Did you ever see that episode of the Simpsons where Lisa wants to be an author but struggles, while Homer and Bart successfully write a commercial series with a team of friends? It was called The Book Job and although when it came out I was eleven and didn’t really have a proper idea about what I wanted to do with my writing (at the time my WIP was basically a dream journal corralled into some form of continuity) I believe the message of the episode left a deep impression on me.
The episode was a satire of the publishing industry and made fun of all aspiring authors, especially those who write for ‘art’ rather than ‘money.’ Lisa feels deeply disillusioned with the whole writing process, finding it difficult to write something that is both true to her heart and original. Meanwhile, Homer and Bart’s endeavour is incredibly successful and they have a lot of fun creating the book. However, although Homer and co. are originally writing purely for money, they still develop a feeling of artistic integrity and in fact stage an attempt to prevent the publication of their book once they discover the publishers have changed major elements. What I took away from the admittedly farcical episode was that it’s no bad thing to write something intentionally commercial. You can still write something with the intent to sell it and make money while still giving your creative soul the outlet it needs.
As writers, we’re often told to write whatever we feel like. A lot of people are proud to say they write with no regard for market or fear the publishing industry because of what it might do to their darlings. Writing something because you think it would be popular or contains bestselling elements is seen as completely against the point of the noble craft, akin to selling your soul. Writers aren’t immune to the cries of ‘sell-out’ that plague many bands. We’re all familiar with the romanticised image of the impoverished author, writing only what they want with no regard for sales. There’s something enticing about putting your creative whimsy first in life and it’s easy to see that as the brave choice of the most dedicated writer. Surely that’s what all the real writers do?
Sorry, but it’s not. You want to be a full-time author? Then no matter if you go self-published or traditional, you still need to write what sells. It’s all very well enjoying yourself with experimental writings you think are ahead of your time, but if nobody else wants to read them they’re not going to put food on your table. So you need to write what people want to read. You need to write something a publisher can guess they’ll make a profit on. You need to write something that’ll make people take a risk with their money on the unknown. In what some may see as a dirty word, you need to write commercially.
Writing because you love the art is fine. As a hobby that is. As soon as you make writing your whole life, it becomes a business. Like it or not, the world revolves around what makes money because it’s money that allows us to get what we need to live. That, unfortunately, extends to writing. So if you want to write whatever, go for it. Just accept that it won’t be your life.
However, if your soul cries out to be allowed to write as often as it likes, if you can’t face one more day at the office, then accept your passion is also a business and write what will sell. ‘Sell your soul’, because it’s the only way short of winning the lottery that you can save it by allowing it the creative outlet you need.
This might sound a bit dire to some of you. A choice between writing only in snatched moments and a life of writing stuff purely for the market. It’s not like that though.
Let me remind you of something. What sells are good stories. It’s not the gimmicks of setting and paranormal species or whatever topical issue is currently big. It’s good old-fashioned new and exciting stories. Which is probably what you’re working on now. Write what you love and others will love it too. Just make sure you do everything in your power to make it good. Learn what you can about what’s popular because it’s popular for a reason. Take on board advice from people who know more than you. Find out where your book fits into the market and how to present it. Writing commercially doesn’t mean sacrificing your passion. It means doing what you can to let it live.