Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Know Thy Customer - How to Write What You Love and Still Sell

Hello all! After an EPIC CONCLUSION, I am finally done with Heartstrikers book 3!!

Of course I still have to edit and polish and actually write that one chapter that's nothing but a line saying [INSERT AWESOME HERE], but still,

I know it's been a long, long road on this series, but I promise you guys the wait will be worth it. This book is going to be crazy town!! If you liked the first two (or just need more Bob in your life), you're going to love this one!! I hope anyway o.o

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go check out the first two books in my (award winning!) Heartstrikers Urbans Fantasy series here. It's dragons in future magical Detroit! You won't be sorry.)

Right then. Now that all the horn tooting and blatant self promotion is out of my system, let's talk writing!

Writing Wednesday: Know Thy Customer - How to Write What You Love and Still Sell

That moment when you love your book to pieces...and you suddenly
fear no one else ever will.

One of the most important parts of being a self-published author (or any kind of professional, really) is keeping up with what's currently going on in your sphere. For me, this means reading new books that come out in my genres (oh, the hardship! I have to read this awesome book for work!), keeping an eye on what's topping the Amazon lists so I know what the market is into right now, and occasionally (but not obsessively) reading forums and business blogs by/for authors so that I don't miss any big changes to the things that impact my sales (ie, Amazon changing their algos/ranking system again). I also keep a constant ear out for clever new promo stuff because you never know when you're going to find that brilliant idea you totally want to do! 

Anyway, all this is a vastly over complicated way of saying I try my best to stay up to date with current events in the writing/publishing world as pertains to me and my books. Part of this is just good business. If a shit storm is coming, I want to know well in advance. When it comes to what books are selling/getting attention, though, staying up to date is more than just business. I like to know what's new and cool not only because it's my job, but because I am legitimately interested in genre fiction. There's a reason I write the books I do. I've been a fan of all things SFF since basically forever, and that intersection of fandom and business is what I want to talk about today.

The Old Writing to the Market vs. Writing for Yourself Conundrum, Now With a Surprise Ending!

If you're an author today, or even if you just want to be an author, chances are you've heard the phrase "write to market," which basically means "look at what's selling, and then write your book to match."

I can't tell you how many writers cringe at that statement. To be honest, I cringe, too. I am by no means an Artist Capital A, but I have a lot of pride in my work, and the idea of writing something I don't care about because that's what's selling is unpalatable in the extreme. One of my biggest cornerstones as an author is "if you don't love it, you're doing it wrong." Passion for my own stories and characters is a huge part of who I am both as a writer and a person (seriously, if you meet me IRL, and you ask me about my books, be warned that I will NEVER SHUT UP.) 

At the same time, though, I do this professionally. Writing isn't just something I do for fun and dreams anymore. It's how I eat and pay my mortgage and send my kid to summer camp, and that means I can't just write in the vacuum of "things Rachel thinks are cool." I have to also think of my reader/customer, what they want, and how I can give it to them in a way that will make them desperate for more.

This intersection of art and commercialism, doing what you love vs. doing what sells, is a struggle every professional artist faces. Now, obviously, if you don't plan on making writing your career, then none of this applies to you. Write what you love and be happy! But if you're like me and you dream of making storytelling your profession, then "Write to Market" is one of the most important pieces of advice you'll ever receive, but not in the way you think.

When we hear "Write to Market," most of us jump immediately to the worst extreme of hack writers callously churning out derivative schlock iterations of whatever's on the best seller's list that month. I admit there is a lot of that that goes on, and not just in self publishing. How many "kid finds out he's special, goes to special magical school, makes unlikely friends, saves world" books did we see from major publishers after Harry Potter hit big? Hint: A LOT. 

As much as we try to dress it up, the truth is that all of commercial publishing is guilty of the sin of copy-cating to some extent, because copying what's popular works. Readers are like any other consumers in that they move in trends. When they find something they like, they want more, and if you can give them that, you will sell. If you can give it to them in a quality package that is legitimately good in addition to being the thing they want, you will sell a lot. Give them a shitty version, and you will probably still sell, but not nearly as well. Readers, even ones in a froth for the hot new thing, are not stupid. They know shit when they get it.

