend $1000 to make $1000 than $0 to make $0.” Sadly, some pretty well established indie authors (I would not like to name them here) say that “writing more books is just a myth.”

    • Shantnu Tiwari

      I know the people you are talking about, Prasnejeet. I keep hearing the “Writing more books is a myth”, usually from 1-2 book writers.

      The people who spread these rumours usually make most of their money not from their books, but from their “How to get rich selling books” type courses.

      • dwsmith

        Shantnu, I’ve noticed that as well. I think it’s their defense mechanism because they found writing so hard with all the rewriting and other things they were “supposed to do” to make their books “perfect” made their only choice to believe they could do fine with what they have and don’t need to do more. They all go away shortly to be replaced by others who say the same thing. From my perspective of 40 years in this business, it’s a sad but normal thing to watch.

        • Kevin McLaughlin

          Speaking from experience, it’s NOT a myth. 🙂

          I have thirty titles out for sale, if you include short stories. The gain is noticeable for each new title now. Released four novella titles over the last two months and saw monthly income (average) increase by about $300.

          Does $300 a month not sound like much? It is. I’ve got three more releases coming out next month, and then at least two more the month after, and…

          It adds up. And things really took off over last summer, sort of out of the blue, just because I finally hit a critical mass of decent books out there.

          All written in the genres I love. All books which – while most of them no longer represent my current skill level, absolutely WERE the best I could do at the time. And each of them something I can be proud to say I wrote.

          Thanks, Dean. You’ve been a guide for a lot of years. It matters, and it’s appreciated. 🙂

          • dwsmith


            Yup, the best promotion is always the next book. Sort of a sad old cliche that is still completely accurate today. And it does take close to 20 with good covers, good blurbs, and so on, for the discoverability to kick in. Scary enough, the discoverability of numbers of products is a mathematical formula that has been used in sales for a very long time and now applies to indie publishing.

      • Prasenjeet

        So true, Shantnu. Many of the writers claiming “writing more books is just myth” do make money selling courses on promotions or as you said “How to write best selling get rich type of books” courses usually for $997. Whenever I see the price tag, I always think, “I’m not sure whether I’m going to become rich taking the course” but the guy offering the course will definitely become rich with my money (grin).

  • D S Butler

    This confuses me. I know you share my admiration for the pulp writers. Didn’t they write to market and produce some brilliant and creative fiction?

    I guess things were very different then, but even today you still need an audience for your work if you want to make a living. I love what I write but I make sure there is a market for it. I try to hit genre expectations and brand the book accordingly to appeal to that market.

    If I only did this job for freedom of expression or love of writing, there is no way I would ever finish a book because when I get to the last third, I’m ready to move on to the next shiny idea. I don’t love writing at that point. I can’t wait to finish the darn thing.

    Whenever I see this topic come up, I see/hear mixed messages, and I end up even more confused.

    • dwsmith

      Finishing your work and working to get an audience for something that is finished is spot on the money. That’s part of the business.

      What I am talking about is deciding what to write BECAUSE of thinking through some magical formula or some gossip or some young writer insisting you should write what they write because it SELLS!

      Taking the market, the money, into the writing, is what I am talking about. Being an artist, writing what is important to you, finishing what you write, and then working to sell what you write is part of the business.

      The line is at the decision point before you start writing. Write what you want or write what you think will sell. You have the freedom to do either one. But one can be dangerous to long-term life in writing.

      And if you study pulp writers, you will know that almost none of them made it past five to ten years. And very few made it out of a certain magazine they were writing for only at the time when the magazine crashed.

      • D S Butler

        Thanks for the reply, Dean. Sometimes I find it difficult to make sense of the conflicting advice that’s out there.

        As a new writer, I’d always thought writing to market meant meeting genre expectations (reader expectations/market expectations).

        I see now from your explanation that most people view writing to market as jumping on the latest trend to make money. I guess I had my wires crossed.

        • dwsmith

          Meeting genre expectations is a critical skill of more experienced writers. That is not writing to market, that is making sure you don’t cheat readers. You tell them a book is a romance, it had better follow romance guidelines. But you figure that form of marketing out after you finish the book. All in the timing.

  • Harvey

    I would love to make big money from my writing AND be around a long time, but I’ve settled on writing what I love, period, in a few different genres. I’ve decided if a deluge of dollars starts pouring in, that will be wonderful. But if not, the deluge will happen for my grandchildren or great grandchildren. In the meantime, I get “paid” with the pleasure of writing what I love to write.

    I also agree 100% re sharing the content of what I’m writing. I’ve slipped and done that a few times, but never again. Presssure always ensues, sometimes enough to kill a project.

  • Sheila

    How is it that when I’m floundering, you always write an article that sets my ship to rights? However you do it, don’t stop!

    I admit I’ve been struggling with the current writing “must do” list, which is write to market (although when you get down into it, it’s really write to trend), write only series, publish a lot, blog, tweet, hit FB and Instagram, etc. and market like an SEO pro.

    While I do want to earn a living with my writing, the thought of it makes me whirl around in a tizzy. It’s just not me. I’ve tried really hard, and I keep getting off into dead end channels. I’m not stupid, so I’m not sure what happens, but I’ve resolved that 2017 is going to be different, sailing on an open sea.

    Thanks, Dean.

