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This might be a silly question, I apologize if it's off-topic.


I've noticed that audiences and critics typically deeply dislike the majority of works of art that I like the most. Occasionally they may enjoy the work overall, but they still hate the specific elements that I consider the most compelling.

(By "elements" I mean anything like story ideas, worldbuilding, how a story is structured, how a sequel adds to a story or world, how characters are developed, how complex a plot is, how plot twists are foreshadowed and presented, how genres are blended, etc.)

As a consumer of works of art, I'm fine with my tastes and I don't need them validated. But as a creative person and aspiring writer, I'm a bit concerned. Do I stand a chance of succeeding as a published/professional author if my idea of a great story is (consistently) most people's idea of a terrible story?

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  • Juvenalia – your tastes will change as you mature, and what you look for in 'art' will change as you transition from consumer to creator.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 11:16
  • What do you mean by "audience"? There are genres ignored by general audience, but they still have highly enthusiastic niche audience.
    – Alexander
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 17:08

3 Answers 3

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The key question is, why do you write?

If you write for the pleasure of writing, for the art of expression, for the clarity of thought that often comes from putting the words down, then why worry about the money or the fame?

On the other hand, if you want to make a living at it, you may have to sacrifice some of that artistic satisfaction. If the market wants left-handed blue anti-heroes, then that is the protagonist of the next bit of sausage to come out of your writing machine.

The choice is not binary, however. Look around and you will see creative people alternating between commercial "fluff" and artistic substance. At least that is the story that they tell people.

So, can you suspend your standards and write to the market? Some can and some cannot. If you can and do, can you successfully alternate your way back to the material that feeds your soul? Only way to find out is to try.

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Yes. But qualifiers apply.

Basically, commercial success is about selling your stories. Doing the popular thing makes this much easier. If your story is the type that is selling like hot cakes the publishers will be happy to have it and invest in marketing it. If your story is just like the other stuff the reader already likes, they'll have no issue buying it when they see it advertised.

If you are doing your own unpopular thing you will not get this free help. You'll have to earn being published by selling your story and manuscript to the publishers. You'll have to earn the sales with positive reviews and good word of mouth. So you'll have to work much harder at both writing and promoting your story.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The benefits of having to work harder at writing should be obvious. Your writing will directly improve. Having to put more effort to promoting your story also has a fringe benefit. It will require you to develop a better understanding of the market and the potential audience. This should result in stories with wider and more enduring appeal.

And of course doing the popular thing does come with downsides. Your work will be one of many and even if it initially sells well it will easily be lost in the mass and forgotten. And people writing stuff they actually like themselves usually produce better results. Even if the quality of writing stays the same, you usually have better understanding what makes things you like appealing. People doing what sells end up having to rely on assumptions or rules and may have to fight against themselves to enforce those rules and assumptions on their writing.

You can see this in lots of stories in genres where people think there are specific rules or patterns that are popular at the moment. The writer will write a section in their own voice and then follow it up with stuff that is almost directly adapted from something popular because they got scared they'll lose the audience. And the sad thing is that the original stuff in their own voice is usually much better than the clichéd parts.

But it will still sell worse than the popular stuff?

Yes, you can expect it to sell worse. On release. That qualifier matters.

First, what is popular varies. Writing for the market will not sell that well or be valued highly after the market changes. A work that was not popular to begin with and that you had to work hard to get published at all will be much more likely to keep selling at stable levels over time after the initial push is over.

It might even end up being popular later on. A work that has real effort and personality behind it will be much more likely to get a break later than a work written to match the trends at the time of release. Big breaks are obviously unlikely but sales that are sustained and even increased over time are plausible. If your selling points are effort, personality and unusual ideas, those will be just as valid ten years from now.

Second, writing for your own taste not only improves quality, it also makes easier to produce a consistent body of work. If somebody reads your story despite it being odd and likes it, they will look for other stories you wrote. If those other stories are odd in the same way the first one was, you'll end up with sales organically. They will maybe even recommend you to their friends. And people are more likely to remember and mention the odd stuff than the derivative clone number 27.

So you can have a commercially successful career as a writer of odd stories if you are willing to work at it and wait for it. Success will build over time if the quality is good enough and you put in the work needed to get published.

Interestingly this would have been bad advice in the past. Digital publishing and printing have made the market much more flexible. Now if somebody likes what you wrote they can buy your previous work. In the past it might have been out-of-print or simply not in the selection of the local booksellers. So being popular on the release and promoted by publisher would have been more important.

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You are not alluding to what makes your tastes different, so I can only give you very generic, removed from reality tips. They are meant as examples only, and do not reflect my personal views at anything mentioned below.

Look no further than Miriam Toews. She writes that what many consider garbage, waste of ink and paper, or nauseating word sewage. Some believe that using her works in the school English course should be criminally punishable. But she is still lauded by the literary critics as an original author, nevertheless, and her victims - high school students and their parents - must buy her books because the curriculum requires them to. If you can find a niche, such as Toews had found, you are going to be a commercial success.

Some creative persons came by their commercial success by committing bizarre acts as well, such as murder, vandalism, suicide, or alike. To many, success came only after their funerals. There are always creative ways to come by money.

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  • Ah, this is great! I will somewhat familiarize myself with them, since I am not, and then I will probably edit my answer. By the way, are you familiar with "Ghost in the Shell" anime that Wachowskis have plagiarized Matrix from? Best of luck writing, in the mean time!
    – SuperAl
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 21:59

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