Sometimes you have to sell your soul to pay the rent, but not always...
My patient, supportive wife once defined me to a documentary interviewer as follows:
“What I appreciate about Will is, he is not a businessman at all, in any way, shape or form. A businessman says, ‘What do people want,’ and then they give it to them. What Will says is, ‘I’m going to do what I like, then find other people that like what I like.’”
While some may interpret this as either “artistic integrity” or “professional ignorance,” or both, I do not recommend this “strategy” is your goal as a writer is to make money. Especially if the stuff you happen to “like” isn’t liked by a lot of other people, too.
However, I do know for a fact it’s possible to do “what you like,” and still “give the people what they want.” And even earn critical recognition along with financial rewards.
Author Joe Clifford is a major case in point. His hit series starring intrepid but morally flawed insurance investigator Jay Porter – Lamentation, December Boys, and the forthcoming Give Up the Dead – smoothly blend his own “Springsteenian,” rural-noir sensibilities with his autobiographical background as a self-reformed street junkie, mixing raw, true life experiences with imaginative yet credible storytelling infused with universally relatable themes, explaining their success.
But this wasn’t an accident of fate. He carefully planned it to work out this way (even though a roll of the dice is always in the cards, to mix metaphors like a bad martini). Joe is writing the kinds of stories he enjoys himself, but they happen to coincide with the broader tastes of a wide swath of crime fiction fans. He is what I would call "an artistic businessman."
Of course, it helps if you happen to share the same sensibilities and tastes as the mainstream readership, but if not (as in my case), there are ways to tailor both your work and its marketing to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, extending its sales potential outside your established base of loyal supporters in a limited niche.
Just because you’ve decided to write your book in a proven genre, like Romance, Crime or Horror, doesn’t mean you’re “selling out.” Especially if these are also your own fields of interest as a fan, not just a creator.
Feeling the Public’s Pulse
The surest way to find out if there is any life in your livelihood is to compare profits to your investment. If you’re independent, these costs will vary, depending on how much you put into important things like the cover art, interior design, advertising, ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) for reviewers and bloggers, and so on.
If you’ve made all the right decisions from a marketing standpoint, and your book or books still aren’t finding a substantial following, especially with its own target audience, then you either have to retool your approach, or rethink your original concept.
You can attain awareness of what “the people want” by studying bestseller lists, from Amazon to the New York Times, and then basically mimicking these tried-and-true formulas.
The risk there is you may just be written off, so to speak, as a carpet-bagging copycat. Of course, rip-offs of lucrative product models also pay off, in almost any industry. That’s where the “artistic integrity” comes in.
It could be you just don’t care that your work is essentially an assembly-line product cashing in on a current trend. No reason you should, either. “Integrity” is a subjective designation. If you goal was to make money as a writer, and you actually wind up doing that, you are in an enviable position worthy of admiration, because this is a rare achievement, especially in today’s competitive marketplace.
The Price of Sacrificing Originality
However, some authors that I know personally are actually unhappy with the type of work they feel forced to produce in order to pay bills, even if they are routinely churning out bestsellers, filling their peers with bitter envy. They privately confide that they derive no personal satisfaction from this otherwise amazing accomplishment, because they are not listening to their muses, but their creditors. Many even publish under various pseudonyms rather than expose their true identities with their actual bylines, safeguarding a more artistically "pure" reputation they have yet to build.
Again, there’s certainly shame in any of this, even living a "double life," or at least there shouldn’t be. Writing is always a noble profession in my book. It takes hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance, whether you’re a weathered veteran or a rank amateur just testing the waters.
Making money doing what you love, even if you aren’t loving the exact form your work is taking, is something to be extremely proud of, even if others, or even you, consider this “pandering” for the sake of turning a profit.