For Whom Do We Write?

I finished a novel a couple of weeks ago.  It’s the first book in a new series that I’ve yet to sell to a publisher.  I love this book.  I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever written, and I have ideas for subsequent books in the series — all of them stand-alone novels with a recurring lead character — about which I’m incredibly excited.  Right now the book is with my agent and my current editor, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to contract this book and at least one or two more in the series sometime soon.

But what if we don’t?  I’ve written about this book a lot on my personal blog and on another that I share with a small group of fantasy authors, including fellow SFNovelist C.E. Murphy.  And every time I write about the novel the sentiment is pretty much the same:  I love the book and I hope I can sell it.  The thing is, I’m starting to realize that my assessment of the book is completely tied to its financial future.  If I contract this novel and some of its sequels, I’ll feel that it is a success.  But does that mean that if we can’t sell it, I’ll consider the book a failure? 

My first impulse — and, I’m sure, the first impulse of many reading this — is to say that no, completing a book can never be deemed a failure.  An act of creativity ought to be its own reward.  Writing a book is hard work; the completion of that book ought to be celebrated.  That’s the feel-good answer.  It’s also true on some level.  What’s also true, though, is that I do this for a living.  Finishing a novel might feel great.  It might hone my craft; the mere act of writing this book might make my next project that much better.  But I need to contract books.  That’s how I make my living.  So if I don’t sell it, the accomplishment is sort of beside the point.  That might sound harsh, but it’s reality.

I’ve written thirteen novels now.  Ten of them have been published, one of them is in production and will be out early next year, and this one is with my editor and agent.  The thirteenth novel is one that I wrote a couple of years ago.  It was under contract, but the publisher that had bought it went out of business before the book could be released.  My agent and I managed to get the rights back and for two years we’ve been trying without success to resell the novel.  I love this unsold novel even more than the one I just finished.  I love it more than any of my other books.  That said, I’m a bit embarrassed by it.  Fairly or not, I view it as a failed novel, not because I think it’s unredeemably flawed, but because the market has judged it as lacking in some way.

So my question is this:  For whom do we write?  And before you answer that you write for yourself, and that you’d write even if you knew you could never sell anything, think long and hard about whether that’s really true.  It’s my knee-jerk response; it’s certainly the answer I want to give and want to believe.  The truth is a bit more complicated.  I write for myself because thus far I’ve been able to make something of a living at it.  There are easier ways to make a buck (at least there were; they seem to be disappearing) and I would never deny that I have chosen this career path because I love it, and because I have to write to be happy.  But again reality rears its ugly head:  If I couldn’t sell books I’m not sure that I could afford to write them.  Oh, I’d write in my spare time, but I used to be an academic; my wife still is.  I have friends who are lawyers and doctors and business people.  I’ve seen how hectic their lives are.  Once they’re done with work and family, they don’t have a whole lot of spare time or energy for creating worlds and writing novels.

I write for me because I can afford to, because I’m fortunate enough to do for a living what I love to do anyway.  But if I’m to be completely honest, I write for myself and also for a whole host of other people.  I write for my agent, because she has to believe in my books to sell them.  I write for my editor, because he has to contract the book before it can be published.  I write for my readers, because their purchases of my current novel make the next contract possible.  I’m pretty sure that my fellow professionals would join me in admitting that they don’t — can’t — write solely for themselves.  And what about those of you who aren’t professionals?  I’m sure that you take great pride in your creative accomplishments — as you should — and that you write to satisfy your passion for storytelling.  But don’t you also write because you want to see your stories in print?  I’m an amateur photographer, and I’m also a musician.  I do these things “for myself.”  Still, I was thrilled when I was able to display my photography in a gallery.  I used to perform music in bars and restaurants and to this day I occasionally fantasize about doing so again.

