Where Your Passion Meets the Market
Recently, I wrote a post about building a long-term writing career (Are You in this for the Long Haul?). In my list of
things writers can do to develop a long-haul career, I said:
Pay attention to where your passion intersects with the market.
I want to expand on that because it’s so crucial. Most writers start out writing what interests them (obviously) which is the way it should be. But things change once you transition from writing for fun to writing for fun & profit. The profit part requires you think about what you can sell.
I often hear writers debating whether it’s best to write what you love, or try to write to the market. I think this is a false dichotomy. You need both.
As a writer, you’re probably interested in a variety of topics and genres. So if you want to sell books, it’s a good idea to identify which of your favorites are doing well in the market, and go in that direction.
Sometimes you don’t need to think about this until you reach a point where whatever you’re doing isn’t working. When you’re just starting out and putting your first books or queries out there, you should start with whatever you’ve got. But if you’re not having the success you want, maybe it’s time to look at what you’re writing and how well it fits with where the market is. Is there another topic or genre that you enjoy just as much, and is selling better?
I’ve had this conversation with several of my clients who have books published, but the market is changing and they need to reconsider their direction. One client was writing in the parenting category, but parenting doesn’t sell much anymore, so we brainstormed to find out what else she is interested in writing about, that would still capitalize on her brand, but would sell better. I’ve had a couple of other clients who wrote a specific genre of fiction, and when the market became glutted with that genre, made a slight transition into a related genre that would be more likely to sell, and that they enjoyed just as much.
The concept applies across all walks of life: you can follow your passion as long as you’re not expecting to get paid for it. But when you’re going into business, other considerations besides passion are necessary—like what you can sell.
Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams had an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal in which he goes so far as to say, “forget about passion.” He points out that a successful venture actually increases your passion for it, but if you’re working on something that’s failing, your passion will fade. He advocates more of a work-horse mentality: create a business that works, and when you start to see success, you’ll be passionate about it.
For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion. The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. ~Scott Adams
Whether or not you agree with Adams, the point is still the same:
If you want to create a lasting writing career, continually pay attention to where your passion overlaps with what is selling.
Don’t get caught asking pointless questions, like, “Should I follow my passion or follow the market?” Do both!
[…] names and what to do if you get an offer before you have an agent. Rachelle Gardner reminds us to look for where our passion meets the market to find success, and L. Diane Wolfe examines what’s killing your query […]
[…] week I wrote a post about following your passion as a writer, versus trying to write what the market wants. I concluded that it’s a false dichotomy—you need to to both. It’s not easy living in two […]
[…] week I wrote a post about following your passion as a writer, versus trying to write what the market wants. I concluded that it’s a false dichotomy—you need to to both. It’s not easy living in […]
Artists are creating something unique. The process is about trying and doing what hasn’t yet been done. In art, other than writing, making something from a new materials, building it taller, combining notes in unique patterns, finding a flavor combination that surprises is the idea. Even so the practical outcome is that someone wants what has been set forth. It still needs to be appealing to even be considered art. And who cares if it’s the tallest building in the world made out of recycled bottles that tastes like honey and glows from the inside if that building can’t be accessed and used for a valuable purpose. In writing that purpose may be only to entertain but it must be effective at this. And what entertains people does change as trends. Go figure that it’s vampires, zombies and the Amish.
[…] Kerry Howard shows how investing in your creative self can pay off, and Rachelle Gardner reminds us to write where our passion meets the market. […]
Even though I heard some great witch stories this weekend at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference, I will be sticking to historically based fiction. Besides, people are finally complementing me more than criticizing me so I am finally getting somewhere! A great editor even told me she wanted to work with me!
So, go ahead and write your shapeshifter stories if that’s what you like. Me? I am sticking to the real-life stories that help people learn what really matters in this short time we are here on earth!
Rachelle, why don’t you come? I know it is small, 200 max., but there are some great stories being written by attendees perhaps because we keep going year after year. And, esp. for those of us who don’t have to pay for a hotel, it is the best deal in town!
I was doubly lucky this year; a friend let me stay in her room (even had it switched so we had 2 beds!). That meant I could be there early morning to late night. And she said no when I offered to pay her. Life is getting great these days! 😉
I am learning to follow the market more than passion, but agree that there needs to be balance. Personally, I believe writing begins with a passion. I could probably write on a myriad of hints by doing tons of research, but if doesn’t resonate with me it will show up in my writing.
