Follow the Market or Follow Your Heart?

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, there’s a never-ending list of contradictory messages writers receive. The one I want to talk about today applies both to writing and to life. It’s the constant tension between following your own heart and vision… and trying to fit into the trends.

In life, this applies to the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the music we listen to, the books we read… and countless other things. Some of us feel more comfortable with what’s popular, while others feel better marching to their own drummer. I suspect it’s a continuum, and most of us are somewhere in the middle.

In writing, we’re told to write from the heart. “Just write the story you want to tell!” But we’re also told to pay attention to what’s selling and what genres are popular and what word counts are viable… basically, follow the market if we want to get published. So what to do?

I think the answer is, for most people, some version of “both.” It’s important to be yourself in your writing, find your unique voice, do your own thing. That’s where every groundbreaking new bestseller comes from. But if you want to be published, a certain degree of paying attention to the marketplace may be helpful.

Some people believe it’s not appropriate at all to pay attention to the market. As an artist, or a purveyor of a message, the only thing that matters is being true to yourself and your vision. I believe if that’s the way you feel, you should go that way. For some people, it’s the only way they’re comfortable operating, and I respect that. If a person is talented enough, and persistent enough, and working hard enough, that philosophy may lead to publishing success. But even if it doesn’t, for this person, remaining true to a vision is more important than “selling out” to the publishing industry, and it’s a perfectly legitimate choice.

But I think your best chance for getting published is to write from your heart while also understanding the market for which you’re writing. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you need to be aware of all the competing books already out there and don’t write something exactly the same as something else. You also need to be aware of platform and credential requirements for your topic.

If you’re writing a novel, it helps to be aware of genres that are cycling down and others that are trending up. It’s also good to know the conventions of different genres (for example, what differentiates a YA novel from an adult novel) and the word-count expectations.

Follow your heart or follow trends? Use your discernment to figure out what to do… and if you just keep working, I think you’ll figure it out along the way.

How do you balance “follow your heart” with “follow the market”?

This is an encore presentation of a previous post.
  1. picky says:

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  2. I think self-publishing irrevocably changes this question. Worry about what’s selling, or wordcounts, or trends, is only for that MS you’re trying to sell to agents/editors. The one that you’re self-publishing? It goes directly to readers, and doesn’t have to appeal to as broad a market segment to still sell copies (how many copies will be driven by many things, including the size of the market segment).

    More importantly is this: I think the only thing you have, as a person doing creative work, is your uniqueness. That is literally the key to your success – finding a way to put the special thing that is YOU into your work. If you want to be successful, you are better off spending more time thinking about how to further that process along than almost anything else.
    #my2cents

  3. xtreme no says:

    I believe Snooki is so cute. I might be her man any day of the year.

  4. i m enjoy to read this article. Thats(Some people believe it’s not appropriate at all to pay attention to the market.) paraghraph is really good.

  5. janet keen says:

    I agree with writing from your heart and writing the type of books you like reading.
    I love reading mixed media art technique books.
    I find it hard to find fiction I like so I probably wouldn’t write it.
    I like photography and poetry books so maybe I should writew these.
    It’s hard to decide.
    But worthwhile doing

  6. Excellent post, as always, Rachelle. I would like to add to what you said about life in general. It may come off a little “preachy,” but hey, I’m following my heart.

    Understanding market trends is part of being a professional. As writers, we must know our public as much if not more than our product. That’s why we should be writing. The reader, first and foremost.

    Part of being a professional player in life, of course, is having a good heart. So if you are going to write from your heart, make sure it’s a good one.

    Because I believe that no degree of expertise in syntax will ever hide the deficiencies of a sinful heart.

    The editors in the sky will see to it.

  7. marion says:

    I’d love to read books set in Imperial Russia! The land of Dostoyevsky!

    Creole sounds good too. I hope you start a Creole trend.

    I read recently that people don’t want to read books set in exotic locales. I don’t know where publishers got this idea. I love exotic locales.

    That’s why I read. Every book that’s worth reading has an exotic locale, however superficially familiar. It’s someone else’s world. That’s why I love novels.

  8. Jack LaBloom says:

    I write the kind of stories I pay money to read, and hope there are a lot of people out there like me.

  9. Douglas Thompson says:

    Rachele,
    I am interested in hearing more about – the conventions of different genres (for example, what differentiates a YA novel from an adult novel) and the word-count expectations. – Where would you recommend I find this information? I have a Christian – mystery book almost finished and I am trying to decide where it belongs before any further editing.