    • dwsmith

      Stay focused on the fun, Sheila. And writing lots of stories you want to write. The rest tends to take care of itself as needed. Strange but true. Sort of a Zen thing. (grin)

  • Irina

    My Mother teaches (visual) art in a school. She started teaching after raising four children while being terribly sick for most of the time and this was the only job she found at 40 with 20 years out of the job market. She’s not a born teacher, but a great artist.

    She told me she had pupils who asked her “Is this right?”, “Is this good?”, “Is that how it’s supposed to be?” after about every line and every stroke. She tried to be “encouraging” in the beginning, but finally she snapped and said: “There is no right or wrong. There are just techniques and methods to achieve what you are aiming for. Could you please have CONFIDENCE in what you’re doing and ENJOY it for just ten minutes?”

    Afterwards she was terribly afraid she might have been to harsh (she can be really gruff), but no, her pupils loved her for it. And I have seen her pupils work. It’s great, and I can’t believe there are so many *cough* talented people in her class by pure chance. This is why I couldn’t stop grinning for about five minutes when you announced the confidence lecture. Confidence is not overconfidence and without it you never get out of your critical brain.

    And you need a confidence to do YOUR stuff, that most people in my experience never attain.

    • dwsmith

      Spot on, Irina. It takes a vast amount of confidence to do your own stuff and believe in it and walk the course when so many are yelling, “Just come over here and make some money.”

      What it takes is a confidence that your stuff will also make money when the time is right. Not easy by a long ways.


  • C.M. Clark

    I have a hard time telling other writers what I’m working on lately. They tend to either say that the idea is great but not very big right now, or believe that the the genre is too washed out. It kills ideas so fast. I mentioned one novel I’ve been working on at a writing convention and the reaction of ‘oh that’s not the best genre to write right now’ has almost killed the novel. I just want to write what I want to read and what’s interesting for me to write about.

  • Michael Kingswood

    Came to this post a little late. Anyway, here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

    Writing to Market is the big craze in (some corners of) the Indy world these days. And I understand how that grates on you. But having listened to the purveyors of this idea on a number of podcast interviews, the impression I’m left with is most of their concept is knowing and using genre tropes, and correctly identifying the genre you are writing (or in their case, planning the genre they intend to write correctly, which is pretty much the same thing). Yeah there’s some “pick a genre that is doing well but that doesn’t appear to be very well served yet” by analyzing Amazon ranks vs Top 100 lists, but when you get down to it, knowing the tropes and fulfilling audience genre expectations is the nub of what these guys are talking about.

    That’s not exactly earth-shaking and new. Hell, it’s something both you and Kris have called out as important in many places. They just word it differently.

    Not trying to defend the sort of thing you’re talking about. But it seems to me that you and some of the Indies out there are talking past each other through problems of terminology, rather than actually having conceptual differences.

    Michael Kingswood

    • dwsmith

      My opinion. You bring money into the creative process, before a work is started or even done, and make decisions on money in that creative process, you are making a mistake. I think my terminology is pretty clear.

      I really am not missing their point. They pick what they think, in their infinite wisdom, what will sell, and then go write that. Major publishers have been trying to figure out what will sell for more decades than I have been alive. They are usually wrong. Indie writers are not smarter, no matter if they say or think they are.

      So it is a false premise on their part. They believe they know what will sell, they make that decision, then take it into their creative process. They might do fine for a short time, then vanish in a few years or so. Worked that way for decades in traditional, working that way now. Always deadly to long term writing careers.

      So the choice is really this: Write to market for a short and maybe successful career of a few years, or write what you love and with some persistence still be writing in ten to twenty years and making more money.

      • Michael Kingswood

        “They pick what they think, in their infinite wisdom, what will sell, and then go write that.”

        Yeah, but… Look at the guys who have been hitting it big in the “Write to Market” movement. Chris Fox and the like. What was the grand insight, and what did it lead them to do? Write Space Opera. Write YA Fantasy. Hit the tropes and put quality, genre-appropriate covers on them. Use mailing lists and well-known promotion tools. And do it quickly.

        Wow. I am over-freaking-whelmed. No one could have ever imagined that those are genres that might sell well.

        I really do think you’re making more of this than it is.

        But one other thing. You point out that trad publishers tried chasing trends and failed for decades. But doesn’t a lot of that have to do with the fact that it typically takes a year or two to get a book through the publishing chain, after the weeks or months it takes to find and negotiate a contract for it in the first place? In the Indy world, where a writer can conceivably write, edit, and publish a book in a month, trend-chasing is much more viable, if that is. And, frankly, marketplace information is easier, and much quicker, to get than it was even just a few years ago.

        So I wouldn’t necessarily point at what trad publisher’s couldn’t do back in the day and say that therefore it is impossible. The dynamic is different.

  • Author aspirant

    “Indie writers have something now much, much worse.

    They have the rumor mill.

    The rumor mill is other indie writers who look down at a writer if they are not chasing the new fad in promotion, in topic, in Facebook pixels or some such thing. These kinds of attitudes are deadly and hard for many writers to resist.”

    When I read discussions of genre among indie writers, I’m often struck by their blinkered mindset. Many seem to view genre as a narrow, prescriptive template to be imitated as closely as possible.

    It never seems to occur to them that the biggest success stories come from writers whose originality was so striking that their books created a new genre all of their own, which everyone now imitates.