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. :)