It’s commonly said: write what you love. Yet at the same time, there’s still a strong push (not as strong as it once was, but still present), to write what is “marketable”.
That kind of thing presents a bit of a conundrum. Do you write to what you think the market is or do you write to your personal preferences? The short answer is: yes.
This is actually a tremendously complicated question and the real answer comes back to what you want out of writing. You can be successful writing purely for market and you can be successful writing what you love. Most people don’t get into writing unless they really love it and when you’re gauging your success, it comes back to your feelings about writing.
Writing to market is when an author knows something is selling so they write that. This happens for new authors and it happens for well established authors. With new authors, they often see “X” is selling really well, so they set out to write their version of “X” and make lots of money. Most often what happens for the established authors is that one series sells really well or receives critical acclaim, so they write more of that. It’s human nature to seek approval for our work, and writing to market is a way to seek “guaranteed” results. The problem, of course, is that if you don’t enjoy what you’re writing (or worse, if you view it as a chore or even painful exercise), then that emotion carries over into what you write. At best, you end up with a sort of generic result that is devoid of much of anything, at worst… well, you end up with a disaster. The key to writing to market is blending in the things you love about writing. Take that hot-selling genre and put your own spin on it, make it interesting and into something you are passionate about.
Writing to preference is the flip side of the coin. You may have this really great idea that you can’t wait to get down on the page. Oftentimes it isn’t even hard to write this stuff… but when you go to sell it things get a bit problematic. Publishers like stories that can be summed up in a few words. For self-publishing, if you have to take ten minutes to explain it all, you run the risk of potential readers shutting the door or moving on before they give it a look. Writing to preference is often innovative and exciting, but it’s a hard slog on gaining readers. You have to work hard, build up a readership, and it only works if you get people to be as passionate about it as you are. The problem is that readers as a whole are very conservative. They like the familiar. Most readers want to know, going in, the genre, topic, characters, etc of the book. When you go to write your idea, if it doesn’t fit into one of those easily defined categories (or even if it just isn’t what you normally write), you risk turning away readers before they even open your book.
At the end of the day, you need to identify why you write. Do you want big sales? Are you writing for yourself or for others? Do you have a message or story you want to share? These things shape whether you should write more creatively or more focused. In a perfect world you can blend the two and finding a good balance point is always something you should work on. The worst possible thing, of course, is getting burned out, writing things you don’t want to be writing.
Writing is hard. Make it easier on yourself and understand your own motivations for writing. Then you can decide whether you’re really writing that Kaiju Paranormal Romance Noir story because you want to or because you think it will make you money.