Last week I recorded another tutorial for Writer’s Digest University. It won’t be available for a little bit but it was on the subject of genres—what genre your book fits into and why that matters. One of the things I touched on there, and that I’d like to dig into here in a bit more detail, and more specific to science fiction and fantasy, is how an author working in a specific genre should come out of that community.

Defining a “community” as any group of people with a common interest, genre readers are a community. There is a community of science fiction fans, a community of fantasy fans, a community of horror fans, and lots of people (like me!) who belong to all three constituencies.

You must write what you know, they say, and I’ll extend that out to genre. Write the genre you know, the genre you love, the community you are already a part of as a reader.

I’ve written before on the subject of my quest to not be a snobby reader, but I think it’s perfectly fair to say that I’m still not a member of the romance genre community. I don’t read it, really, and I haven’t made any effort to write it. And that community, for what it’s worth, seems to be chugging along just fine without me.

But on a few—thankfully rare—occasions after a conference or convention seminar I’m approached by someone who says something like: “I’m not really a fantasy fan—I really only read non-fiction—but I have this great idea for a young adult fantasy novel. Do you think it will sell?”

Controlling the impulse to murder this person on the spot I always manage to politely deflect and offer some non-advice like “I guess so . . . why not?” then I get the hell out of there.

I’m a middle child and so inherently non-confrontational, but what I really should say, for the benefit of this would-be Stephenie Meyer is “For God’s sake, no. Don’t do it.”

But why not? Young adult fantasy sells. And how hard can it be?

Set aside for a moment the fact that no one knows anything and this non-fantasy reader might well end up being the next Stephenie Meyer. Stranger things have happened; worse books have sold millions. But think for a moment about the fantasy community: the community of readers who love that genre. Is barging into someone else’s community to make a fast buck the way you really want to conduct your business? Is it, Wal-Mart? And can you actually “make a fast buck” writing . . . anything?

If you’re looking at genre in terms of get rich quick schemes, the genre that sells best most years is romance, but even then any genre is, statistically speaking, a stay poor slow scheme for almost everybody, and that includes fantasy . . . even young adult fantasy.

If your answer to the question “Would you write it anyway, even if its never published?” is anything but “yes,” don’t write it.

If you think of the current group of, say, fantasy writers as a club I think you’ll find us a welcoming lot, and fantasy-specializing agents and editors as much more welcoming than they might at first appear. We love fantasy and as an editor I can tell you for sure that I would love to discover the next J.K. Rowling—and so does every other editor and every agent. We read in the genre and we’re curious to see what you can bring to the table.

And I guarantee you all of those people are there after years of hard labor. They’ve read their share of “the canon”—even if there’s no particular consensus as to what that might be—and they’ve lived the fan’s life.

I couldn’t imagine engaging in the seemingly endless hours of hard work, study, writing, rewriting, and selling that a finished novel requires all for the vague hope of some magical payday at the end of that process if I had to add in getting up to speed with the massive, decades-old, and fan-intensive romance genre from a cold start. No glimpse into Danielle Steele’s surely-impressive royalty statement would change that.

If you’re in this—writing in general—for the money . . . wow, are there easier, faster, and less blue-sky ways to get rich in America than writing anything for anyone. It happens, yes, that some fantasy authors get huge paydays. It also happens that people win the lottery or get drafted in the first round for the NBA.

I get in on MegaMillions for a dollar every drawing, spend two bucks a week for the entertainment value I get from imagining what I would do with my winnings. Trust me, I’ve made no concrete plans based on that eventuality. It’s a wild possibility bet with a very, very low buy in: virtually no time at all, and a financial investment that amounts to pocket change. Why not give it a whirl?

I don’t play basketball and don’t watch basketball on TV, but I used to shoot baskets in the driveway sometimes when I was a kid, and they occasionally made us play basketball in gym class. I haven’t attended a gym class in at least thirty-four years, but why should that stop me? I could spend the next year doing nothing but practicing but at age fifty-two and with a decided lack of athletic skill I will not be drafted by the NBA. In fact, taking that year will bankrupt me, probably result in a wide range of physical injuries if not a fatal heart attack, and cause me to miss out on things I actually can do, love doing, and might even get rich doing—slowly, at least.

I’ve established here that writing can be a very, very inexpensive business to start up, so not unlike the lottery in that regard, but where I might spend a few minutes every month or so buying a lottery ticket, it takes hundreds of hours at least to write a novel. Your investment in money may be small but your investment in time is huge. Do you really want to spend that time doing something you don’t really like in the hope of a possible but unlikely payday? Even at the same two dollars a week if I had to spend ten hours a week playing the lottery I wouldn’t do it. Full stop.

Same, then, for the basketball example. Would you put your next year at risk doing something you don’t really love on the way-outside chance of a million dollars?

I hope not.

But then if you were to ask me, “Hey Phil, would you spend about ten hours a week for the next year writing a fantasy, science fiction, or horror novel knowing you might make no money at all?” well . . . I have, I am, and I will.

I do it for the love of the game, and it’s that passion for the genres that fuels me, not the money. And I have found a way, as an editor, to make a living engaged in the work I love, leaving me some freedom to explore writing more as a passion than as a source of mortgage payments. I hope that comes through in the work, but if I have to write a romance novel to provide an adequate control group I’m happy to let that stay in the realm of the obvious but ultimately unprovable.


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Love this. Sharing it. 🙂

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