Monday Morning Stepback: At What Point in the Writing Process Do Writers Think About What Will Sell?

1. Links of Interest

Post of the week: Super Wendy’s DNF review of a historical that tries to be many things but succeeds at none of them

DABWAHA has begun. Put on by Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author, it’s “a tournament of books that mimics the March Madness tournament of basketball. We’ve picked a slate of 64 books in 8 different categories to compete against each other through the next few weeks.” Entrants can win amazing prizes, including an iPad for the grand prize winner.

Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight has posted the PCA romance section program. Check it out, and see if you can spot:

1 erotic romance author who also happens to be a librarian
1 author who describes their work as “gay porn with plot”
1 mastermind behind a leading romance blog
1 romance author and multiple RITA award winner
1 koala hugger

A great post at the Millions: What About Genre, What About Horror? (hat tip Ann Somerville)

let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction: the academic novel, the comic novel, the adultery novel, the comic academic adultery-novel, the experimental novel, the novel of foreign travel or inward journey, of unexpected encounter, of breakdown, of alcoholism, of youth, of middle age, of a hundred different things so well-known and encoded that the fonts used for the titles and the authors’ names tell you as much as the flap copy.

Heather at Galaxy Express is Mad As Hell At Double Standards in Science Fiction Romance and She’s Not Going to Take it Anymore.

The F-Word is talking about the possibilities of self-publishing and POD:

Can print-on-demand and self publishing help feminists today continue the legacy of the suffragettes & the women’s liberation movement?

The Ecological Case for Ebooks at the Guardian Books Blog:

I’ve only managed to find one report – on the Kindle (by The Cleantech Group) – but it backs up suggestions that so long as e-readers are used as book replacements rather than supplements, they soon start to pay back in carbon terms.

Lynn at All About Romance is defending the first person narrator.

A cute feature at The New Yorker’s Book Bench, determining what your book shelf says about you. I’m thinking of sending in a picture of mine.

An interesting post on American Indian dress of the nineteenth century at Petticoats and Pistols.

2. How do art and commerce intersect in the writing process?

Let me preface this by noting that

(a) I don’t think this question applies only to genre fiction writers, and certainly not only to romance writers (It’s not just a question for “commercial art” in other words. You can hardly find an art form more steeped in class, money and celebrity than modern art, for example, which is considered very high art indeed. But I am asking it about the romance genre because that is what I am interested in.)

(b) I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing, among other reasons, to sell books, nor that doing so diminishes a book’s quality, although it might (people write for all sorts of reasons in addition to creating art, like being loved, avoiding boredom, revenge, impressing someone, etc. In this post I am focusing on writing to sell books, but I don’t for a minute think that’s the only possible non-artistic motivation.)

I was reading an erotic romance recently. It was a story I liked by an author I like. Then I noticed that the romance arc was pretty much resolved and I was at the halfway point. Hmmm. Sure enough, part 2 involved the introduction of another man, and the development of a menage relationship as an HEA. I felt the hero, as he had been portrayed, would never have consented to this, beyond maybe a one night experiment. I also felt the massive negative social and psychological consequences of arranging their lives in a way that most of society condemns were minimized in favor of several sex scenes. I kept thinking, “this would have been a great story if it had ended at the halfway point.” and I speculated — maybe unfairly — that the author wanted to throw in a menage, even though it did not fit the narrative, for other reasons. Like that menages sell.

I have this simplistic idea that thinking about sales (packaging, using social media to promote your book, marketing, etc.) should happen after the story is written, but I know that’s not possible. For example, suppose you want to write a Harlequin category romance. You would look at the guidelines of the particular line. And those guidelines are written based on what sells. So already, as a writer, the commercial aspect of writing is intertwined with the writing.

Also, you have to get an agent if you want to publish outside of categories or some e-pubs, don’t you? And an agent is looking not just for good stories, but good stories that sell. Same for editors.

Finally, if you go to RWA meetings or have any involvement with local chapters, you are being exposed to a culture of thinking about what will sell as a part of the writing process. For example Emily Bryan gave a workshop on adding humor to your books at RWA 2009 called “Neurotica: How adding Humor Can Jumpstart Your Career like Crazy”. The first bullet point is “Why Write Funny?” and the first reason is “market demand”.

Romance writers are artists, with all the good things that implies (all the things we value about art, like beauty, creativity, insight, pleasure, communication of emotions, values and principles, community building, etc, etc). And romance authors see themselves this way. When authors are interviewed, they talk about “giving birth to the characters in their heads”, and “being true to their own voice” and such. They rarely say “well, menage/BDSM/YA/zombies (name your trend of choice) is selling like hotcakes so I thought I would write one of those.”

