Is Your Work Commercially Viable?

Flickr / Giovanni Orlando

Flickr / Giovanni Orlando

Writers often ask, “How do I get published?”

But I don’t like to answer that question until I know what exactly they’re trying to publish. I’d say at least 50% of new writers are attempting to publish a work that would be deemed commercially unviable by a Big Six house, at least as initially conceived.

Note #1: This does NOT mean the work couldn’t be successful outside commercial publishing. Quite the contrary.

Note #2: This also doesn’t mean that a commercially viable work couldn’t ultimately be produced, but a lot of time can be wasted trying to overcome hurdles that even a professional writer wouldn’t want to jump.

Here are indicators to help determine if you have a commercially viable work in the eyes of a Big Six publisher or literary agent (who presumably only want to spend time on projects that will turn a profit and reduce risk).

Positive signs of commercial viability

  • For first-time novels: approx. length of 80,000 words
  • Romance, mystery/thriller/crime, and young adult genres
  • For nonfiction authors: visibility and proven reach to a to target readership (otherwise known as platform)

Not as commercially viable

  • Poetry and short story collections
  • Essay collections, column collections, etc
  • For nonfiction authors: Trying to write on health/medicine, psychology, or other professional fields when you don’t have the authority or credentials to give professional advice (in other words, you’re writing based on the experience of an “average” person)
  • For most novels: length above 100K or length below 60K
  • Memoirs crossed with self-help, as well as memoirs that don’t have a fresh/distinctive angle
  • Mixed genre works that can’t be easily categorized

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the possible reasons your work might not be commercially viable, but it covers most cases I see.

What are other things you’ve heard? Do you have questions about what’s a deal breaker or not? Share in the comments.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Getting Published.

65 Comments

  1. It makes me feel a little better and less scared and anxious to know that my novel would be deemed somewhat comercially viable. Yay me! I’ll go write then :)

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thank you for that information.  I’m happy to see that I fall into the “commercially viable” category, especially since I’ve sent a requested manuscript to an agent!

  3. Thank you for that information.  I’m happy to see that I fall into the “commercially viable” category, especially since I’ve sent a requested manuscript to an agent!

  4. Jane,

    A good response to “How do I get published?” is another question: Why do you want to be published? The answer to that question can have a significant impact on the answer to the first.

    Note #1 is an important point. I would add that if a person decides to take the bull by the horns (it IS that dangerous) and self-publish, they should still treat it as a “commercial” endeavor, if the answer to the “Why…” question above is “I want to launch a career as a writer.” As much as writers may cringe at the business side of writing, it must be addressed, even if you seek a contract with a commercial house.

    ‘Nuff said. You’ve already address a lot of this in previous posts. And, as always, kudos to you for raising good points.

    (p.s. Really enjoy The Ether with Porter. Always look forward to it. Thanks.)

  5. Well, Jane, I think I’ll hang up on writing. No wonder I was told “no” in form letters countless times before I decided to self-publish, which hasn’t gone all that well commercially, by the way. And yet… I don’t know how not to do it, so I’ll take these things into onsideration. Thanks for yet another insightful punch.

    • Sorry for the bad news! While the work may not be commercially viable in book form, the online world presents many more opportunities to tell a story or share a message. Perhaps another medium is what you’re looking for.

  6. I read a lot of slush and find that lots of novels have a bad situation, but no story. A lot of beginning novelists don’t seem to know the difference.

  7. I read a lot of slush and find that lots of novels have a bad situation, but no story. A lot of beginning novelists don’t seem to know the difference.

  8. Excellent common sense points. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been asked why I haven’t wrote a book on platform or social media. My response is that whole its a vastly marketable product the areas I work within evolve within weeks and it takes time to put a good book out. I’m better off blogging.

    Plus everyone wants the same thing. The secret, super fast way to platform building and huge book sells.

    I don’t have it and I’m not going to pretend.

    • There was a time when educated editors championed unique point of views on the human condition to make people think. Now it seems the lowest common denominator has the power to rule culture. It’s scary. 

      • Ashen – truer words were never spoken, or written (replied?) “(T)he lowest common denominator has the power to rule culture. It’s scary.” Do we live in an age of mediocrity, where the attention and resources are granted to the hordes of kareoke singers on the market?

        • Nope, but we do we live in an age where genre fiction provides the revenue necessary for publishing houses to put out literary fiction.

          ;)

  9. So helpful, Jane. I believe this is the first time I’ve seen “commercially viable” spelled out so clearly. Note #1 gives me hope. I’ll press on . . . Thanks.

