Is Writing Commercial Fiction a Sell-Out?

Nicola Morgan at Help! I Need a Publisher! inspired this post.  She had an older post about selling out and how it’s more difficult to get published now, because it’s all about sales and not so much writing anymore.

I went back and reread it recently.  Although Nicola is in the UK, her remarks are relevant in the US as well.

Nicola says in the comments, “Definition of commercial – simple: sells a lot. It doesn’t mean bad: it means popular. End of.”  She’s right.  Publishing is a business and these are business decisions.  A lot of writers think of what they do as art.  Many don’t consider commercial fiction art the way we think of it.  Art is Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and the like.

Here’s a wake-up call:  Shakespeare’s plays were commercial fiction.  In Elizabethan times, there were no movies.  People went to the theater.  The nobles got to sit in boxes, but the riff-raff had to stand downstairs.  Still, they went.  Everybody did.

Shakespeare cribbed story elements from other sources, the same way modern filmmakers do.  He mixed them up and presented them to a new audience in an entertaining way.  He invented new words and found common human elements in his stories that resonate with people even today.  That is why his works are classic.  They only seem literary to us because we don’t speak Elizabethan English.

What Shakespeare came up with sold in his time.  Dan Brown, Michael Palmer, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, countless romance authors, etc. are doing well because people buy their books.  This is what we like, people.  Art is subjective.

Writing my first novel (technically my third, but the first I’m actually trying to sell) and having to cut it back so much is teaching me a lot about commercial writing.  So is reading my favorite genre authors.  The next one I’m not even going to bother to flesh out as much.


  • It doesn’t need it.  I’m learning about making each word count, rather than trying to cover everything.  Show, don’t tell takes more time, but if I’m careful about details, I can show a lot in less space.  A shorter book is easier to sell.  At least that’s what I keep hearing.
  • It takes less time to write it.  If I have to keep working to survive even with books published and royalties coming in (don’t I wish!), I’ll have to make do with little bits of time the way I do now.  The luxury of full-time writing will never be mine unless I join the tiny ranks of million-dollar bestsellers.  Not bloody likely.

It’s not a sellout to choose popular fiction over literary fiction.  I don’t mind cranking them out as long as whatever I produce is entertaining and I’m happy with it.  I never saw popular fiction as a sell-out and I never will. That’s what I like to read, and that’s what I’ll write.  I don’t think I have a literary novel in me, and I like writing fight scenes too much.

In the comments on Nicola’s post, Bacchus replied, “I think it’s only selling out when you can no longer enjoy what your [sic]doing. Giving up your joy in a task is like giving up your very essence.”  She’s right too.   If that happens to you, the work becomes just work.  You’re marking time.

When you find yourself doing that, then it might be time to quit, or at least take a break until you find your joie de vivre again.  If I like the popular stuff and enjoy writing it, my chances are better because I’ll have an audience who already reads whatever it is, and my work will have spirit.

Apparently, then, getting published means find something that will sell, that you want to write, that is universally appealing and that you’re capable of doing justice to.  Not so hard!  We’ll see.

You can’t make it if you don’t try, that’s for sure.  Read posts like Nicola’s and take them for what they are, a gentle reminder to stay realistic in your pursuits.

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