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.