Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – Writing for the Market

Most writers know that sage advice warns against ‘writing for the market.’ What is ‘writing for the market,’ and why does everyone say it’s bad, when maybe it is the smartest thing a writer can do – if it’s done right?

WRITING FOR THE MARKET means, basically, the writer takes a cursory look at the existing genres and picks one that seems hot, and then churns out a book as fast as possible that is similar to what is selling well.

Twilight was all the rage a couple years ago. Now look at the teen vamp market – it is totally saturated. According to her own blog archives, even Amanda Hocking discovered, to her dismay, that the teen vampire market was already saturated when she began writing her young-adult vampire series, My Blood Approves. Her books had very little in common with Stephanie Meyers’, but the inevitable comparisons were still drawn. And with less than stellar editing, Hocking’s entry faired well only because of inventive and relentless self-marketing efforts. Hocking quickly moved on to other genres and came up with what is now a winner for her – young-adult trolls. The self-published Trylle series has been picked up by a major publisher and is now re-released with new covers and new editing. Hocking took home an advance of a couple mill on that one.

The Hunger Games is another commodity that is now very hot, with the first movie soon to hit theaters. Suddenly there are spoof books popping up to cash in on this market. Clearly some of these authors (Bratniss Everclear’s The Hunger but Mainly Death Games: A Parody) are churning out schlock for the sheer hope of making money off a concept another author has worked very hard for several years to make popular. Copycat authors’ work usually fades into the distant past without even a last sigh as they expire. And does any reader take them seriously? Obviously 52 readers on Amazon read the book and went to the trouble of giving it a 5-star review. But others, like Meagan Hightower, clearly thought it was a cheap rip-off, according to her review excerpt taken from Amazon...

I usually love reading parodies (like Nightlight); however Bratniss Everclean's THE HUNGER BUT MAINLY DEATH GAMES has to be one of the worst parodies I have ever read. I thought I would like it because of how many 5 star reviews there were, but sadly I could not like it. The only good thing is that I bought it on my Kindle and won't have to look at it ever again. Unlike the original HUNGER GAMES, this particular parody had almost no action. It didn't even logically follow through on the plot points because many points were negated repeatedly. The characters were very Out of Character to the point that I felt certain that I wasn't reading a HG series parody, except for the fact that title of the book is used so many times that it is obvious it's trying to be a HG parody. The humor wasn't even funny to me because fart and trash jokes aren't my thing...

Obviously I am not advocating that any writer take this approach in ‘writing for the market.’ What I am advocating is this: study the market.

STUDYING THE MARKET. Your experience as a writer will drive what you decide to write about and how you will write it. While seasoned writers may feel they’ve earned the right to take license with their subject matter and try something new (new at least for them), many beginning writers will choose subjects to write about that are closer to home, meaning they write about what they are familiar with or are fascinated by. Those writers first entering the writing market may choose any number of processes or combinations of them to decide what to write.

Emulating a favorite author or genre is a good way for a writer to teach herself to write and at the same time produce a marketable book. Presumably the beginning writer chooses a genre she enjoys reading and will have read everything in the genre she can get her hands on. She will thereby know what’s the hottest and the latest in the market, and know what’s already been done so she can avoid a trite redo of a popular author’s work. The smart writer will come up with something that sticks with the genre’s staples but brings in something new and exciting and not already done to death. The writer who’s not so market-savvy won’t fair as well, and will churn out another same ol’ kinda book that readers have already read and are tired of. Even if the story is basically the same, (historical Highland romance where the heroine must save her people from a warring interloper, for instance), the clever beginning writer will add a new twist that’s never been seen before.

