Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When to Write For The Market and When to Tell Your Story

Recently I responded to a question about whether writers find success in writing for a particular market or by writing what they want to write in a Q&A with The Lit Coach video for LitReactor (a new online lit site/magazine/writer's workshop launching Oct 1). My quick response was, write for the market if it makes sense for your overall career goals as a writer, but to absolutely not write for the market if your goal as a writer is to be an original storyteller. I wanted to give more attention and space toward that question here today because of course, there are grey areas.

Let's break it down.

If you write specialized (pop culture, sports, politics, etc.), journalistic or prescriptive nonfiction, yes you will surely be writing material for the market. Your job is to stay on top of topics that are trending in publishing, forecast potential trends, find holes on the shelves where you see your work fitting and fill them as quickly as possible.

Another opportunity for this writer is to write for the many "brands" nonfiction publishers carry, like Sourcebook's 1000 Best series or on a larger scale, Simon and Schuster's imprint Simon Spotlight. When I was an agent, I placed three of my clients with these publishers (some, multiple times), because the editor came to me wanting to know who I had in my stable who could be a good match for their brand. If you're already repped by an agent and this appeals to you, let your agent know you're open to this - in my experience and my authors', it's been a win-win - they got to write something that was on-topic for them, it boosted their platform a bit and they got paid.

* Keep in mind, to be an ideal candidate for this kind of "writing for the brand" publishing, agents and publishers want to see a track record of published work. These projects usually require a fairly quick turn around on your part, so an agent and publisher are going to need to know you're up for the task.

If you're writing Memoir or Essay, pay attention to the trends, read authors in this genre you connect with, be mindful of their message and approach to their craft, but allow yourself the space to create freely. That said, there are topics or themes within the genre that agents are tired of seeing, like " I survived an abusive, alcoholic father" stories...but you know...this is kind of subjective territory. If your writing is stellar and you've got a unique perspective, if you're showing us your life through a lens nobody else has used, write and pitch your work despite what's trending, if only just to get it out. You'll be a better writer for it.

If you're writing Commercial or Genre Fiction, you also need to keep an eye toward the market paying special attention to what's selling as high concept. While specific genres may support familiar story lines, it's your spin on a familiar theme that makes your novel unique. So again, be open to your own creative voice. (For more on this, check out this post by former Simon and Schuster editor, Marcela Landres.)

There is also opportunity to write under fiction brands with major publishing houses or under a major author's brand, but you need to understand the parameters of this type relationship before you enter one. Let your agent be your guide to helping you navigate this type of publishing arrangement but don't be afraid to seek outside legal counsel. Make sure you're getting paid what is standard for this type of work and DO NOT settle for less.

If your heart lies in literary or upmarket fiction, there really is no such thing as an original story anymore, but you can capture us with your use of language and perspective - your voice, and compelling characters. Do you need to pay close attention to the market? No, not in the way writers in the other genres will, anyway. Chances are you're a reader (and if not, you should be) - that's all the market research you need when you're writing - the study of how language moves you, the study of how exquisitely drawn characters touch you, the study of how tragedy and comedy shape our lives and inform our world view. Call me old school. Call me romantic. 

So, writers, this is all to say, know your goals as a writer, know your rights and when in doubt, follow your gut. If you've got a great agent, their gut will do, too.


* Image: From Philly Market Street Book Expo; Suavv.com

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