One thing you can’t ignore when you’re self-publishing fiction is the marketplace. However, I did ignore it when I began because I didn’t know any better. I wrote my first book, Company Town, as part of NanoWriMo, the annual “competition” to produce a 50,000-word book in 30 days. I chose that story in particular because I didn’t have any other ideas. Only retroactively did I realize “Town” fit into the popular Urban Fantasy genre —a genre I probably should have avoided. Let’s continue to learn from my self-publishing difficulties…
I said above Urban Fantasy is popular. Turns out it’s too popular, or, in other words, highly competitive. Of all genres to choose for a break-in novel, UF might’ve been one of the worst. There are several established authors in the niche and a glut of material being produced. That means, in order to stand out, you need to bring your A-game. Your cover should be top-notch and your story needs to hit all the right tropes in order to resonate with readers. I’m not sure Company Town did either of those things.
I addressed my situation with book covers in Part One, so let’s focus on expectations. I’ve been told my writing is “subversive”; that it tends to defy genre convention. This isn’t something I set out to do —and it’s worked in my favor many times —but audiences want to have their needs met. It’s the old adage, “give me the same, but different”. You can put your spin on something, but you’d better hit the standard beats too. If you don’t, you run the risk of creating something that fails to satisfy. If you push too hard against the tropes of a genre, you may end up creating something that doesn’t belong in that niche. A handy tool for gauging reader desire is the website TVTropes. You can look up nearly any genre and get the conventions for that kind of story.
As I became more immersed in self-publishing, I began to do my research. I began to learn the things I didn’t know when I wrote Company Town. In the field there’s a concept called “Write to Market” — perhaps best explained in a book by Chris Fox called, you guessed it, Write to Market. The idea is you don’t write blindly, you research ahead of time a niche that will not only be pleasurable to write in, but also give you a chance at making money. If I’d applied Fox’s methodology to Urban Fantasy before writing my first book, I’d have likely seen the category was too competitive and chosen to write another story.
A brief overview of Write to Market‘s approach to research is probably in order. It’s relatively simple…
Amazon maintains bestsellers lists for every genre it sells. Not just genres, but also sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres). When you begin your market research, pick a few categories you’d be comfortable writing in. Don’t go for the main lists. For instance, “Science Fiction” is way too competitive. You need to drill down. Within “Science Fiction” there are numerous offshoots. “Space Opera”, “Post-apocalypse”, “Time Travel”, to name just a few. Once you’ve got a bestsellers list for one of those sub-genres in front of you, look at the sales ranks for specific books on the list. To find those ranks, click the link for a particular book and scroll down to “Product Details”. There you’ll see stats like these:
You want the bottom portion where it gives the sales rank for that book in the store overall and within the sub-genres, it qualifies for. The only rank you care about right now is the overall sales rank (“#815, 485 Paid in the Kindle Store”, in the above example).
To see whether or not a category is viable, look at bestseller numbers #1, #20, #40, and #50–100. If book #1 is ranked less than 1,000; #20 is ranked less than 2,000; #40 is around 8,000; and books #50 – #100 are all at #25,000 or above then, according to Fox, you have a genre worth exploring. I’ve never found a genre that lines up exactly with those numbers, but it doesn’t have to be exact.
At this point in my author journey, I have yet to find much success. In an effort to course-correct, I spent several afternoons recently doing the research Write to Market suggests. I identified a sub-genre I’d feel comfortable writing in, I ran the numbers, and I bookmarked the tropes of the genre for use as I plot the story. I suspect writing to market will improve my standing as an independent novelist, but I don’t think it’ll be the end-all-be-all.
Anyway, join me as I continue to learn from my self-publishing difficulties.