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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Posted in Getting Published.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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65 Comments on "Is Your Work Commercially Viable?"

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JaneR
4 years 1 month ago

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!

Karensdiprima
Karensdiprima
4 years 1 month ago

Check, check and check. Slightly less terrified. Thank you for the post!

Wado2
Wado2
4 years 1 month ago

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!

Wado2
Wado2
4 years 1 month ago

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!

Jim Hamlett
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Sharon
Sharon
4 years 1 month ago

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.

TH
TH
4 years 1 month ago

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.

TH
TH
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Bri
Bri
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Ashen
Ashen
4 years 1 month ago

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. 

Joseph Schwartz
Joseph Schwartz
4 years 1 month ago

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?

John Hallow
John Hallow
3 years 4 months ago

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

😉

Gerry Wilson
Gerry Wilson
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Denire
Denire
4 years 1 month ago

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?

L.L. Barkat
4 years 1 month ago

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. 🙂

Shawn Spjut
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Jan
Jan
4 years 1 month ago
 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.… Read more »
Jessica A. Kent
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Linda Woods
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Joseph Schwartz
Joseph Schwartz
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Chris Blake
Chris Blake
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Biexei
Biexei
4 years 1 month ago

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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Chris
Chris
4 years 1 month ago

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

Iain Broome
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Tom Bentley
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Ernie Zelinski
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Leslie
Leslie
4 years 1 month ago

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

Denise Covey
4 years 1 month ago

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

Liz Alexander
Liz Alexander
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Bonnee
4 years 1 month ago

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. 

Nina Amir
4 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
Joseph Schwartz
Joseph Schwartz
4 years 1 month ago

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?

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4 years 1 month ago

[…] Is Your Work Commercially Viable? by Jane Friedman – “I’d say at least 50% of new writers are attempting to publish a […]

Susan Williams
4 years 1 month ago

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?

Yashodhara Lal
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Patrick Rowell
Patrick Rowell
4 years 1 month ago

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.

Michael J. Sullivan
4 years 10 days ago

I would also add fantasy/science fiction to the list of popular genres – there is still a pretty active buying market for that.

Casey32168
Casey32168
4 years 10 days ago

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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