But all of the above is just one extreme of the Writing to Market strategy. Obviously, if you write good, well packaged books in a popular genre with an eye toward hitting the hot trends, you're going to sell a lot of books. But what do you if the books you want to write aren't part of that equation? It's one thing to know "Contemporary Romance is hugely popular!" but if you don't read Contemporary Romance and you don't have any ideas for Contemporary Romance plots or characters, then any Contemporary Romance book you try to write is mostly like 1) going to feel like pulling teeth, and 2) suck. With circumstances like that, it doesn't matter how hot a particular market is. If your book is bad because you don't care and you were only writing it because "that's what sells," then you're going to tank. 

Now, the obvious solution here is to just find a popular genre you do love and have exciting ideas for and just write those. This happy alignment is "Write to Market" at its very best, and if you can pull it off, you will have a great time.

But even when we stop assuming the worst, when the idea you're most in love with doesn't fit into any of the popular slots, "Write to Market" can still feel more like a death sentence than good business advice. I can't tell you how many emails I get from authors--established and new--who are absolutely in love with ideas they are convinced won't sell because they're "too weird" or "not mainstream enough." 

This is where the internet and indie publishing revolution comes in to save our bacon. Big publishers need big volume to make back their costs. That means they have to publish what's popular, but the game for small presses and indie authors is entirely different. With lower costs and a higher profit per book, the bar for success, even wild success, is much more forgiving in the indie world. You don't need to write in a giant popular market to sell well. Big or small, though, you still have to write a book that is going to sell to someone, and figuring out who that someone is is the secret to everything.

Writing To Your Market - Know Thy Customer

If you want to sell anything, you have to know who you're selling to. Who is the customer for this product? For us writers, that question becomes "who is my reader? What do they want?" 

I think about this question a lot, because writing is a constant decision making. Every time I'm trying to decide how I should turn the plot or if I should let this character run off on his really bad idea, the one question I always ask in addition to all the vital artist ones like "Will this be good for the story?" or "Would this characters actually do this?" is "How will my reader like it?" 

Obviously, reader approval is not my only consideration. Stuff still has to make sense and play out logically and dramatically within the rules of my world. But since I'm not writing this story just for myself, potential reader reaction is a huge part of my decision making process. If I do this thing, if I let this character run off on his tangent, how will my audience react? Will they enjoy it? Will they get bored? Will they put the book down? 

These are things I need to know, and the only way to get answers is to know what kind of person I'm writing this for. But honestly, that can be pretty tough. It's not like Amazon tells me who buys my books, and while I do interact with my fans all the time and get to know them that way, that's useless for a new writer who doesn't have a fan base yet. Even for established authors, though, our fans are wildly different. So what do we do? How do you write to an audience when you can't know who that audience is?

My solution to this problem is that I just pick a reader. One person that I want to please and entertain. And for my books, that person is me. 

Not writer me. Writer me wants to do all kinds of crazy shit like write a book with zero major male characters just to see if anyone notices, or write a novel in second person just to prove it can be done. This is because writer me is a writer and thus cares about writer things like clever construction and interesting conceits like resetting Titus Andronicus in space. But while all that stuff sounds cool in theory, Reader Rachel doesn't give a shit. Reader Rachel just wants a good story, something that will keep me up way past my bedtime for the sheer joy of reading, and this is why Reader Rachel, not Writer Rachel, is my audience.

This isn't to say all the crazy shit I listed above can't be a good book. I'm a firm believer that any story well told will find its audience. But all of those ideas came about because I found them interesting as a writer, not because they were actually stories I wanted to read. This is why reader me, not writer me, is my audience, because the actual audience for my books are probably not writers. They're just people who want fun stories, People like me, so that's who I write for.

Despite everything I write in this blog about character motivation and proper plot structure, when I'm struggling with a decision in my book, the final vote always comes down to "would I want to read this?" If this was a novel I was reading in bed on my Kindle, would I like this twist/scene/critical character moment, or would I just go "meh."

This is a good time to mention that pleasing your imaginary reader is NOT THE SAME as listening to your Inner Editor. If you're at all like me, your inner editor is a bitch who only says negative things and should never be given the time of day (for tips on how to shut her up, click here). You inner reader, on the other hand, is the voice of your experience. 

If you've read enough books to want to be a writer, you probably have definite opinions on what you like. Therefore, if you focus on writing something you like, something that makes the reader you happy and excited and ready for the next book, not only will you have a grand time writing the thing, you'll end up with a book that is, in fact, written to market. The market of you. Maybe that market is big, maybe it's not, but unless you are an extreme outlier, there is certain to be someone, probably a whole lot of someones, who will share your opinion that this book is awesome, and those people are your audience. That's your market, and if you do your darnedest to write books they're going to love, you will by definition be writing a book you love, exposing the trumped up battle of Writing to Market vs. Writing for Yourself as the false dichotomy it's always been.

