Archive for publishing business

writing, publishing business

When the Machines Take Over

One of the biggest topics in the writing community right now is the growth of artificial intelligence — or, more accurately, language learning models that can simulate writing. These aren’t actually “intelligent.” They’re basically glorified autocomplete. They were “trained” by getting input from written work available on the Internet, and from there they figured out what was most likely to come next based on prompts.

One reason this is an issue is that the people whose works were used to train it weren’t asked if this was okay, so it’s unauthorized use of their work. Another reason is that this is essentially a machine that automates mosaic plagiarism. It’s not writing anything new. It’s just cobbling together bits and pieces of other written work to create what’s essentially a word mosaic. There have been authors who got caught doing this when readers recognized phrases from other books. They take existing books and copy and paste bits and pieces together. It’s not a direct copy, but it’s not original, either. This technology just automates that.

Another reason it’s an issue is that it may make it harder to make a living as a writer because of people who don’t understand what it does and think it offers a shortcut. This is one of the things screenwriters are fighting about in the current writers strike. They’re concerned that studios will use AI to “write” scripts and then hire writers to “edit” or rewrite them into something that can be used. There are different payment scales based on whether someone gets credit for the story, for the script, or just for a rewrite, and studios could try to save money by not crediting an actual writer for the story or the original draft of the script, just for doing a “polish” on an AI-created script, even though it might actually take more effort to turn it into something that could be filmed than it would to write a new script.

For non-fiction writing, like marketing communications (my field when I’m not writing fiction), technical writing, and journalism, there have already been writers fired and replaced with AI. Never mind that it’s extremely dangerous to use it for fact-based writing because it makes stuff up. It doesn’t find information. It just creates something that seems likely based on information that’s already out there. There’s an attorney currently in huge trouble because he turned his legal research over to one of the AI engines to have it write his legal briefs, and it cited entirely fictional cases. It created a legal brief based on other legal briefs, but the cases didn’t exist. I have author friends who’ve played with it, since it’s supposedly a good tool for writing marketing copy, author bios, and the like, but they found that it made up stuff. It didn’t accurately describe the book, made up facts for the bio, and added non-existent books to the list of books in the series.

For fiction writers, there’s already an impact in the short-fiction market as publications have had to close to submissions because they were getting deluged with AI-written drivel. Most publications don’t want to publish anything AI-written because it can’t be copyrighted. It’s an amalgam of other works, so there’s a potential plagiarism issue. Plus, it’s not very good. It can imitate styles of other writers, but it has no real authorial voice, no story logic, no real soul. Apparently, it got out on some “side hustle” advice channel that an easy way to make money is to let AI write short stories for you. Never mind that even at the big publications you’re making a couple of hundred bucks if you manage to sell something. But the swamp of these bogus stories that aren’t good enough for publication, whether or not they’re AI-written, is making more work for editors and making it harder for real writers to get past the noise, especially if they’re newcomers. Editors may start focusing on authors they’ve already worked with or know by reputation because that means it’s more likely that the story is worth publication. A new writer without a reputation may get lost in the shuffle.

Novelists are likely to see the impact in discoverability. The online bookstore algorithms tend to favor new releases, and an author may get an overall boost when they have a new release. If someone can churn out a book with AI in a day, they can flood the marketplace with constant new releases, which crowds out the authors who take weeks or months to write a book the hard way. Even if readers don’t end up buying those books, their listings will stay front-and-center. It will be harder for readers to discover new books and authors.

Publishers already look for new books that are like what’s currently successful, and it’s not hard to imagine some of them seeing this as a shortcut. Get the machine to produce something like the current hot thing, then have an editor clean it up. Then they don’t have to deal with authors and they can get to market faster, jumping on the trend before it passes.

One argument I’ve heard for using AI is that it “democratizes” writing, making it so everyone can do it. Writing is hard, they say, and not everyone wants to put in the time to do it. To which I say, if you don’t enjoy doing it and don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it. You can do something else. If you do enjoy it but are frustrated because your skills don’t match your vision, this may seem to provide a convenient shortcut. Just plug your idea into the computer, and it writes the story for you. But it doesn’t really get you past that frustration gap because if you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning how to write. Plugging your idea into a computer isn’t going to help you grow to be a better writer. You’ll just get better at wording the way you put your ideas into the computer. If you aren’t willing to put in the work to write until you get good at it, then maybe you don’t enjoy the process of writing and should do something else with your time.

I suspect this is another outcome of that side hustle culture, the idea that everything you do should be monetized. If you enjoy writing, you’ve got to be able to make money at it somehow, and now. You’re not making money from it during the time you’re writing just to get better at writing, so you want that shortcut. I also suspect that there’s a lot of overlap between the “writing is hard and this democratizes it” people and the people who believe that everyone can write, so it’s not really a specialized skill people should get paid to do.

