One of the most interesting lessons I learned about writing came from business school. I have my MBA in marketing, and while business doesn't often interact much with art, there is a pair of artists who often get discussed by marketers.
In 1994 two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, hired a market research firm to survey Americans and determine exactly what kind of art they love. Following all the best research methods to ensure statistical accuracy, they presented the respondents with dozens of questions: modern or traditional? religious or non-religious? abstract or realistic? The survey asked respondents to rank their favorite artists, to describe the art currently hanging in their home, and so on.
Blue and green were the most popular colors. Landscapes were preferred, especially those that showed water. Americans like paintings of children and animals (specifically wildlife). And the like paintings of historical figures.
So, Komar and Melamid created a painting that was designed to give Americans exactly what they want:
Now, obviously, there's a problem with the painting. Even though there's nothing inherently wrong with it--the technique is fine, the composition is decent, the subject matter is exactly what public opinion wanted--but the problem lies in what isn't there. There's no meaning, or heart, or purpose, or whatever you want to call those intagibles of art. When we look at this painting, there's nothing in it that stirs the soul. While I believe this painting is a masterpiece in the way it makes you think, it definitely would not be the type of thing most Americans would want to hang on their wall.
So, why is this discussed in marketing classes?
In business, when you're going to launch a new product you look at the market and see what customers want. You do this through surveys or focus groups or any number of ways; you ask them. But you don't stop there; now you have to figure out what makes your product better than everything else.
A classic positioning statement is laid out like this:
"My product is targeted at the ____________ market. It is similar to what is already available in these ways: __________________. However, it is superior to what is available in these ways: ___________."
That was the problem with Komar and Melamid. They gave the people exactly what the polls said they wanted, to the letter, but they didn't give them anything else. As one marketing professional put it: "Good businesses give their customers what they want; great businesses know their customers so well that they give the customers what they will want, before the customers even realize the want it."
So what does this mean for writers?
First, we have to know our audience. That means we need to read. In the words of Stephen King: "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." We also need to talk to reader, to get involved in book discussions, or even just be involved with them. A friend of mine, Aprilynne Pike, says that she's involved with a church youth group and those teens are the first place she turns when she's working on her YA novels.
Second, we need to know our market, but not imitate what's already there. When I was first published in 2004, my editor told me that 60-70% of all the submissions she received began with "If you liked Harry Potter..." Then, a few years later it became "If you liked The Da Vinci Code..."
When Harry Potter became a sensation, many imitators jumped on the bandwagon and started churning out their stories about wizard schools. Some of these books were published and a few made some decent money. But none of them will ever be loved or remembered like the original.
However, better writers didn't imitate, but instead looked at why Harry Potter was successful: what emotions did it evoke? what need did it fill? In other words, they learned more about their audience by examining what their audience liked.
The folly of chasing the market is that you'll always be behind, always imitating others. But the folly of ignoring the market completely is that, while you might be constantly creating new things, your audience could be completed uninterested. Fortunately, it's not hard to know your audience. The solution isn't even as mercenary as keeping one foot in art and the other in business; the solution is simply: read, discuss, and create new things.