No writer is an island. If you write the book you love the book where you re-read bits just because they're amazing, and you do it well, you will sell. Maybe not as much as you hoped, because doing it well is really hard. But if you keep practicing, don't settle for mediocrity, and keep your reader's enjoyment as your first priority, you will build an audience of amazing people who love the same things you do, and together, you and your audience of awesome will create a fantastic career full of books you all love. 

It's win/win all around, and we should settle for nothing less.

Thank you all for reading! I hope you enjoyed my weirdly impassioned post about writing for yourself. If you enjoy my stuff, please follow me on Social Media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+ ) to never miss an update, Thank you again, and until next time, keep writing!

Yours always,


Kessie said...

My first notion that writing to market worked came from a gal who had only ever written Christian fantasy--she never sold a ton. So she looked at what popular genres she might try writing, and she liked reading Western romances. She read some, mapped out the beats, and wrote one. It sold like crazy, way more than her other books.

That was when I realized that I could write paranormal romance and make some decent cash--I read a lot, I love it, and other people might enjoy my lack of love triangles and subtle trope lampooning.

Anyway, I'm glad to see that your experience tallies with my research. You're further along this journey than I am. :-)

Anonymous said...

Could you do an overview of what sites you watch for genre related news, pretty please? Or publishing in general too? (Hoping to make a career as an editor in genre, so would love the info. :D)

Quinn said...

This makes me feel so much better. I've been doing research in my writing breaks and honestly, I don't know how big a market there is for what I'm writing (time travel+historical fiction+magic+YA), but reader me is super excited to read the final product. Hopefully reader me isn't a one-off and there are other readers that will enjoy the book, too!

Suzanne said...

Rachel, your posts always inspire me to carry on. I oddly seem to read them at a time when I'm really doubting what I'm writing or when I'm just stuck as to where to go next with a story. They ALWAYS help! I'm on the first draft of the last chapter of my second novel and have been deliberating for a week about whether to kill a character off or not - then I read your blog and I seem to get a boost and get on with it. Thanks and keep the good words coming. xx

L.C. McGehee said...

Thanks for the encouraging post, Rachel.:)

While I think you're absolutely right that 'writing for yourself' vs. 'writing to market' is actually a false dichotomy, I would go one step further and say that we shouldn't even use the phrase 'writing to market'. Not only does it have an infamous, cringe-inducing reputation, it isn't all that helpful because it is misleading.

There's a tendency to think of the abstract 'market' as some kind of mysterious, all-powerful entity we have to kowtow to. (Even big marketing execs make that mistake, and it sometimes leads to some very poor decisions!) But there's really no such thing. The market for books is just individual people who read books. So if you're one of those people (which, of course, writers generally are by definition!), then you're a member of that market who is every bit as important as any other member.

Every time I've seen anyone embark on a rational discussion of the topic of 'writing to the market' as you've done here, they've reached the exact same conclusion: the best way to be commercially successful as a writer is to write consistently good books that readers connect with. And to do that, you have to write what you're passionate about, because you can't write a good book if your heart isn't really in it -- in short, you have to write the kind of books you love to read yourself.

Since it seems that everyone who starts out talking about the significance of 'writing to market' concludes by saying, "If you want to be a successful writer, you actually don't try to write to the market," should we even be using that terminology? I think the phrase 'writing to market' needs to go bye-bye, and instead we should focus on the truly helpful concept here -- the importance of developing (as part of our editing and revising skills) the ability to shift into reader mode while looking at our own writing. :)

Unknown said...

I loved this article. I couldn't agree more that writing something I hate for money would be soul crushing. I can't think of anything worse.

I'm the author of a book called Write to Market, but in that book I am very clear. Your goal should be to find the intersection between what you LOVE writing, and what you know readers want to read.

Unknown said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks about these things. I try never to "write to market," because writing a good book is hard enough without trying to take the market into account. Crazy-Writer-Me will frequently kill off main characters, sometimes keeping going for a few paragraphs before Sane-Writer-Me notices and restores order.

Alice said...

Brilliant! I never thought much about the distinction between Writer Me and Reader Me before, but now that I do, it's really helpful. I think many of the times I've got bored of writing something, it's because the plot or characters were pandering too much to Writer Me, and Reader Me was just like, "Meh."

Speaking of Reader Me, she's really looking forward to that third Heartstrikers book! :D

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