In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,
Writing does not exist in a vacuum. The savviest aspiring writers must have a serious understanding of their intended market, not just their craft.
Of course your craft is important as a writer.
For most of us, it’s what we pay most attention to, and for good reason. You’re never going to get anywhere if your writing sucks. If your writing doesn’t come together in the way it should. If your writing is mediocre to the extent that you can never find an agent or get any of your work published.
In the beginning, you absolutely should focus almost completely on the quality of your writing. Because it often takes a few manuscripts, a few years, to get really good at it. Nobody but the geniuses of the world write a perfect book the first time around. I’ve written twenty books in less than ten years, and I genuinely don’t feel like I started getting good at novel writing until book twelve or thirteen.
And this is something you should remember, too, before we discuss the importance of writing to the market: write whatever the hell you want to write. Write the story, the characters, that mean something to you. Often the best work comes from the heart, and not from some hidden agenda to write something in a popular genre that sells well. Don’t resist a story just because you think it doesn’t fit inside the perfect market or the perfect mold.
If you believe in something, go for it no matter what. Maybe it will fail in the long run. I’ve had plenty of novels I believed in fail in the past decade. But maybe if you take a huge chance you’ll have a payoff down the road like you could never believe!
So work on and study the craft of writing, keep practicing with different stories and different characters and different genres if you can, and always write the narratives that compel you the most.
At the same time though, at least eventually, you need to develop a serious understanding of the market you intend to sell your work in.
The word market of course is heavily linked to the word genre, so you might think of it a potential market as readers of adult romance books or readers of adult mystery books.
But market doesn’t always just mean genre. Children’s books, aka kidlit, is a market, not a genre, and going more specific, there’s a market in children’s books for picture book readers, chapter book readers, middle grade readers, and young adult readers.
Middle grade is not a genre, and young adult is not a genre. Middle grade and young adult are categories, audiences, markets.
I write for both middle grade and young adult markets. Although both markets rest in the world of kidlit, these two markets are extremely different. There are different rules, expectations, ages of readers. And the earlier I learned exactly what kinds of stories worked best for these markets, the more success I’ve had in the last few years as a novel writer.
So how do you develop a better understanding of your market?
There are lots of ways! And don’t feel like you need to understand everything right away. It might take a few years and lots of research and exploration to figure out your market to its full potential.
But here are five things you can do right now…
1. Read as many books as you can from your market.
This is the most obvious one of course. You should be doing this already. Part of the job of being a writer is being a reader too, and something you should always be doing is reading books, recent ones if possible, that are aimed at the market you’re currently writing for.
As a MG and YA writer, for example, I try to seek out the latest and greatest MG and YA books to read. Doing so is fun, first and foremost, but I also learn a little bit from every new MG and YA book I pick up. I learn more about voice, about pacing, about structure, particularly when it comes to books aimed at these two particular markets.
So no matter what market you’re writing for, pick up at least one new book a month written for that market and read it cover to cover to try to learn something new.
2. Study what literary agents represent books in that market.
I genuinely believe the earlier you start putting together a database of literary agents that sell books in your market the better. When I was doing revisions on my first novel back in the summer of 2010, I started a Word document of all the potential agents I could send the book to, and then over the course of seven years I kept adding to and refining that list, particularly when I moved on to strictly writing for the MG and YA markets.
As of 2017, right before I signed with my agent, I had two immense documents filled with information about literary agents, one document for MG agents and one document for YA agents. Each document was more than 30 pages long.
Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the world of literary agents, because they are your guides to potentially selling your book to editors. The more you learn about literary agents in your field, the better off you’ll be.
3. Research what kind of editors publish book in that market.
This list is a bit more difficult to put together than the list for literary agents, but a great resource you should take a look at if you haven’t already is querytracker.com. This site is where you can find everything you need to know about literary agents, as well as most editors, too! Many editors won’t look at a query for your novel if you don’t have an agent, but some editors will, and even the ones who don’t you should begin to learn about.
Yes, at the end of the day, your literary agent will do the hard work of finding what editors he or she should pitch your novel to, but it doesn’t hurt to at least have an understanding of the big and small publishers out there, and any editor who might be the perfect fit for your latest work-in-progress.
Something I love to do, and something you should do as well, is turn to recent books you love written in your market and read through the acknowledgements page at the back! Here you will often find the name of the author’s literary agent and editor and publishing house. You can learn so much about your intended market from an acknowledgments page, never forget that.
4. Look up what kinds of books are selling in your market through websites like Publisher’s Marketplace.
Another awesome resource for authors is Publisher’s Marketplace. You have to pay to join, but it’s well worth it. Here you can find what novels are selling and by whom and for how much in any market you choose. I love to see, for example, what’s currently selling in MG and YA.
You can keep developing your database if you want, not just for literary agents and editors but also of authors writing in your market. Track the different stages of their novels throughout the months. Study what that author is doing to get people interested in his or her novel. I love to see what people are doing and saying on Twitter in the weeks or months before their book’s release, for example.
All of this will help you in the long run, even if you might not get your book published for another five years or longer. The more you learn about the publishing industry, the more power you’ll have when you finally get your book deal!
5. Take note of ways writers find fresh new hooks and voices for books in your market.
Lastly, something Mary Kole talks about in her book is that you can’t just rely on cliches of books from your market that have sold well in the past. Remember that books coming out today were likely sold a year or longer ago. So what editors are buying and what agents are representing right now in 2019 probably is something vastly different!
So don’t ever feel pressured to write something that was popular this year or last year, it will get you nowhere. Even a book that sells today might have a concept that is cliche even just a year or two from now.
It’s a tricky balancing act, I know.
You need to know your market well enough so that you don’t spend a year or longer of your life writing a novel that for whatever reason just won’t ever find a place in that particular market. If you’re writing a YA novel, for example, don’t have the protagonist be twenty years old and have your second main character be thirteen. The ages of your characters might not seem important, but in YA the ages are especially important! Don’t shoot yourself in the foot like that. Learn your market. Learn what’s expected.
But at the same time don’t just write the same old story that’s sold well in years past. You might think you’re being smart by writing a story that has sold before and will likely sell again, but at the end of the day, you’ll be better served telling a story that you’re passionate about, that is unique in some way and offers a freshness to the market.
Just learn your market to the best of your ability, and keep writing. If you eventually understand your market well, and are writing one fantastic book after another, your time as a published author will come, I guarantee it!