Hell With What Sells

Writing is a craft.

Storytelling is an art.

And publishing is a business.

And so it behooves us, as trembling little ink-fingered word-slingers, to know the business before we tangle with the business. You gotta at least go to the rodeo before you try the rodeo, right? Unless you fancy proctological exams via bucking bull. (And maybe you do; I won’t judge.)

You’ve got to know how it works before you try to work it, and this is true in publishing, too — whether you’re splashing around in the traditional publishing pool or taking a long swim down the indie-publishing river. You’ve gotta know the process. How a book moves from one stage to another. How much control you want — and how much you’ll have. It pays to be smart and knowledgable so you don’t go in and whack your head on the lowest hanging beam and knock yourself out and piss your britches before you even get a book into people’s hands.

But here’s where we start to get it twisted.

We start seeing writing and storytelling as the business. As if all we’re doing is creating a product — a three-pronged story-widget with dual-adjustible elbow pads. An item of carefully massaged content designed to fill a need: supply and demand, by golly! People got rats, we give ’em a rat-whacker. People need cheap food and ungainly diarrhea, we give ’em Taco Bell. People need porn and animated cat GIFs, we give ’em the entire Internet.

It makes sense to fulfill the needs of the audience.

And we can and should comfortably assume that the audience wants some mixture of entertainment and enlightenment — translated, it means they want to read stories. The audience has always wanted to absorb stories, always wanted to braid them into their social, intellectual and emotional tapestries. Stories will always have a place to plug into when it comes to the human mind. Because, trust me on this one, stories make the world go around.

But that’s where our assumptions of supply and demand have to end — but sometimes don’t.

Let’s rewind a bit.

As I’m wont to say: “I get emails.”

And not just Target ads, phishing scams, or weird porn advertisements, either. I get actual emails from what I must assume are actual readers of this site and/or my books and they ask me for advice about writing. One of the more common emails asks some version of this question:

“What sells?”

My first initial answer to this is an admittedly snarky, utterly reductive: “Stories sell.”

And despite its Snark Factor of 7 and its utterly simplistic nature, the answer is pretty much as far as I’m willing to take it. Because I surely don’t know what sells. I mean, do you? Fuck, does anybody? Reskinned Downton Abbey fan-fic? BDSM space opera? Murder mysteries solved by imperious hedgehogs? Erotic Guy Fieri autobiographies? (I just threw up a little.) I have no fucking idea. I can take a look at the bestselling books same as you can — and at any given time I might see epic fantasy or a powerful crime novel or some Twilight knock-off or some thriller by some legacy thriller writer who has been secretly dead for 15 years and his books are now written by a machine intelligence built from his 700 other books. And none of those things are emblematic of anything. They’re outliers by the very definition of the term. They’re the narrow end of the wedge, the thinnest sliver of earth on the far side of Bell Curve Mountain.

Publishers think they know what sells. And they’re probably better at it than I am, but just the same, I can’t help but imagining editors and sales executives sitting in a darkened office somewhere in the Flatiron District, sorting through pigeon guts and hastily shaking a Magic 8-Ball and huffing vapors from the cleaning lady’s cleaning bucket trying to mystically discern just what the hell the audience will want to read next — The Next Big Book Trend that will set All Of Publishing Aflame. A series that will keep B&N buoyant! That will keep publishers solvent!

They might think they know.

But they don’t really know.

We don’t have an easy metric. No occult equation, no secret publishing algorithm.

Because stories aren’t products. Stories aren’t neatly-digestible cubes of content.

Your novel isn’t Tab A designed to neatly slide into the eager and obvious Slot B.

Stories are broken mirrors. They’re fractal displays and unkempt jungles. They’re a sunset made beautiful by an unpredictable confluence of clouds and chemicals and the unknown and forever unexplored context of those who will behold just such a sunset.

My response after the snarkgasmic “Stories sell” is inevitably, “Fuck what sells.”

First, because as noted, nobody knows anyway.

Second, because — is that what you want to write? Is that the only reason you’re writing? When you first started making up stories — probably at a young age — did you sit there as an eight-year-old trying to figure out who would buy your Avengers/My Little Pony mashup comic book or did you just tell that story because telling stories is fucking awesome? You did it because that story spoke to you. Because it leapt out of your brain and body like a goddamn xenomorph chestburster — a gory splurch and there’s the tale, running around giddy and bloody.

