Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#16: Be Realistic About the Market

by Seanan McGuire

Thoughts on Writing #16: Be Realistic About the Market.

Yes, this is another of the more publishing-oriented essays in the series, and provides the opposite side to essay #15's 'love your work and write what you love' coin. If you're looking for more specific writing tips, you may want to check back later. We will be discussing writing today, obviously, but we're mostly going to be looking at the parts of the business that relate to market trends, taking advice from agents or editors, and making hard decisions about the future of your work. Here's today's expanded topic of discussion:

Understand that what you want to write may not be something that the market can currently support. There will be books no one wants to buy because they can't figure out what genre they fit into. There will be books you can't sell to anyone, period. And then there will be the books where your editor says 'look, we can only take this if you're willing to make the evil scientist a werewolf.' The decision is ultimately yours -- I can't tell you what to do -- but you're going to need to embrace the fact, right out of the gate, that your best-behaved, most beautiful baby may be the one that no one wants to invite to their birthday party.

Yes: after talking about 'write what you love,' today we're going to talk about 'write what will sell.' They're not quite the polar opposites that they seem to be on the surface. After all, you might argue, one of them's the cute but bookish girl who organizes the school literary magazine, writes romantic poetry, and never goes out without a notebook, while the other is the high school beauty queen punk-rock cheerleader movie star who has all the boys wrapped around her little finger. There's no way that they have anything in common, is there?

On the contrary. Much like Hannah Montana and her secret pop star routine, the two have more in common than you'd think. Bearing that firmly in mind, let's begin.

But you said all I needed was love...

When you compare this essay with the previous one, it may look like I'm contradicting myself. I'm really not. In our last essay, we discussed the need to write what we want to write, to tell the stories that we love. I still believe, and have always believed, that this is a vital part of being a writer. We have to tell the stories that we love, because otherwise, we'll lose the ability to tell any stories at all. Writing is, at its core, the chance to tell yourself the kind of story that you've always wanted to hear. It's a wonderful thing, and it's absolutely about love.

Some people have no interest whatsoever in publishing their work. Occasionally, those people get lucky, and the opportunity to publish just falls into their laps. (I know how pie-in-the-sky that sounds, but the truth is, there are dozens of examples of people who wrote a book 'just for fun' and somehow stumbled into a book contract. Occasionally, they even stumble onto a best-seller list. These people are the exception, not the rule.) More often, they write their books for their own enjoyment, put those books away in desk drawers, and forget them.

The Internet age has created a step between the folks who write simply for their own enjoyment and the ones who write with their eyes on the big brass ring. Self-publication is easier than ever, whether you're publishing virtually or through a vanity press. No one gets to tell me that these essays aren't suited to current market needs; I write them, I put them through a quick review process, and I publish them to my website. Done, done, and done. There are no market pressures on the Internet. Now, it's true that a 'popular' topic will garner more discussion, which tempts me to write more on that subject...but that's after-the-fact market pressure. It has nothing to do with my capacity to release the essay itself.

Sadly, all this freedom has made the publishing houses, if anything, pickier about what they are and are not willing to take. As a friend of mine says, "I don't buy books with more porn than plot. I can get better porn on the Internet for free." That's the kicker. If you're actually hoping to publish, that means that whatever you're doing, it has to appear -- at least to the people who make the final decision -- to be better and more marketable than what people can get for free on the Internet. That can be a very challenging thing to accomplish, especially when 'better than the Internet' is such a nebulous concept.

Does that mean writers don't need to love what they do? Absolutely not. I truly believe that love shows in a finished work, and that love can often be one of the deciding factors on whether someone chooses your book or another one. True affection for the text tends to make for a more realistic, more well-rounded world, and people appreciate that. But the love sometimes needs to be tempered with practicality.

Ask yourself this: Do I really want to write a book for mass-market publication? If the answer is 'no,' then you're golden. You're still a writer, you may still be a truly awesome writer, but you don't need to worry about pleasing anybody but yourself. Write with love, and be joyous. If the answer is 'yes,' however, you're going to need to be aware of the realities of the market, and you're going to need to learn about compromising what you want for what you need.

It's not easy. But it's essential.

What do you mean by 'the market'?

First, a disclaimer: I am not in sales or marketing. I don't know what's hot, what's not hot, or what's currently considered taboo any more than anybody else does. Most of my understanding of the market in specific is taken from browsing bookstore shelves, and what that actually tells me is how the market looked a year ago. This section deals with generalities, not specifics.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way: the market is essentially the big amorphous blob of book-buyers and bookstores and book-sellers, all working together to determine what's currently 'in.' Since books are generally purchased a year or more before they hit the shelves, this means that a single surprise bestseller can change the entire market for the following year. A scenario:

Joan is a book-buyer. Joan's market research tells her that zombies are on the way out, but sexy Frankenstein monsters are on the way in. Joan is allowed to buy five books this quarter. On her desk, she has six absolutely fantastic zombie novels, and five indifferent to passable sexy Frankenstein monster novels.