I just don’t understand the idea of automating the things that are fun and that are part of human expression, like art and writing. They talk about how even though jobs and opportunities will be lost for writing, there will be new careers in editing AI-written output. But that’s automating the fun part and keeping just the tedious part. You’re not actually doing the thing when you use these tools. You’re getting output as though you’ve done it. I’ve found that I’m sanest when I’m in the creation phase of writing, when I’m coming up with ideas and writing early drafts. When I come close to burnout, it’s when I’m in the proofreading phase. I’d hate to get to where that’s the only part I get to do.

Where I’d love some kind of automation and artificial intelligence is to get a truly good spellchecker, one that looks at context, so if your typo accidentally creates a real word that’s spelled correctly, the spellchecker can tell it’s the wrong word for the context and flags it. Or it would catch when you use the wrong version of a word (like “their” vs. “there”). And it would be able to tell whether or not you need that comma. It would be trained on fiction, so it would work better than the existing grammar checkers. Automate the tedious, boring stuff, not the fun, creative parts.

publishing business

Writing to Market

I recently saw a workshop on writing to market, and I’ve realized where I may have gone astray in deciding what to write. It seems that just writing what you want to read isn’t necessarily the best plan.

The idea of writing to market is to look at what you like to read and want to write, then look at where it might fit into the market. In the days when you just bought books in bookstores, there were only the broadest categories. Fiction might fit into science fiction, fantasy (or one combined science fiction and fantasy section), mystery, western, romance, maybe horror (if that wasn’t added to the science fiction and fantasy section), and then general fiction for everything else. You didn’t have to worry so much about where things might be shelved, though that was sometimes a problem when you crossed genres. For instance, Enchanted, Inc. ended up shelved in general fiction rather than fantasy because it was published by a general fiction imprint rather than a fantasy imprint, and they considered it chick lit/women’s fiction, not fantasy, mostly because that was the hot category at the time.

And there was still the issue of the publisher trying to figure out if it was the kind of book within a genre that might sell, mostly by comparing it to something else they thought might have the same audience and looking at how well that sold.

Now, though, the online bookstores have some pretty narrow categories. Within fantasy, there are categories like action/adventure, humorous, dragons and mythical creatures, coming of age, epic, historical, gaslamp, etc., etc. You need to figure out where your book fits best, if it contains what readers who like that category are looking for, and if there’s a good market for that category that’s not oversaturated.

One exercise the speaker suggested was to look at the top 50 books in the category. Would your book fit there? There may be some variety, as each category can contain some very different books, but are there some books in the top 50 like yours? Then look at the ranking of the #50 book. If it’s really high, then that might mean the category is crowded and you’d have to be a bestseller in the whole store to get on the first page of the bestseller list. But if the ranking is really low, that might mean that category isn’t a good seller. Ideally, the ranking of the #50 book on the list would be high enough to suggest that these books make money, but not so high that you’d have to have a huge hit to have any visibility.

Then look at the reviews for the books that seem closest to yours. There are some links at the top of the review section mentioning terms that frequently come up in reviews. A lot of those are tropes or other things readers look for in that kind of book. Skimming the reviews can give you a good idea of tropes these readers like, things they don’t like, and what they expect in a book like this.

You can then keep all this in mind as you write so that you’re going into a category where you might sell and you’re giving those readers what they want. Then you can also use this info when you’re marketing the book.

Doing this made me realize that a book I was working on last year and shelved so that I could get out a couple more mysteries, and then work on a different fantasy project, is probably my more marketable fantasy idea right now. It adheres a bit more closely to having what these readers are looking for. Not that the other idea doesn’t, but it’s not as easy to describe those elements for that idea.

So many of my ideas are oddballs, things I’m writing because I want to read them but can’t find them. That can be satisfying from a creative standpoint, and the readers who find these books love them because they also want these kinds of things and can’t find them, but it’s not so great for actually selling books at a big enough volume to make money.

I’ve found that the category that probably best fits my book is one in the sweet spot, so that’s good. Now as I write it (when I get to it after a couple of other things), I’ll keep the reader expectations in mind, and I’ll use that info in things like the book description and in getting cover designs. I don’t think it’ll change my writing too much. It’s not so much about chasing a trend as it is about keeping in mind what readers are looking for. It’s fun for me to write stories I love, but I only earn money if I write things readers love.

publishing business

Serious Business

I’ve been trying to up my game on the business side of the writing business, so I’ve been doing a lot of online workshops. There’s currently an online conference I’m “attending,” so I’m in the middle of an overwhelmed phase as I try to sort through all the information and figure out what I can make myself do and what might make a difference. I’m in awe of the people who’ve written and published something like 100 books in the past ten or so years. There are people who started writing after I started independently publishing who already have more books out than I do, and they’re making millions at it.

I don’t know how they do it. I just about burned out from trying to write more than three books a year, and I haven’t even tried to do all the advertising and promotion they talk about. My brain starts frying when they talk about figuring out ad spend and audiences, and all that — and I used to work at an advertising agency (I worked on the public relations side, but we often had a full-service account team, so I heard what the ad people were up to in client meetings). They spend thousands of dollars in promotion. I think some of them spend more in promotion than I earn in total.