When you look back on all the stories that moved you through your life — whether we’re talking Infinite Jest or Die Hard or Batman: A Killing Joke or The Handmaid’s Tale — do you think that those were created by their storytellers as products? That they were articulated as carefully-crafted widgets whose only goal was to rake in beaucoup bucks? Were they crass expressions of creative capitalism written by brands instead of people? Or were they the stories that those storytellers wanted to tell? Had to tell? Loved telling?

Listen, I wrote a lot of crap before I managed to get to Blackbirds — and a lot of the crap I wrote was me running hurdles over what I thought would actually get me on bookshelves. I thought, “I’ll write anything at all as long as it gets me published.” And it was me trying to headbutt square pegs into circle holes. I worked myself dizzy leaping hastily through a world of finished and unfinished novels I didn’t actually like. They weren’t me. They weren’t anything I really wanted to read. They were a collective artifice created based on what I imagined were the trends — what I believed publishers wanted to buy and what bookstores could sell. Never mind the fact that by the time you pinpoint a trend it’s already too late (months to write the book, months to edit, months to publish, and by the time those add up to the year or more it’s gonna take to get it out there, the trend has slipped its leash and darted through the closing door).

The bigger question is, who gives a fuck?

I certainly didn’t.

I was totally forcing it.

It’s an almost Fight Clubby realization — Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go. It’s, And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. And it’s It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.

This isn’t about not paying attention to publishing. Or about completely averting your gaze from the market. It’s about not appeasing the market above your own interests.

It’s about finding that crucial middle ground in the Venn diagram between the circles of what you want to write and what people want to read.

The goal is to write a book whose infectiousness — whose saleability — exists because you put yourself and your love of the story into it, not in spite of it.

It’s not about asking “What will sell?”

It’s about asking, “What do I want to write? What do I love? What do I want to read?” It’s about creating stories and art that are products of wonder and madness instead of creating products that have no wonder or madness at all.

It’s about listening to your own voice before the voice of the marketplace.

The business part will come.

For now:

Craft your writing.

Art the fuck out of your stories.

And hell with what sells.

55 responses to “Hell With What Sells”

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. I love the image of editors sifting through pigeon guts and shaking a magic 8 ball to figure out THE NEXT BIG TREND. It’s what I do to come up with my story ideas. I’m totally going to do a My Little Pony/Avengers mash-up. Thanks.

  2. I agree, most-heartedly, but I think the “hell with what sells” mentality is easier to embrace once you’re somewhat established. Lots of first-time novelists have very well-written stories but are unable to find agents and publishers because of things like vague genre or the agents/publishers are not sure how to sell it.

      • Me too. Thanks Chuck! I feel like Willow getting advice from the High Aldwin. The power is in your own finger, not the pointing fingers of others. I’m sure that sounds rude, but it’s not meant to be.

        • And the “Willow” reference for the WIN! Every aspiring ink-slinger (uh, I mean “writer”, not “tattoo-artist” in this context) needs to remember that we need to produce an engaging story long before we even think about turning it into a commodity. I mean, for crying out loud, the baby hasn’t even been born; don’t pick out wedding dresses just yet. (Or hot-pants and fuck-me pumps, as the case may be.)
          The best strategy is to turn Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of sci-fi is crap”) to your advantage. If you write ten stories, then at least one of ’em will be decent. Grind out a hundred stories, then the odds are good that ten, give or take, will be publishable. And it goes up from there. Writing is a constant learning curve, fellow ink-slingers, so loosen up those writing digits of yours and get going.
          Oh, and as our Fearless Leader has likely said repeatedly: what’s going to get you through the long dark night of not getting published is not you dreams of how you’ll spend your oodles of cash from your first major sale, nor the swarms of groupies fighting for a piece of your… *attention*. You need fear (of what life would be like if you DON’T get this story written) and love (for your story).
          Best of luck, everyone.

  3. Okay, let me first say this was an awesome post. As far as ‘hell with what sells’ is unfortunately the only way to go for all the reasons listed above. Not because writing isn’t a business, or to much an art to mess with it. Its just impossible to predict, as Wendig so skillfully pointed it out. Most of the most successful books were thought to be worthless, dubs before someone published them. Writing is a dice roll, and you can’t count on a 20 if your life depended on it. All you can do it keep rolling.

  4. This is probably the most inspirational advice (other than FINISH YOUR SHIT) anyone can give any writer. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of staring at the bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble until your eyes bleed and your heart cries. I’ve done it before, and I think everyone’s done it before. Breaking free of that was the trickiest thing in the world for me. Am I writing anything saleable? Who knows? I sure don’t. But I’m writing things I’m proud of, and that’s all that matters in the end. Thanks for expressing that better than I could, Chuck.

