You’ll occasionally hear advice around the publishing-o-sphere that you should just write what you want, don’t worry about the market one whit, and just let the chips fall where they may.
This is somewhat true, but not endlessly true.
On the one hand, yes. Definitely. You should absolutely write the book you want to write and consider whether what you want for your book is more consistent with self- or traditional publication. But if your goal is to be traditionally published, especially by one of the major publishers, it doesn’t pay to just ignore the market entirely.
Here’s what I mean (and don’t mean) by this.
Don’t chase trends
What people mean when they tell you to write what you want to write is that you shouldn’t try to chase a trend. Because of how long it takes to write and publish a book, if you try to jump on a currently hot trend, you’re already too late.
When it comes to trends, definitely ignore the market.
Do pay attention to genre conventions and word counts
Some genres are stricter than others, but you should be very familiar with the genre conventions (especially for romance) and the general word count ranges for your genre.
Word counts aren’t a be-all-end-all and you should feel some flexibility there, but the farther you stray from your genre’s word count sweet spot the harder the sell your book may be.
It’s hard to break the mold with a debut
Every commercial art medium has megahit unicorns that defied genre conventions and were strikingly original.
But when you think back to many of these hits, they were often written/made after the artist was already established in their field with more conventional works.
George Lucas made American Graffiti before Star Wars. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights before Hamilton. Herman Melville wrote the more conventional travel book Typee before he wrote Moby-Dick and, more recently, John Grisham established himself writing legal thrillers before he veered off to write about high school football coaches and football players living in Italy and baseball players just to mix it up.
Success gives you artistic license and credibility to get a little wild. It’s harder to do this right off the bat.
There are always exceptions
Sure. You can think of a million exceptions to the above rules. There are always going to be books that are just so magical they make everyone ignore all those supposed “rules.”
But if you are going to break the rules you should do so consciously and with care.
So while you should absolutely write the book you want to write and figure out what’s most important to you, if you care about commercial success at all it pays to have the market at least somewhat in mind.
Art: The Circus by Georges Seurat