Something has crossed my mind the more research and thought I put into what makes a good book and what makes that good book sell. This boils down to the pivotal question: should an author (new or seasoned) write the stories they want or what is popular/what readers will buy?
What, in part, made me want to write this post was an article I read in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Wall Street Journal. The article, entitled ‘How to Write A Thriller,’ queried of method to three writers: Megan Abbott, James Patterson, and Blake Crouch. The article struck me at no one particular question. It was all their answers that got me thinking of that pivotal question as to why writers write. For most of their responses, the seasoned authors didn’t seemed too worried about what other people wanted them to write; they just did what writers do. They created stories they’re interested in and used the characters to address their curiosities. Really, there was only one instance in which Abbott answered a question about the confidence she had in an idea with “sometimes it’s not me who says it’s not a novel – it’s my agent.”
The publishing industry – as far as I see it – has always been in a rather precarious tug-of-war of ideologies. Especially now with the rapid dissemination of social media and technology, publishers are having (or, really, continue to have) an identity crisis. They want people to read and to enjoy, discuss, and spread art, BUT they are a company with a company’s obsession with making money and selling their product. Such a plight infects all organizations that dual as a business and a medium for producing art. This split motives make it hard for writers. Once again, reining the question: who do I write for?
Writers, want to get published. We want to give our agents (or self-publish) material they can work with; they can sell to publishers, who will want to publish them. Do we owe it to our readers to give them work they can be entertained by and learn something? Of course. Does that mean we should let the genre that’s “trending” dictate what we write? . . . No, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, I estimate publishers don’t like that streak of pride. Publishers need to sell books to stay competitively relevant and to keep providing jobs.
As much as writers want to write what we want, there is a line of what is possible to be marketed. Either the story in question has already been done, or the concept is so far out there, the story would garner minimal readership. The former of the two is more likely. I walk through bookstores and read the back or inside cover synopsis a book, and many of them are the same old formula: someone or something wants to spread bad all over the world or kill everybody for some reason with someone or something else wanting to stop them from being assholes. Is that the basic plot formula for many of the great stories? Yes. But I believe every generation of writers coming into the medium should want to create new, exciting formats for telling story, not sticking to what has already worked before. Therein lies laziness and wanting to make a quick buck.
It is with a heavy heart that I must say not all writers share this genuine intention of enriching art. Some people just want to make a quick buck to get famous or brag to their friends or prove something to somebody else. It makes my stomach ache at those intentions. Then again, some people might just need to publish easy stories because that’s their only income. I can get behind that.
Still there is much to consider when asking the question: why do I write? As much as I have laid out both sides of the argument, I believe a middle ground of sorts can be drawn to please both parties. I would like to invoke the phenomenon that if you build it, they will come. Place this theory into action, and I believe such a compromise can be achieved. If writers pen stories with good content and try to add to people’s lives instead of just giving them what they want, then I believe publishers will be willing to take the not-too-risky project and put it into print. Oftentimes, readers (humans in a lot respects) don’t like to be challenged physically or mentally. Some just want a mindless read as distraction. If publishers can market quality books to those zombie readers, then they won’t know they’re reading a book that gets them thinking and learning. And the active readers will thank them.
So who should you write for? Ultimately, yourself. If you don’t like what you’re writing, why should anybody else? Compose thought-provoking material with good characters to get behind, and the publishers will take you to heart. Don’t let the baldness of numbers restrain you from taking flight with your imagination.