Escaping market slavery

There are two schools of thought, residing at opposite ends of a spectrum, about how creative people approach the market with their works.  One side advocates writing (or filming, painting, programming) what makes you happiest, regardless of the market.  This often leads to quality work that may never find an audience.  The creator’s satisfaction coming solely from the work itself.

The other side advocates writing (or creating) what is popular, what people already like, or what the market already endorses.  This perspective may take advantage of an existing audience, but often the work is of inferior quality and doesn’t keep the audience engaged for long.  The creator may find an audience and get compensation , but the satisfaction may be either short-lived or hollow.

What then is a writer (or artist) to do?  Be true to one’s art and broke, or sell out and earn a few bucks?  Does it even matter?

Well let’s take an easy pot shot at Hollywood.  How many of us have observed that Hollywood seems to churn out more sequels than original movies?  How many of those original movies seem like movies we’ve seen before, just with different actors and settings?  How often have you left a movie with the same feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much theater popcorn:  a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

But then every so often a movie comes along that seems ahead of its time, is true to the vision of the director and writer and is a movie that you either watch again soon or talk about with everyone you know.

For me, Inception was that movie.  It was unlike any movie I’d ever seen and yet was so compelling, so watchable, so intricate, and so satisfying.  A satisfaction that still lingers.  A satisfaction that reminds me of a New York strip steak  from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  It was savory to consume and a pleasure to digest.  Just like the movie, Inception.

Movies like that and The Matrix, ten years ago, show that creative vision and execution can create a new market or tap into the existing market in a different way.  Let’s face it, a great movie grows through word of mouth, or buzz, much more than advertisements and TV commercials.

So, the lesson to be learned for creative people pursuing the art of their choice, is to understand the market well enough to mold your vision into a form that will satisfy both needs, self-actualization and a connection with an audience.

If you choose to write (or create) for your own interest, then it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else wants.  You will find joy in the creation and achievement or your artistic vision.  And you will likely get supportive comments from friends and family.  And that is a great way to go.

However, if you intend to sell your work in any form, then you will need to understand the audience enough so that your vision allows a connection of ideas.  This does not mean that you jump on the latest trend and become a copycat creator.  Those bandwagons are usually already full and by the time you complete and present your work, the trend may have passed and you will be left behind.

A better strategy is to look for gaps or lulls in the market and fill them with the best quality work you can produce.  Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight at a time when the teen vampire market was concentrated around Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television and Anne Rice had long since moved on to non-vampire writings.  There was a gap and she filled it with a compelling emotional story that became hugely popular in just a few short years.

There are many who claim that J.K. Rowling is a genius of audience analysis because her Harry Potter series is set predominantly against the backdrop of a school for wizards.  Her young audience is all in school, and so it is a setting they can relate to.  And older readers all remember their school days, so it brings back memories for them.  Add to that the wonder of a hidden world of magic and likable, three-dimensional characters and you have a recipe for success.

Now we all can’t strike proverbial market nirvana like Meyer or Rowling, but we can understand what has been produced over the past twenty years, attempt to forecast what the next ten years might look like and then seek to carve out our own market niche.

This means we avoid either extreme of the conventional schools of thought and blaze a new path, one that leads to a synthesis of our creative vision and the wants of our target audience.

For me, I pay attention to the fantasy genre.  I’ve read the classics and the not so classics.  I’ve read as many of the newer releases as I could and I’ve studied what makes them work.  By understanding what was come before, I can ensure I capture those universal elements in fantasy fiction that readers expect.  By tracking what is being released and is successful now, I can ascertain what new elements are attracting readers to the fantasy genre.  Also, I understand what I should avoid, so that my work does NOT appear too derivative or imitative.  Armed with this market knowledge, I am now writing my contribution to the field, hoping what I sow will give me something to reap in the near future.

While the adage “a writer writes” is true, that is not enough for a career in writing.  Perhaps I should revise that mantra to “a published writer writes to capture a share of the market”.

Does anyone out there have any success in escaping market slavery and becoming a master?

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4 responses to “Escaping market slavery

  • mramirez

    Personally I have a hobby of analyzing markets and studying market forces. Yes, I know, most people think that I need a better hobby, but economics explains so much.

    I think there’s a third section in the market that you didn’t capture: searching for economic opportunity.

    Most people tend to look at the market and look at what is successful and try to get a piece of that particular market’s pie. While that can certainly be viable, it ultimately is very difficult. By the time people realize there’s capital to be earned by copying what others are doing, the economic opportunities are usually near max. Any particular business attempting that line of approach will only fail over the long run.

    So look at the market and see if there’s something missing. Is there a specific twist on a genre that is missing? Sword and sorcery fantasy is a dime a dozen. Rowling was successful because her stories were sword and sorcery but they were situated in today’s world. Something that really hasn’t been seen. If there’s a void in the market, then an artist with some passion has the opportunity to reap some economic rewards provided that the final product is one of quality. This allows an entreprenuer to blaze their own path and create something meaningful for themself while maximizing their ability to make a profit in the end.

    And remember, something like Inception never would’ve been made had Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight failed to show the talents of Mr. Nolan.

    • MJT

      I completely agree. I was attempting to hint at your point, but your comments nailed it. That’s really the best path for those of us who don’t already have a share of the market.

  • butchie34

    The question I thinks almost goes hand in hand with what to do with the limit restrictions on new authors. Do you write your epic fantasy with a 300k wordcount and hope it’s brilliant enough for an agent and editor to pick it up to sell or do you carve huge swathes in the novel so that it comes in under 100k and all the additional intrigue which would’ve been in your novel gets cut out so you only present the main plot line.

    Of course, you could do what Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman did and that was to bring out books later which cover those storylines you removed.

    There’s also the Patrick Rothfuss approach which was to write his brilliant novel, get the agent and editor interested enough in the premise and the story and then split it into a trilogy.

    The correct way is of course to be true to yourself and write what you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it then what are the chances your readers are going to enjoy it.

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