Aiming for the Market

On his blog, Steven Brust talks about why he doesn’t like being asked for advice on publishing — the answer being that he has his own conflicted relationship to the business of publishing, the fact of which does not necessarily put him in the best of positions to counsel someone else with questions about the commerce side of things.

In the course of things Steven name drops me, noting “John Scalzi, if no one else, provides proof that consciously writing to a market is no hindrance to producing high-quality, entertaining work.” Which is to say that I do something that Steven himself is not terribly comfortable with — essentially, calling my shots in terms of where I’m aiming for in the marketplace, and then swinging to get the ball (or book, in the case) where I called for it go.

Steven’s not wrong. I have and do very consciously look at the marketplace when I’m thinking the books I write. Old Man’s War is the first and most obvious example of this. I wrote it not just because I wanted to write a science fiction novel, but because I wanted to write a science fiction book I could sell — that it, something with enough obvious commercial appeal that a publisher could immediately see the value proposition in publishing the novel and getting it out in the book racks.

OMW, among all the other things it is (and isn’t), is straightforward Heinleinian military science fiction — it’s the science fiction equivalent of classic rock, in other words. It was designed to sell to a publisher, and was designed for that purpose so well that it sold to a publisher without me ever formally submitting it. It was, in other words, a very commercially intentional novel, and it lived up to its intention, for which I am grateful.

In novels and (most) shorter work since, I’ve continued to work in that commercially intentional mode, for several reasons. One, and most obviously, writing is what I do for a living, and I want to write books that sell not just to the people who are already fans (either of the genre or of me), but to other folks as well; the more, the better. Likewise, I think it makes sense to be actively looking at the market — not at what’s hot now (if you can see it, you’ve generally already missed it) but where I think there’s a potential to do interesting things for the future, where they will get noticed. Two, and happily for me, the style of writing in which I am most proficient — clear, transparent prose, snappy dialogue, plot jumping through hoops at a nice clip — is also one that is easy to sell. Three, I not only see the value of such writing, but as a reader I also enjoy it; I’m writing the work I would want to read, in other words.

I do think point three is significant. When I wrote Old Man’s War, I was intentionally addressing what I saw as commercially viable science fiction sub-genre — military science fiction — but I also wrote it on my personal terms, with interplay between characters (including romance and affection), action that was vivid without being gratuitous (or without consequence), and a large portion of humor. I wrote to the market, but I put into the market something I thought was going to be worth reading independent of market positioning — or at least, worth reading to me.

This is where point four (which is really a sub-point of point three) comes into play: in many things, I have reasonably common tastes. I like a good three-minute pop song, I laugh at movies that aren’t good but are good at what they intend to do, I eat a lot of candy and I enjoy a book that puts a value on entertaining me first, everything else as an add on. It’s not the entirety of my tastes, to be sure. But it is a significant portion of my taste, and I don’t feel at all apologetic about it. It helps my aim when it comes to writing things that sell.

(I do think it also was useful that I came to publishing fiction after a decade and a half of professional writing, including writing non-fiction books. It meant that I had a reasonably good understanding of the business end of writing and of freelance work, an unromantic view of writing as a day-to-day job, and that much of the desire for ego gratification that comes with publishing had already been dealt with. This helped with looking at fiction in a practical way from the get-go.)

Which is not to say that my aim is always good, or that people who do not do things as I do are destined to failure. Note that Steven Brust, whose relationship to the business side of publishing is different than mine, is nevertheless a New York Times bestselling author, and there are (I imagine) at least a few authors who write what they want to write, consider the market not at all, and just let other people figure that part out. And, you know what? Good for them. I couldn’t do it. That would drive me crazy. I run the business side of my writing business in a way that I think makes sense for me: With an eye toward the market and commercial prospects. It’s worked pretty well to date.

53 thoughts on “Aiming for the Market

  1. Allow me to be the first to note that my general intention of writing commercially accessible fiction does not mean everyone will like it equally or that everything I write will be for the ages. Toward the first of these, I think it’s axiomatic that nothing is liked by everyone; toward the second, books “written for the ages” often forget that “the ages” will decide for themselves what they want to take with them from earlier times. So I tend not to worry about The Ages and instead write for the people who will help pay my mortgage today. If you’re one of those people, incidentally: Thank you!

  2. have you considered ever writing a 700 level sci-fi book that is less marketable, but more of an attempt to write hard science, or is that not suited to your skill and best left to the Neal Stephenson types?