So, I wonder where in the writing process writers think about this. (What makes it an even tougher question is that it is not easy to disentangle “writing for readers” from “writing to sell”.)

Does saleability function like a limiting set of pre-writing conditions, which, once determined, leave the writer free to forget about them, as long as she stays within their boundaries? Or is sales always one of the voices in a writer’s head as she types away?

Possibly it also matters where one is in her career. I wonder if a never published or early carer writer has to pay more attention to what sells. We all make fun of certain kinds of stories (think of the subjects of #romfail, for example), but if a veteran successful writer, named, say, Nora Crusie-Kinsale were to tell her editor she was penning a story about a leprechaun and his unicorn lover, would they balk?

I feel that as a reader I do sometimes detect “bandwagoning” when it is in conflict with art: when it is not true to an author’s voice or the story. But maybe the only difference is in how skilled the writer is. Maybe Nora Crusie-Kinsale could shrewdly look at the trends and write to them, and I wouldn’t know the difference.

What do you think?

3. Personal

Now that the transition to Read React Review has been completed, and spring break is over, I’ll likely return to my 3-4 days a week blogging schedule.

Our masks finally arrived from South Africa, (although only one of them is actually South African):

(This isn’t where we’ll keep them. We are in the process of redesigning of our first floor. Exciting stuff, I know.)

4. On the blog this week:

A review of Carolyn Crane’s Mind Games (early Wed)

A TBR pile historical review for Keishon’s TBR Challenge (late Wed — this will probably be Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran).

A post on ethical criticism late in the week.


15 responses

  1. “koala hugger”

    Sarah F, represent! :)

    James Buchanan would be the ‘gay porn with plot’ gal, I guess. Not exactly how I’d like the genre to be seen, even if it’s accurate for too much of it.

    Wonderful masks – and I’m glad your husband put his foot down about you posing in them. That *would* be disrespectful. Have you got information about their use/history?


  2. 1 erotic romance author who also happens to be a librarian

    Crystal Goldman, I think.

    1 author who describes their work as “gay porn with plot”

    James Buchanan: “I write original, erotic GLBT fiction, or what I tell people is gay porn with plot.”

    1 mastermind behind a leading romance blog

    “Jane Litte, Blogger: Dear Author”

    1 romance author and multiple RITA award winner

    “Barbara Samuel, Romance Author”

    1 koala hugger

    Do you mean a koala who hugs, or someone who hugs koalas? Eric Selinger and the koala seem to me to be hugging each other, but if I had to designate one of them as the “hugger” and one as the “hugged” I’d tend towards thinking that the koala is hugging Eric, rather than the other way round. The koala will not be attending the conference.


  3. @Ann Somerville: Actually they are all southern African, just not South African. The South African one is the Zulu one, second from left (you can tell b/c it has hair).

    3 are Ndebele (originally S.A., then migrated to Zimbabwe)

    the one lying down we are not sure because we got it at an Indian market.

    @Laura Vivanco: Good guesses!

    Actually I was thinking of Eric as the Koala hugger, since that is his twitter icon!


  4. Ooh, I have that Carolyn Crane on my wishlist. Looking forward to your review.

    As for the writing/selling issue, I think an awful lot.

    I wonder where in the writing process writers think about this.

    As you surmised, this is a difficult question. If you’re a writer who reads in your genre (and most are, that’s how they learn their genre), then you’re steeped in it, and to some extent genre = what sells to readers of that genre and vice-versa. And round and round and round she goes…

    Also, there is sometimes input from agent/editor/crit partners to try one thing or another. I haven’t really had that yet, but it’s common, and if I got such a suggestion, I would consider it seriously, to see if I could make that idea my own.

    For instance, I’d like to do a Victorian historical romance one day, and one reason is because mass market historical romance sells more than erotica and I’d like to make more money for a book. Market-wise, there seem to be a few more Victorian-set romances at the moment, so presumably they’re selling.

    My other reasons for that goal, though, are myriad: I love historical romance – it’s the sub-genre I read most of – and I am always wishing for more Victorian-set books, and I love research. The Victorian period is a nice segue backwards from the Edwardian/WWI I’ve already used, so I’d be following my own interests.

    The thing is, if I wasn’t interested already, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to try and write one to make more money. You’re not guaranteed a sale, especially in a genre in which you’ve not previously sold. It’s not worth it (to me) to put all that time and mental effort into a project unless you’re going to enjoy the heck out of it. For most novels, your hourly rate (counting writing, thinking, researching, editing, revising, proofing, marketing) is…minimal.

    So far, this project consists of very minimal notes on hero and heroine, a few research books I’ve purchased but not yet read, and a substantial research wishlist. It’s more of a carrot to me, a prize for when I’ve done the work for which I’m already contracted.