The answer seems obvious: Joan should buy five of the zombie novels, which we know are excellent (because I said so). That way, she's giving the reading public the absolute highest level of quality for their dollar.

Sadly, the reality isn't that simple. While Joan might want to buy all five zombie novels, she knows that if she does, many of them will go unread, because the target audience will have moved on to reading about sexy Frankenstein monsters. Yet she also knows that the zombie novels are better books. What to do? In the end, Joan settles for buying the best of the zombie novels, to be published in the earliest slot she has available, and the three best of the sexy Frankenstein monster books. For her fifth purchase, she contacts the agent attached to one of the remaining zombie novels, and asks if the author would be willing to rework the story to be about a corpse reanimated by mad science, rather than just a corpse reanimated by the need for human flesh.

If the author of the second zombie novel agrees, there will be rewrites, at the end of which Joan may or may not be able to purchase the book. It's still a gamble, but it's the author's choice whether or not the gamble should be taken. Someday, it may be your choice.

In the real world, it's very likely that Joan would just buy four sexy Frankenstein monster books. The option to rewrite and try for the brass ring is likely to be offered only if she really loves the second zombie novel, or knows that the author has a strong following and is likely to make the requested changes. Still, it can happen, and not only at this late a stage. Market pressures matter, however much we might wish that they wouldn't.

What if I'm the seventh zombie novel?

Sticking with Joan for just a moment more, what happens when another zombie novel hits her desk? Zombie number seven? Well, unless zombie number seven is the work of an author whose name transcends current genre trends -- Stephen King can pretty much always sell zombie number seven, as can Tom Clancy -- they're probably getting a polite 'thanks but no thanks' that has nothing to do with the actual quality of the work, and everything to do with the fact that the market is currently saturated with zombies. Zombie number seven is shambling home, unwanted and alone.

How can you avoid being zombie number seven? For a start, don't let the bookstore shelves be your guide to what's hot and what's not. Remember that the books you see on the shelves today are the books that people bought a year or more ago. So if there are fifteen zombie novels already on the shelf, the odds are decent that yours is going to be one more drop in a bucket that's already close to overflowing. Does this mean you should abandon your half-finished zombie masterpiece? Nope. It doesn't. But it does mean you should be braced for a polite rejection based on the sentence 'sorry, space werewolves are the new black.'

Now, once that rejection has been received, you have some choices to make. You can try reworking your book to be more marketable. This is always a crap-shoot -- remember, the bookshelves as they are right now aren't actually viable market research -- although it can be made easier by having a good agent you can talk to about what the market currently needs. One of your agent's jobs involves knowing what is and is not currently selling. If you don't have an agent, you can look for agent blogs and market discussion forums. They're out there. Remember, however, that predicting market trends is like predicting the weather: you can get awfully close, but there's no guarantee that your predictions will come true. One unexpected storm -- or surprise bestseller -- can change everything. I mean, do you really think anyone predicted Harry Potter?

You can decide to keep sending the book out as-is, collecting rejections until you get an acceptance. Sometimes this is the appropriate response. Again, talk to your agent if you have one; they'll probably be able to advise you appropriately. On the up side, it may be that other editors will have a different view on the state of the market. On the down side, you may get rejected by every major house, and they may remember having seen your book when you send them a new version in two years.

You can also decide that the stars simply aren't right for your touching tale of a Deep One and his socialite beloved. This is what creates a trunk novel. In two or three years, when the market shifts again, you can always take your baby out of the drawer, dust it off, make a few changes (since the author who won't tweak has not yet been born), and send it back out into the world for another go.

But my book is good.

I believe you! Sadly, 'quality' and 'saleability' are not entirely transitive. Good books are rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. This doesn't mean I'm saying treat every rejection as a comment on the market -- sometimes books will be rejected because they're just not ready, or even because they're out-and-out bad -- but it does mean that a rejection is not automatically the hand of judgment coming down to tell you how much you suck. When you get a rejection, sit back, study your work, and see if you can figure out why it happened. Then you can freak out. Not before.

Do I have to change things?

It is always and entirely up to you. Look. Your agent wants you to sell books. When he or she suggests changes, it's not to screw with you; it's to increase the chances of you selling a book. Your editor wants you to make every bestseller list in the galaxy, raking in mountains of money in royalty checks. Again, not trying to screw with you.

Will the changes they suggest always be what's best for the book? Maybe. Will they always mean well? Yes. Will the choice always be yours to make? Yes. You can decide what does and doesn't get changed around; you can choose to put this book in the box for a little while and try again with another one. Just keep in mind that the market exists, and the market influences things. Sometimes, what we love won't sell unless we're willing to compromise a little bit. Sometimes that's okay. Sometimes it isn't.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours to make.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.

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