Thoughts on Writing
#16: Be Realistic About the Market
by Seanan McGuire
Thoughts on Writing #16: Be Realistic About the Market.
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:
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.
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?
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...
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
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
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
Ask yourself this: Do I really want to write a book for
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'?
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
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
What if I'm the seventh zombie novel?
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.
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.'
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.
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?
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.
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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