What’s my point?  Simply this:  Nearly all of us who love art begin with that passion to create.  We start by saying that we’re going to do it for ourselves, for the sheer pleasure of creating and celebrating that accomplishment.  And we mean it.  But I would argue that all art is inherently a performance.  Painting, taking pictures, singing, acting, dancing, and yes, even writing — especially writing — it’s all done for an audience.  When a child creates something that she thinks is beautiful her first thought is to show it to someone else — Mom, Dad, a teacher, a friend, a complete stranger if no one else is around.  And I don’t think that impulse ever really goes away.  Nor should it.  Because art is inherently interactive.  Art is about creation and appreciation, passion harnessed and passion evoked.

So I write for myself, but I also write for everyone else who might read my work.  I want to create fascinating worlds and people them with intriguing characters.  But I know that on some level none of what I create will truly come alive until you read it

David B. Coe

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  1. 1. CE Murphy

    I honestly have no idea if I would write if I had no audience. I mean, I /did/ at first, we all do, but if I’d never sold? I really don’t know. I very rarely write for me–my one book that’s like yours, the unsold YA fantasy novel, is absolutely, hands down, no questions asked for me, but it’s also for everybody else, because, well, hell. What’s art without an audience?

    I had a friend ask me this the other day, if I ever write anything just for me, not intended for publication. And the answer is no. I mean, I do some online roleplay stuff using other people’s characters, and I did write one novel set in the Highlander universe (IMMORTAL BELOVED), but when I wrote that they were publishing Highlander tie-in novels, and I submitted it. But there’s not one thing in my ideas file that’s not intended tor public consumption.

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I pretty much agree with you, David. I write for me a little bit, but the truth is that, once the novel (or whatever) is written, I don’t re-read it for my pleasure. I want others to enjoy what I write, and if I somehow knew that would never happen, I’d find something else to create instead.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Catie — re your YA fantasy: yes, exactly! If ever there was a book that was for me, it’s this one that I haven’t sold. I wrote it in Australia, during our year there, when everything about my life was different and weird and geared toward living in the moment. And yet, I still have this very strong sense that it has to be published. For me, everything I write is intended to be out there eventually.

    Adam — That last point is key, it seems to me. You’d “find something else to create instead.” That’s where the “I do this for me” does in fact play a role. There are those of us who simply need to create in some way. Writing is my chosen medium, but it could have been photography or music or something else. But I create because I have to; and then I have to send it out into the world for people to see.

  4. 4. Laura

    Just as newbie and a self taught writer, I currently write for myself and I just did a short story for my husband. It is far more satisfying to write for somebody.

    And yes someday, I hope to earn a decent living. Not to be famous but just a living.

    There is nothing wrong with that or wanting an audience.

  5. 5. Radish

    Tough question at first glance.

    Upon reflection, I’ve realised that I write first for my Muse [She can be *such* a nag]. I write second for myself, because I have absolutely got to placate all the characters bouncing around inside my cranium demanding their joint and individual release. And I write third for whomever will read my stuff someday — agents, editors, audience, Martians, whathaveyou’s.

    But my Muse’s demands come first. Always.

    ~ sigh ~

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    I agree, Laura. There’s nothing wrong with wanting an audience and writing for others. I suppose I was just struck by how I was thinking about this unsold, recently completed novel I mentioned at the top of my post.

    And Radish — yes, my muse can be rather a pain in the butt, too, as can those characters clamoring to have their stories heard and related. I would consider both of those “writing for myself” and so it seems that’s what you do first and foremost. Good for you.

  7. 7. LJCohen

    David–I really resonated with everything you said here. I have always believed that art of any kind is a collaborative endeavor. It’s what exists in the space between the artist and the audience. I write because that’s how I best express myself, but I also write with the reader in mind.

    If someone had a crystal ball and told me that none of my books or stories would sell or find an audience, would I still write? Maybe poetry or short stories, but probably not novels. The time required to complete a novel is more than I would put in simply for myself.

    I also couldn’t justify taking that time from my family and from a job/income without the hope of making a living from the work. I would still create, but likely not the novel form.

