Tess Gerritsen has a great post about writing to the market. I'll bet you know folks who don't know diddly about the market, but who think that what they're writing is just what the public will want to read. Why do they think this? Often, it's because they're convinced their prose is so much better than [insert famous author of your choice]. Been there, done that (and I can laugh my hiney off at myself now).

But you know what? It ain't true. You can write a great book, and you can still write to the market. You don't have to sell your soul to do it. The only conflict between Art and giving 'em what they want is the one you make in your head. A book doesn't have to be obscure to be great. Yeah, Faulkner's prose is difficult and his work is spectacular. But that doesn't mean they all have to be that way. Tess says:

Books are like puppies. You have to give people what they want.

(Man, is this turning into a weird metaphor. And I don't even own a dog.)

Writers may grouse about how their literary novel about Chihuahuas just doesn't sell, and they're disgusted that Ms. Bestselling Author sells tons of books about goldens [retrievers]. I understand their frustration. They labored just as long and hard over their rat-dog novel. They got wonderful reviews. Maybe they've won awards. But they just can't find an audience.

The reason has nothing to do with the quality of their writing. The real reason is that they simply aren't in touch with WHAT PEOPLE WANT.

[. . .]

That doesn't mean that books about golden retrievers can't be just as challenging and literary and rewarding. One of my favorite books is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. It had everything I crave: family conflicts, history, and the rich canvas of Africa as a backdrop. It was an incredibly moving and beautiful book. It was a bestseller because it was loved by women, and I was one of them. It was a golden retriever book — and it was Art with a capital A.

Often, the mistake I see aspiring writers make is that when you ask them what the book's about, they can't tell you. They can't tell you genre, and they can't tell you what the core problem of the novel is. I understand this. I've been there. I've had to learn how to find the marketable hooks and make them my own. And it's only with the latest WIP that I believe I may have succeeded.

See, that's the key. Make them your own. Don't write about vampires because they're selling hot right now. Write about them because you have a story to tell. Maybe it sounds pollyanna-ish of me to say all this, but I really believe that paying attention to the market and figuring out how to fit your work into what the public wants is neither dumb nor selling out your artistic soul.

And believe me, reading Tess's post about popular culture and what folks want sank my spirits just a little. Why? Because I have work to do to understand what the mainstream wants. I don't watch television, I don't read popular magazines, I can't tell you who Jessica Simpson is dating or if Brad and Angelina had an argument or what Jen thinks. I know who those people are, and that's a start I suppose. 🙂 I'm not a snob on purpose, really, but I realize it comes across that way sometimes. Almost a decade living in Europe put me out of touch with my own country. Hawaii isn't exactly the mainland USA either. I am often surprised and dismayed at the things I don't know.

So what am I doing about it? I study bestseller lists, I go to the bookstore and see what's selling, I've even figured out when Law & Order is on (and it isn't bad!). Of course I read newspapers. I've even been guilty of flipping through US or PEOPLE in the checkout line. I don't shun those things, don't think I don't need to know about them or what makes them popular.

My goal is to write the best book I can and to find the popular pulse within it. I don't believe those aims are contrary. I won't chase trends, but if I understand them or understand why people like a certain thing, I'm that much better off in my own quest to sell a book. My mind is a stew of ideas. Something will pop up that I can use.

I know there are people who will disagree with me. At my RWA meeting this past weekend, there was a lot of “write what you love” talk. Even when you don't know what it is or where it fits. I disagree with that, I really do. Why spend all that time working your butt off only to learn your work is unmarketable? OTOH, I've done that too, so maybe it's a rite of passage we all must go through.

Do you think you should write to the market? Or is it about the Art and damn what the mainstream may want? Are the two incompatible?