  10. Romance is pretty broad — do the secondary romance sub-plots that occur in women’s fiction fit here, or is wf  it’s own “long-shot” opportunity?

  11. I think it might be good for you to share what “commercially viable” means. I meet many writers who don’t understand this and who pitch their books to our Press (even though we don’t accept pitches, since we work small and through recommendations and personal networks. :)

    • Excellent point.

      Commercially viable for a Big Six publisher means turning a profit in the first year and selling thousands of copies. It means publishing a book that Barnes & Noble (and other bricks-and-mortar stores) will be willing to stock nationwide. It means publishing a book that has the power to garner major media attention, bestseller status, and/or significant reviews and awards.

  12. I am in the process of writing my first novel and I’ve had to come to terms with the hard cold facts that writing is both a passion as well as a business. And like any other passion I want to use as a platform to try and make a living at, if there is no target audience for my product then it’s just a hobby and I’m better off keeping it amongst friends. But if I’m serious about moving forward, then I’ll need to put on the big girl panties and do what it takes to become a professional – even if it means re-working my book to meet the viable marketing criteria of publishers. Thanks for the reminder.
     

    •  I couldn’t agree with you more!  I wrote my first novel about five years ago and have rewritten, revised, rewritten…
      I also took creative writing courses in order to rewrite, revise…(smile).  I could have gotten back up on the porch, but because I listened and learned, I’ve gotten enough positive feedback from professionals to keep running with the big dogs! 
      Finally, after hard work, I’ve caught the interest of a couple of agents.  Does this mean publishing is in the near future?  Maybe, maybe not. 
      Realistically what it says to me is…I’ve caught the interest of a couple of agents.
      I believe my novel has a definitive target audience and will do well, plus I’m continually expanding my ability to promote my book once it becomes published (positive thinking doesn’t hurt).

  13. I think ultimately consumers decide what is commercially viable, and that can’t be determined until the books hit the market and actual sell (or don’t!).  But I like this list as a way of priming the pump.  It also prunes us a bit; I’m appreciative for the word count listing, and the warning against short story collections (have that be your second release, Writer!).  It’s smart to write what’s hot now too – the next Hunger Games – but as a literary fiction writer I know I want to stick to what I do best.  Still, who knows what’s going to sell, and the author MUST be original and talented, with a specific vision for their book and their career.  The current market may cater to copycats now, but it’s the unique voices and chance-takers that will last.  Thanks for this!

    • Very true. Publishers wouldn’t ordinarily accept something like 50 Shades of Grey, then they see how it sells, the risk evaporates, and they’re on board.

      In short, if publishers see dollar signs, you’re good to go. The tricky part is that most publishers don’t have a direct line to consumers (they go through bookstores/e-retailers), and are trying to please middlemen more than the reader. This is changing, of course … and that’s another post entirely.

      • Indeed!  In addition to being a writer, I’ve also been a long-time bookseller.  I was in a publishing course once where the professor – a seasoned publisher – made many statements about book marketing, placement, and sales to which I had to say, “That’s not how it works at the bookstore level.”  As for something like 50 Shades of Grey (and I believe The Shack was a self-published venture as well), I think we’re going to see more of this.  It wouldn’t surprise me for agents and publishers to require writers “test the market” before taking them on.  Again – a whole other post entirely!

    • I really liked hearing this. I agree that being unique and not trying to be the “next” Stephen King or the “next” Hunger Games is so important. It’s so important to not lose sight of your own visions while still staying within the guidelines Jane gave us. And thank you for that, Jane. I don’t want to be a sheep in a herd;  I want to stand out just enough for someone to take a second look at least and think to themselves, wow she’s got a truly novel idea (no pun intended) and we are going to take a chance that she can reach a lot of readers who are looking for something different, not just the same old thing.

      • Linda – I like your take on “reach(ing) a lot of readers who are looking for something different, not just the same old thing.” I have the same intent, but yet I wonder if we aren’t writing something that “can’t be easily categorized.” That is my fear.

        I know that readers yearn for something different, which invloves risk. Publishers are wary of risk, which creates a frustrating conundrum.

  14. Jane,
    This is a useful checklist. I write family sagas and I’m not sure if publishers are interested in that genre. Even the best writers in the genre (Anne Tyler, Sue Miller) bemoan the reality in publishing that the poignant family story, once a staple of fiction, seems to be a rare in today’s market. Thanks for another great post.

