Writing Markets Are Polarized (and That’s Bad)

polarized writing

In a previous blog post, I lamented the fact that genre labels can be limiting for writers, both creatively and when it comes to publishing. But as I’ve thought more about the issue, I’ve also realized that there’s a related problem: polarized book markets.

To tell the story or change it

The book I previously queried stands as an example of polarized book markets (faith-based vs. secular). It has a strong theme of faith. But there is also violence. There is an instance of premarital intimacy. But that intimacy connects deeply to spiritual and emotional healing. So who do I send it to? The secular market will take the violence and premarital intimacy but not the faith. The Christian market seems to want the faith but not the violence and premarital intimacy.

Multiple agents have told me they like the story. They’ve praised the proposal and told me it has a lovely feel for its historical period. So I do not question my writing. Instead, I suspect an uncertainty about which market to classify it in as the problem. I cannot “fix” that without fundamentally changing the story. In fact, I had an agent tell me that the book isn’t publishable for the way it straddles the fence. They told me that, if I would make changes to put it on one side or the other, it would be ready.

So should I conform to fit a specific market, similar to how I might try to hit all the tropes of a specific genre, just to be more sellable?

If I really want to be true to my own voice as a writer, then I have to say no.

Stories aren’t always neat and tidy, and that’s as it should be

The reality is, life is messy. Stories can be, too. They are, in many ways, a reflection of real people and experiences, even if they contain fantastic, imaginative elements. Just like there are many people who are in the center of the political spectrum, there are stories that don’t sit right or left. They can contain gray moral ground, complex beliefs, and caveats.

So why assume that this middle ground does not exist? Why assume that there are no people who can see both sides of the coin or who are able to see the world in nuance instead of black and white?

My argument here is less for the elimination of poles, which have their place, and more for the acknowledgment of the center of the curve. Books that could be marketed in either direction, in my view, can get ignored, simply because they do not meet all the requirements of one side or the other.

People by nature want to categorize and label. It helps them feel more in control and make some sense of the world so they’re not overwhelmed and anxious all the time. I totally get that. I also understand the practical efficiency of classification. But sometimes there is no neat box to put something in and it’s impossible to take sides. Acknowledging this bigger picture will let the writing industry bring a much larger number of great authors and diversity of content to readers and ultimately, make money. So let’s see the whole spectrum and stop leaning on polarized book markets. We all deserve a choice about where we want to sit on it and read.