Write What You Know, What You Love…Or What Will Sell?

So you’ve poured your heart and soul into a lovingly crafted 70,000 plus word novel you feel just might be the Next Big Thing.  You’ve had it accepted by an e-publisher, who assigns you fantastic editors and arranges a wonderful cover. You start blogging, guest blogging, warming up Twitter and Facebook.

Full of confidence, you outline the sequel.

You spend hours on author loops, supporting others and being supported in return.  Tears of joy trickle from your mother’s eyes at her budding soon-to-be-famous author offspring.  The day of release arrives and your fellow authors slap you on the back.  Buoyed by a wave of euphoria, you wait for those fabulous reviews to roll in to Goodreads, BN.com and Amazon. You consult NovelRank daily—sometimes hourly—for glowing sales reports.

Woo hoo!

You sell ten to fifteen copies the first few days as your friends and family rally behind you.  Your Amazon rank falls below #400.  When the numbers fall off, you’re not dissuaded nor discouraged.  You step up your game.  You make a list of review sites your publisher hasn’t contacted and send out requests for reviews…twenty or thirty of them.  Maybe you buy a few inexpensive ads on Night Owl Reviews and web sites that recommend ebooks.  You are generous with giveaways, and send out more free copies of your books than you’ve sold, hoping to generate reviews.

Days pass, and then weeks.  Sales dive. One or two reader reviews have accrued here and there, but the review sites have completely ignored you.  Not to worry, sometimes there’s a backlog, you reason.  Two months go by and your grin is starting to slip.  You haven’t sold a single book in weeks and your Amazon ranking is approaching #2,000,000.  You’re beginning to accept the stinging reality that your book has rolled over and died.

What went wrong?

According to Bob Mayer of “Write It Forward,” first novels have a 90% failure rate.  In an article from Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, statistics indicate that most indie authors sell fewer than 200 copies.

Feel better now that you know you’re in good company?  No, heck no.  But it’s time to conduct a post-mortem. Assuming you’re a decent writer and your story was a good one, why hasn’t your book taken off?

I was kicking the topic around with literary strategist and consultant, Bri Clark (Belle Consulting), who felt that Regency Romance is what’s strong at the moment and Highland Romance with slight paranormal elements. In an About.com article by Elizabeth Kennedy on Teen Reading Trends: 2012, the president of the Young Adult Library Services, Sarah Flowers, thinks dystopias and post-apocalypse books will be popular.  She also sees steampunk and paranormal romance as still somewhat popular but perhaps vamps are fading.

Okay, but what if you don’t write that stuff? Do you switch from science fiction and try to whip up a good old-fashioned bodice-ripper or do you persevere with your Next Big Title?  You didn’t become a writer to become wealthy necessarily, but neither do you wish to slave away unnoticed, leaving dozens of unsold manuscripts in the attic for your descendants to hawk or shred long after you’ve passed on.

Perhaps we should consider this exchange from the 1995 mini-series Pride and Prejudice (hat tip to Drew’s Script-O-Rama):

Jane:  I should so much like…to marry for love.               

Elizabeth: And so you shall, I’m sure. Only take care you fall in love with a man of good fortune.

Maybe, as struggling authors, we should write what we know and love, but take care to put in marketable elements?  It certainly opens up vast new genres, doesn’t it?  Secretly-passionate debutantes in space?  Long-dead Highland warriors who sparkle in the sun?

Inquiring minds want to know…

As readers, what do you reach for when you want a good book?  Do you look for best selling authors no matter what or are you open to a new voice with a great story?  What seems tired or what never seems old?

As authors, what is your strategy for perseverance?  Will you ‘write to the market’ or will you soldier on with what you love? Hmm…It’s a conundrum.

~ S.G. Rogers

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38 thoughts on “Write What You Know, What You Love…Or What Will Sell?”

  1. As a reader, I don’t always navigate to the most popular authors. My criteria for choosing a book has more to do with book title, cover, genre, and blurb — and of course, my mood! As a writer, perserverance comes in different forms too. Surround yourself with writing friends. Discuss the markets, but stay true to yourself – perhaps take what’s hot and put your unique spin on it. I’m relatively new to the business, and hope to strap myself in the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride.

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  2. I’m in the middle of trying an experiment currently, writing a different genre than my norm. I’m not really sure anyone knows why one book takes off and another doesn’t. I love contemporary romance written by the established “masters,” and these authors are best sellers for a reason. But if they were starting today, would they still be best sellers? Simply too much is happening in the industry too quickly to determine trends with any degree of consistency, because they just keep changing. So my advice as both a writer and an editor, is read (we call it conducting market research) the best selling books in the genre you like and if you like them, figure out WHY. Not with the idea of copying the formula, but if you understand why you like what you’re reading, you will understand why you like what you write.

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    1. I commend you for trying a different genre, Kay. A lot of prevailing advice tells new authors to develop an author platform in ONE genre…but what if your well-written books don’t sell? I also agree that with the advent of epublishing and indie authors, there is so much product on the market it’s that much more difficult to grab a reader’s attention. I expect reading the best sellers is pretty good advice, too.

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    2. Makes sense to me. As a reader, I always try to dissect why it is I like a particular book. There are some authors I follow religiously, but for the most part, I buy and read whatever happens to appeal to me at the moment within the particular genres I like best. Book reviews often prompt a purchase that I might have missed on my own.

