There’s a reason why every standard cake as certain basic ingredients.
PHOTO CREDIT: DepositPhotos
By Milla Holt
Somewhere in the world there may be people who would love to eat a peanut butter, egg salad and jellied eel sandwich. Perhaps this is your favorite lunch, and you know you can make the best peanut butter, egg salad, and jellied eel sandwich ever. Let’s say you want to share your creation with the world and maybe even earn some money off of it. Finding people who will eat your sandwich is possible, but it will be hard. You will fight an even more difficult uphill battle if you want supermarket chains to sell your special signature sandwich on their shelves.
In the same way, if you want to write experimental fiction that bucks every trend, you may struggle to locate your fans and have an even harder time selling your work to an agent or traditional publisher.
I’m going to pause for a minute here and acknowledge that not every writer wants to sell a lot of books. Many writers put pen to paper for the sheer joy of creative expression and don’t care about being published or earning an income from their writing. That’s a completely legitimate type of author, and more power to you if this is who you are. This piece isn’t for such writers, though. I’m writing to authors who want to sell their work either to an agent or publisher, or direct to a paying audience. I’m also writing mainly to writers of fiction.
If you want to sell, you need to present something that people want to buy. “Writing to market” is a phrase that you’ll hear a lot if you hang out in online writing groups. It stems from Chris Fox’s book of the same name, although the concept has existed for decades, if not longer. It means, simply, writing a book that fits the expectations of a defined audience of readers. The principle ties very closely with the idea of writing in a specific genre.
Readers come to a work of fiction looking for a particular experience. If they’re into romance, they want to share the emotional journey of a couple falling in love and fighting through challenges to be together. Mystery readers get into a book to enjoy plot twists, red herrings, and tantalizing clues as a sleuth tries to unmask a criminal. Thriller readers are after edge-of-the-seat suspense with desperately high stakes. Writing to market means delivering those experiences to readers.
For example, the couple in a romance has to end up together and live happily ever after. If they break up or one of them dies (a la Nicholas Sparks), you’ve written a love story, not a romance. In a mystery, there had better be a crime committed and a group of potential suspects, any of who could have done the deed. If you buck these expectations, you risk leaving your readers unsatisfied. They will punish you with poor reviews or, more likely, just never buy anything else you write.
If you want to sell books, it’s important to know your audience and study what they want so that you can give it to them. If you master the art of fulfilling reader expectations, you’ll have a much easier time building a fanbase who will keep coming back for more.
Writing to market gets a lot of flak, and you may be rolling your eyes. Some authors feel that it will make their writing formulaic, predictable, and not special enough. But a formula doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There’s a reason why every standard cake has certain basic ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, fat, and a raising agent. But beyond that fundamental formula there is a world of variety and a hungry audience.
Never has a carrot cake fan eaten a slice of their favorite dessert and complained that it followed the recipe too closely. Can you imagine it? “This carrot cake is waaaay too formulaic. I was hoping for a dash of anchovy paste and crayfish in there. What a disappointment.” No. People who want carrot cake want carrot cake. That’s why they picked yours up.
Oh, and one more thing. Writing to market means being aware that your book won’t please everyone. Some people just don’t like carrot cake. Others are allergic to gluten, eggs, or dairy. That’s okay: they can get their dessert from someone else who’s making things they like, or which they can eat without getting ill. Wish them well, but don’t worry about them: just focus on pleasing your carrot cake afficionados.
As an author who wants to sell books, I embrace genre. I aim to give readers the emotional experience they are looking for when they come across my books. I study genre expectations closely, and work hard to hit all the main beats. At the same time, I do my best to make each story fresh and unique. It can be done, and it’s part of the creative challenge.
Sometimes, I add walnuts to my carrot cake. On other occasions, I’ll leave out the nuts and include dried apricots instead. One day I’ll use cream cheese frosting, but on another day I’ll do a vanilla buttercream. People who love carrot cake still get the sweet treat they want, but it’ll be different enough to be enticing.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.