This article’s canonical home is on my author site, and can be found here: https://matthew-mccray.com/posts/what-kind-of-writer-do-you-want-to-be
I’ve seen a lot of advice telling young writers to “write to market,” and I think it’s a terrible idea. If you want to make a living writing things you don’t care about, you might as well get into marketing or copywriting.
If you haven’t heard the term before, “writing to market” is the idea that writers should identify popular genres or trends in the market and write stories tailored to fit those genres or trends. The goal is to increase the chances of commercial success by appealing to a large, established audience. Essentially, it’s about writing what you think will sell rather than writing what you truly want to write.
There are lots of reasons to want to be an author. There have been so many romanticized notions that they’re tropes in and of themselves. One extreme is the tortured artist with deep thoughts and a troubled soul. The other is the dashing world traveler who spends a couple of hours typing away and then leans back and sips champagne as the royalties roll in. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’re not so naive as to have these goals in your head. But, I bet somewhere deep down, when you think of your “author life,” it’s something closer to one of these things than the more realistic slog of writing, revising, rewriting, and headbanging your desk that is reality.
To me, “writing to market” is something that someone who cares more about the idea of being a writer would do. Or maybe those who think they’ll get rich by hitting the next “Twilight” wave as it’s swelling. I feel like far too many people strive for that rather than just telling the stories that matter to them.
Conan the Barber
I remember reading about how author Robert E. Howard said he had a vision of Conan reaching out and throttling him, forcing him to write his stories. I’m sure this is an apocryphal account, but it’s an idea that’s stuck with me. I like the notion that a story can rattle around in your head to the point you feel you have no choice but to write it.
Writing to market may work for some people, and if it works for you, then more power to you. I’m not telling you to stop. However, I’m pretty sure your days are numbered. I can’t think of anything that AI could do better than write to market. They’ll do it faster and, eventually, better. Hell, I can see a (near) future where Amazon will have a service that will write a book for you ad-hoc. Depressing? I don’t think so. If you’re writing what you care about, then who cares what the AI is doing? They won’t trip over sixty thousand words and accidentally duplicate your book. Or your voice.
So tell stories to the only audience that genuinely matters, yourself. Stories written with care and passion will be much better than anything you could write by trying to please a fickle market. How could they not?
If you focus on mastering your craft and making each book better than the last, I believe you’ll be on the right track to success. Don’t worry about being the next Stephen King or anyone else, for that matter. Instead, focus on being the best version of yourself and telling the stories that matter to you. You will be successful.
Does success mean striking it rich? Well, if you’re writing for the sole purpose of becoming rich, you’re in it for the wrong reason.
So, let’s forget about writing to market. AI will likely dominate that pursuit soon, anyway. Focus on writing from the heart.
The Middle Ground
Alright, just so this isn’t some kind of “you must blindly follow your muse” kind of essay, I have to say I think there is a good middle ground to be found.
Think of your writing and the market as more of a Venn diagram. One circle contains the realm of fiction you love to read and write. The other circle encompasses all of the currently best-selling fiction. Look for the overlap. If you find one, write there. You will be writing something you care about, and it’ll be more likely to sell.
That’s what we used to call “all good.”