Writing for the Market, or A Bad Volunteer Job
I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the response to Laurie Morrison’s guest post, “Persisting in the Writing Life.” Along with comments on my blog and on Facebook, I’ve had several face-to-face conversations with writers about the advice that Laurie offers in the post.
One big discussion-starter is the idea of writing for the market. In her post, Laurie describes her experience of writing a book that, based on editor feedback from earlier submissions, she thought would be a sure seller:
“Don’t write for the market.” That’s something people say all the time. But after I’d had two novels on submission that hadn’t sold, I thought it made sense to pay attention to the reasons editors had given for passing on my work and try to write something more marketable.
Most often, editors had said my books didn’t have big enough hooks to stand out. A few had commented that my first book on sub, a young adult novel, would have been more marketable if the romance element had been more prominent. So I tried to write a YA novel with a clear hook that was, at its core, a romance.
Aaand that one didn’t sell, either. And look, I really like that book. It was extremely fun to write, I think the main character is pretty awesome, and it garnered some editor interest but never made it through all the way to an offer. But to be honest, as fun as it was, it didn’t mean as much to me, deep in my heart, as Every Shiny Thing or Up for Air do.
I’ve had a somewhat different experience recently. A little more than a year ago, a book packager approached me to flesh out and write up their concept for a picture book. Now, I have about 20 picture book texts of my own in various stages of refinement on my hard drive, half of which I submitted to publishers at one time or another. I came close with one about 10 years ago, but the rest have garnered some pretty discouraging rejections, including one editor who told my agent she didn’t think I had the sensibility to write picture books (despite the fact that I’ve translated six published and forthcoming picture books from Portuguese to English). I didn’t share that tidbit with the people who hired me, and they were quite pleased with my work. Since then, I’ve also written two chapter books on a write-for-hire basis. I enjoyed the experience, and the people who hired me appreciated what I did.
This arrangement of writing for the market has worked well for me, and I plan to continue. What hasn’t worked well is writing for the market on spec. Writing a book that I think will sell, or because an editor or agent (and by this, I mean an agent in general, because my agent has never done this to me) says a certain genre or approach will sell, but with no guarantees, seems like a really bad unpaid internship or volunteer gig. I’m not writing the book I want to write, and I have no idea whether or not the book I don’t want to write will lead to a check at the end. And when the rejections come in — which they inevitably will — I’ll know for sure that 1) the agent or editor sniffed out the fact that my heart wasn’t in the work, and 2) I wasted my time when I could have either made money from my writing or worked on a story that meant something to me.
There’s nothing wrong with writing for the market. The market needs good writers who can deliver a manuscript to specifications on time. Just make sure you get paid for writing someone else’s story.