  5. It’s good to remember this stuff. To write for yourself and for the joy of it. I recently learned two facts from watching a Poirot DVD: 1) Agatha Christie was turned down by 6 publishers before her first book sold. 2) She has now sold billions of books, and is outsold only by William Shakespeare and the Bible.

    Which means there are six publishers somewhere who are seriously regretting rejecting her manuscript. But obviously, they did so because they thought it wouldn’t sell. And obviously they were VERY wrong. And granted maybe some of Agatha Christie’s popularity is due to her prolific writing habits, but I’d like to focus on the fact that six publishers had no idea how big she was going to be.

    • Reminds me of hearing how the Beatles were turned down before finally landing a deal to produce their albums: some record label gatekeepers somewhere doubtless got the biggest wakeup call of their lives about how incredibly poor they were at their job of predicting sales and potential popularity when they passed on the Beatles, who then hit the marketplace (via some other label) and became… well, somewhat popular…
      Point being, just because your writing may get rejected (even again and again) doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, or worth being pursued. It may just mean that it wasn’t right for that publisher (hell, that person) at that moment in time. Someone else somewhere else may finally accept it, but only if you keep writing more stuff and keep putting it in front of publishers’ eyeballs.

  6. So totally needed to read this today, after yesterday being rung up by top London agent and told my novel, though compelling, would never find a home because it doesn’t follow the conventional crime genre rules. And being told to scrap the whole thing and rewrite using the MC in a series – a pretty tall order given she’s not a police woman or pathologist or anything. Cue a miserable evening wondering whether to write what I really want to write – and read – or learn how to write ‘proper genre fiction’, as the agent put it.

    Thank you for reminding me that the gatekeepers might not know everything.

    • I don’t get why any publisher would tell you something like that. What doesn’t work for one may work perfectly for another. Sure, making your story fit into conventional forms would make it more appealing to some publishers, because then they know what they’re dealing with and could market it accordingly. But just because your story doesn’t fit cleanly into one of their die cutters doesn’t mean that it’ll never get sold. If filmmakers ever listened to that kind of advice, we wouldn’t have some goddamn great movies.
      Rejections don’t definitively mean your work isn’t good, just that it isn’t good for them. For any one of them to tell you it thus isn’t going to hit with anyone else is self-aggrandizing horseshit.
      Keep doing what you do best, and keep getting it to publishers.

  7. I think out of all the writing blogs that I read yours is one of the few worth visiting. Right up there with my pit stops on the blog doorsteps of Jane Friedman, Konrath, and Dean Wesley Smith. From those other blogs I learn but from yours I become inspired or stand corrected. So thanks for providing a blog that doesn’t cosign my writing bullshit. Because sometimes that’s just what I need and I imagine a lot of your other readers do as well.

  8. Quote/It’s an almost Fight Clubby realization – Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go. It’s, And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. And it’s It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything./end quote

    Brilliantly perspicacious. Love it. You are the man. Enough said, or do I need to say more?

  9. One potential caveat here is that it can get pretty fucking depressing trying to keep doing what you love if no one wants to buy it. That said, I probably haven’t been trying long enough to be there yet.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I came to this conclusion just this week. As a nonfiction writer I read all the advice about keyword searches so that I could craft my writing into what people were looking for. I finally realized: that’s not me. First of all, I’ve listened to people for a living for most of my adult life (as a therapist.) Secondly, the writing that people respond to most has been the writing that comes from my heart. Keep writing and keep preaching the truth!

  11. Crossing media here, but this makes me reflect on American television. It’s the talented pioneers that push the boundaries, making the networks and advertisers see new possibilities. David Lynch somehow gets Twin Peaks on the air, and this begat Northern Exposure, which begat the X Files, which had many children, including Buffy and probably LOST. None of these shows are the same. “Weird small town” doesn’t make it a hit, paranormal doesn’t make it a hit. The talented writers, directors and performers make the magic happen when the show is allowed by networks to be smart, beautiful and weird (see Seth Godin on this topic) The hard part is carving out that space in the first place and being able to craft a good story.

    Has there ever been a time when the borders between “fiction” and “genre” have been more permeable? As I ride the train in the morning, I’m surrounded by people in suits reading about wizards, vampires and guys with swords (Thankfully 50 Shades seems to be waning. That was embarrassing) Something’s happening here…

  12. Superb, insightful, and ‘inciteful’. Thank you for posting a well-crafted, no-nonsense blog that, it seems, resonates for a lot of readers-and writers. I’m glad I stopped by your site today, Mr. Wendig. You take away precious time from your own writings to allow others to learn from you. We appreciate your largesse.

