The phrase “write to market” is one that aspiring authors hear frequently. But what exactly does it mean? And how important is it? Can you become a bestselling author if you don’t write to market?
In my experience, I typically hear this phrase used in one of two ways. Here’s my take on what “write to market” means and how important it is to success.
1. Copy the Plot Formula of Bestsellers
Spoiler: I’m not a fan of this method. However, it’s one that’s prevalent (and successful) for many writers.
When some people recommend “writing to market,” they’re suggesting that you should study the plotlines of bestsellers in your selected genre and basically employ a copy/paste strategy with slightly different characters and settings. When I attended a writing conference several years ago, this is the method that one of the keynote speakers used to build a highly profitable career over several decades.
You’ve no doubt seen this yourself. My go-to example is the Hallmark structure. Fans keep going back for more stories even though they all generally follow the exact same formula. If you’ve seen one Hallmark movie, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
And yet, this method is profitable for Hallmark. The audience wants predictability. It’s comfortable and creates nostalgia. Hallmark understands their viewers and what they want, and that’s exactly what they deliver.
To an extent, all stories follow a formula. There are seven basic plots that have been told and retold throughout human history. From Now Novel:
According to Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (2004), the seven main types of story are:
- Overcoming the Monster. This is a story of a ‘terrifying, life-threatening, seemingly all-powerful monster who the hero must confront in a fight to the death’ (p. 22).
- Rags to Riches: A story of a ‘humble, disregarded little hero or heroine who is lifted out of the shadows to a glorious destiny’ (p. 53).
- The Quest: A story in which ‘a hero and his [or her/their] companions go through a succession of terrible, often near-fatal ordeals’. Often they receive ‘guidance from friendly helpers’ (p. 73).
- Voyage and Return: A story where an individual or group travels ‘out of their familiar, everyday, ‘normal’ surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first’ (p. 87).
- Comedy: Stories that (historically) revolved around confusions such as mistaken identities and precarious situations played for laughs, often involving a main character ‘who against all odds finally achieves the happy ending’ (p. 134).
- Tragedy: Stories that typically feature a protagonist ‘becoming more and more ensnared in their predicament’ (p. 176), often an ‘incomplete, egocentric figure who meets a lonely and violent end’ (p. 180) due to making the wrong choices.
- Rebirth: A story that ‘marks the move from one universal pole of existence to the other, from death to life’ (p. 205) in showing how a character moves from an imprisoned or trapped state to freedom and renewal.
I would, however, argue that there’s a difference between being categorized in a well-known archetype versus copying the exact plot of a bestseller and swapping some details out to remarket it as a new story. To me, that’s unoriginal, and I’m not a fan of that method.
BUT, I will admit that it works for authors whose primary goal is to sell lots of books, make money, and land on bestseller lists. This version of “write to market” prioritizes tried-and-true formulas that audiences like to binge over original stories that break the mold and take readers to new places. Creativity takes time. If writing books is your business, and your primary goal is to produce rapid-release bestsellers with minimal effort, then it’s hard to go wrong with a formulaic approach.
The risk with this method is pushing your audience into a rut of boredom. Some readers like to lose themselves in Hallmarkesque stories where they don’t get overloaded with worldbuilding details or a complex cast of characters to keep track of. To them, the predictability is relaxing.
Other readers, like me, get bored reading the same plot over and over again with slight tweaks here and there. I want to be surprised! I want to explore new worlds and fall in love with new characters that have unique quirks and goals and faults.
This first example was my initial perception of the “write to market” advice I kept hearing in writing groups. The message was basically: “If you want to make money writing books, you need to copy overdone formulas because that’s what sells.”
I balked at that idea. I hated it. How boring, I thought, just churning out different variations of stories other people have already written. If I wanted a dull, tedious job, then I could go back to working a 9-5 office job. It would pay better and be much less work.
If that was what it took to become a successful author, then I accepted that I would never achieve that status.
2. Identify Your Audience and Target That Niche
As I ventured into freelance writing and affiliate marketing, I started to learn more about search engine optimization (SEO), keyword research, and audience demographics. I came to realize that “write to market” didn’t necessarily mean that an author had to rely on the copy-and-paste formula I discussed above.
Writing to market more accurately translated to “target a specific niche and write what that audience wants to read.” That COULD be a generic bestseller formula, but it didn’t necessarily have to be.
Does it make sense to identify and target a particular audience for marketing purposes? Absolutely.
Did I follow this advice when I published my award-winning sci-fan series?
Should I have?
Probably. It would have made my life easier, because marketing my books is still something that I struggle to do.
But, again, I still recoiled from the idea of writing anything other than the story that had filled my head and completely consumed my thoughts. Don’t get me wrong — I love my growing fan base! But really, I’m just extremely fortunate that they happened to fall in love with the story I wrote. I didn’t think of my potential readers when I started writing, which meant that I had to figure out who my audience was after I had published the first book.
As far as strategy goes, that wasn’t well planned. I also didn’t write a story that fit into a neat box so I could say, “If you like this book, you’ll love my book.” I blended multiple genres in my series.
On the one hand, that enabled me to cross-market with different audiences. But on the other, it made it difficult to categorize and pitch my book to potential readers.
Here’s my two cents to conclude this article:
- I personally don’t like the idea of copying the same formula over and over and over again. But I acknowledge that it does work for authors who choose to implement that strategy for rapid-release bestsellers if that’s what their audience wants. This method is more about business than passion.
- If you hope to become a bestselling author someday, there’s immense value to understanding your target readers and writing with them in mind.
- Although I recognize the value of writing to market (whichever method you use), I also believe that writers ultimately need to write the story THEY need to tell. We put pieces of ourselves in the pages. I know in my case, I can weave together pretty words, but something is missing if I’m writing for somebody else and not myself. I’m insanely lucky that readers connected with my passion project and came to love my characters almost as much as I do.
So, what are your thoughts on writing to market? Do you find it easy to identify your target audience and write the stories they want to read? Or do you primarily write for yourself and hope that readers are able to connect with the story that was in your heart? Is there a healthy crossover between what you need to write and what they want to read?
I'm an award-winning fantasy author, artist, and photographer from La Porte, Indiana. My poetry, short fiction, and memoir works have been featured in various anthologies and journals since 2005, and several of my poems are available in the Indiana Poetry Archives. The first three novels in my Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series have received awards from Literary Titan.
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