  10. Sadly, I think agent’s slush piles are full of folks writing from the heart while ignoring standard industry information and writing advice. Writing is a discipline that takes work; you should write from the heart because you’ll be heavily invested in editing and revising and sometimes passion for a project is what carries you. But if you want to be published, it’s a disservice to ignore what’s going on in the book publishing world.

  11. I think the problem comes in defining what the market is after. Almost any topic can be handled in a way which interests readers, because great writing doesn’t go out of style. However, some ways of handling the written word do go out of style.

    Sometimes the problem comes down to a question of if the writer embracing a style of writing that is antiquated and out of date with the rest of the world, resulting in too small a niche for their writing to be marketable.

    I saw some of this recently in a YA/child lit blog where a group of writers posted small pieces of their manuscripts for open critique. One writer submitted material that had poetically rich descriptions. A lot of them. While this might have worked for kids in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s time, it won’t work now, because young readers don’t want to wade through pages of exposition before they get to the action.

    The writer struggled with changing her manuscript. If I remember right, she indicated that some of this was due to writing from her heart—it was just what came out of her naturally. That’s okay if you want to write for yourself, but if you want to sell it to someone else, you have to be able to write what they want to read (and what a lot of someone elses want to read).

    When you write from the heart, it will aid you in developing your voice, but you will probably have to do a check on your style and make sure you’re able to be flexible enough with it to fit into some publishing niche if you want to be paid for it.

    In a coldly clinical way of looking at it, you wouldn’t want your accountant to hand you your taxes and say, “I just let my heart lead me in what to do on this.” Some of writing does come from your creative heart, but the skill behind it has to be disciplined craft, and that can give you direction.

  12. I write historical romance. The setting I’m passionate about is Imperial Russia. Try selling that as a first-time novelist….

    Since I’m serious about this writing thing, I decided it was time to do something the market would more easily accept. So I took my second favorite setting and starting crafting stories in it. The antebellum South, Louisiana to be specific. I’m writing about French Creoles.

    I realized the French Creole still has that otherworldly air about it that Russia has, but it’s more familiar to Americans. The first book in the series is set in 1857. Second one in 1860, third in 1865. I decided on the years before Civil War novels started popping up left and right.

    Someday I still want to write about Russia. But in the meantime, I’ve figured out how to write for the market without losing my voice and passion.

    • marion says:

      I thought my comment was going in as a reply to you, Rachel, & it somehow went in the general comment slushpile. Here’s a Cliff Notes version!

      Your Creole stuff sounds interesting, but I’d love to read about imperialist Russia. The land of Dostoyevsky! for better or worse.

      I don’t know why (as I read recently, with shock) publishers don’t want books with exotic locales. I love exotic settings. Isn’t reading all about escaping our own boring annoying little world? Every novel has an exotic setting–the unique world of the people in it.

      Not very Cliff Notes! Sorry about late post. Maybe you’ll get it via e-mail.

      • I did get the reply, Marion. Russia is one of the hardest sells in existence, unfortunately. The only ones harder are medieval Japan/China and pre-colonial Africa. I’m under no illusions that I’m good enough to make a first sale with something set entirely in Russia with no Americans in it.

        • marion says:

          Hi, Rachel: Sorry publishers are so unimaginative (or readers, if the publishers are right.)

          If the problem’s the unpronouceable names–mine’s set in ancient Egypt. Same problem! But people read Sci Fi, which is full of weird names. Oh, wait. Sci Fi’s supposed to be dying. Sigh!

          Hope your Creole books do really well, & that your Russian book will eventually see the light of day.

        • marion says:

          Oops! Unpronounceable (typing really slowly!)

  13. I’m lucky in that I write contemporary YA. I don’t see that ever going out of style!

  14. marion says:

    I have to follow my heart.
    I have no choice.

    I tried to write a formulaic-ish Romance novel once. Couldn’t even get the chronology right!

    So now I respect people who write genres, because I can’t do it!

    I have to write the mainstream WIP I’m on, and pray that the market follows me!

    But the back-burner novel in my head is a bit more of a soap opera, though still mainstream–star-crossed lovers in ancient Egypt. I suspect that this might need to be published first, to pave the way for my current WIP.

