Your Money or Your Muse

by Christina Lay

Not long ago I read an informative post about marketing for self-publishing writers and – surprise surprise – it rubbed me the wrong way. Not because I didn’t believe the writer’s observations, but because I’d prefer it if they weren’t true.

Her advice was, in a nutshell, when deciding what to write, you should “follow the market”. Okay, sure. If you’re one goal as a writer is to make money, this makes perfect sense. But what about following your heart, your muse, the inner voice that tells you which stories move you and which stories are just “meh”? This can be inexplicable to non-writers who tend to ask “why don’t you write the next Harry Potter Twilight Fifty Shades of the Davinci Fill In the Blank?” The writer of the aforementioned article, who writes (wrote?) YA, says she’s giving up on YA because kids don’t have disposable income. Hmmm.

money

Naturally, if you’re every bit as fired up to write a steamy thriller as you are that novel length prose poem exploring the social aspects of embroidery in the 1700s, I’d fully support a decision to go with the thriller. But if you love writing YA, do you really need to abandon it because you haven’t hit the mark with readers yet?

She also says she’s giving up a series she loves because it’s not selling. Again ,this might be totally legitimate if you’ve got other projects singing their siren song in your ear, but I’d really question the impulse to give up all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into a series solely based on financial considerations. I happen to think this is how we get inundated with mediocre shlock. Writers giving up what they love for what they know they can “crank out” and what, according to the numbers, people want to read.

I actually had one acquaintance suggest that I write what people want to read. If you can tell me (and the rest of the publishing world) what the next Harry Potter Twilight Fifty Shades of Divinci will be, do tell. But the truth is, what’s hot right now might be dead in the water tomorrow. What’s languishing in the backwaters of Amazon’s sub sub categories might suddenly leap into the bestseller ranks. Do I really want to let algorithms and rankings choose which stories I write?

Not so much. I was recently invited to write a book in a shared-world series. The idea was interesting, so I came up with an off-the-cuff idea and accepted. I have to admit I was more interested in riding on the coat tails of the more established authors included in the project than I was in the story I’d come up with, but I was sure I could find “the juice” and make the premise work for me. That book was one of the least rewarding things I’ve written. Yes, it had its moments, enough to get me through, but as I sent off my submission I wasn’t congratulating myself on a job done, but thinking “well, no writing is wasted writing”. In other words, I learned how to tough it out through a financially motivated project, but it left me feeling drained and hollow rather than triumphant. And when you finish an entire freakin’ novel, you should feel triumphant, at least for a little while.

Now I admit I’m not the best person to take marketing advice from (a glance at my Amazon rankings will tell the sad tale) but one thing I can tell you without hesitation is that I love to write. I am that annoying person who eagerly shuffles to the desk every single day and writes. Somehow, despite being under-published and underpaid, I’ve carved out a writing life for myself, and I have not done it by letting the market make my writing choices for me. So I guess my counter advice to “follow the market” is to ask yourself why you’re writing. Ask yourself what you want to write, which is often what you want to read. Ask yourself how you’re going to assign value to your work. Is it how much money you make, or how much joy it gives you? Then, make your choice. And with any luck, what you really want to write will become what people really want to read.

dennis

3 thoughts on “Your Money or Your Muse

  1. As always, on spot. Every surprise, genre-defining best seller ever did not come from chasing the market. They all came from someone who was not chasing the market. My favs are Bridges of Madison County, which couldn’t sell because it was so poorly written and because contemporary romances couldn’t go mainstream; Snow Falling on Cedars, which couldn’t sell because at the time, “nobody was interested in WWII stories.” Chasing the market means you are following trends that started in closed room deals two to three years before the book launch. That’s a target that can’t be hit. The best I can do is be happy in the chair today. Thanks, Christina.

  2. Sad to think some writers may actually take the marketing post to heart and quit writing what they love. I doubt they will have any better luck trying to write for the masses. What makes us write in the first place? If it were money, I wouldn’t have quit my “real” job to spend my time writing the stories that are dear to me.

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