    Does saleability function like a limiting set of pre-writing conditions, which, once determined, leave the writer free to forget about them, as long as she stays within their boundaries? Or is sales always one of the voices in a writer’s head as she types away?

    I tend to think more of my editor’s opinions and the constraints of the line for which I write. Luckily for me, the Spice line does not seem to have many constraints. If I’m in doubt about something (real example: the male/male scenes in The Moonlight Mistress), I write what I want and let the editor decide. So far, both my editors have been okay with my decisions. If the editor requested a change, I would probably make it, because after all, they’re paying me for the book and they have more experience at what will sell. I do want people to buy my books and read them.

    I wonder if a never published or early career writer has to pay more attention to what sells.

    Since I support myself with an office job, this is less of a concern for me. I write for my own purposes first, money second. The money is really icing, for me.

    I know a number of people who support themselves with writing. It’s difficult, and I do not want to attempt that at my present level. I am more comfortable receiving a regular paycheck – worrying about money makes me less interested in writing. (If I was selling amazing amounts with every book, that would be different, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen!)

    I feel that as a reader I do sometimes detect “bandwagoning” when it is in conflict with art


    I recently blogged on a similar subject, “Writing Your Bliss”: Link.


  5. What point in the writing process? At no point so far. For me, that has translated to poor sales, but I haven’t changed my methods yet (thought about it but not done it). My husband has commented on how I could make my current wip much more marketable, and I know he’s right, but it would no longer be the story of my heart and wouldn’t be as fun to write.

    If fate puts me in the position of having to write to supplement a min wage job so I could subsist, then I’d try to write what I think would sell. I wouldn’t have the same joy in writing, but I’d probably like it better than flipping burgers.

    Is it necessary to think about marketability while writing? I think it depends on the writer. If the story you’re excited to tell is one that will really strike a chord with a large section of the market (like Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown and so on), you’re way ahead of the game. If the story you’re excited to tell will suit a smaller group of readers, you have to decide if you’re willing to compromise your own bliss for monetary gain or fame. Is that the difference between a successful writer and a writer just scraping by? Learning to pay sharp attention to marketability and being willing to mold a story to better suit the market? I’m too new at this and I don’t know. My common sense says it does make sense, while my heart says no, you can’t do that.
    I would like to hear what other writers think.

    Thanks for the petticoat link! That entire site looks very interesting. I just adore research sites.


  6. Who knew my suffering would make Post of the Week? Woot!

    Lots to digest in the art vs. commerce section of this post. I have Monday Brain, so am not confident this will make much sense – but I will say I generally abhor the practice of bandwagon jumping. Especially when the author in question doesn’t particularly “like” the bandwagon they’re jumping on. Frankly, if the author doesn’t want to write (or even likes to read) a paranormal romance (to use an example) but has gotten one published because the market is so “hot,” that dislike can very likely (and generally does) shine through to the reader. Lack of enthusiasm is hard to disguise.

    That being said, authors want readers to read them, and they want to get published. Also, art, imagination, and creativity are all well and good – but authors also like to get paid. Westerns, the Edwardian era, World War II (etc.) may be where their heart lies, but it’s got to be insanely discouraging after a while to hear “Oh, nobody wants to read that, it won’t sell, have you thought about writing an erotic paranormal romance about tree nymphs?” Heck, I get discouraged hearing crap like that – and I’m just a reader.


  7. I’m coming from this as a writer who couldn’t sell what I’d written because “we don’t know where to put it.” Thus, what I chose to do then colors my following comments:

    1. It’s why I DIY’d. I think readers are far more accepting than they’re given credit for, and my email & reviews verify this for me. Now that I’m on All Romance eBooks and Omnilit (instead of depending on Amazon, Smashwords, and my own pub’s site), my sales are also verifying this.

    2. Surprising (and a wee bit disappointing) to me, because I thought series readers liked to read in order, the book #1 I DIY’d is not doing as well as book #2. I can think of a couple of reasons: book #2 has a better (more enticing) back blurb and it’s 1/3 the length of book #1. That is NOT to say book 1 is not doing well, and I’ve come to accept that it’s very common for book #2 to be the gateway to book #1.

    3. I can do what I want. The fanbase I’ve already got now trusts me to take them wherever I want to go. That was my goal. Thus, I don’t feel as constrained.

    4. I’ve simply come to accept that I will never NOT have a regular day job. I’m going to write anyway. I’d rather have a residual income on it than no income, and every time a book pays for itself, I then have residual income. However, it will not be enough to live on. It will be enough to do lots of nice things like travel and remodel the house, things we wouldn’t have been able to do with our day job incomes alone. But I will still have to have the day job and I’m at peace with that.

