Will the real "Write to Market" PLEASE stand up? Or - why you're probably doing it wrong.

EDIT: I've been informed that the debate this post responds to did not start out as civil as it appears now and that John's blog article was edited before I read it. I do not in any way condone personal attacks on another author. Aside from being bad form in general, in this case, it's tragic, since if John had actually read Chris's book before posting, he would have known that he agreed with all of the major points Chris espouses. I'm glad John toned down his post. I hope he actually picks up a copy of the book and reads it because he's attacking someone who is on the same side.

 

Well, the last few days have been interesting. I've seen two writers go to war with each other while both of them are basically saying the same thing. The reason for the confusion? Confusion over the terms they are using. John Hartness's post is attacking Chris Fox's "Write to Market" book without actually understanding what is meant by "write to market".

Ever been in a room where two people are debating the same side of the argument and neither of them realize it? Yeah. That. :)

John launched an all-out-assault on the idea of "Write to Market" on his blog recently. Chris responded in the comments, and then wrote his own blog in response. I've read them both. Guys, you're on the same side.

First off, what IS writing to market? It's important to first define what it is NOT.

Writing to market does not mean identifying the hot new trend and then writing that book. This is where a ton of the confusion around the term comes from, because Chris talked in his book "Write to Market" about assessing the hot titles in a genre, finding the common tropes, and then writing a book which used those common tropes.

That's not writing to market. That's writing to trend.

Writing to market means analyzing a given market of readers and learning, on a deep level, what those readers long to read in a story. It means understanding the underlying structure and form of the stories they love - and why those structures worked, why those forms mattered. It means learning what that market wants from a book - and then giving them that.

Chris and I have chatted about his "Write to Market" book in the past. He's even mentioned maybe revising it someday. Where it probably is most misunderstood is in the examples he used. He studied several military SF books and found common tropes: old captain, broken down ship, hopelessly overpowered alien menace. He listed those tropes and then wrote a series similar to that, and it worked. But it didn't work because of the specific tropes; it worked because it hit the right underlying themes.

The actual themes? Protagonist with color, flavor, and a backstory that is interesting. Protagonist has a weak starting position (be it old ship, or tiny ship, or merchant ship with no guns). Antagonist operating on a power level dramatically higher than the protagonist.

It's not about the old captain or decrepit ship. It's about the underlying themes, and some readers have missed that point.

Example: Lindsay Buroker's excellent "Star Nomad" is almost beat for beat the same book as Chris Fox's "Destroyer". Except hers has a young female captain who's a mom. Who's flying an old and broken down merchant vessel instead of an old military vessel. The bad guys aren't aliens, they're humans. But it's close to the same story in the structure - because it's the colorful, interesting, well-crafted protagonist we love. It's the underdog beating off the impossible foe that we like to see. This isn't a new theme; it's old as time. Chris wrote a great version of it. So did Lindsay.

In both cases, the books worked because the writers displayed a deep understanding of what readers wanted in that sort of story.

THAT is writing to market.

John lists these things as tenets of "writing to market":
- Finding a hot genre to write in

- Forgoing editing

- Using a good cover and storytelling to overcome craft flaws

These ideas are the antithesis of writing to market. Except for the bit about a good cover and good storytelling, because those are useful for any book. It's not about a hot genre; it's about understanding the genre you choose to write in on a deep level. It's not about forgoing editing (that's another matter entirely, and maybe I'll write an essay on how editing is changing at a later date). Some write to market folks have a zillion paid editing passes, others do less. However a given writer is able to create quality work is fine.

Chris rebuts with this:

#1- Pick a genre that you absolutely love (mine include fantasy, SF, horror, and thrillers)
#2- Determine that the genre has enough readership to earn you a living
#3- Write great books in that genre, which requires you to have
excellent craft. Get those books out quickly.

Which is good, as a partial list. But I feel like he misses a few key points as well. His list glosses over the need to understand why readers are reading the books they are, and why they pass on others. Why certain books go viral through word of mouth and others don't. (I suspect he's thinking of that being included in the #3 tenet, but I feel like it warrants more words.) It's also less about speed, I think, and more about understanding. When you grasp the underlying reasons why readers love certain stories, speed matters less.

Here's my shot over the bow at a set of writing to market tenets.

1. Pick a market that you'd like to write in, that sufficient numbers of people read.

2. Analyze and assess the books that are doing well there - not just the recent releases, but those which have stood the test of time. What themes are common? What types of voice and structure work? What are readers in that genre looking for from a story?

3. Once you have a deep grasp of the sort of story readers in that genre are seeking, write that...but different. Don't clone an existing story. Don't follow the tropes; follow the themes and structure types. Does that genre favor "buddy love" type premises? Perhaps writing that would be a good idea, then. Do we see hero's journey style structures popping up a lot? Brush off your copy of "The Writer's Journey" by Vogler and refresh your memory. It's not about the specific tropes; it's about the theme and structure.

4. Write the best book you can, producing the best final product you can, using whatever set of tools and methods you favor. Yes, a great cover is incredibly important. So is good storytelling. Good storytelling means understanding #2 and #3 above. Some writers may manage that by intuition, but you can also acquire that knowledge through study.