  3. It worked pretty well for Heinlein too. Having read most of Heinlein’s letters to and from his editors and agents, I was originally surprised at his emphasis on the craft and business of writing. Art entered into it, certainly, but he was an unabashedly commercial writer, at least in the early and middle parts of his career. And he liked experimenting with new and different ways of telling a story, much like another author we all know and love.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to reading what you write when you get to the Time Enough For Love and Number of Beast stage of your career. :)

  4. I enjoyed reading about the perspective of one of my favorite authors vis-à-vis one of my other favorite authors. Looking forward to Brust’s new Vlad book this week, and enjoyed seeing you, John, in Seattle twice in one year. You keeping doin’ your commercial thing, and I’ll keep contributing to the mortgage (or is the next one going to tuition?).

  5. I write stories that I want to write, but when considering which story I want to write next I also consider how it might sell. So, for example, because series are usually considered to work better than stand alone as pure business, I am slanted towards ideas that I think are or could be a series rather than stand alone novella.

  6. It’s so weird to me that a sizable slice of the world thinks that creating art that people are willing to pay for is a bad thing, or makes it not-art just because someone as capable of making those distinctions and choosing the more marketable choice. Not that Brust is saying so, but it’s sort of a parallel conversation to this topic that always comes up. People either sniff at bestsellers or flip the coin and call Donna Tart’s stuff popular AND literary! with included exclamation point.

    When I was a young man and pursuing photography there was one peer review criticism that always made me see red. Someone would often offer that something “felt commercial,” with nothing more specific than that. I initially would ask for more specifics, which at best got me “it looks like it could be used for a magazine ad.” Eventually I would just say “meaning that someone would probably pay for it?”

    It’s certainly interesting in comparing your work, John, with Brust’s. I have enjoyed everything you’ve written, to varying degrees. If I never read another Incrementalist novel that will be ok. But if I had to choose between just one more Vlad Taltos novel and every future thing you write, John? Well, I’d be sad to not know where things go in the OMW universe but no way I’m not hearing more about Cawti, Lady Teledra, Lord Morrolan and the rest.

    I’m sure those snobs in my photo groups would point to that as a sign of Brust’s way or working as superior, but I think it’s just the coincidence of where my tastes & passions fall. And in my life I’ve bought way more Brust novels than Scalzi – by virtue of more than a decade to do it in, of course. So from a commercial standpoint that’s been “better” for him has well.

    But I’m glad I don’t have to choose!

  7. Dang… so to keep the correlation between your prior post on sci-fi reading levels, does it stand to reason that a “marketable” book means 100-300 level reading?

  8. Kilroy:

    Considering Neal Stephenson’s sales, I suspect the answer to that is “no.” There are all sorts of ways to sell all sorts of books to all sorts of people. I aim for the market; the market I aim for is not the totality of all markets.

  9. I think it’s completely possible to write something both commercially appealing and artistically satisfying. I’ve never bought into the belief that one has to come with the exclusion of the other.

    Besides, what’s “artsy-fartsy” for one person will inevitably be “populist bubble-gum” for another. The line is blurry, constantly moving, and subject to interpretation.

    There are books I like, and books I don’t like. And I can only write what I can write. I try not to think of it beyond that. Maybe I should, especially if I want to sell books. Given a choice between paying all my bills writing commercially successful “bubble-gum”, and toiling in obscurity on something that will never see the light of day, I’ll crank out that bubble gum all day long. But again, I reject the assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. Is that naive?

  10. Sometimes I get a little confused on the whole concept of “art” when it means something along the lines of NOT engaging the audience. Isn’t that entirely against the point of art?

  11. I spent over a decade designing signs and outdoor advertising. In that time I produced some artistic works of which I’m very proud, solely on the request of a client. I’ve dabbled in the visual arts in many forms for most of my life, but I’m always much more productive when someone gives me a topic. Left to my own devices I sit and stare at blank paper/screens a lot but never really go do anything. I’ve never been driven to “get the art out” like some of my friends who are fine artists, but I’m okay with that. People just have different processes and paths to inspiration, I think.

  12. Dang… so to keep the correlation between your prior post on sci-fi reading levels, does it stand to reason that a “marketable” book means 100-300 level reading?

    I’m pretty sure that “Lock-In” isn’t 100-300 level reading, whether you like it or not.

  13. @David: Have to admit, I haven’t read it yet. I’m still behind on human division as well. Redshirts is still my last Scalzi, which I’d put at a 100-200 level sci-fi.

