Pasta Sauce and Books: Should you Write to Market?

The other night, I was talking to a few other authors in a discord channel we share. Someone linked this reddit post titled “How to make money ePublishing (without a bestseller)”. It had some really good advice in it, but that wasn’t what we talked about – we talked about one particular piece of advice the author of that post gave:

The short summary is this: Write a series to market, hitting the tropes your readers expect.

The author went on to break down why they believed that you should write to market. Write what your readers expect from the genre. It’s advice I see fairly frequently – if you want to make money, you need to write to what the market wants. Writing a fantasy story? In a post-Martin world, you better write something grim and gritty and full of death. Or you need to go the Sanderson router and have a detailed magic system. Writing Urban Fantasy? Well, make sure you include all mythology everywhere, but especially the Fae and Vampires because people love Fae and Vampires.

Here’s the thing with that advice: it’s also completely wrong. Well, kind of. It’s half wrong.

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Don’t think about it too hard, I’ll explain shortly.

Let’s break it down:

Writing to Market does Work…to a Point

So let’s start off by going completely against what I just said. Writing to market is totally a valid strategy, and you will sell books doing it. People like the genres they know, they like the tropes they are familiar with. For a lot of people, reading a book that hits all the beats they expect is like curling up in front of a fireplace with a warm blanket – safe, comfortable, and relaxing. If you write to fill a particular genre, you will find those readers, and as long as you stick to what they expect, they’ll love you for it.

To use a food analogy: I love hamburgers. I love them more than is probably healthy for me. If someone serves me a hamburger, I know generally speaking what I’m going to get. Sure, there might be variants – I might get it with caramelized onions, or feta cheese, or bacon, but the core experience of eating a hamburger is comfortable and familiar. However, I’ve never eaten a hamburger in a tortilla. I’ve heard such things are served and enjoyed, but for  me it’s too different – I don’t enjoy the lack of a bun.

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Hope you ate before you read this post, because we’re not done with food pictures yet!

Think of your characters, your prose, and your worldbuilding as the toppings on a mass market burger. You can change them around a good deal and people will still be interested in reading it, so long as the core – hamburger and bun (in this case, narrative structure and broad tropes) is something they are familiar with.

However, you’re going to find a problem with this…

No One Remembers when you Chase a Trend

Hey, quick question? Other than Harry Potter and The Magicians, can anyone name a “magic school” series? Or other than Hunger Games and Divergent, can anyone name a YA Dystopia series? How about Paranormal Romance – can you name anything other than Twilight? If you absolutely love those genres, you might have some other examples, but for the most part they didn’t become well known examples.

It comes back to a food analogy, as so many things do. Here’s a great Ted talk by Malcolm Gladwell that goes into the food instrusties search for the perfect pasta sauce. To summarize – Prego was trying to compete with Ragu, and hired a consultant to figure out the perfect pasta sauce. That consultant did a ton of research and discovered something that blew their minds – there is no such thing as a perfect pasta sauce.

There are only perfect pasta sauces.

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Damn I’m getting hungry.

Now you can go to the grocery store and get pasta sauce with garlic, pasta sauce with meat, pasta sauce with cheese, pasta sauce with all three. You can get traditional, you can get secret blends of herbs and spices, you can get chunky pasta sauce – and at the time, before this research, no one knew there was a market for chunky pasta sauce. There was an entire segment of pasta sauce eaters that wanted a pasta sauce no one offered.

You see this phenomena in other markets too. The DC universe is lagging behind Marvel because they’re trying to beat Marvel at a game that Marvel has already won. In the last console generation, everyone tried to make a modern military shooter game to compete with Call of Duty, and no one was able to surpass them. 

The thing is, if people have something that they love, then they already have that thing. Why would you try Prego if it’s offering the same thing as Ragu, but you already know you like Ragu?

If you’re writing to market, you’re Prego trying to compete with Ragu. You’re not offering anything the market doesn’t already have. And sure, you’ll get some people who are interested in trying “similar but slightly different,” but most people are going to stick to exactly what they know, or look for something new.

Instead of writing to fill the promise books in your genre meet, you should just make sure that…

Fill the Promise of your Book

I stole this point from another author in that discord channel. Casey White, who I’ve mentioned before, was the one to make it – it shouldn’t matter if you fill the promises people expect from the market, so long as you are fulfilling the promise you made in your book. This is the biggest thing I think you should focus on. If you are promising your readers that they are getting a standard zombie apocalypse novel, then you absolutely should be writing to fill the market – because that’s what people who bought your book expected.

However, if you want to write a book where there’s an underwater city full of people who have their own complex intrigue and are just now being exposed to the surface world, you absolutely can do that. Just don’t veer off halfway through your book to start writing about their mirror society on the far side of the Moon. People bought your book because they wanted to read about the underwater city. They didn’t buy it for a lunar colony. If you want to write about the sea people and the moon people going to war, save it for the sequel, and just seed the lunar colony in the first book.

To pick an actual book example for how this can go wrong: The Bill Hodges Trilogy, by Stephen King. (Warning: Spoilers for book three ahoy. If you don’t want to read them, skip the next three paragraphs.)

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You have been warned.

YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SPOILER TERRITORY.

The first two books were all about real-world thrillers. They had psychopaths, they had intrigue, they had real-world horror, but the didn’t have a hint of the supernatural. Then, in book three, we get a sudden, massive dose of the supernatural coming from the primary antagonist. Now, I love genre fiction. I love Stephen King.

I also couldn’t finish the trilogy.

I came to this trilogy expecting police work and suspense and all the things books one and two delivered on. Even though book three hits everything I love, it also broke the promise of the trilogy for me. I still haven’t gone back to finish the story. I might eventually do so, because I’m a completionist, but I’m not looking forward to it. Even though book three is good!

YOU ARE NOW LEAVING SPOILER TERRITORY.

That’s what you need to focus on. You have to fill your promise to your readers. That matters more than filling the promise of the market. As long as you’re passionate about what you’re writing about, you’re going to be fine.

And who knows? You might end up making the next chunky pasta sauce.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Also, if you want to see my attempt at chunky pasta sauce, click here for a free book!

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