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 (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

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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