Conventional wisdom has it that there’s no point to writing to the market, because it’s a tough, moving-target market—and by the time you write and sell and publish what’s hot now, it’ll be stone cold by the time your book comes out.

That’s only so true. Too many writers take that advice as carte blanche to write whatever they want, whenever they want, with no regard to the market at all.

That would be a mistake.

If you write something completely new, something that doesn’t acknowledge the realities of genre or marketplace, then no one will buy it because no one will know how to sell it. On the other hand, if you write something everyone else has already done, then you’re just another copycat.

Copycat publishing

Every time a book breaks out in a big way—Gone Girl, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games—readers clamor for more books just like the one they just fell in love with. But Gillian Flynn and J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins can write only so fast, so there’s a gap between the readers’ demand and market supply.

Publishers rush in to fill the void, debuting lots of similar stories. This is called copycat publishing. Many of these copycats do very well…until they don’t. That is, until the readers’ appetite for stories about twisted marriages and kids at wizard schools and rebels in dystopian societies is sated. This can take a surprisingly long time. Meanwhile, lots of publishers and authors have jumped on the bandwagon and may have benefited greatly from it. As have readers.

But then it’s over. If you’re lucky, you rode the wave. If you’re not, you’re stuck on the beach with a warehouse full of books you can’t sell.

That’s why copycat publishing is so risky. You’re gambling that readers will still be clamoring for the kind of book they’re clamoring for right now two, three, four years from now.

If there’s a bandwagon

writing to the market

Paula Munier and Lee Child

As the brilliant and benevolent Lee Child says, “If there’s a bandwagon, don’t jump on it.” (I know, I know, another Lee Child quote, but c’mon guys, he is Lee Child.)

When Lee first wrote his iconic hero Jack Reacher, he deliberately wrote the character against type. But not too much. He made Reacher just as brave and strong and smart as the reigning iconic hero Spenser (and all the Spenser clones) created by the magnificent Robert B. Parker. But Lee made Jack Reacher very different—no home, no ties, no possessions.

At first glance, Reacher is the anti-Spenser. But not really: He’s the same, but different. (Which is partly why readers love them both so much.)

The same, but different

What all publishers are looking for is just what Lee gave them: the same, but different. Just like insert bestselling book in your genre here, only different. Just like Spenser, only different.

Enter Jack Reacher.

If you’re trying to break into print, or break out of midlist, ask yourself how you can do what Lee Child did.

How can you write something that’s the same as all of the other bestselling stories in your genre, but different enough to distinguish itself from those bestselling stories?

This is your challenge. But meeting the challenge amortizes your risk of playing copycat and boosts the odds of your succeeding in the tough, moving-target market of book publishing.

That’s writing to the market the smart way.


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