Writing for the Market:
Yea or Nay?
by Erin Brown
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,
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unpublished attempts to copy Mr.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
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