  15. I write from my heart and wait for the market to catch up with me.

  16. I write from the heart, but don’t expect to be published unless I follow the market. Writing and getting published are two different ducks, really. When I write, it is proactive. I am in charge of what goes on paper. Being published is passive, because someone else decides what hits the presses of their company.
    We are free to write all we want from the heart. I am doing that now, true? However, if I am going to want something from the publisher, then I am taking my wares to market and I can’t blame the agents or publishers if I don’t meet their criteria.
    In order to remain proactive, my writing must stop being about my heart and begin touching the hearts of others.

    • Joe Pote says:

      “In order to remain proactive, my writing must stop being about my heart and begin touching the hearts of others.”

      I like how you expressed this. This is what I was attempting to say, in my comment higher up the list, here…though mine was less eloquent…

  17. Roger Floyd says:

    Contradictory messages? No kidding. I’ve seen so many contradictory messages I’m not sure what to think anymore. My biggest problem, outside of cutting my novel to meet expected word counts, is that the genre I’m working in, science fiction, is fading. Or at least it’s being overshadowed by other similar ones such as fantasy, YA fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, and so forth. That’s what so many of the agents are looking for now. Real SF is down and out. This trend started 8 to 10 years ago and everyone then said it wouldn’t last and SF would make a comeback. Yeah, right. Merry Christmas.

    • I think true Sci-Fi will always be around. Yes, some people might be reading Steampunk now, but I think it’s a much smaller group than Sci-Fi readers as a whole. Sci-Fi writers have the chance to be truly visionary (Fahrenheit 451–case in point). Steampunk is sort of stuck in the (Victorian) past. I’m a more modern sort of girl, myself. Keep at it!

  18. Southpaw says:

    Following my heart to the market maybe? I don’t know but you’ve raise good points. There so many contradictory ideas out there about what’s important. I suspect your right and a mix is best.

  19. joylene says:

    I’ve written 5 novels, am currently working on my 6th, had 2 published, and will admit my favourite of the bunch is the 12 agents told me would never sell because no one is interested in the Vietnam war.

    However, lately, my heart’s stirring and I’m thinking maybe I should reconsider and start querying again. Or is it just a coincidence that it feels as if I’m called to try? I’m not sure, but the longing to have it published is coming across louder and louder.

    Maybe I need to suck up all those rejections and go for it?

    Thanks for this post, Rachelle. You’ve got me wondering.

    • marion says:

      Hi, Joylene,
      Go with your gut!
      I agree with you that Vietnam could sell now. It’s old enough to be new. The 60s/70s is in style now, I think. E.g. Mad Men.
      I hope someone takes it this time!

    • Stephen King says:

      The agent who told you Vietnam wouldn’t sell was probably right 10 or 15 years ago. Again I say–timing is everything. It’s interesting you mention that war; while at West Point I was a military history readin’ fool, and I devoured every memoir-ish book about Vietnam I could find. Didn’t think much about the genre for a while, and then a couple of months ago at a writer’s conference I was introduced to Matterhorn, the best-seller you can wave in that agent’s face if he told you he couldn’t sell Vietnam these days. In fact, I have a (signed, yay!) copy in my library now.

    • Follow your heart, Joylene. If you’ve got that urge now, perhaps the market is ready. Besides, you now have two published pieces under your belt. Good luck!

  20. Stephen King says:

    It’s like any other business venture, actually. You have to ask yourself what you’re doing it for. If you’re writing to write, and to enjoy the process, then indeed you should follow your heart or inner child or inner Muse or whatever you call it. If, on the other hand, you’re doing it to make money, whether a little or a lot, then the only way to succeed is to write what the market wants to read.

    • Roger Floyd says:

      I don’t know if you’re the Stephen King who writes horror stories or not, but you’ve made a good point, but only to a certain extent. If I try to write what the market wants, I have no guarantee that the market will want it when I get finished. If I try and write like “the” Stephen King, I run the risk of being labeled derivative. If I do my own thing (which is what I’ve done) I have difficulty getting it published. Breaking in takes a small amount of luck as well as skill, talent and chutzpah.

      • Stephen King says:

        “I don’t know if you’re the Stephen King who writes horror stories or not….” – Not. I’m The Other Stephen King, on my web site and my blog. I write fantasy. But you’ve made my point, so thank you. I’ve read Harvard Business School case studies where businesses came out with the right product just a bit too early or too late and flopped as a result. “Timing is everything” we say in business. In a lower post, I see you write Sci Fi. Yes, it’s a dying field, which probably wouldn’t surprise any sociologists out there. My first attempt at a book was in that genre, in fact, and I dropped the project when I realized there wasn’t much point to it. That said, again, what’s your purpose? Sci Fi is dying off but not dead; the publishers at Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine have come out and said they don’t get enough sci fi submissions to meet their needs, so there you go. Build up a following there–won’t be a Harry Potter size following, but if you want that you’ll need to write a book in that genre–and then move up to novels if that’s your desire.

