Following on from previous deliberations about how to choose a project, another common dilemma that writers face is whether to write for love or write for money.
Framing the question in that way is a misrepresentation, of course, as the most desirable outcome is to do both. However, most writers feel this conflict. They look at the potential projects they have in mind and wonder, should I start the thing that is calling to my artistic soul, or should I start the thing that I think someone will pay me for?
As with so much of life, finding the right balance between these drives is usually the best idea. Hack writing to market leads to burnout and cynicism. Starving in a garret leads to… well, starvation, with the small comfort that you may be recognized as a genius posthumously.
So how can a balance be found?
Well, one way is to be open to lots of projects. Try not to get emotionally wedded to a specific idea until you are sure that it is what you want to pursue. Some writers take a purist’s attitude to this and insist that the book chooses you, not vice versa, but many others usually have a few different projects that are tickling their fancy at any one time.
If you adopt this “open” attitude, you can then think about the likely breadth of appeal for each project – bluntly, the size of the likely market for your work. If you are contemplating an epic doggerel poem about knights-errant on a rambling quest that is actually a metaphor for the futility of ambition, or an epic fantasy series of a reluctant hero fighting to liberate their country from an oppressive tyrant, then project number 2 is going to be an easier sell. There is already a huge market greedy for new swords-and-sorcery adventure. In contrast, you will have to grow your own “futility-doggerel” audience from scratch (and in the unpromising loam of highly sceptical and selective readers). If earning money is not a necessity, then forsooth, have at thee with thine grand Romance. If money is an issue, then maybe it’s time to help a young hero overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles?
Basically, taking this approach – which of the projects that I’d like to work on has the largest existing audience? – is the only legitimate way to “write to market”. If you love the genre, if you understand its conventions and can subvert them just enough to delight avid readers (while still serving up the dishes they love best), then choose to start on that more lucrative project.
There are some writers (perhaps especially self-published authors) that almost make an art form of this approach. They certainly make a business of it. They choose the genre they personally like best (romance, erotica, sci-fi, thriller, or even, “military sci-fi thriller”), which has a large audience, and write lots of books to satisfy that niche. And I do mean lots of books. Some of the savants complete and release a book a month – and that is a proper novel-length work not a 50 page throwaway e-book. These are the authors that dominate their Amazon subfield, and bank six, or even seven figures a year.
Most writers are horrified at this rate of churn, but I look on it as being similar to writers of TV dramas or series. Each book is an episode in an ongoing series. They are feeding the hunger for more space opera, or werewolf romance, or dragon wars, for the legions of fans who consume these books in the way that others binge-watch the latest box-set.
When a TV scriptwriter has to deliver an episode a week they don’t agonize about the appalling straitjacket that stifles their art, they deliver the best, most exciting episode they can muster, having mastered the craft of efficiently writing to a deadline.
Putting aside the notion of whether or not you want to become a Kindle Factory author, this basic premise – find a hungry audience in a genre that you like to read, and give them what they want – is the essence of effective selling. You are not seeking to persuade someone to buy something you wanted to create, you are understanding what readers want and giving it to them to meet their craving. And best of all, with a few genre-satisfying successes in the bank, you can afford to re-balance and take a risk on a passion project.
You never know, it may spawn its own new genre.
For a good overview of “writing to market”, see chrisfoxwrites.com. Chris is a master at it, and also has a really good YouTube channel packed with great advice.
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