At the end of last year, after several near misses with publishers in the past, I decided to shelve my four fantasy novels, putting them down to experience, and try something completely different. I’d done with second-guessing the market and suffering the demoralisation of rejection. On January 1st, I started work on an eccentric, character-driven, literary speculative novel. This week, I’ve completed the second draft and intend to send it out to my beta readers. Nervous, yes. Excited, yes. Optimistic, yes. Passionate about it, absolutely.
I read that article too – it was great! So what is selling now in fiction?
In order to write for the market you’ve got to think about your audience. I once learned at a writing workshop that you think about your audience only in the 2nd and 3rd draft. The first draft is to discover what your story is about.
First, these important words from one of my favorite writers apply:
“It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
— Robert J. Ringer
And as many of you already know, I like to express my opinion with quotations by people more accomplished than me: Here are some more important comments for those people fooling themselves that they can get by with passion and ignore the market.
“Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”
— Mark Twain
“Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
— Michael Korda
“Nothing sells by itself.”
— Ellen Chodosh
“The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.”
— Seth Godin
“Book writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Anyone who decides to write a book must expect to invest a lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success. Books do not write themselves and they do not sell themselves. Authors write and promote their books.”
— Dan Poynter
“The vast majority of self-published books sell less than ten copies a year online and through traditional retail channels, and that probably disappoints a lot of self-publishers. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s hard enough for traditionally published books to register meaningful sales, and they have huge built-in advantages.”
— Jeff Herman, Literary Agent
“No amount of money or marketing can overcome a book that doesn’t deliver. So your first challenge is to write a book that your networks assure you is as good as you want it to be. The content of your books will determine how you sell them to publishers and promote them to book buyers. Content precedes commerce.”
— Rick Frishman
“People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”
— Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver
I most definitely write according to my passion.
I have been writing what came to my mind to write, so I guess I was following my passion. But this makes sense. I want to be a successful writer, so I want to learn how to find the intersection of my passion and the market. Would love to hear even more about how to do this. Good advice.
This sounds like an interesting truth, if you only write slush pile for this week or month, but what if you want to hand down ideas to the next generation?
I believe that writing toward my passion is akin to evolution happening within a species and not jumping the track. My writing may adapt in certain ways but passion is the DNA that drives it and makes it authentic.
I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since pre conference (ACFW) in 2012. I was always in writing for a career and not to push a one book vision or wonder. I still have those novels I wrote for passion and will remain part of my back catalog so to speak for if and when they fit into the career path. But I’ve delayed my debut for 2 years now to learn the genre where writing hold the most future (Harlequin Love Inspired in my case) both in Contemporary and Historical categories. Thank you Rachelle for reinforcing the wisdom of blending passion with market trending.
I have a passion for work that mixes genres and/or foils
traditional genre expectations. For a long time I believed that if I put forth
my best effort in following this passion, the market would be there. I still
believe this to be true, but have found the realities of getting the industry
to agree with that assessment a difficult task. I think literary
experimentation is also particularly difficult for women to break into the
industry with, but that’s meat for a whole separate discussion. More than once,
I’ve heard that my work is fresh, intriguing and well-written, but the
publisher doesn’t know how to sell it. Going back to the drawing board, I’m now
working on shorter pieces I’m hoping will fit nicely into the primary market in
which I’d like to be taken seriously. The idea being that if I can start to
build and expand my platform with these pieces in an established market, I may eventually be able to garner
different interest in something more experimental.
As romantic and appealing as the starving artist lifestyle may seem, I’ll take eating in a heated home to sleeping on the streets of Paris any day. I can think of at least five different genres I’d be happy to write. Scott Adams is right on. Passion dies when nothing sells. Cut your losses and move on to something new.
It’s interesting to me how often “success in writing” advice matches successful entrepreneurial advice, and also how often it does not. In entrepreneurship education we talk about the danger of “chasing niches”–going where the going’s good, only it’s not so good by the time you go there. Instead, we charge our business students with carving their own niches (which is, if I understand you correctly, the exact opposite of what you’re suggesting).
Now, you’re talking about writing what is selling, and I wholeheartedly agree. That said, the “R&D” time for an author isn’t exactly short–it takes a week or four to really plan out a book, another 2-3 months, minimum, to write it, and then 3-6 months of contemplation and revision. Unless, of course, your name is James Patterson and you can get other, less-well-known, authors to do the hard work for you. But looking at what we’re able to look at–what books are coming up at which publishers, which ones are making the bestseller lists–the market moves too fast for us to write anything of quality for that market.