        Luck will play a significant part in any successful endeavor. Most of the great successes I’ve read, whether in literary, sports, or business fields, have tipped their hat to Lady Luck. Nearly all of the failures I’ve read or spoken with have blamed her. But there’s more to success than just waiting for luck to strike.

        • marion says:

          Hi, Stephen & Roger & Heather,
          Sci Fi “dying” or “fading”.

          I’m shocked. I admit I haven’t read any in a few years. But I enjoy good sci fi. Love Martian Chronicles–a classic.

          Always thought I might try to write sci-fi sometime. Sort of the flip side of historical. Time travel via fiction. And you get to invent all those weird names!

          Perhaps people feel they’re already living in the future. But I have a hard time believing Sci Fi is dead. Maybe it just needs you all to re-invent it!

  21. I just want to thank you for your awesomeness! Ha! That is such good advice.

  22. Holly Russell says:

    I think if you follow your heart and you are good at your craft, then you will become the market.

  23. Joe Pote says:

    For me, writing is all about communication.

    The goal is for me to find a way to effectively communicate what is in my heart, in such a way that someone else can understand it and benefit from it.

    Writing what is in my heart is very easy.

    Writing what is in my heart in such a manner that most readers will understand it and appreciate it, is much more difficult.

    It really doesn’t matter how well I express myself.

    Communication doesn’t take place until I express myself in a manner that others will hear my message, understand it, and benefit from the understanding.

    To the extent that this means understanding market trends and cultural perspectives, that’s what I need to do in order to improve my abuility to communicate.

  24. I go with both. Horror in a Dystopian world with a bit of a romance. Or Zombies in Love. or…well, who knows? =)

  25. Timothy Fish says:

    I tend to write what I want to write more than I pay attention to what the market is doing. That isn’t to say that my approach is the best approach, that’s just the way it is.

    That being said, it seems to me that the way to balance the two is to follow the market in terms of genre, but follow our heart in terms of theme. The market often follows trends like boy wizards, vampires and zombies, Amish, and people who claim they went to heaven. But the market rarely pays much attention to the theme of the books. If a reader likes Amish books, she doesn’t care if the first one is about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the next is about the importance of telling the truth, and she isn’t likely to go buy a zombie book just because it also has a theme about taking responsibility.

    As a writer, I may have a preference for which genre I write in, but what really matters is the theme.

  26. I suppose it boils down to why you write. Are you writing solely to make a living, or are you writing because you must? Those doing it exclusively to make a living will have to pay _a lot_ closer attention to the market than those who write just because. But I think most of us, like Adam, long for the place the market and our hearts collide.

  27. Like others have said, I am lucky that what I like to write and the stories in my heart happen to be what’s comparable to the market.

  28. Jan Drexler says:

    Right now, the story of my heart fits right into an uprising market trend, so I don’t have to make the choice. But when this story first started out, that wasn’t the case. So I changed a few things in the setting and plot to make it fit the trend.

  29. Great post, Rachelle. I always follow my heart and inspiration, but with one eye on the market. I’m used to that with short stories so it’s second nature now.

  30. ginny martyn says:

    All that is true but there are other hang ups as well. Sometimes the market is saturated with your topic or storyline. And sometimes we don’t write from the heart because we are afraid our feelings/thoughts/ideas might offend someone. I think getting past these issues is equally important.

  31. We’re on a similar wavelength this week, Rachelle. I blogged on the same subject, and I agree with you. I think writers who hope to break into traditional publishing have to keep one eye on what’s trending in their genre, while writing something new and exciting from their heart.

    I think if a writer gets to the end of creating and editing his “masterpiece” and discovers he can’t compare it to anything else in the market, he forgot to keep in mind the market trends while writing.

    Although I’m working on something now that I think is a very different and unique story, I also can compare it to several popular stories currently on the shelf. I’m hoping *squeezes eyes shut and prays* that will pay off when I go to pitch/query.

  32. Wendy says:

    I write what I like to read. I also make a concerted effort to pay attention to what’s out there, what’s selling, and what women are talking about.
    Writing from my heart in my unique voice + paying attention = a healthy blend that works for me
    (Not sure that can be considered actual math above.)

