Is writing art, or is writing a job?
This is gonna have to be long. You already know all of this, but it’s to give some context.
The question was spawned in the eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution and the rise in alphabetization introduced the concept of “free time”. Before then, there was no doubt: literature was something rich/educated people enjoyed as a form of art, and the commercialization of that was reduced to either collections in the mansion of a nobleman or the pastime of someone working as a notary. You enjoy Machiavelli, if I remember correctly: he wasn’t a professional writer, they just didn’t exist. Writing was from the upper class, for the upper class. The population didn’t have the time, or the money, or the education.
But then something changed: when people stopped working mostly with crops, suddendly they realised they had a lot of time to spend for themselves in the city. Some started drinking it away, some turned to entertainment. And books, now that most people had access to both education and daily sources of reading (such as newspapers, or simply factory instructions) became entertainment.
This was met with fiery opposition from the old writers. Now people who were able to earn from writing? Unconceivable! And what’s more important, they weren’t doing it because they had a message to send. They were looking for readers, and it showed: Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes due to popular demand, creating the first retcon. Dickens changed the plot in the successive installments of his stories according to the reaction of the public. Collodi rewrote the story of Pinocchio so that he didn’t die in the belly of the whale. Popular demand dictated the writer.
All of those people either hated these changes or didn’t view their work as art.
From this point of view, Fifty Shades of Grey would be the best book of all times. It’s the best selling one. Yet it’s ****. Same for Twilight.
The famous books we always hear about from the past aren’t the best selling ones, also. I’ve studied History of Publishing, and I can guarantee you that bestsellers only manage to survive the test of time if they’re good. There are a lot of books that sold more than those remembered by universities that would be considered really bad by today standards… and even by the standards back then.
But let’s put idealism aside. Let’s say that quality isn’t your focus. You want to sell. How do you do it?
The first way would be to follow in the footsteps of what’s popular - see the massive wave of vampire/werewolves/angels love stories that followed the Twilight craze. That kind of thing sells, because fans of something are always looking for more stuff to quench their thirst. But they don’t last: where are all the Twihards now? Young Adult is what’s in these days, but even that seems to be destined not to last for long.
So, if you want to sell yourself and make a quick buck, find out what’s popular and copy that. You won’t go hungry, but you’ll have to repeat it every couple of months. But you will never be able to form a solid fanbase that way, because people will follow you for what’s popular, not for what you write. Also, after a while they will realise that. And also, again, the Internet is chock-full of those people. You’d be a drop in the ocean.
The other way is to be ahead of the curve and anticipate the next shift in popular culture. That’s impossible. It’s basically random, and if there was some way to do that you can bet that publishers would be in way better shape than they are now. You can’t anticipate what’s going to be popular. You can either try to enforce it through aggressive marketing, or bet everything on something you’re convinced will sell. That’s just luck, though.
The third way is the one I prefer. We live in the age of the death of the middleman: people will interact personally with their authors. They will form communities, write wikies, create forums and try to convince other people that what they like is really good. And those people will never follow an author if they think he’s viewing them just as a source of money. You have to build trust, and to build trust you must write what you believe in, not what you believe will sell. Of course you must also shape your works in the way you think would work best with your readers, but if they’re born because of that, nobody will spend their time talking about them on the internet.
I personally just write what I’d want to read. If I think it’s good, I’m confident other people will think it’s good.
The rest, to me, it’s luck.