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      1. Lots of choices out there now. I wonder what makes the biggest difference in your selection? Cover, blurb, personal recommendation or review? All of the above, working together? Does price factor in? Hmmm…

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  3. When I started out I tried writing romance, not the bodice-rippers but contemporary. In the process I found that I was more comfortable with contemporary mystery with an Army slant to the stories. My sales haven’t put me into a higher tax bracket, yet, but this is a genre I love writing, of course having a great hero, even if he has four paws and barks, doesn’t hurt.
    Trends in reading come and go, yes some stay around for what seems like ever, but the thing is to stick with what you love writing.

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  4. When I first started writing, I just wanted to complete a novel. Publishing never occurred to me. Once I’d spent thousands of hours learning my craft, I longed to get my words in print. Now I’ve published a few stories, I want to be a successful author. Would I change genre or sell out my love of YA paranormal/fantasy? No. I want to be successful in my genre. Within that genre, I’ll write what sells. So in conclusion, write what you love, but adapt.
    Ha, I’m sitting on the fence as usual 🙂

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  5. Write what you love and watch the market to see if you can adapt what you love doing seems like fair advice.
    I love mainstream contemporary romance but always seems to end up with a smidgeon of suspnse in mine. I also lover regency – no not the boddice ripper ones, the georgette heyer ones with lots of humour and tongue in cheek and am tryin my hand at a regency. Is humour in it? Not much. Tongue in cheek, then? Nah! Suspense? Sigh! Yeah:-)

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  6. I am a writer, editor, and reader. In my experience if you write what you actually and actively ENJOY reading, it will show to your readers. I write for myself first–I want to put a story aside for a few months and come back and read it like I’d never seen it before. I want to get so immersed in the story that when I finish the book I get a thrill knowing that the book was written by ME. Then I write the next book, and then the next. The fact that others are reading my books and getting enjoyment out of them is icing on the cake!

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  7. I HEAR YA, loud and clear. Historicals are my special love… and I was doing the same waiting game as “bridesmaid but never a bride–jump to bestseller list” … respectable is all well and good, and hey, we’re published! But I agree with Kay, and others I’ve heard from — challenge yourself to write something fresh, since the whole indie/ebook world is so new! Vary it up… hence, the contemp romance novella. One thing I *DO* know, Suzanne G. Rogers — you are one H***UVA writer. Take that to bank. 🙂

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  8. Wonderful post!! Competition is fierce and there are so many choices for us readers. I tend to look first at Genres I prefer. Then I glance quickly at the blurb. If if doesn’t me up I move on to the next selection. I am also very biased against the big publishers because of what I see as price fixing and their attempts to bury (or charge high prices for) ebooks. For that reason, I’ve pretty much deserted my favorite best-selling authors in favor of small-pubbed or indie authors. That’s hardly fair to the authors who are well-known, which bothers me. I love finding new authors who are writing some fantabulous books that suits my fancy just fine.

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  9. Your post spoke to me as a newly published author. I’ve written historical romance set during the Regency period since i started writing with the goal of being published. During that entire time, I kept hearing historical romance was dying, Regencies in particular, but I still wrote the stories of my heart. While I’ve recently sold another Regency with one more under consideration. I realized that in trying to write just Regencies, I was limited the number of readers I could or would reach. Needless to say, I would love to support my family from my writing some day very soon so I’ve just begun writing my first contemporary romance. I guess my point in all this wordiness is that I think sometimes you have to write to the market if you want to be successful enough to not need that day job.

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    1. Perhaps beginning authors must sometimes think about being practical before following their ‘dream’? Good luck with the contemporary romance. Branching out from Regencies, while maybe not the career you’d envisioned, isn’t too big a deviation is it? I’m reminded of a 1970’s song by Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With.” The famous line is “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Do you think that applies a little?

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  10. I worked in journalism for a number of years — back in the old days, with manual typewriters. I learned not only to write on deadlines, but to write about the subject or person or event which was assigned to me. I think that’s very good training.
    That said, of the seven novel manuscripts I’ve so far completed, each of these stories have “come to me” — I didn’t go looking for them. So, I’d have to say (now, anyway) that I write whatever is inside me that fights the most to get out.
    While I’m writing it, I’m infatuated.
    Will it sell? One can only hope.

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    1. Your journalism background sounds like it would be REALLY good training for writing fiction. I recently was under the gun on a deadline, and it was a tough go. As an author, I think the goal is to share what we are infatuated with. But what if the market zigs while we zag? At least you are prolific. I suspect that helps to arbitrage the risk.

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      1. The added challenge in journalism — at least back then — was to give a fresh angle to what might be a REALLY ‘tired’ story. To take the humdrum news and make it interesting. That’s why I greatly preferred FEATURES to hard news. I also wrote a lot of sports and you had lots of leeway in sports EVEN BEFORE ESPN and Chris Berman. Ha.

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  11. Awesome post, Suzanne! I can only write what truly interests me. I have to be obsessed with an idea in order to work creatively with it, so I could never write something just to appease the market. I love contemporary romance and young adult romance, and that’s what plays in my head. If I had to write paranormal to be more financially successful, I’d retire my pen! I think readers can definitely tell if a writer’s heart is fully in their work. If readers of my work feel that, then I feel like I’ve succeeded 🙂

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  12. Wonderful post, Suzanne. I agree a writer must write what they love. After all, if you’re like me you’ll spend a lot of time working on the manuscript. It’s also important to be aware of the market and informed of the current trends if making a sale is the final goal.

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  13. I write what I want/need to write in the style and genre that suits me as a writer, and then try to bend the market to want to read what I write. 😉 Tough battle, but it’s getting there, and I’m determined.

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