The Dilemma: write for the market or for yourself?

A comment this morning, left on someone’s Facebook status, prompted quite a reaction from me and got me thinking. The comment, paraphrased, was that the commenter was never sure whether to write for the ‘market’ or whether to write whatever he/she wanted to. Without stopping to think properly, my immediate answer was to say write for yourself mate, not what the market itself is looking for. Isn’t that why you started writing in the first place, to make your own individual literary voice heard?

Of course, things are never that simple – different people have different needs and desires when it comes to writing, as in all forms of employment. Some just do it for the money, so it puts food on the table and pays the bills.Their ambition is to become a full-time writer, enabling them to leave that soul-destroying job they’ve slogged at for more years than they care to remember, and if that means writing stuff that’s geared towards what is currently popular out there, then so be it. Others write for love and aren’t that concerned about whether they ultimately make a living from what they love to do  – to these people, it’s just the sheer joy of the act that propels them along.

I would love to make money at writing, that’s a given. It’s why I picked up a pen in the first place, the lure of becoming a professional writer one day, earning money at something I enjoy immensely. However, it was fully with the intention of being known for things that I want to write and not because I’ve seen that, for instance, paranormal romances or teenybopper vampire fiction is what’s selling right now. I just couldn’t do it, even if it’s what the market is hankering for. Even if it’s where the best money is. For me, it just doesn’t seem right.

I’m not saying that it isn’t right, full-stop, just that it isn’t right for me. My aim is simply to establish myself as a writer of a certain type of fiction, with a unique literary style and voice, and then to reap the rewards, should any be due me. Simple as.

Having said that, however, one must also be realistic about things. The number of writers out there who solely make a living from writing their own stuff amounts to very few, in relation to the numbers of those who consider themselves writers or who harbour ambitions to be an author. It’s much like music, in my experience: it appears sometimes that every damn teenager or twenty-something is in a band these days. Just log onto MySpace and you’re instantly bombarded by a plethora of bands and musicians you’ve never heard of, all vying for your attention (and money) and trying to carve out their own slice of the market.

Okay, so the music industry is probably not a good comparison in some respects. Having been involved in the industry, however, albeit on the very fringes, and having travelled and gigged extensively in pursuit of music, I feel at least partially qualified to speak of it. There have been times when it seemed that almost everyone I met was involved in some kind of musical enterprise. When I ran the record label, for instance, I was swamped with demos. Everybody wanted the same thing: they wanted a slice of the action, they wanted to be signed to a label, to give them a measure of legitimacy perhaps, but above all it would help realise their dream of doing the very thing they loved doing most and (hopefully) getting paid for it. But looked at objectively, only a few are ever going to float to the top and become well-known. There are only so many labels out there and only so much capital to go around. But that doesn’t stop them dreaming, or driving themselves forward.

The thing is though, none of them would want to be co-opted into performing music that they disliked or had no interest in, just for the sake of earning a little bit extra (although, I am sure there ARE those who would do that). Generally speaking, bands are formed because the members want to make it to the top, and be known for a certain sound and type of music. I have never heard of anyone saying (unless you’re someone on the order of a Simon Cowell looking for a boy/girl-band – then it seems there are those who are willing to prostitute themselves for a chance at fame) that they’ll play whatever’s currently the most popular style of music so they can make money quicker.

I feel the same way about writing – I would like to be known for my own creations, rather than being known for re-imagining, or adding to, somebody else’s vision. It’s just a personal thing, however, and nothing more. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever reach the literary stratosphere (especially given that my writing has gone by the wayside of late, it appears), but I still want to strive for it, so that my name is synonymous with a particular type of story. I’m not even that concerned whether it’s a popular genre of fiction either. Just that, maybe, someone will hear the name Simon Marshall-Jones and say, “Oh, doesn’t he write such-and-such stories?”. That, to me, would be reward enough, and that’s why I don’t write to the market.

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3 Responses to “The Dilemma: write for the market or for yourself?”

  1. It’s a good question, but one which will give as many answers on one side of the fence as on the other.

    Most people who write, I think, do so because that’s their thing – they’d write even if they never got published. They write – pardon the phrase – because they have to. Most of us, when we start out, do our thing and then try to find a market for it.

    However, when you’re looking at becoming more serious at your craft and, certainly, when you’re going for longer pieces of work, you have to take market forces into creation. That isn’t to say that you do the Cowell thing and write ‘dark romance’ because it has its own shelf in Waterstones, not at all. But if you’re going to write a novel about (as someone I know did and, contrarily, it’s being published) gay Nazi’s, you have to realise that your potential market is limited. It’s like everything else – if you write Shaun Hutson style horror novels, you’re not going to sell them to Mills & Boon. Also, if you write Mills & Boon (who have very strict guidelines and more people than you’d imagine fall at the first fence with them), you’re unlikely to be published by a Bizarro imprint.

    You write for the market only in being aware of where you can go. You write your own story, that you’ve come up with, that’s coloured by your thoughts and impressions and experiences and hope that it tallies. Ignore the market at your peril, as a writer who wants to be published.

    Of course, this all assumes that your writing has merit, I suppose. If you’re terrible at it and just do it for fun (like me and singing), then you’ll be more than content doing whatever you want, because you’re not trying to push yourself forward (or onto people).

    Like I said, doesn’t answer the question, does it?

    • Perhaps this deserved a longer post – I was only talking in the ssnse of NOT writing a paranormal romance just because it happens to be popular – I knew there were other issues involved here but I also knew that I could have written a whole book on the subject… these were just my most immediate thoughts…

      Once again, though, thanks for your input, Mark! 🙂

  2. Funnily we have had this argument (and it is a very heated one) in our house over and over again. But about the music thing more than the writing one.

    Us grown-ups know quite a few people who have made their living out of music – but not the getting to the top and maintaining an artistic vision type – but I can play an instrument or sing and so I am happy to entertain folk and pay my bills making people happy in a way that I am able to do in a reasonably convenient and enjoyable fashion sort of enterprise. There are also a lot of quiet people writing songs who make a good living and don’t perform and also the stalwart session musos and of course orchestra musicians.

    There are sing-alikees and tribute bands and ballad singers who go out there and do the circuit and make a tidy living.

    The teenage sprog is still in the zone of potentially hoping for fame and fortune (although he is rapidly coming round to our way of thinking) yet he has still gone out there busking when he needed to pay his rent and put food on the table and he has given the punters what they wanted.

    I think that writing the currently fashionable thing for the sake of it – if it doesn’t excite you or even give you a quiet warm feeling – is going to be a losing game on all levels. BUT I think setting out with a definite ‘spec’ and then creating towards that ‘spec’ is one of the most challenging and fun ways to go about writing. That is what writing to ‘prompts’ is all about and often it produces the best work a writer has turned out to that point and quite against their expectations.

    Personally I don’t care WHY a writer writes or WHAT a writer writes – as long as the end result is worth reading. I don’t think a writer should care much either. The end justifies just about everything in my book 😉

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