Don’t Get Caught in the Trap of Writing for the Market

I recently had the opportunity to speak by phone with the publisher/owner of an indie publisher that specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. During the course of our call, he mentioned something that got my mental gears cranking. To paraphrase, he stated that he cannot believe the number of sci-fi/fantasy manuscript submissions he receives from authors who clearly have no understanding of either genre.

After hearing this and then bringing our call to a close, my mind went to a quote by Stephen King in his book, On Writing:

“What’s … wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky…. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”

Now I can’t say for sure why all these authors were submitting to this sci-fi/fantasy publisher, but the fact that they have no understanding of these genres leads me to believe that at least some of them chose these fiction categories because they saw market potential, especially given the extraordinary number of recent and current Hollywood movies that feature these sorts of stories.

In my own editorial work, I have seen a definite increase in the number of YA and adult dystopian novels, a la The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner … Need I go on? And having read enough of these manuscripts, I have to agree with Stephen King: stories just don’t work when they have been clearly written for a genre that’s been chosen based on the market potential. They typically sound contrived, forced, and shallow, and very often come off as cheap imitations of popular novels in the same genre.

To me, the key here is your passion: the kinds of stories that you love to read and write most of all. To not write these kinds of stories because you think you won’t make any money is to deny and quench the fire that burns inside of you. It’s slapping a muzzle on your muse and telling him or her to go take a hike while you get busy with the business of making money. And that’s the death knell of writing a good story: making it primarily about the bottom line and not about telling a good story.

I should pause here and say that I have no problem with you making money, and even lots of it, from your published books. I just happen to believe that you’re only going to make money as an author by allowing your passion to flow onto the page via stories that feature the genre(s) you love the most.

Also, I should add that I don’t think it’s wrong to write from your passion and to have a strong desire to generate an income from your work as an author. I know a family whose son had an ongoing illness, and they just couldn’t afford the prescription medicine any longer. The father had for some time had a story or two percolating in his soul. When he finally became desperate to be able to better provide for his family long-term, even as he did what he could to make ends meet, he wrote a white-hot trail of words that burned with the passion in his heart. And the story was picked up by a major publisher and launched his career as a writer in the suspense/thriller category—a genre he loved, not one he chose based on forecasting the book-buying market.

So if you love paranormal thrillers and dream of being an author, write a paranormal thriller. If you love steampunk stories, write one. If you love YA dystopian tales, write one. And so on …

Again, the key is to write from your passion, because when you write from that deep place in your heart, you’ll be more empowered to craft an engaging story that readers will want to buy and tell others about every chance they get.