  14. Salinger, generally considered a writer “for the ages,” wrote unapologetically commercial fiction. In one of his essays, his advice to aspiring writers boils down to “write what you want to read,” and you’ll do fine.

    (Note: I despise Catcher, but I’m a big fan of his Glass novels.)

  15. Bach wrote for patrons, Mozart wrote for patrons and to fill the seats at theaters, and Shakespeare wrote for what was considered the least common denominator in the groundlings. Picasso kept careful track of who bought what, and what the critical and public responses to his works was. All created great art.

    The idea of an artist as a someone who creates works ex nihilo, with no reference to any interests outside of a pure artistic impulse, just isn’t founded in any knowledge of art in the real world.

  16. Well said indeed–the intersection of what you think is commercial and what you want to read seems to consistently produce things *I* want to read. And, being selfish, that’s pretty much all I can ask for in another writer.

    Greg: It isn’t that complicated. “Art” is the second-person singular of the verb to be. *stares off*

  17. John, I wonder if it might be helpful to say that you write for a market, which overlaps with and exists in tangled relationships with a bunch of others, many flourishing at the same time.

  18. John Scalzi writes:

    I aim for the market; the market I aim for is not the totality of all markets.

    If it were otherwise, that would be one heck of a book. It would pretty much require the book to hypnotize readers; “it was better than Cats, I’ll read it again and again.”

    Matt Perkins writes:

    . But again, I reject the assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. Is that naive?

    There may be some mutual exclusion but It seem to me that there is potential for self deception in the notion that if one loses readers, it is because they couldn’t appreciate one’s new artistic direction.

  19. @David: Have to admit, I haven’t read it yet. I’m still behind on human division as well. Redshirts is still my last Scalzi, which I’d put at a 100-200 level sci-fi.

    (my reply reads a bit snarky in retrospect. Sorry about that)

    I do think one of JS’s great strengths is to write propulsive and engaging prose and get the really thoughtful stuff into your head before you notice. The (spoilers) whole thing with the wheelchair in “Lock-in” slid right past me and it only sank in later that this was a really effective point about disability.

  20. @kilroy or John
    I must have missed the post on sci-fi reading levels and I can’t seem to locate it when I search. It sounds interesting. Could you give me a better title that I can search on?

  21. Just a niggle about Bach, Mozart, and Shakespeare: They produced work that appealed to a large range of sub-audiences of varying degrees of sophistication. For most of his career, Bach was a church rather than a court musician, tasked with producing liturgical music every week; Shakespeare needed to fill the aristos’ seats as well as the groundlings’ penny-admission standing-room. If I had to make a list of qualities that make for work that has appeal across generations, “range” would be near the top.

    Otherwise, Crystal Shepard’s point is well-taken, as is Matt Perkins’. I don’t write fiction, but I’ve spent a lot of decades with people who do (or who make music or poems or pictures or who, god help ’em, need to act). Some of them suffer from the gotta-sing-gotta-dance compulsion that prefers starving-in-a-garret to compromise; some are happy turning out market-defined product; and some have the great good fortune to be able to live on what their hearts tell them to produce. If it’s any consolation, I see the same patterns among teachers, lawyers, accountants, and engineers. Art isn’t the only job one can suffer for.

  22. Obviously (from the examples given) both methods can produce great and enjoyable work.

    The opposite is true too, I’m sure– some writing for art and some writing for a commercial role produces unreadable dreck. Most people just aren’t as good writers as Scalzi or Brust.

  23. Your approach sounds not unlike Stephen King’s; he once famously said, “I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar.” And he’s made more money than General Dynamics, so I’m guessing the approach pays off

  24. a few authors who write what they want to write, consider the market not at all, and just let other people figure that part out . . .
    I cannot account for Ursula K. LeGuin any other way. And I strongly suspect Connie Willis.

  25. And if I only had a crystal ball I would write books that I knew would sell. Or my take on the genre that would sell perhaps. On the whole whatsits hierarchy you don’t get to write at all if you don’t have food and a place to sleep. It all comes back on itself, but if you like to write and want to do it for a living then it helps a whole bunch if you can write books people are willing to pay for. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    If only you wrote in my genre, John, you could tell me what might be popular next and I would write that. (And I’m only partially kidding. Figuring out what will sell seems like a crap shoot to me.) I solve that problem by writing books that amuse me while I’m writing them and luckily a few other people seem to like them too.

  26. From a reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter which approach an author takes. The important point from the reader is, do they enjoy the writing? I can’t say that I’ve ever considered the author’s intent (in this regard at least) when reading a book.