    Wishing you well with your unsold book.

    (ps–nice to ‘meet’ you–I’m a new client at The Knight Agency–I’m listed right beneath your name on the roster–something my teen age son thinks is waaay cool, as he’s a fan of yours.)

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    I write because I can’t not create. When I quit theater cold turkey, it took about six weeks for the creativity to bubble over and for me to begin writing my first book. I might be able to shift from writing to some other endeavor that engaged the same part of my brain, but I need to create or I start to get more than a little strange. I always hope to be able to find an audience, but I don’t think I’d stop if I couldn’t. I tend to turn contract books in early because than I have more free time to write spec books. In other words my reward to myself for completing my paid writing work is writing work for fun–hopefully that’s work that will eventually generate income as well, but I do it primarily because I have to create.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Lisa, very nice to meet you, too. I’ve always thought that the interactive nature of writing is one of the great unexplored aspects of our art. And necessarily so. No two readers bring the same thing to their reading of a book, and so our books are different for each person who reads them. There’s no way to quantify or universalize the experience (part of the problem with reviews, if you ask me) and so it’s unique each time. In fact, I’d go further to say that when I reread a favorite novel, it’s a different book than it was the first time, because my experiences have changed me, allowed me to bring new things to the reading. I love thinking about this stuff….

    Kelly, thanks for the comment. It’s hard to pinpoint these things, because despite my comment directly above to Lisa, I also understand fully what you’re saying. I have to create as well, and, as I said in my post, I’d like to think that I’d continue to write even if I couldn’t sell any more novels. But I just don’t know — and frankly, I hope I don’t have to find out…

  10. 10. Adam Heine

    There are those of us who simply need to create in some way. Writing is my chosen medium, but it could have been photography or music or something else.

    David – exactly. For me it was writing or making computer games. If I could never get published, I’d publish it myself. If I couldn’t do that, I’d make games (which has its own publishing/self-publishing difficulties). If I couldn’t do that, I think I’d resign myself to GMing role-playing games for my friends.

    In some hellish dimension where I could never share anything I created with anybody, I think I’d go insane.

  11. 11. Laura Reeve

    I agree, David, particularly with your statement “If I couldn’t sell books I’m not sure that I could afford to write them.” Writing novels is time-consuming. I think that if I hadn’t sold any, I’d eventually have to devote more time to other creative outlets.

    In my case, my urge (or need?) is to tell stories to others and in the process, present puzzles for them to unravel. I’d probably go back to GMing role-playing games for friends, just like Adam, so I could get my storytelling “fix.”

  12. 12. Cathy

    I’m speaking here as a reader/bookbuyer who has zero knowledge of how the payment systems in the author’s world works, but… Are authors looking at the Radiohead type model for books? If you have a fan base, have written a book that you can’t sell to a publisher, are you more likely to see if you can sell the book yourself through Amazon’s Kindle store, your website, Indigo’s new online book system?

    I know that’s not a simple yes/no answer – there would be a lot of financial risks – but I was curious after reading your post and comments by other authors who have unsold work.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Adam and Laura — (and others as well) I have to say that I’ve found this discussion incredibly reassuring. I wasn’t sure when I posted this if I’d be labeled crass and commercial, that I’d be accused of being a mercenary rather than an artist. Glad to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Again, to reiterate: I love what I do; I write because I have to, and I don’t make nearly enough as a writer for anyone to claim legitimately that I’m in this for the money. But I write for others, too; at least in part, I write to be read.

  14. 14. Kelly McCullough

    David @ 13. I hope I didn’t leave the wrong impression. I certainly want my stuff to be read. A story without an audience is incomplete (at least for me). And I absolutely want to get paid for my writing. Money for art = good. My point was really that selling my work is secondary to not having my head explode from all the weirdness that wants to get out. There are all sorts of other reasons on down, but making a living and having an audience are right up there behind the not cracking level of motivation.