  15. Thanks for those excellent points. 
     I have been working on a memoir of my first 18 years of life, growing up weird and Mormon in a weird community–Provo, Utah.  I know that there is a “platform” in the formerly-Mormon community and others who want to know what that strange culture is really like, but I don’t know if it is a strong enough platform.  How does one determine the strength of a platform?

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  17. This information is definitely valuable to aspiring novelist. Are their different plot structures that are often turned down?

    • That’s easy: cliched ones! (That’s why it’s important to read A LOT in your genre, so you know what’s been done before and how your work is distinctive.)

      That said, I highly recommend PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell if you want to know the classic plot lines that publishers look for.

  18. I get asked this question quite a lot and I’m always reluctant to warn writers against writing what they want to write, but if you want to be read you really do have to think about these things. 

    My novel is coming out later this year. It’s offbeat literary fiction, not impossible to sell but not straightforward either. It’s all about knowing and finding your audience, but if you can have that in mind right from the start, it has to be helpful.

      • I’m looking to write about my experiences w/ nerve pain and a genetic disorder. I’ve seen many cancer memoirs by non-celebrities make it. Chronic pain patients & invisible illness sufferers constitutes a huge audience when you look at #s. I’m confused b/c I’ve read quite a few medical memoirs published by regular folks w/o a bcgrd in medicine. That’s why I always thought I had a shot. Look at “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl,” “Pretty is What Changes,” “Sickened” or “Chocolate and Vicodin.” I don’t mean any disrespect. I am just confused. These are what I consider medical memoir & are making the cut along w/ many others I have read. Is this just an example of exceptions to the rule or something else. I feel as though what I am writing would be complimentary to these books (goal: that’s what I’m aiming for). Given what I have said can you elaborate on what you thoughts are on health/medical books. Thank you.

        • I should’ve been more precise when referring to nonfiction that requires credentials. If you’re writing memoir, then these considerations don’t apply.

          That said, regardless of potential audience size, all memoirs need to have something distinctive to set them apart, and most importantly, they require the same art and craft as a novel.

  19. Thanks Jane. I have a short story collection being published by a small press in about a month, and I’m trying to make it psychologically viable: I’m giving my best shot at lining up some reviewers who specialize in short fiction (all three of them), try to understand how to be visible on places like Goodreads without being promotionally obnoxious, and how to do the same on the social media venues I circulate in. 

    I say psychologically viable because I want to feel that I made a thoughtful effort to put my book in reader’s hands, and if those hands turn out to be limited, so be it. (And I’m halfway through the novel I’d love a Big Sixer to smile at. One can dream…)

    Thanks for your consistently helpful info.

  20. Great article as usual.

    A few great quotations that  apply:

    “There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to get sensible men to read it.”— C. C. Colton

    “Only amateurs say that they write for their own amusement. Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never!”— Edna Ferber

    “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”— Mark Twain

    “Nobody ever committed suicide while reading a good book, but many have while trying to write one.”— Robert Byrne

  21. Thanks for the clarification. I’ve seen it brought up other places & other blogs re: medical/health memoir but at the time I wasn’t as dedicated to the project like I am now. Appreciate your feedback. I do know that if it is not meant to be I have other stories to tell. But I do want to give this one a shot first. –Leslie

  22. Thank you Jane. I’ve recently learned this at a novel workshop, but it is just common sense really, but I enjoyed it being spelled out. I’m providing a link when I post for the Insecure Writers Support Group on the first Wednesday in May. I hope that’s okay.

    Denise

  23. Great post as always, Jane!

    One point, however, that I find increasingly overlooked in self-publishing concerns the reader. As a professional nonfiction author since 1988, with several Big Six books to my name, my experience has been that publishers are in the business because they love books and although there is no science to any of it, they at least make an attempt to direct authors to write books that other people want to read. That’s the point of the much-avoided proposal process, which really the business plan for your book and helps any thoughtful author determine whether their idea is commercially viable. 

    It never ceases to amaze me how many aspiring authors (and I’m talking principally here of my specialism — nonfiction business books) haven’t got a clue who they are writing for or what problem/concern/question those readers might have for which their book might provide a solution or direction. In fact, I met one business coach informally on several occasions who seemed incapable of completing the sentence: “The question I answer with this book is….” without reference to why prospective clients should hire him! Yet he was adamant that he wanted a book, not to write a marketing brochure!

