Which Comes First, the Writing or the Market?

In school, my marketing professors taught that businesses would avoid a lot of errors if they would introduce new products only after studying the intended market for the product first. Too many products are created only to find that there isn’t a market for them — no one wants to purchase them.

Its kind of like the idea “start with the end in mind,” execpt you have to do research to figure out the end first.

Marketing experts agree that the proper way to create a product is to start with a market study. Which group of people would be interested in which features of a potential product and how much would they be willing to pay for that product. Knowing this, the producer can decide whether or not the product is worth the effort. Or, just as importantly, what features or benefits the product should have to distinguish it from other products competing for the same customers. Once the study is complete, then, they argue, the product can be designed to meet what the market wants.

So, is this the way that a writer should plan out the books he writes?

Well, yes and no. As with most things, its more complicated than this makes it seem.

Marketing people have some unstated assumptions about product development, which don’t apply in every case. In the case of books, the difficulty is the assumption that each individual product (book) will earn enough money to justify spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, or the equivalent effort, to figure out the market. Unfortunately the vast majority of books don’t earn enough money to justify that kind of spending. Because of this, publishers traditionally make their money by publishing dozens of new books each year.

In the world of books, market research might tell the author and publisher a number of important things. It can, if you choose to spend the money and time, tell you the number of copies similar books sold or even about how large the market might be for a book or a subject. But in terms of product development (i.e., planning out a book), market research might also tell the author or publisher whether or not a book has a potential market, what features or even plot elements in a text might help sales or attract reader interest, or just what will make the book easier to read.

This kind of research is very different from the research authors often do to improve the content of what they write, such as research into what kind of clothing was worn during a particular time period or in a particular country or by those of a particular socioeconomic level; or research into what kind of dialogue should be used or any of a wealth of issues of verisimilitude. Market research, while it can be similar, is all about sales, and about how a product is different from competing products in features or benefits that the consumer values.

For the LDS author, as well as for other authors who are affiliated with a particular niche, marketing research can be vital in deciding which market to pursue. Should you, the author, write for the national market? or for the LDS market? or should you try for both? Which of these markets is most realistic for your writing style and values? Which genre or subject should you write in, given your interests and talents? Knowledge of the relevant markets and market research in the relevant genres or subjects helps make the decision in the context of knowledge of yourself (as the author) and your writing style.

[Along these lines, I must mention that I frequently hear complaints from LDS authors about how national markets or genres are inhospitable to their writing because they want to keep up LDS standards. Another way to look at this is to realize that the author hasn’t done the market research to understand these markets and genres and how to approach them with LDS standards. Of course there are genres that don’t keep LDS standards. Don’t approach them if your writing won’t work there.]

This kind of research before you start production (i.e., writing) can not only be expensive, but might be counterproductive, depending on how it is used. Most authors and other creative people I’ve worked with are not very interested in being constrained by “research,” or much else either. Inspiration often comes to a writer without regard for any intended market. I know that when I’m writing creatively (don’t ask, I don’t do it much), I don’t really want others telling me what to write, at least not early in the process. And, in some cases, the inspiration that the writer receives may put the work in a completely different and unintented genre or market. [Of course, that is probably the point at which the author needs market research the most!]

Even if you are willing to pay for and accept the results of market research, I’m not sure that the information will help in many cases. Perhaps it will work for non-fiction works, where the presentation isn’t always as crucial and personal as it is with fiction. Non-fiction writers can cover additional aspects of the topic or perhaps modify their presentation as a result of the market research.

But what exactly will the information tell a fiction author to do? Increase the number of words per sentence, or sentence length variability? Or perhaps change your use of adjectives? I don’t know any author that can consciously change these very easily, or who would be willing to do so. Or maybe research like this will direct an author to include certain features or elements–have the main character fall in love, or some other plot element that the audience for the book will like. Again, I have my doubts about how many authors write flexibly enough to do this.

How useful this kind of market research is may also depend on what level of the work the research affects. Some information might suggest changes in the details of the work, while other information might suggest that the author rethink major portions of the work. Where an author might not like his vision being compromised by major changes, smaller details may not be so important to the author, and be more acceptable.