  33. I think Rachelle’s question today speaks to individual expectations, and what each writer truly wants from their MS. And although writing from the heart brings me joy… joy does not fill the fridge. So, I’ll admit it, before investing blood, sweat and tears into an article or WIP – I research current markets, especially those that have run their course, and shelve ideas past their expiration date; I stick with timeless over trendy.

  34. Hart Johnson says:

    In real life, I ignore the trends altogether. I actually have a trend aversion and think less of people who pay attention (is that evil?) In books though, we are doing a service to some degree. I want to be read.

    I think a lot of writers have a few heart books they HAVE to write, trends be damned. And maybe writing one or two of these first is necessary. It took writing a handful of books for me before I realized I was going to be writing three books a year FOREVER, and I had time to do BOTH–the heart books and the salable books. And strangely, the salable (currently in the cozy mystery genre) aren’t less fun to write. In fact because my heart isn’t so bound, I can have a little fun… play around. And for that genre, it is perfect.

  35. I come up with the most exciting concept I can, then I MAKE it the book of my heart.

  36. Marielena says:

    For me, it starts with the heart. Without that, what is there to say — or sell? (And of course, I follow the market.)
    http://birthofanovel.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/write-from-the-heart/#comments

  37. I agree with Rachelle’s stance – I follow my vision and keep the expectations of the publishing industry in mind. After all, you can’t say, “I want to play in your sandbox but only my rules apply.”

  38. As a writer, I always have several stories in mind. Right now, romantic suspense is still selling well, so I’m focusing on writing those stories. A writer can do both; follow the market and their heart.

  39. carol brill says:

    Rachelle, your post/comment about the ground breaking best-seller got me thinking about Steve Jobs’s version of “follow the market” which was all about envisioning what the market doesn’t know yet it needs.
    He followed his heart and revolutionized multiple industries.

  40. Jodi Aman says:

    My heart and head are working together all the time. I think this is the balance that we need in the world. it is like the balance of the masculine and feminine, head and heart. Bring love and intellect to everything.

  41. Because I write the kind of books I like to read, I read current books being published by the writers who I consider to be the best in my particular genre.

    I will always write “from the heart”, but knowing the current trends, topics and nuances in contemporary books helps me improve my own writing.

  42. kiff says:

    Well my inspiration came from ordinary people who followed their heart dealing with a personal struggle or difficulty in their life, and became an author because of it.

    I’ve been reading the work of a few authors who in my opinion was able to manage the two as evidenced in their books.

    Lucky for me following my heart coincides with the market. But there has been challenges. I’ve been doing as much reading as I am writing and this helps me identify “silly” errors before they get to an editor.

    My writing is improving because I fully understand that it’s okay that I’m following my heart, but it is just as important to respect the rules of the game and take advantage of the advice available from the major players(the publishers,editors and agents).

  43. For me I have to write from the heart, even though I sometimes don’t know what that is until I have finished. But I also try and take the market into account, though, like Adam, I don’t follow trends. Interestingly, a writer acquaintance of mine is being dropped by her publisher because despite having written seven chick lit books, which sold very well, chick lit is on the out, so looks like she is too. Of course she is cross, but not floored. She told me that for her, writing was a job and nothing to do with following her heart. She is considering changing genres or getting a new career! (I was impressed!) I don’t know what all that says, other than, whatever motivates us to write, we are in the same boat when it comes to being published, or not! Cheers for another thought provoking post!

  44. If you’re not writing exactly what you want & doing it from the heart, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons & likely will end up disappointed. But then again, the same can be said if you don’t pay attention to the here and now. So write what you want, but if your dream is to be published then follow the guidelines, know what’s working, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It’s fine to follow your own path, just remember blazing a new one is a lot more work.

  45. Sra says:

    To me, it’s just like a different blog post said. Artists learn different brush strokes. Carpenters learn how to use new power tools. Musicians practice scales and arpeggios. But none of those things dampen the creative process. In fact, they improve it, because you’re able to more effectively get to what you want.

    For writers, keeping up with the market is just one of those tools that improves you. Obviously focusing only on that one aspect will end up giving you mediocre work. Ie selling out. But using it along with many other things is just something that an eager learner ought to do.

    You’ll never grow as a writer without branching out, trying new things, learning techniques…

    And anyway, a lot of what’s popular and sell-able is like that for a reason. Because it’s good.

  46. Adam Heine says:

    I try for both, aiming for the spot where my heart and the market intersect.

    But not trends. Those are always over before I can get my trendy work out there 🙂

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