Jane Friedman

Is Your Work Commercially Viable?

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.