At least in the case of the best written fiction books, using marketing research like this seems unlikely to be successful, in my opinion. Despite, and in addition to what the audience might think it wants, the audience wants unpredictability in fiction. It wants to be surprised somehow, perhaps not about all elements, and certainly not about every element, but enough to keep the work interesting. In this sense, catering to what the audience thinks it wants (if that can even be determined), can actually make the work worse.

So does this mean that the idea of researching the market before writing is completely wrong? No, quite the opposite. Marketing research can still be useful in most cases.

Many books can use more research before they are written. Most non-fiction subject areas clearly need an author that knows the subject area, and knows the audience where it can be sold, and if the author doesn’t know those things, research is the way to find out. A non-fiction author may research the market and discover that other books on his subject cover an aspect or detail of his subject that he didn’t cover. Including that detail may make his work better. Researching the market well can also give the non-fiction author a rough idea of the structure of the market for the subject–what topics and sub-topics exist within the subject, how many books have been published on the subject, what approaches to the subject have been used and how successful they have been, and what approaches have been taken in other, similar subjects that haven’t been taken in the author’s subject.

Even some fiction can benefit from research. Genre fiction, for example, is dependent on standard plot and structure elements, and probably other elements as well, so authors musts be very conversant with the genre they write in. Like the market for each non-fiction subject, the market for a genre has its own structure–sub-genres and different approaches that have been tried, along with other approaches that haven’t been tried.

In reality, authors more or less unconsciously already do quite a bit of market research. They see that Stephenie Meyer has been successful in the market, note her approaches and plot elements, read reviews of her work to discover what attracted the reviewer (and presumably many other readers) to the work, and maybe even read Meyers’ books themselves. All this information helps an author make decisions about what to write, how to write it, and where it should be published.

The issue here really has to do with how you write, how you might use market research and what you expect from it. What kind of writer are you? Do you need a lot of structure to write? Do you outline or plan your work carefully? then market research might should be more important and useful for you than otherwise. If, on the other hand, you write when you are inspired, you can’t work outside ideas into your writing easily or you frequently deviate from what you may have planned, research about the market for a book before you start writing is less valuable.

But, I’ll bet you’re doing some “market resarch” informally, without realizing it.

I know I said that market research might be expensive. It is expensive in the way that marketing professionals imagine it. But the expense an author has depends on who the author is, how the author writes and how the author uses the research he gets. If you are careful and are willing to put in time, market research can be virtually free, if somewhat time consuming. Visiting libraries and bookstores to see what books have been published in a genre or subject, keeping track of those books, how often they are printed, where they are sold and the differences between these books can give you most of the market research you are likely to need, and often information that no one else has compiled or even realized could be useful.

How does the average, not-independently-wealthy author do this? Well, I’m afraid that is material that might make up a book or books by itself–or at least a separate post. It is clearly more than I can cover here.

But I will say that marketing research isn’t as much about some magic formula or key variables to track as it is about knowing the questions to ask and knowing enough about book distribution and sales and how they function today to figure out how to find the answers.

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One thought on “Which Comes First, the Writing or the Market?”

  1. Good thoughts, Kent.

    I agree with you that the standard marketing research model probably isn’t that effective for writing, in particular creative writing, partly for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned.

    I also agree that it’s critical to know the characteristics of your intended and/or possible audiences when writing, though like you I’m skeptical of the possibility of “writing to order.”

    Several points you didn’t mention:
    * Market research for a writer consists not just in knowing what’s been written in your field, but (at least as critical) who the publishers are that might publish your work, and how open they might be to your manuscript. This is important when it comes time to submit your manuscript, and may even be important while you’re writing.

    * One of the points where research can be most useful is in helping you decide which of several projects (writing or otherwise) might deserve your time and attention. This isn’t so much the case if you have one story that you’re deeply attached to writing, but if you have a lot of different ideas and not enough time to pursue them all, then market research might help to tell you where to invest your time and energy.

    * Having people read and respond to what you’ve written (or are in the process of writing) can be a valuable kind of market research, particularly if those readers are members of your target audience. We often think of the value of reviewers as being the critiques they give–the suggestions for improvement. In my own case, though, I’m finding that figuring out what appeals and doesn’t appeal to different readers is at least as valuable.

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