But the larger the market and the older it is, the less likely a new author will be able to come up with new twists. (Time-travel? Been there, many times. Magical Druid spell-casting healer white witch ghost hero reincarnated? Already seen it all.) So the challenges are ever greater for the newer writer to come up with something unique to the genre. In the same vein, the seasoned writer may find a favorite genre saturated with copycats and simply choose to delve into another genre less populated. But the less populated genre may be less populated for a reason – the readership is small, and market profits are likewise small. Still, a genre that has not been done to death but remains to be explored with new ideas may be just the ticket for any writer, regardless of experience. Innovative ways to tap hidden market potential are every writer’s dream.

To learn what is innovative and what is passé, every writer must study the market. That means reading older books – which may mean browsing used bookstores or library sell-offs to find books 10, 20, even 30 or 40 years old, just to get a feel for what’s already been done. Thanks to digital reissues, the job of market study is becoming easier.

Does this mean a writer hoping to break into a favorite genre has to read everything that’s ever been written in that genre before writing? No. What this means is that the writer should be aware of what’s already been done, and know what books and authors are considered ‘standards’ in the genre. Usually these are the authors who pioneered the genre. But that doesn’t mean a writer new to the genre should write like them or even try to read everything out there – which could literally take years. That level of market research is not required or advised. Reading a few ‘revered’ older books is advisable to see what was done and how it was done, while keeping in mind that reader tastes change as readers change. What may have been popular 10 years ago might be sneered at now.

A good way to gauge the efficacy of a genre is to join some reader groups or forums where people chat or comment about their favorite reading experiences. Amazon has many reader forums, and you can start your own thread to get reader comments about what you’re researching. Keep in mind, however, that you may get a lopsided or uneven response, depending on who might be populating a particular forum at a given time.

HOW MUCH RESEARCH IS NECESSARY? Only you can decide that. If you feel you’ve investigated the genre thoroughly enough to get a feel for what has been popular and may no longer be because it’s been overdone, then you’ve got important usable information to work with. But remember, even a favorite story can become something new and different and exciting in the hands of a new writer - especially a writer whose tastes are a mix of other genres. Those writers can almost always bring something new to a tried and true storyline. So don’t shy away from doing a storyline that’s already been done – as long as you can add to it in a unique way.

WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO WRITE. In the process of researching what’s been written, don’t ignore what you want to write. There is absolutely no reason to write something simply because you think it will fair well in the market – unless you are ghost-writing for someone else, or are writing a work for hire. Remember why you wanted to write in the first place – because you have something to say to your readers. Figure out what that something is and make it uniquely yours. Maybe you’ll come up with a whole new genre that doesn’t yet exist, simply because what you have inside you to say to others is different enough to not have already been said. Maybe the market wasn’t right until now for someone else to say it. Maybe now the time is right for you to say it.

But only when you take a little history tour to find out what’s already been done can you decide what’s left to be done. Then you can put on your creative thinking hat and start trying to figure out a unique twist for your particular writing project – and tell it in your own words in your own way. Hopefully enough other people will identify with it to want to read what you’ve written, to make you a trailblazer in whatever genre you choose to enter or create. So ... do your research, then get busy and write!

Pat Morrison
Penumbra Publishing


Natasha Larry said...

Great advice, Pat.

Zoe Harrington said...

This post was absolutely fantasic! And it had a lot of detail which is something a lot of tips posts don't have! :-)

Natasha Larry said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Zoe!

Penumbra Publishing said...

Thanks Natasha and Zoe!

Pat, Penumbra Publishing

Walter Knight said...

It's a lot easier to write what you have a passion for. It would take quite a skill set to be able to just pick a genre, and still do a good job, even with reasearch.

However, never let someone say you can't do something. Take it as a challenge. With each project comes experience.

Great article. Write long and prosper.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Backatcha Walt!


Charles O'Keefe said...

Excellent article Pat (as always :) I agree research is important but like you (and Walter) say you have to write in a genre you enjoy and hope you're unique enough to attract interest. It's tough because I think most people natrually write in a style similar to other writers they admire but of course you still want to be unique and not a copycat.

I guess I'll know in a few months how I did, I sure hope my vampire book will stand out from the pack :-)