    5. I tried turning something I love to do into a business and I have no enthusiasm left to do it for enjoyment. I fear that if I do that with my writing, I won’t be able to muster anything but a grind mentality, and my well will dry up. My degree is in creative writing, and so I know what it feels like to write creatively on spec and I avoid it like the plague.

    So all that’s just to say that I like my situation and the crappy day job is not only part of that situation, it’s critical to keeping me creatively productive.


  8. I have this insane ability to meld the market with my art, so I have little trouble balancing both demands. The trouble comes with the writing process. :D


  9. I’m guessing a lot of things that we (as reader) might put down to market pressure or a desire to cash in on the latest trend might be because they got to the second third of the book, and thought:

    “There should be more happening here.”

    I’m writing a book, but I can’t call myself a writer yet without laughing (maybe once I’ve actually finished something…). Still, as I write, I find myself throwing in more and more stuff into the story because the idea I started was read like puff pastry with only one layer. Too thin to pick up, and not much fun. I suspect that a lot of authors have the same impulse. “This is too thin! I’ll add a vampire! And a koala! Oohhh, and maybe a menage with regency lord and a plumber! Plumbers are hot right now, I wonder what I could do with one.”

    I don’t know that this adds much, but the idea that art should be free of any commercial taint is fairly recent. If you look at the history of painting, archetecture, writing, and other arts, very few masterpieces were created without some sort of patronage system or monetary incentive. Michealangelo didn’t paint and sculpt for free, and church contracts heavily affected his choice of subject matter, but his work is certainly art. Would it have been better executed, more interesting, or more morally pure in some way if he’d done it for free, without any contraints on his imagination? Maybe, but it’s pretty awesome as it is.


  10. I have only changed things that do not matter, except perhaps to the eventual purchaser.

    The hero of my next book went from being a younger son, to the heir, to the actual title holder. The second change was necessitated by a wholesale change of plot, but the first was shameless pandering. :-)


  11. I’m looking forward to your review of Written on Your Skin. I adored it – I thought it was better than Bound by Your Touch but it would seem I’m in the minority there.

    Also, I think one of your masks fell down….



  12. Thanks for the link!

    Re: writing what sells – I’m not an author but I’ve often wondered what kinds of pressures authors feel to write to trends. By this, I mean, does it come from publishers/agents/etc…., or is there an internal pressure from the author herself to write to the market?

    Also, in determining “what sells”, I often find myself wondering what would happen if instead of thinking, “We can publish x, but x doesn’t sell, “, a marketing department decided they really believed x was a fabulous book and tried to really sell it with prominent placements, big marketing pushes and just generally trying make sure people know about the book. I tend to think of this a lot because when I’m looking for a historical with a more unusual setting, I often find myself having to do plenty of book release research and go digging in the back shelves of a store because these books don’t always get tons of good marketing. I know some settings will probably always have wider appeal than others, but there also seems to be a self-fulfilling defeatism in the marketing of some books.


Literature and Medicine

Reading Literature for Life

Prof's Progress

... on making sense, one word at a time

Bkwurm: /book*worm/ n. a person devoted to reading and study

Nyssa Harkness

Media and Cultural Studies with a focus on Genre Fiction, Gaming and Creative Society

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life

Love is the Best Medicine

Harlequin/Mills and Boon Medical Romance Authors

Blue Moon

Audiobook reviews and book reviews. Occasional opining.


reviews by a speculative fiction romantic

Centre for Medical Humanities

News, updates and insights from the Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University

Miss Bates Reads Romance

Miss Bates is the loquacious spinster from Austen's Emma. No doubt she read romances ... here's what she would have thought of them.

Badass Romance

heroes, heroines, and books that demand to be taken seriously

bad necklace: not quite pearls of wisdom

mala, media, maladies, and malapropisms

Thinking in Fragments

but making connections too

Tales from the Reading Room

A Literary Salon Where All Are Welcome


thinking about teaching, learning, home and family

Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Fit and Feminist

Because it takes strong women to smash the patriarchy.

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health

Heloise Merlin's Weblog

Virtual people read books, too!

Victoria Janssen

Just another site

Bblog Central

Your source for book blogging.

Insta-Love Book Reviews

Deflowering romance - one book at a time

A Striped Armchair

Bookish thoughts from a woman of endless curiousity

Sonomalass's Blog

Another day in paradise

RR@H Novel Thoughts & Book Talk

Featuring Author Interviews and Commentaries

Something More

my extensive reading

Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

Enjoying crime fiction one book at a time

The Romantic Goldfish

"Cheapest mother fucking goldfish on the planet"


...spruiking storytelling

Joanna Chambers, author

Historical romance




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,807 other followers