    Take care,

  13. I see I’m not alone in my gratitude, Chuck. Yours is the only blog I read regularly. The ONLY one. Thank you for hitting a chord with so many of us.

    I have somewhat figured out what sells (with caveats), when, and why. Also, how to predict it. But I don’t want to write it–can’t gut it. I’d have to be 80 percent marketer and 20 percent writer to stay on top of it. Personally, I want to go deeper into the craft, keep exploring facets of existence, relate those to others, and if it happens to coincide with what sells in that particular moment, great. If not, I’m just happy being true to myself.

  14. I tried to figure it out and write what I thought an agent might want to see, but you can’t do it. I’ve read a lot of stuff from agents, and it boils down to a good story with compelling characters. That’s it.

    I’m reading “Blackbirds” and it’s patently clear that you weren’t writing for some market,or to please some trend. Good work.

  15. This can even translate into other forms of creating. I have certain people in my life, very creative musicians and artists, who spend so much time lamenting “but what if what I like isn’t what my audience likes” and it’s like I want to shake them and say “YOU DON’T HAVE AN AUDIENCE IF YOU NEVER TRY!” Just put something OUT THERE and THEN see if it sucks.

  16. I love your blog, but this post is the best. If you don’t write for yourself, who the hell are you writing for? I’ve been writing for 30 years, 99% rejected. First I was mad, then sad, then I accepted that the world was not waiting breathlessly for my prose. I asked me what I wanted. Me answered, “to write.” So I do. I write what I want to read and I love doing it. I self-publish. Not many people buy my books. But I have the freedom to say what I want to say the way I want to say it. If the world does not wish to notice, its loss.

  17. Apart from making we want to cry, “Block that metaphor,” I agree. The problem with your advice for is that though I don’t (thank heaven) have to make a living writing, that I’ve been at it for nigh onto 50 years, have even taught it, I still have that nagging irrepressible gremlin making me want someone else to read it! Could you address that problem? If anyone can find a comforting notion, I bet it’s you!

  18. Great article, moving, motivating, also how it should be… but also not exactly reality (I assume). Sadly there are tons of knock-offs just made because someone knew this would sell, be it the author or whoever. Like walk into a book store, to the phantasy shelf… since the second Twilight movie, half of this friggin’ shelf is populated by cheap vampire shit. Just an example. The flood of bad & shitty criminal stories, etc. – I cannot and don’t want to believe the majority of them was written out of love for the story.

    The article also reminded me of a quote from Alan Moore:
    “Writers and people who had command of words were respected and feared as people who manipulated magic. In latter times I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river. They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being; that can change a society. They are seen as simple entertainment; things with which we can fill 20 minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die.”

    Not that I would wish for all just entertaining books to vanish, but as Chuck says, too: ideally, there should be something on top of the entertainment factor, something you may keep in your heart (for later use?!?) or something that makes you think etc.

  19. Yeah baby!

    Nope, still can’t pull that off.

    I agree.

    I take time out to write something I’m dying to write once a year, or so. None of it ever sells, but I’m gonna keep right on doing it, because that stuff’s gold… That stuff that’s too literary, too out of left field, too difficult, too demanding, too… well… too you name it is just too damned satisfying for me to leave it in my ideas books and in my head, and when that shit finally hits the shelves… Well… Watch this space!

    In the meantime, I’ll continue writing for a living, because that’s not bad work, either, when you can get it.

  20. I’m finally getting (trumpet fanfare) Officially Published, and my actual writing has hit a brick wall. Reading this feels like a mental B-12 shot. I will bookmark this post and save it for future rainy days.

  21. Love this post! I think all the authors who have sold a gazillion books and *started* the trends, well, they did just this. They wrote what they wanted to read, and lo, other people wanted to read it, too.

    Does that mean other people will want to read what I’m writing? Maybe… maybe not. But if I’m enjoying writing, that’s half the fun right there. If it eventually sells, that’ll be awesome, too, but I don’t care about that right now. Can’t care about that right now, because that makes me over think character choices – ‘what will the masses think ‘, and at this stage, who the hell cares??

    Right now I’m enjoying the ride of telling the story and that is all that matters.

  22. When I wrote my book, I did just that – didn’t target or trend, just wrote a book that was meaningful to me. And though I haven’t started selling yet, I have always believed it was a great story, and that’s what I’m telling people. who doesn’t love a great story?

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