Knowing where you best fit into the book market is one of your first steps to taking control of your career and author brand.
In the indie publishing world, there’s a technique called ‘writing to market’ where authors scour Amazon sub-categories to pinpoint a growing trend. They then write and publish in time to leverage what they hope will be hungry market based on that trend (by the way, this is different from what's known as 'genre-swapping' where publishers will list your novel in a vaguely related category small enough to get your book to the top of the pile). You can find out more here about Chris Fox's brilliant insights into writing to trend.
'Writing to trend?!' I can imagine some of you gasping in horror. After all, we're told all the time by agents and publishers not to write to trends. And with good reason for those of us who are trad published. Our publishing cycle is too bloody slow to chase a trend that could well have disappeared or evolved by the time a book is released.
But even if you don't want to write to trend, we authors can use some of the techniques to help us understand our place in that market. By learning this, we can position our author brand and our books to leverage more sales and positive reviews.
Maybe you're reading this thinking you already know your place in the market. Are you sure? Follow the steps below and you might be surprised. In fact, just taking those steps will reap benefits, trust me. It's the best learning curve I ever took.
You see, back in 2017, I published my fourth novel Her Last Breath. It was pitched as a psychological thriller with the description “A girl has gone missing. You’ve never met her, but you’re to blame.” It had a dark cover of a woman looking like she was about to jump into a stormy ocean and I'd written it very much focused on delivering a plot which offered twist after twist.
It was different from my first two novels which were pitched more as being women's fiction. Why change direction? As I explain in this interview for the Honest Authors Podcast, I wanted a bite of the psychological thriller cherry after seeing what a success other authors were making of it. My third novel, No Turning Back, had seen me move into darker territory and as it had sold well, I reasoned going even darker would make sense.
But then the sales figures started coming in: Her Last Breath was attracting my weakest launch sales to date. When I realised the sales weren't great, I did what all good authors do: s*it myself, ha! But then I decided to take action. I did some research and some thinking, and it soon became clear what the problem was: I'd confused my readers.
First, some of my loyal readers who love the women’s fiction elements of my writing - the character journey, the family drama, the heart-breaking tear-jerking revelations - were turned off by the packaging and the fact I hadn't focused as much on the character journey. The fact is, the crime and thriller elements weren’t a strong motivator for them.
Second, readers who were looking for a new psychological thriller to read were disappointed. It wasn't quite dark enough. Here are some of the comments readers made:
'I would define this book as a family saga with suspenseful elements rather than an edge of your seat high-end thriller.'
'Tracy Buchanan writes well, the story starts at a good pace, there is right amount of suspense at the right areas. The story starts with a bang but there is something missing to make it a complete thriller.'
Of course, there could be lots of contributing factors when it comes to sales. But I strongly feel it was mainly down to my confusion about where I sat in the market, which had a knock-on effect on how I wrote the novel itself and then how it was packaged.
By figuring this out, I was able to pinpoint what direction I needed to go in next. From my research, it became clear women's fiction is my strong suit. As soon as I realised that, I began writing The Lost Sister, a book that feels so so right to me. Even though it's not out as I write this post, early reviews show me I've made the right choice to return to my women's fiction roots.
So how can you figure out your place in the market? Here are 5 simple steps which can help you determine, and embrace, your true place in the market. As I said, even if you're sure you already know your place, this can be a really useful exercise for all readers. Here are 5 tips...
1) Look at your reviews:
Reader reviews, as painful as they can sometimes be, are a goldmine in helping you shape your writing and chances of success with subsequent novels. Even if you just select the four and five-star reviews on Amazon, you’ll learn something. I learned those readers who loved my writing adored the women’s fiction elements of my novels and compared me to the likes of Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. Those who didn’t were frustrated I’d pitched myself as a thriller author when I wasn’t. This really helped me with my next novel.
2) Look at Amazon’s categories:
List five genres you believe your writing belongs in. Don’t worry if this is a struggle as this is something that will become clearer along the process. For me, it would be women’s fiction, psychological thrillers, crime, contemporary fiction, and romance. Now go look at these categories on Amazon (I looked at the UK and US sites). Glance at the descriptions of the novels in the top 25 or more for Kindle and paperbacks. Which categories feature novels that sound most like your best-selling novel and the novel you’re hoping to write next? This is the genre you should be focusing on. For me, it became clear that women's fiction was the category I should be focusing on.
3) Look at annual bestsellers:
Sometimes, a bestseller can be a fleeting thing. Someone may have got the top spot for a day or two, and never see it again. Do not get lost in the noise of the short-term bestsellers, we are after longevity. Therefore, I recommend looking at the top selling author lists that usually come out at the end of the year which reveal that year's overall bestsellers. Use it to learn more about the authors doing well in your market...and how they do it.
4) Gather data:
Compile an evidence document that includes cover and description examples used by the bestselling authors in your genre. What categories are they listed under? How does this compare with your positioning? This information will be useful for marketing discussions with your publisher.
5) Immerse yourself in your genre.
Sure, you might already be social media friends with authors who write in your genre, but do not limit yourself to just following other authors to immerse yourself. There are some amazing associations and groups that offer support and champion your genre. Once I got to grips with the fact that I write women’s fiction, I discovered the Romantic Novelists Association and I can honestly say I have gained so much from this wonderful community. Attend their events, engage in the community and embrace your genre.
These simple steps, whilst not a magic bullet, will help you lay a foundation to understanding what your audience craves in your writing, how other authors find success in this genre and, ultimately, where your writing should be aimed to maximise your sales.