  15. 15. Chris Coen

    Arti is a conversation. It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with yourself, so we seek out an audience, IMO.

  16. 16. David B. Coe

    Cathy — Sorry, your post actually posted after I wrote my reply to Laura and Adam. I wasn’t ignoring you. The short answer to your question is that yes, authors do sell downloads and such directly to readers or through alternate e-sellers. The thing is, for many of us so-called “midlist” authors (not bestsellers, but not newbies either) it would be hard to generate enough sales to make the effort worthwhile. The books/distribution/bookstore system is imperfect at best, but it does get our books into places where people can see them, people we couldn’t reach any other way. For a big name author, the approach you’re talking about would be a viable alternative. I’m not sure it is for me.

    Kelly, I understood where you were coming from, because it’s not that different from my perspective. I’ve gone through a period in my life when I wasn’t writing (at least not fiction — academia [shudders] was not for me) and I know myself well enough to realize that if I once again had to earn my wage another way, my writing would slide.

    Chris, well put. Although I have to admit that I talk to myself all day….

  17. 17. cedunkley

    When I was younger I wrote all the time. My best friend from high school wrote as well so we both pushed each other.

    Eventually, life got in the way and writing fell by the wayside for a long time. However, the characters and the stories and the world building never stopped. Even though I was no longer writing, I was still creating (even if it was in my mind).

    About a year and a half ago I decided that it was a mistake to put writing aside and that it was time to not only write regularly again, but to work towards publication.

    Now I’m on that long uncertain road. I spent enough time away from writing to know I’m happiest when I write.

    Now, when (being positive here) I get published that will change things. I have no idea how writing to a contract will feel. Probably thrilling and terrifying all at once.

    In the end, I love my imagination and will find some creative outlet for it. Since I can’t draw or sing worth a damn, I’ll stick to storytelling through the written word.

  18. 18. David B. Coe

    CE, there’s nothing like not writing to make it clear to us how crucial the written word is to our existence. I wish you every success in your efforts to publish. Yes, writing professionally is different. There are pressures and additional responsibilities that make it something both less and more than “pure art”. But it’s worth that difference. Best of luck.

  19. 19. Lillian Skamsar

    For whom do we write? Well, I don’t know…or do I? I’ve recently published my first book, and I never really set out to do that, I think. You see, I’m a bit of a daydreamer. I have these stories, internal movies of sorts, and I like to watch them again… as you would re-read a great book.
    At work I started telling about one of my stories to one of my colleagues and friend (I found out we shared a lot of the same interests in books, movies, games etc.) He enjoyed it and the story just kept on evolving way past the point where I was able to remember all the details. So I had to write it down. I ended up with a complete manuscripts of sorts, and people urged me to try and publish it. I figured I didn’t have anything to loose and against all my expectations my book was accepted. It’s a JV program, but it’s out there. Yeah!
    So now there’s a possibility I might earn some money.
    The story is still evolving and I’ve started a sequel. This time I’m writing because I enjoy the story, and because people are asking me to. They want to know what happens to my hero etc.
    Now, I don’t think there’s only one reason why anyone would write a story/novel. There’s a lot of work after all, you’ll want to get something for your time and effort. Maybe one reason weighs more than the others, but never one.
    I know now, that I didn’t just write to remember the story, but also because I wanted to share it with my friends.
    Anyway, great post!
    Please check out my book: G.E.N.I. Genetically Enhanced Natural Intelligence

  20. 20. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Lillian, and congratulations on the publication of your first book! I hope that G.E.N.I. and its sequel are both successful.

    I agree with you that no one does this for only one reason, or for only one audience (be it an audience of one or of many). And I think for many of us, as for you, the reasons we write evolve over time.

    Again, thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

  21. 21. Adrian Kyte

    I wouldn’t believe anyone if they said they wrote a novel simply for themselves without a thought of an audience.

