• Writing toward the market or your passion is a concern every author should think about.
• We should try to combine marketability, passion, and production wherever possible.
• One option is to write the first time for passion and revision for marketability.
• Without passion, I can’t write so marketability can’t be my primary focus.
• Write treasure books that you’re afraid you’ll mess up. In the end, you can only grow from writing!
Passion vs market. Writing what you want vs what you think the market wants. Which should you write towards? It’s a good question to ask yourself, one that begs the question of what your ultimate goals are. If you just want to make money, market is probably your best aim. If you’re writing for fun, for the love of the story, your aim is better suited to what you want to write. Odds are if you want to make a career out of writing, you’ll need to do at least a bit of both.
Having it All A writers’ group tale of Venn diagrams
With marketability and passion, why not do both? This came up in my writers’ group the other day. A few members are having trouble submitting for their main books. They keep on jumping between different projects they’re working on to find the right book to write. It finally started changing this past submission when one of the members submitted the beginning to an entirely new book.
At first, I was annoyed. It was a new story and I wanted to get back to the other books two he’s been submitting. However, this was the first submission over 10K words in a long time (most previous entries were 2-3K). Reading it was a joy. I could feel his happiness radiating throughout the story. The pacing was incredible, and I got lost inside it while reading. I was excited, and I could tell the author was excited too. Everyone else felt the same.
He later told us he’d been struggling with his other two books. For one, they were much more serious in tone and he tends to write happy, funny books so the tone shift was a barrier. The other books also required more research, further compounding things.
The decision to work on the new one came down to three things: marketability, passion, and production. What’s marketable, where was his passion, and where could he produce the most? It’s like finding the Venn diagram where all these meet which was at the new book: has a specific publisher for it; he’s definitely most passionate about it out of the three; and he’s producing the most content for this book and struggling to write the other ones even when he sits down and focuses. It became clear that his best option was to write the new one that encapsulated all three. It was a useful analysis we all went through to determine what we should be working one.
Another piece of advice (though I don’t remember where I learned it) is the first time you write a book, write for you; the second time you write it (i.e. revise), write it for someone else (the market).
The same can be true for us. We might not need to distinguish between passion, marketability, or other factors. A lot of times, we can combine all of them.
But what if we can’t combine? Which should we pick?
Cautionary Tales Why marketability can be wrong
For me, if I’m not passionate about something, I find it exquisitely difficult to write. There has to be some initial bit of passion (e.g. that I liked the original concept) for me to continue. That’ll push me forward through the hard parts, even when the entire book is a slog like my last one. Part of why I write is to have fun, to explore stories, worlds, and characters, and see them interact in new and exciting ways. If I can’t get that out of my writing, I don’t see the point in doing it (unless it’s practice).
Brandon Sanderson came to the same conclusion about writing to the market long before I did. After an initial round of failures, he wrote 4 books specifically to be marketable (the following quotes are from his website https://brandonsanderson.com/euology-my-history-as-a-writer/):
I turned my attention to trying the most basic of fantasy stories. Prophesied hero, orphaned, goes on a travel-log across the world to fight a dark lord. This was THE FINAL EMPIRE PRIME. Of course I was putting my own spin on it. But my heart wasn’t in it—I just couldn’t convince myself that I was adding anything new to the genre
I got done with FINAL EMPIRE PRIME and was just plain disappointed. This was the worst book I’d ever written . . . Here I was, having written twelve novels, and I seemed to be getting WORSE with each one . . .
I think this was one of the big focus points of my career. That year, 2002, I made three decisions. The first was that I was NOT going to give up on writing. I loved it too much, even when I was writing books that didn’t turn out right. (I think this is important for every author to decide.) The second was that I was NEVER AGAIN going to write toward the market. It was killing my books. If I never got published, so be it. At least I would stop writing terrible stories mangled by my attempts to write what I thought people wanted . . . [emphasis added]
I feel the same way. If I attempted to write what I thought the market wanted, it would kill my book, it’d kill my creativity and love of what I was trying to accomplish. And as the positive example illustrates from before, readers can tell what an author thinks of their work. If you’re not enjoying it, readers will pick up on it.
More than that, the market is an intensely nebulous thing. It’s extremely difficult to predict what’s going to be popular. Even if you could, by the time you’ve written your book, the market will probably have moved on (unless you write very, very fast). It’s a moving target, so you might as well write what you want.
Treasured Books Fearing passion
One thing that might be keeping us from writing our passion is that we’re afraid of it. We think the ideas are amazing, the best thing out there since sliced bread, but we’re afraid we’re going to mess it up. That can be paralyzing. We think about the book but don’t want to make an attempt until we get good. I’ll call these treasure books since we tend to lock them away in a vault. I’ve had a number of them. In fact, each book I wrote initially was a treasure book. I was afraid to write them. I was afraid they sucked. I was afraid to share them.
It helped writing a bunch of books to let go of making them overly precious but I still sometimes have those fears. One book in particular has been in my treasure chest for a long time.
The best advice I heard about this was from Brandon Mull at a Salt Lake City comic con panel. Someone asked him about marketability vs passion and he started talking about treasure books–we shouldn’t wait to write them or be afraid to do them. First, since they’re a treasure book we’re going to be passionate and actually write it. Second, even if we do mess up, we’re going to learn SO MUCH by writing. Third, we can always go back and revise when we’ve learned more, or use the parts that work in another book, or even completely rewrite the second draft using what we learned from the first one. His ultimate advice was to do it now and not wait to be a better author–there’s simply no good reason to wait since you’ll ultimately learn.
It was incredibly uplifting to hear that and it’s inspired to work on my treasure book.
Another point, is these ideas are your ideas. I was one time bemoaning that I had great ideas but knew other authors could do so much better writing them than I could. I wanted to give them the ideas and see what they made of it. Then I realized they likely have too many ideas of their own and they’d never get to mine even. I realized that no one else was going to write my stories; they’re my responsibility. No one else is going to raise those ideas into full-fledged books. So I’d better learn how to write so they can live to see the light of day.
Ultimately for me, passion vs marketability is all about what’s actually going to happen. To write, I need some passion. Without it, I can’t write. But I can also incorporate marketable things, choosing what I’m passionate about and what will sell, revising from a market standpoint versus writing for myself the first time. I can see what I’m already excited about then write there. Writing my passion means I’ll be happy. It means I’ll be proud of my work even if it doesn’t sell and I’ll be getting what’s in my heart out on paper and sharing it with the world. Focusing solely on marketability wouldn’t work for me.
But what about you? What do you think is more important, writing your passion or writing to the market? A combination? Neither? Something else entirely? Let me know below!