Repeat the process as often as you're able. Writing more books means gaining more readers and earning more income; we all know that, but it has nothing at all to do with writing to market. It's just common sense: if a book makes you about $5000, then writing ten of them makes you about twice as much as writing five. (Plus, speed helps make you more visible on the retailer sites.) But *never* replace quality with speed. That's against the very core of writing to market - which ultimately is about giving the reader what they want. Which is never a poor quality book.

Writing to market is seen by some writers as a panacea, and by others as a race to the bottom in terms of quality. The truth is? It's neither.

Writing to market is about learning the psychology of readers, about understanding why they read and what they want to get out of reading. It's not a panacea because like most elements of craft it is ongoing. We're never going to know everything there is to know about why a given set of readers loved a certain novel. It's a process, not a final stage.

Writing to market is also only tangentially related to writing to trends - which as I mentioned above is the chasing of whatever is currently "hot". (You can actually do both: chase the hot trend and attempt to understand the market by analyzing why great books within that trend are great. Some writers do tremendous things with this method.)

If a book is beloved by readers, odds are that it was written to market. It might have been accidentally or intuitively written to market - but it most likely was. Readers don't read books that don't resonate with their reasons for wanting to read. They certainly don't *love*, re-read, and recommend to friends books which don't hit the right buttons for them. If you're not writing to market, you're probably never going to have fans who follow you from book to book.

But odds are, like John and Chris, you're already doing this without realizing it. :)

How to Break in as a New Author Today?

I had someone ask that question in a Facebook group I'm in, earlier today. Here was the advice I gave. It's not new advice. It's old, but still sound and solid. Check it out:

The steps haven't really changed. They're still the same as they were when Michael Anderle took off, a year and a half ago.

Step 1: Imagine a Venn diagram, with two circles. One circle is things that people like to read. The other circle is things you like to write. Where they overlap? Write that.

Step 2: When picking your genre, be prepared to write at LEAST six books in that specific sub-genre before moving on. If you move on that early - move to a closely related genre. For example, writing six space opera books and moving to military SF is fine. Moving from SO to epic fantasy is likely going to damage your brand and slow your growth. There are tons of exceptions to this, authors who have crossed genres and killed it anyway. They did that *in spite of* the cross genre work. You maximize your success by building a brand within a single type of book. Expand later, after you have a dozen or more books out.

Step 3: Write a great story that people want to read. To do this, you need a deep understanding of plot structure (or you need to get very lucky). Study structure and form. Understand the Hero's Journey. Read McKee and "Save the Cat" and Libbie Hawker and every other major type of plotting and structure tool. Study them, especially the renowned ones that have stood the test of time. YES, even if you are a "pantser"; in fact, it's even MORE crucial that pantsers grok plot and structure, since they're flying by the seat of their pants and need an intuitive understanding of those things.

Step 4: Get a great, GENRE SPECIFIC cover for the book. The one, primary thing every cover must do is tell any prospective reader precisely what sort of book this is. Ideally, it should look a lot like bestselling books in your sub-sub-sub-genre. You want a cover that tells the readers immediately what they are getting, with no questions or doubts.

Step 5: Publish. Then market. Your job as publisher is first to put out a top quality product (well edited however you make that happen, with a great cover and good blurb). Then it's to get eyes on that product. That's all the book is, once you upload it: it is a product that you must show to potential consumers to get them to buy it. Facebook ads, AMS ads, Twitter ads, Adsense, and anything else you can think of. Drive readers to that book page in enough numbers, with good enough targeting, and you will move copies.

Step 6: While you're marketing, be writing. Same genre. Same series. Get more books out. What I am seeing today is four books a year is the bare minimum to have a decent shot at financial/career success. Less than that and you're losing momentum too fast. The good news? Four books at 75k words each is only about 800 words per day. You can pound that out on lunch breaks, if you want this badly enough. If you don't want it badly enough, you won't do the work and it won't happen.

The question will usually come down to this one: how hungry are you?

The people who work the hardest are generally the ones who are succeeding the best. They're not always the best writers. Nor are they always the best marketers or publishers. But over time, the simple application of effort has a multiplicative impact on one's march toward success.

The Writing Advice Not Taken

Also known as "The writing advice I wish I'd had in 2011." I ran into someone on a Facebook group today, asking for help. This person had a bunch of books out, and none of them were selling. I went and analyzed the writer's work, and recognized a familiar set of problems. The writer was doing a bunch of things wrong - most of them, the same things *I* messed up, early on. Hey, these are easy mistakes to make. There's no guidebook. (Well, there are, but the advice is often conflicting and confusing.)

After assessing the writer's work, I wrote a reply. It was a public group, and a lot of people wrote nice replies offering counsel. I wrote a veritable essay. Not shocking for those who know me! I'm a writer - I saw someone in trouble, facing a lot of the problems I had to overcome the hard way. I wanted to help. The writer turned down my advice, which is sad, but some people have to go their own path and learn in their own way. That's certainly how I managed it.