    When I started writing my first novel, The Hidden Realm, I was captivated by a scene in the first chapter that seemed pivotal to the character. Thoughts of who would read it, or whether it could be accepted by an agent/publisher, were not uppermost. After all, there’s been so many negative comments about the (traditional) publishing industry, by those with some connection, that as a debut author I’d have felt a sense of despair crushing any creativity if I’d taken them on board.

    Self publishing and POD may mean there’s no longer that fear that your book will never remain unpublished, but there’s so much out there it can become lost. And now even some successful authors are making chapters of their work available for free, or even the entire book!

    So it’s true that if you can make a living as an author you really are one of the fortunate few.

  22. 22. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comments, Adrian. I’d be reluctant to say that I didn’t believe someone — I think different people write for many different reasons. But I know that I write hoping for an audience and with that set of readers in mind. And yes, those of us who do this for a living never let a day go by without acknowledging how very lucky we are.

  23. 23. Naomi

    I know I’m weighing in late on this conversation – but I thought I might as well add my POV anyhow :-)

    David, I’ve been writing regularly for about 2 years. I started when I found out that I may not have overly long to live (sounds nice and dramatic, eh?) and I had some opportunity to think long and hard about what I wanted from life. I finally decided that:

    a) I wanted to write fiction;

    b) I wanted to write for an audience; and

    c) It would be nice to make a living from it.

    So I started writing, and publishing my work on a blog, and found an audience. Lo and behold, the audience encouraged me to keep writing, and still do.

    My point? That I most definitely write for an audience, although I tend to rate a story’s ‘success’ on how many people read it and comment positively on it. If no-one else likes it, but I love it… then I’ve got to wonder whether I communicated its ideas well enough. Because there should be someone out there in my audience with similar thoughts to my own in whatever area it might be.

  24. 24. Daniel R Davis

    You know, I don’t really have to do much soul searching to honestly say that, no, I don’t really write anything solely for me. Not short stories, not novel manuscripts, not even character histories and descriptions for roleplaying sessions I’m in. They’re usually mostly for other people. Sure, the character histories fill out my character and make it something far more interesting to play, but in the end, the other players benefit from those works as well as the life of the character I’m playing slowly unfolds in front of them during the game. Any short story, whether something I want to professionally get published or just something I want to post on the net, I’m doing to show off to others, for others to enjoy, for their entertainment as well as my own accomplishment. I do like the praise I get, which is great for me, but I want to share the work.

    As far as getting paid for writing for others, yep, I’d love to have that happen as well, which could be considered sort of writing for myself. I’d also love to become one of the New York Times Best Seller authors and make enough to allow my wife to quit her day job and start writing full time too. Still, even if that never happens, as long as I make enough to live a little better than we do now, enough to take a trip every once in a while or try something we’ve never tried before, to actually go rafting if we want (not that we really wanna), to put money away for our daughter’s education, to have some fun instead of living to pay bills and taxes. That would be good enough.

    I have been given a lot of artistic talent. It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.

  25. 25. Peggy

    Not an Author. Actually I don’t work at all. I’ve wrote a couple short stories for my daughter who wanted to be in stories and wanted them about books that just aren’t out there. I find it hard to believe any other girl would want to read them. Lol she is a bit tomboy. Maybe I’ll give them to her when she gets married to read to her children.

    As a reader. I read more then my mind could ever hold. There are those wonderful stories that no matter what you read or how many more books later. Your always looking for another like it. Sometimes you never forget that book, sometimes it might be just a character you cant forget. Hands of Flames by C. E. Murphy the Gargoyle Alban. I still want to fly away with him. Lol I Haven’t read the book since it released. but I can still remember the Name, Arthur, and Alban. You can’t forget Grit. Just a huge Thanks to all those that do write no matter who its for. I lovingly enjoy them.

    Truthfully Some of my favorite reading is all the Extras usually. Everything the Editor said had to be cut. I love when I get to a favorite Authors site and there they are.


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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe ( is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (, and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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