    We just finished reading all of Brust’s ‘Jhereg’ series out loud to our daughter for her bedtime stories. She’s quite looking forward to the next in the series…

  27. “Three, I not only see the value of such writing, but as a reader I also enjoy it; I’m writing the work I would want to read, in other words.”

    And it shows in the quality of what you write. I feel if an author is just cranking out words for the paycheck that they’re shorting the fans, but if the author truly enjoys the subject and storyline it adds to the experience of how I interpret what they have written.

  28. John, if you didn’t right books that publishers would buy, I wouldn’t get to read them. So I have no problem with you aiming at the part of the whole market that includes me.

  29. Yes, sad but true… spelling has always been a challenge for me. I meant write, of course. Thank goodness I don’t have that kind of problem with numbers, or I would be bankrupt!

  30. I like your books. I like Steven Brust’s books. I’m glad that both of you have figured out what works for you and keep writing them.

    But I do have to say, Brust wins in the mustache front.

  31. This idea that saleable art isn’t good art is a strange, 20th Century idea surely? For example, most of the great artists of the renaissance were working for rich aristocratic and religious patrons, and as a result had to produce what the patron wanted. I don’t think that Michaelangelo had the freedom to paint whatever he wanted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel: I strongly suspect that the subject matter was pretty cut and dried. It would be a brave person who jumped from that statement of reality to an assertion that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel wasn’t great art though. Similarly Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle were writing popular stories and serialised fiction to appear in magazines. It made them a lot of money, and sold very well. They remain great, important writers though.

  32. Looking objectively at your books (as objective as a fan who is also a novelist and a nonfiction writer can be, anyway), your work benefits from some “really good ideas.” Probably even “original ideas.” Now, granted, ideas tend to be the cheapest commodity, but, for example, the core idea of Old Man’s War, that when people turn 75 they can trade in their body for a brand new one as long as they use it to fight the war, is a damned good idea and, to me, at least, is very original. (Original is always tough, I think. It’s probably been done by someone somewhere along the way, but I wasn’t aware of it). So it’s a good combination for you — reasonably good, original ideas, commercial tastes, skillful execution, fast-paced, known genres (usually), plenty of incident, snappy dialogue, etc. I interviewed David Morrell once and he made what I thought was a fairly profound incite about books, which was, “A big book isn’t about a lot of pages or words, it’s about a lot of incidents.”

    I suspect you can argue that, that there have been so-called “big books” that don’t have a lot of plot points/incidents, but I think David was talking in terms of commercial novels that succeed and I think that’s a reasonable statement.

  33. The interesting thing here is that Steven Brush, whether consciously or not, writes thoroughly entertaining books that do find a market. And by writing two series and at least one standalone novel in the same universe, he’s a far cry from the tortured novelist writing the next Finnegan’s Wake, readers be fanned. Maybe the lesson here is not deliberate targeting for the market but writing to entertain, which you both have in common. Bones?

  34. Just a niggle about Bach, Mozart, and Shakespeare: They produced work that appealed to a large range of sub-audiences of varying degrees of sophistication. For most of his career, Bach was a church rather than a court musician, tasked with producing liturgical music every week; Shakespeare needed to fill the aristos’ seats as well as the groundlings’ penny-admission standing-room. If I had to make a list of qualities that make for work that has appeal across generations, “range” would be near the top.

    Sure, at the time they wrote – but nowadays, I think, it’s fair to say that their appeal is more limited. Aristophanes and Euripides wrote stuff with universal appeal in ancient Greece, but it’s kind of rarefied now because you need a certain amount of intellectual capital to appreciate it that not everyone possesses. (NOT saying that most people are too stupid – just that most people don’t have the knowledge and experience needed.) In 500 years Stephen King will be a rarefied taste because he wrote in this extinct dialect called “20th century American English”.

  35. To re-niggle: The question isn’t how popular or accessible Bach et al. remain across the centuries (though they do*) but how popular/successful and accessible they were in their own times. Discussions of the nature of art, breadth of appeal/taste, and financial success tend to conflate them in unhelpful ways. Writers write, but for a range of reasons and with a variety of hopes and ambitions. Readers have their own sets of needs and urges. “Success” in art is not a single volume of overlap in the n-dimensional Venn diagrams of these complexes. I wonder whether a single model can account for Tom Clancy and, say, Emily Dickinson; or whether market forces and conditions can account for the differences between, say, Dewey Lambdin and Patrick O’Brian (to use a personal chalk-and-cheese comparison).