But a number of other writers suggested I save the essay anyway, as it had a lot of value for other people as well. Here's the essay, for posterity. If you're a struggling newer writer in this crazy modern era of publishing, give it a read. You might be facing none of these issues, or all of them. But if there's even one bit in there which might help you, I'll be happy. Not ALL of the advice below is going to be correct for EVERY writer, mind you! Read it through the lens of your own experience and situation.

I'll pitch in a little here. This is going to sound harsh, some of it.

You're making all of the classic blunders. Welcome to my world.  I did the same thing - made most of the SAME mistakes that you are making. As a result, I made virtually nothing from my writing for five straight years of publishing.

I have cleared four figures a month every month since last August. I did so by turning things around. By not making the same mistakes. You can too.

1. Classic Blunder One You're ALL OVER THE PLACE in genres. You have mysteries, urban fantasy, and science fiction. Stop that shit now. PICK A GENRE. ANY GENRE. Now write your next 10-12 books in that genre alone. No hopping around. Just do the work.

2. Classic Blunder Two Your covers suck. With the exception of the mystery covers, which more or less meet the minimum standards for the genre, your covers range from badly targeted (the UF cover looks like a middle-grade novel) to horrible (the SF covers just need to go) to no cover at all (why do half your books have a blank white page?). Study the genre you pick, and make your cover look as close to the bestsellers in that genre AND sub-genre as possible.

3. Classic Blunder Three Too many series. Stop. Write ONE series until the series is done. Make that series at least three books long. Ideally, make it 6+ books long. Again, you're all over the place and this is killing any hope of building momentum.

4. Classic Blunder Four You are overpricing your books. Drop your prices to $2.99. Yes, there is a difference between $2.99 and $3.99. You are a new writer. You want people to take a chance on you. Dropping price early on will help. Raise them later when you're better known. Once you have the third or fourth book out in a series, drop book one to 99c as a loss leader.

Less Obvious and Less Classic Issues:

- You're misusing Instafreebie. There are two ways to drive traffic to your IF books. You need to either run Facebook ads targeting your target market which send people to the IF book - OR - you need to join group promotions *which target your genre*. You should be getting about 500-1000 new subscribers a month just from joint promos. If you're not doing that, join more joint promos until you are. These leads are not the best; you will need to offer them samples of your writing to hook them. But they can be hooked. Again, part of maximizing IF use and even mailing list use in general is STICKING TO ONE GENRE. If your reader signed up for police mysteries, and you send them a SF book, they're going to unsubscribe.

- Your blurbs need help. Your blurbs are too short. Well written, but not enough meat there. THIS IS WHERE YOU CONVINCE THEM TO BUY. You need to sell the book with the blurb. Really key.

- Edit to add: You're also not publishing fast enough. Two books a year will result in a VERY slow build even if you follow the guidelines above. Bump up your speed to four+. Write the next book. Nothing matters more than the next book. Write in one genre, in a series, and get the next book done and out to readers. THIS IS A MOMENTUM GAME. You're either BUILDING momentum, or you are losing it. ALWAYS. Write in a new genre? You're building momentum there, but not where you were building it, so you're likely LOSING momentum there unless you're writing a book a month.

Accord of Valor is out! Final Accord series book hits the store!

Whew! Not a lot to add about this one. Folks have been waiting on this for about a year now, and the book is finally available. This story finishes the tale of Nicholas Stein and his son Thomas as they fight for independence of Mars from the hegemony of the United Nations of Earth. But there are deeper secrets involved than either of them know, and once again the fate of humanity will rest in their hands. Grab a copy today! : https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XZPSR6B

 

And....we're on Patreon now too!

What's Patreon? It's a service designed to help people patronize artists, writers, and musicians that they like. For a small fee (the user gets to decide how much they want to spend), the patron gets certain benefits or rewards back, and the artists get a steady income from people who enjoy their work.

Why Patreon?

In my case - patrons will get first dibs on new books, BEFORE they are available in any store. Different levels will give ebooks, postcards of the cover art, or even print editions. Again, all before people buying from stores actually get to see the books. This is my way of reaching out to you directly and giving special bonuses to fans who love my stories.

It lets me drop a copy of my book into your mailbox - in any format you want. People who support here at the $3 tier or higher will get a copy of the ebook format for every new book I produce, and they'll get them earlier than ANYONE else. That will almost always be at least one new book per month. This is also the ONLY way to get my books in ePub format (but you'll get the Kindle format too, if you prefer that!).

I've got awesome rewards for the higher tiers as well. From postcards to signed paperbacks, I've set things up so that readers who opt to pitch in at those levels will all have something cool as a benefit.

I've wanted to tell stories for a living since I was seven. That's when I wrote my first short story. I've come a long way since then, with over a dozen novels available. I've got many more stories in me, though, and I look forward to sharing them all with you in the years ahead.

This one's for the special fan, who loves my books. It's a bonus, basically, for the folks who read everything and don't want to miss anything. If that's you, I hope you'll consider joining me on Patreon! Enjoy the stories!

https://www.patreon.com/KevinMcLaughlin