How many of us have agonised over this question?
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a published writer (not unless you count shorts or poetry, and I'm not sure the markets there are the same as for novels); I'm not a literary agent; I don't work for a publishing house. This is the opinion of yet another author-waiting-in-the-wings.
I've read many posts by professionals and beginners alike who say: don't worry about whether you'll be able to sell it or not; just write the damn thing.
To a point, I agree. You can't force yourself to write something you aren't really feeling, so to speak; you can only write within your own remit. But what if that remit includes edgier, hard-to-place fiction and more commercial creatures? If you want to sell a novel -- to be a career novelist eventually -- aren't you better off devoting the bulk of your time to the more commercial stuff if you can write it just as well?
The biggest caveat here is your ability to determine what is "commercial" and what is not. There's no magic checklist, after all. For the purpose of this little piece, I'm not referring to something that follows a specific trend (such as vampires or dystopian) -- I'm talking about the accessible, genre-friendly stuff. Stories that bend rules rather than break them (if they bend rules at all). Happy (or at least resolute) endings, characters who are easy to root for, jokes that you don't need to be particularly well-read to get...
Case in point: I have been posting my writing online for a while. When I post my more experimental, literary stuff, I get far less of a response. The few comments I do get are nice and often very in-depth, but the pieces do not receive a great deal of attention. When I post a genre romance, however (albeit one in my own style), I do ridiculously better in comparison. I've wondered for a time if the genre stuff is simply better, but I'm not sure that's the case.
My current novel on submission is a strange mongrel of erotica, psychological thriller, literary fiction and genre fiction. I couldn't place it if I wanted to because it does not fit any particular trope (in the end, I queried it as women's fiction). A couple of agents have the manuscript but I have no doubt that it will be hard to sell (will certainly be interested to get some feedback in that regard, should they be so kind). All in all, finding a home for this novel is proving to be a frustrating experience. So when I came to decide on my next projects, I can't deny that one of the questions I asked myself was -- which has more commercial appeal?
Is it the weird literary thriller that begins and ends with the same three bodies, and has no discernible heroes or villains? I don't know how the hell I'd query that one. How many people want to read a story when they know the ending is tragic up-front? (How likely am I to score a Time Traveller's Wife...?). Or is it the feisty, fun women's fiction which I could readily see on the shelves of WH Smith?
I'm writing them both. I can't not; the characters call to me (and one's a murderer, so it isn't in my best interests to ignore him). But I couldn't face just writing another genreless novel, not when I need to sell a piece if I want to keep doing this. I need the back-up. (It's true that I'm not guaranteed to sell the more commercial one either, but I can tell simply by the market share of the genre which I have a better chance of selling).
Ideally, I'd find homes for both and the genre fiction would fund my writing of the literary fiction (literary being less profitable these days). But I'm a writer, so...ideally, hah.
Has anyone else had a similar dilemma? Do you judge a project solely on how much you like the idea, and would you continuously write novels that were difficult to sell just because you loved them?