    * Interestingly enough, Bach became obscure while still alive and producing, as court and city musical fashion moved along. He had an almost underground following among composers and musicians (e.g., Mozart and Mendelssohn) until a kind of rediscovery in the later 19th century. Shakespeare never quite vanished, though he didn’t become iconic until a revival in the 18th century. Mozart has never been invisible or inaccessible, even if he lacks Billboard status these days.

  36. Sorry, but I think you write for a living wage, and I have no argument with this – write for the available market; there are enough readers around who will buy your stuff (me included!).

    Being famous for outlandish out-pourings which only attract a few, and notoriety only gained when you’re dead and buried, doesn’t furnish much joy anywhere (let alone providing for your family)!

    It’s a marketing/PR ploy – to KNOW your market. Play it to the hilt! Enjoy the kudos while you’re alive!

    *huge grin*

  37. Mr. Scalzi, thank you for posting this with a link to Steven Brust’s website. Because of this post I just found out his new book was released today, and I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Spectacular timing!

  38. It often amazes me at what is commercially successful. I didnt like Seinfeld. Thought godzilla was stupid. I often like an authors least popular book. My favorite book from arthur C Clarke is the light of other days. Never heard of it? I dont know anyone who has. For the life of me I dont get why so many people(women) love 50 shades of grey. As a guy being grey strikes me as a big pain the ass and a sub as the ultimate needy high maintenace girlfriend. Maybe I am just lazy?

    Maybe johns tastes are just more mainstram and commercially popular?

  39. Seems sensible enough to me – I mean, yes, being a starving artiste in a garret somewhere is all very poetic and such, but it doesn’t actually cut it as a means of living in the actual world outside Romantic fiction. Writers, like everyone else, have bills to pay and rent or mortgage payments due – they have to consider what’s going to actually put the money in their pockets, just like everyone else. Being true to one’s muse is all very well, but it works a damn sight better if it’s accompanied by a day job which allows you to eat, live in housing and wear clothes.

    This is the first of the gazillion reasons why I tend to look askance at people who say “well, why don’t you write for a living?”. It comes down to essentially this: I can remember sitting in a lecture hall with about a hundred or so other hopefuls in a creative writing class, and having it pointed out to us what the average income for an Australian writer of fiction was in 2001. It was about $2000. At that time, the dole for a year netted you about $6000, and was below the poverty line even then. Now consider the pool of writers who were being considered as “Australian Writers of Fiction” (it didn’t include News Limited journalists, even though they could be said to qualify for the job title), and remember it’s being weighed down at the heavy end by such people as Colleen McCulloch and Peter Carey. There isn’t much money in the Australian literary market, and my writing doesn’t tend toward the sort of stories which could get published in the Woman’s Day or Woman’s Weekly.

    The second through gazillionth reasons mostly revolve around the following basic truths: 1) the fanfic I’ve written is probably technically sound, but doesn’t really stand out from the crowd; 2) I’ve never actually completed a piece longer than about 15,000 words, and even with that I had trouble hitting the target; and 3) I don’t have the necessary self-discipline for writing professionally.

    So I have every respect for writers like Our Gracious Host, who manage to write what they enjoy, and also make a living out of it. If I actually wind up in a situation where I can afford to spend money again, I plan on purchasing more of his books.

  40. I wonder whether a single model can account for Tom Clancy and, say, Emily Dickinson

    I wonder if the Russians live —
    In dread of Death, as we do —
    And wait to hear, on each new day —
    The whirr of its Torpedo —

  41. Interestingly, Kit Witfield, in some of her blog posts, seemed to suggest that “writing for the market” was, for her, almost an impossibility. The contrast in approach is interesting.

    TRiG.

  42. I was a student at Viable Paradise last year and we had a small running joke about not trying to write for the market “unless you’re Scalzi!” I think you make a good point here that you’re still writing what you like and want to read. There may also be things you like that you don’t think would be popular, and so you’re just choosing the more commercially viable projects. I think writing things you don’t like simply because you think they’ll sell would be a miserable existence. Whereas working on projects you like that also pay the bills is the very definition of a good job.

  43. FYI, here, because there wasn’t really anywhere else to post it, but my local library bought 12 e-copies of Lock In, and there are 35 active holds; they bought 21 paper books, w/ 110 active holds. Compared to other books on my own hold list, not only is that a lot of copies bought, that’s a lot of people in line. Congratulations! And sorry that I am no longer allowed to purchase books. It’s a thing.

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