Last summer, we presented 5 Tips for Writing for the Market — a few observations about how an author can align a story to increase the odds of being picked up by an agent or a publisher. It’s worth extending those earlier remarks in two ways.
First, consider the potential sales viability of a story idea before you write your book. Authors delight in telling stories, but given the infrastructure of the publishing-and-distribution system for books, not every story can find a clear home on a bookshelf. For publishers, the customer isn’t the author — rather, the customer is a book buyer at a bookstore. And bookstores aren’t going to stock material that they know they can’t move, either because the book itself is difficult to classify or because the content or the genre aren’t currently aligned with consumer demand. That’s why fusion genres and literary fiction are so difficult to work with; the stories themselves might be gorgeous, but if a publisher knows they won’t break even on these projects because bookstores won’t stock them in volume, then it makes no sense to extend a book contract for these works.
In other words: Flip the value proposition. Every author has dozens of great stories locked away, so instead of writing what you want, instead write what you want to sell. Crass? Maybe. But although writing is an art, publishing is a business, and the more that authors align their art with the demands of the market, the fewer barriers to publishing they’re likely to encounter.
Second, consider where you pitch. Agents often serve specific genres and publishers often serve differing combinations of genres and territories. Think past a publisher’s editorial guidelines and look at their catalog and target market. We at Caffeinated Press, for example, recognize that our target market (West Michigan) is more culturally conservative on the whole than other parts of the United States. We’re much less likely to successfully position a book with strong transgendered themes, for example, than a specialty LGBT press in a Coastal community could. You’ll save yourself rejection letters if you hone your pitches to places where you not only meet their editorial requirements but also align well with the totality of their catalog.
Authors labor sometimes under the misperception that it doesn’t matter what they write, as long as it’s “good.” Not true. There’s plenty of sublime material out there that will never get a book contract because the publisher knows that the book will never achieve commercial success.
Small presses sometimes serve as an outlet for good-but-difficult material: A small press, using short-order print-on-demand technology, can release books at relatively low cost and therefore considerably lower overall risk. But a larger press may balk on what the industry believes is a guaranteed financial poor performer.
Manuscript queries get rejected for all sorts of reasons, but “goodness of fit” and “commercial viability” present an obstacle that a good line edit or peer review is unlikely to overcome.
We don’t think authors should think about the craft of writing in purely mercenary terms. Many authors develop a delightful mix of stuff intended for mass-market publication, niche-market publication and no publication whatsoever. Rather, if you’re planning to write a piece that you intended to shop for publication, then before you write, consider:
- Does this story meet generally accepted genre conventions? If no, your risk of rejection may increase unless you specifically target fusion publishers.
- Does the story follow a genre that’s currently selling well? If no, your risk of rejection may increase unless you specifically target small presses willing to take a chance on historically underperforming genres.
- Does the story feature avant-garde styling? If yes, the universe of publishers/agents willing to consider it may decrease. Perhaps substantially.
- Do I have a short list of writers experienced in this genre and target word length whom I can use as beta readers before I consider the piece “done?” If no, you may find that you’ll be rejected out-of-hand.
- Do I already know my strategy for finding relevant markets to which I may pitch the completed work? If no, you may find it more difficult to align the content with a publisher’s guidelines and catalog if you undertake that search after the fact.
The difference between author and published author is that the latter has developed a sense of the business in a way that shapes and sharpens the execution of his or her art.