    The only point on which I would disagree with you is the final bullet in the “not as commercially viable” list. It’s long frustrated me that publishing houses have been arm-locked by the bricks-and-mortar stores into only accepting books that conform to the stores’ neat but ultimately innovation crushing categories – biography, history, psychology etc. — (read the Intro to Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor for a prime example of this). What I had hoped was to see more innovation around the blending of genres now that we’re not restricted to discovering books in the traditional way. 

    Having said that, I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Truman Capote was able to introduce the new concept of narrative nonfiction with In Cold Blood only, I guess, because he was Truman Capote. 

    Thoughts?

    • Couldn’t agree more about the reader being overlooked in self-publishing. Excellent of you to point that out.

      Re: mixed genre, I agree it’s frustrating, and we seem to be on the same page as far as observing how traditional publishers continue to frown on them? 

      I’m not sure the genre/category arm lock will disappear any time soon, especially in cases of debut or unknown authors. That said, once you’re freed of the necessity of placing a physical book only on ONE shelf in the store, and books are predominantly sold online—and therefore categorized and tagged in a million different ways for ultimate discoverability—I’d say the situation can only improve.

  24. Interesting… Hmmmm :) Thanks for sharing this. I’m not so sure how to apply it to my own work at this point, perhaps I’ll come back to it when I’ve had some sleep. 

  25. Great points, Jane! I’m going to hang on to them and use them every time I speak about “evaluating your book for success.” I always stress that publishing houses are in the publishing “business” and they are looking for good “business partners.” Writers are asking them to become their venture capital partners–to invest in their books. It’s about money… That doesn’t mean, however, that a great idea can’t be carried out successfully by an author independently. I suggest to everyone — fiction writers and nonfiction writers alike — that they use what I call the “proposal process” and look at their project through the eyes of an acquisitions editor to see if it is, indeed, marketable. Whether they self-publish or traditionally publish, this is how to best evaluate their idea to see if it will sell. With this information at the onset of the project, they can decide to reangle their concept, change it in some other way, just do it because they feel passionate about it, or trash it.

  26. Hi Jane – the bullet for the “Mixed genre works that can’t be easily categorized” has me concerned. I have a self-published novel that I have categorized as a “genre mash-up” of supernatural fantasy thriller. Should I change the langauge of the pitch and the synopsis to something more conventional and therefore, commercially viable?

    • The big question: Where would it be shelved in a bookstore? Or, if an agent represented fantasy/scifi, and not thriller, would you still send it to her? Or, who’s your primary, No. 1 audience? Regardless of how innovative you’re being, when it comes time to market, you’re forced to make a few starting decisions about classification. The publisher may ultimately disagree with you and still publish the book in the category it thinks most profitable, but to pitch it and submit it, you’ve got to nail these things down.

      • I have an agent, editors who loved my MS and even suggestions of a film deal, but in the end, the bean-counters won :-(  This is a sad but true aspect of commercial publishing. If a book crosses two genres, it becomes instantly “un-viable”. in the eyes of the marketing departments.

        I think it’s wrong, short-sighted and means that many excellent MSs never see the light of day whereas other, very mediocre ones go on to the shelves.

        I hope that readers will one day vote with their feet and look for indie self-published works before the commercially produced.

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  28. All the books I’ve read on publishing in the UK market say novels should be 100-120k words, otherwise the reader feels they are not getting their money’s worth. And if you kook at a lot of best sellers, they tend to be that length. Is the US market different, or are you departing from the standard wisdom?

  29. Hi,

    My book is getting published next month – So one thing, at least in the context of the Indian market (drivers very different from other countries, I know) – is that ”humorous non-fiction” is not seen as commercially viable at all – I had to weave in a plot so that it eventually became a humorous story in the ”commercial fiction” category.

    Had planned to write like Bill Bryson, James Herriot or Gerald Durrell – who, by and large, go for exaggeration rather than fiction!

    But apparently, that don’t sell :-)

    Oh well.

  30. Very helpful post but what is your take on the viability of sci-fi these days? Not high Sci-fi but something set in the present day that deals with the alien technology and the alien phenomenon (UFOs, abductions, cover up, etc). Something along the same lines as Stephen Coonts’ SAUCER or Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ NIGHTEYES.

    • I’d recommend you ask an agent who’s actively representing speculative fiction. This would be a pretty specific trend, subject to change on a quarterly or annual basis …

      • Thanks. I’ll give that a try. Seems very few agents list speculative fiction as something they handle.

  31. Why are Short Story collections not viable? A friend has written several, and was thinking about self-publishing a collection in a book anchored by a novella; I’d like to be able to explain the reasoning to her.

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