By the time we authors know where the market is, then, it’s quite probably too late to start a project to get in there, at least in the genres I have any passion for whatsoever.
Assuming agents know more about market movements than authors do, how do we authors–those of us who aren’t blessed enough yet to have found a good agent–have any chance of knowing that?
I believe an author’s “passion” for what he/she writes is instilled by God. If this is where He wants you, He will direct your course. But…you have to pray, seek, and listen for His direction.
Thank you for this post, Rachelle. I appreciate your honesty and your take on this, especially when all we hear is “write what you like.”
I think that no matter what you write – because you write is where the passion comes in. We write because we love to tell a story. Whether that be what the public wants depends on the day, the month, the year, and Fall sweeps. And we must remember that many books we consider timeless today were not popular when they were published.
What is hardest for the unpublished writer is the desire to want to be read. We don’t write to make a million bucks (although that would be nice), but we definitely don’t write for our own benefit. We don’t write because we like the sound of our fingers clacking on the keyboard. We write because we imagine what our readers will feel when they read our book, if they will laugh when we laughed thinking of that one retort, or if they will laugh at something we didn’t see.
We write because we want some kernel of our story to affect someone else’s life in the same way reading that book affected ours. And we can do that (hopefully) when we write what we’re passionate about.
So putting aside the passion is a very hard thing to do, especially if you are a new writer like myself. Once I’ve finished my second novel, I will know if what I am writing is what the market is buying. But right now, I can only write what I am passionate about.
When I consider successful authors whose original manuscripts were submitted many times before securing a publisher, my take is that their passion trumped marketing. I am with them.
I have no idea what works in publishing books. Ironically, my book is to encourage passionless Christians!
I agree that success fuels passion. At the writer’s conferences I’ve been to all of the conference times with literary professionals have ended with them telling me that my book is worthy of publishing, but I need a platform before anyone can take the risk of representing me.
So, I started submitting articles to magazines. In my Bible is the stub to the first check I received. It’s not much, but success has a way of encouraging passion. There are a few more stubs now in my top drawer.
Now, based on your suggestion, I’ll have to check how my book compares to what is seeing success in the market place. I think I’ll fare pretty well. How encouraging!
Good thoughts, Rachelle. I put it this way in my workshops: The buyers say they want a “fresh voice.” But they also want something they can sell, that is “commercial viability.” Freshness of voice comes from passion. Commercial viability comes from thinking, objectively, like a publisher. Make a Venn diagram for yourself where those two circles meet for YOU. That’s the sweet spot.
I was linked to this article from twitter, but I never expected to come across you, James! I’ve got a lot of helpful books on my shelf, but Plot and Structure is my writing bible. Thank you for writing it – I’ve recommended it multiple times to fellow writers, and even bought it as a Christmas gift for some.
Kind words, Michelle. I thank you.
It’s so easy to say whatever you want when you have success, money, and fame. I think you were correct–follow your passion.
I don’t agree with Mr. Adams, from my own experience.
I was a successful academic (engineering), with a lot of papers, a lot of research, and a lot of teaching. As the years went by I felt more and more trapped in a cycle of work to which I could no longer relate, and forced to spend time with people with whom I shared less and less common ground.
It’s certainly important to keep marketability in mind when writing, but to subordinate one’s creative passion to a desire for commercial success is, for most, a mistake.
The success one might achieve will not be likely to meet one’s hopes, or provide the contentment for which one longs.
And the writer, perhaps choosing to return to the wellsprings of her early passion, will find them dry.
Rachelle, this is fresh and timely advice. And one of the things that excites me about finding an agent is the idea of having someone to help me steer my career in these kinds of ways. Your clients are very lucky!
Plus, if you have one passionate work that might intersect the market in a positive way, it could open the door for other opportunities later. Put your best foot – or manuscript – forward. †
I read somewhere the following quote, which supports your premise, “Amateurs write what they want to read; professionals write what others want to read.”
Then I guess I’m an amateur.
Yeah, I had to laugh after I read it because the novel I wrote earlier this year was exactly what I would love to read about on a rainy saturday afternoon, or, if the story were in movie form, watch over and over again. While there is merit in the quote, I decided there is also merit in the fact that I am not so special or unique that the story wouldn’t appeal to others. How many is unknown, and that is ultimately what drives its commercial viability.
Very true, “a successful venture actually increases your passion for it, but if you’re working on something that’s failing, your passion will fade.” I enjoy, immensely the things I am good at. A little bit of reward – monetary or praise-fuels the passion.