The Market

Over on Diana Peterfreund’s blog she calls me out on the definition of “marketability” that I employed in my guest-post of a few days ago.

She says, basically, no, you idiot (okay, she does not call me an idiot, but what she says is so patently true that when I read it I felt like one!), you weren’t making your book less marketable.  You were making it more compelling, and compelling is marketable.  What you were really doing was making contest judges tell you your book was not marketable.

I have to admit when I read what she said it felt like someone had given me a not-so-gentle tap upside the head, and I suddenly realized I’d been looking at the world sideways.  Because, of course, she is completely right and I was wrong.

(Diana Peterfreund, incidentally, is a fabulous writer–if you haven’t read her Secret Society Girl series, you really should do so.  They’re absolutely fantastic, and I can’t wait for Tap & Gown.)

But in thinking about it since, I’ve come to this conclusion.  The “market” is a vague and amorphous thing, which writers would dearly love to dissect and quantify.  It seems mostly inexplicable, and so the parts that can be explicated get an undue share of attention.  And so when I was thinking about the “market” for books, I tended to focus on the parts that are easiest to specify.  So, for instance, someone might say that vampires and werewolves are doing well in the market.  Today, actually, they might say something like, the market for vampires and werewolves is saturated, and people are moving into fae and angels.  I hear people talk about “writing to market,” as in, young adults are selling, maybe I will write a young adult.  When I first started writing historical romance, all I heard was that the “market” for historicals was dead and that paranormals were the big thing.

This sort of scatter-shot description of what is selling and what is not is certainly part of what makes up the “market”: It’s a big picture of what is being bought.  But the mistake I made was  because it’s so big picture, it doesn’t necessarily tell you if your particular book is marketable.  It’s not a description of the “market” by itself; it’s market prognostication.  For instance, there is a market for paranormal romance.  There is a market for historicals.  There is a market for vampire stories that involve teenage boys.  Readers are hungry for a particular type of story, and let us face it is easier to sell those stories.  People will even break that down, and tell you that there is a large market for historicals involving dukes that are set in England, but there is a very tiny market for historicals involving cowhands set in 18th century Mexico.  One hears second-hand stories, even, about New York Times bestselling authors who want to write certain books, but are not allowed to do so by their editors on the theory that the time period or character in question is not marketable enough.

But the other thing you hear is the frustratingly vague answer you get from agents and editors when they are asked what they’re looking for.  Because while sometimes they will say, “Gosh, I’d really love to find a great story about a werestag,” most of the time, the answers they give look something like this:  I’m looking for compelling books.  Books you can’t put down.  Good books.  Books with a strong voice.  And of course, that seems like it’s no help, because nobody sets out to spend a year of their life writing a bad book that is not compelling, written in a grating, painful style, which readers must set down every other page just to prevent eye-bleed.  Nobody sits down and says, “yes, I am going to produce a book that cannot be saved.”

The market for compelling books is always strong, but it’s harder to talk about than the market for the former, and so when people talk about “market” it tends to focus on the stuff that’s easy.  Vampires.  Weredeer.  That kind of thing.  So the portion of the market that is easy to prognosticate over will overshadow the “compelling” part in discourse.  Which is why I was shocked to discover that “compelling” trumps market prognostication.

(And to be fair, I am not writing a story about cowhands set in 18th century Mexico, and so while I don’t think that my hook was as marketable as some other hooks I’ve seen, I wasn’t starting at ground zero.)

I suspect the two complement each other.  If your compelling book fits into an identifiable marketing niche that is selling well–for instance, if it fits into the “teenage vampire” category–that will help it sell.  The harder it is to place your book in a section of a bookstore, or within a genre niche, the more compelling it will have to be to sell.  But I suspect there’s a sweet spot–because I think it would be very difficult to write a truly compelling book that was written only with market prognostication in mind.

Courtney Milan writes historical romances, which might lead people to think that she could be cool. In reality, she's about four different kinds of geeky. At present, this blog is where Courtney applies semi-dormant geek skills to publishing.

5 thoughts on “The Market

  1. Well, I was obviously writing to the market with Werestag. I mean, I don’t know how many times I’d seen it reported on agent blogs that editors are desperate for the next great wereruminant novella.

    You know, I hate to break it to you – but you wrote a very marketable book. Editors don’t go to auction thinking, “Yes! I must acquire this book! Absolutely no one will buy it!” 😉

    What’s so bad about writing to market anyhow? We write mass-market fiction. To me, “writing to market” means I write with the hope that lots of people will enjoy my books. Not every reader, but a fair number of them.

    Of course, my success at achieving that is yet to be gauged… And I would agree that if a writer doesn’t truly enjoy her own book (i.e., she’s writing to trends against her own interests or instincts), readers probably won’t enjoy it much, either.

  2. A great discussion, Courtney. I, too, have read agents’ blogs about markets and what agents/publishers want, then questioned whether or not I could write that book. YA is hot, middle grade looks promising – but those are not the kind of stories I dream up. So, I’ll focus on crafting the best possible story, in a genre I love to read.

    Thanks for link to Diana’s blog – I’ve added her to my favorites.

  3. I don’t think there’s anything bad with writing to market! I just think the important thing to remember is that “the market” is not the same thing as “types of books that random people tell you are selling.”

    Because, hey, if we’d listened to them we would never have written historicals.

  4. I remember reading an interview with Gary Paulsen a long, long time ago, where he recounted how he was told that no one would want his books targeted to teen boys because everyone knew teen boys didn’t read, and he asked why that was, and was told because there were no books for teen boys to read. Which, if I recall correctly, was basically the same situation Terry McMillan found herself in. Black women didn’t read books – but only because there were no books for black women.

    It seems to me that the market is what you make it. At least, I hope that’s true!

  5. Courtney: A huge and delicious subject that could be debated for hours. Writing to “market” subject matter (vampires, Regency dukes, et al) is one thing. Writing to the “market” of reader expectations and enjoyment (page turning pacing, compelling characters, et al) is something altogether different. You (not YOU, but someone) could write a book with all the market subject matter buzz words and if it were poorly written, or written in a literary vs. a genre fiction style, it would be unlikely to sell to a mass market publisher. And beyond that, even if it were wonderful but indistinguishable from all the other wonderful vampire books, it would be less likely to sell. The trick is to make it the same, but different. And the difference tends to be voice. (You are are in good shape there, my dear. You have a great voice.)
    What is voice? Well, that’s a blog for another day…

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