Writing for the Market: Yea or Nay?

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2008

Over the years editors, agents, and aspiring authors have watched the bestseller lists with wonder, excitement, frequent befuddlement, and most importantly, greed: “Whose great idea can I copy so that I, too, can roll in a bed of cold hard cash?”  Well, there are plenty of trends, fresh ideas, and surprisingly bestselling formats that we can all profit from, but the bottom line is that it’s never a good idea to write for the market.  Why?  Because unless you can write the next Eat, Pray, Love in under a week, immediately find an agent and a publishing house, and then have the house “crash” the book in less than six months (versus the regular time of one year), then the bestselling trend will have passed already and no one will care anymore.  You’ll be weeping tears of sadness as your bestselling dreams for Drink, Swear, Fight: One Woman’s Long Weekend Finding Herself in Vegas go down the toilet. 

However, we have seen this actually work in the past. Case in point: the plethora of Da Vinci knockoffs that found success, including the Templar novel craze and a flurry of non-fiction titles analyzing the validity of the Da Vinci Code (was I the only one that bought the book in the fiction section at Barnes & Noble?).  However, trends like that are rare and for every successful, published Da Vinci Code knock off, there were hundreds of unpublished attempts to copy Mr. Brown that every editor I know had to wade through, usually with eyes rolling.  Did you ever read The Caravaggio Cryptogram?  I did.  As well as The Donatello Decryption and Boticelli’s Big Secret.

Oy, and that reminds me of the rash of The Secret simulations.  Do you want to know the real secret of The Secret?  Think positively, run a great viral marketing campaign, and have a “mysterious and ancient-looking” cover design with a cool, script font.  Hey, I’m not knocking it—it worked!  But to try and recreate that success is extremely hard and ill-advised.  Of course, that never keeps people from trying.

Overall, it’s virtually impossible to mirror the success of the original bestseller (except in the case of the New Testament), so don’t bother.  The time involved from conception of a book to actual publication is so long that it’s pointless to jump on the bandwagon.  Instead, create your own fresh idea.  Be the trendsetter.  Think outside of the box.  Or just be a damn good writer—then you can get away with almost anything.

Now, some lucky accidents befall certain aspiring writers.  For instance, when readers are going crazy for a certain type of book—you could be one of those lucky people who just happens to have an already completed manuscript that nicely fits into a hugely popular trend—whether in style or plot or voice.  The key phrase is, already completed.  Then you could be in luck! 

A few years ago, if you had a great Jane Austen-themed book already completed, it would have been a wonderful selling point for an agent to pitch the book as the next Jane Austen Book Club, but only if the agent pitched it before the other twenty-five Austen-phile novels came out.  If you don’t get in under the wire, then you’ll notice that the market is soon saturated with Becoming Jane Austen, Confessions of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane (yes, this is a different book than the first one), Austenland, and Me and Mr. Darcy.  I’m not saying that each of these isn’t an entertaining book (note to self: retain legal counsel immediately), but the market was soon taken over by Austen mania—a fact that I’m sure Jane would’ve found to be utterly incomprehensible and frivolous.

It is always a smart idea to pay attention to the market.  If time travel historicals aren’t doing well, then agents might not be as receptive to your “Attila the Hun meets Queen Elizabeth” love story.  So you would probably want to set that aside and focus on your thriller.  Or you may well be in luck—the market could be leaning towards your already established style of writing (hello, original chick-lit authors!) and you can ride the wave to fame and riches.

But the bottom line is that you don’t want to create something simply based on the current bestselling trends.  And trust me, I know it’s tempting.  I finished the magnificent book The Kite Runner and immediately began mentally outlining my own version—The Kite Walker—about a young, very slow-moving, Pakistani woman who chases (unhurriedly) her dreams to America.  Thankfully, I quickly came to my senses.

The lesson is: follow the market so that you know what’s selling and what’s not, so you can better pitch to an agent and be knowledgeable about comparison titles, but don’t strive for something that doesn’t flow from you naturally just to find success.  That usually never works in writing, or in life, for that matter.  Find your own style, let your characters lead you, and create your own trend.


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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