But I do need to sell more books, so I’m trying to do little things that might make a difference, like tweaking Amazon listings for search engine optimization (just typing that makes me twitch). I’ve tried putting some stuff up on Pinterest. I have the video project (new one should be coming Friday, if I get it edited). I’m thinking about splurging and applying to do a Book Bub promo deal. I’m updating the backmatter in the e-books to list all my books and make it easier for readers to find more of my books.

I’m adding new ideas to that list of things to do, but the trick is figuring out if any of it makes any difference. My book sales are all over the place. There are good days and bad days, and on the good days it’s seldom any one book selling a lot of copies. It’s one copy each of just about everything. That makes it hard to tell what promo activity is actually working, or if any of it has anything to do with any promo activity. And that makes it hard for me to motivate myself to do all this stuff. If I saw a clear spike in sales after I did something, it would spur me to do more, but I think a lot of this stuff is slow-build, long-term in nature. It’s cumulative rather than immediate.

I’m really impressed with these authors who write so many books and also manage to do so much promotion. When do they sleep? I would snap completely. I feel like a total slacker, so I’m trying to be better about sticking to a good working schedule and limiting breaks during the workday.

This is why it would be terrible for me to go back to a day job. A regular full day’s work would be draining, especially if I was still trying to write on the side. But I have to sell more books if I want to avoid that fate, so I’m trying to put in the work.

publishing business


The big news in the book world this week was Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter campaign that basically broke the Internet and Kickstarter. The last I heard, he’d raised more than 20 million dollars in only a few days. He announced that he’d written four extra books during the pandemic, during the time he usually would have been traveling to book events and conventions. Now he’s offering these books at various tiers, from e-book to a subscription box with monthly stuff and special hardcover editions of the books. This has had a lot of authors (and publishers, I’m sure) considering the possibilities.

I haven’t tried doing any kind of crowdfunding because the fulfillment would be time consuming. When I publish a book, I just send it to the booksellers, and they take care of getting it to readers. With a Kickstarter, I’d have to buy the books and then mail them out. Sanderson has an infrastructure and staff for this sort of thing (and likely will use a fulfillment house to actually put the boxes together and send them out). I doubt I’d sell enough to make a fulfillment house worthwhile, and I don’t really want to spend my evenings filling and labeling boxes. Doing a Kickstarter takes either time or money. I wouldn’t rake in that kind of money, and I don’t really have the time. For the release of one of the Enchanted, Inc. books, I did a mailing to a list of targeted booksellers, introducing the series and sending some bookmarks they could hand out to customers. I don’t think there were more than 50 on the list, and just printing, signing, and folding the letters and stuffing and labeling the envelopes took me at least a week of evenings. For the release of Rebel Mechanics, the publisher sold it to a subscription box, so I had to sign 700 book plates to put in those books, and that took me days.

I can’t even imagine the workload that would come with selling enough things to raise millions. In my PR days, I worked on the launch of the cellular network now known as Verizon. Back then, a “cell phone” was something expensive that businessmen used to make important calls. They were launching a different kind of network (digital) that would be used for everyday things, so the launch event was a pizza party. The executive would make the first call on the network to order pizza. The invitations to the press and VIPs were sent in pizza boxes, and our staff got to spend a weekend putting those packages together. (I did not get pizza. I had to work in the company’s PR office that day so their PR people could go to the event. And then there was a bomb threat at their headquarters, so I spent most of the day standing in the parking lot after they evacuated the building. This is one of the reasons I write books now instead.)

I also haven’t tried to do any other kind of crowdfunding thing, like Patreon. I can’t get 300 people to subscribe to my newsletter for free, so I can’t imagine getting anyone to pay any kind of monthly fee, and I have no idea what I’d offer to subscribers. I can’t come up with something to put in a newsletter most of the time, and my fiction writing goes into my books. It seems that my fan base just wants to read books. They don’t subscribe to newsletters or do social media, or anything like that, so the best use of my time is writing. Not that I could write four extra books of the length Sanderson writes. I wrote three short books last year and just about burned out (though I don’t know how much of that was the writing itself, what I was writing, or the general state of the world and having almost no social interaction).

So, don’t be looking for a Kickstarter from me. But buying my books would be nice. Ideally, I could get back into traditional publishing and have a publisher deal with all the business stuff so I wouldn’t even have the up-front expenses, but they don’t really want me, so I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and hope it works.


publishing business

Category Confusion

As part of the idea of finding a lane and sticking to it, I’ve been taking a look at the various categories that books are sold in, primarily at Amazon. And that gets confusing because there’s no actual definition for any of the categories. Authors and publishers can select the categories themselves, and Amazon may select other categories based on similar audiences. The best you can do for figuring out the definition of a category is look at the books that are in there, and that’s not always consistent.

For instance, in fantasy, there are categories like “action and adventure,” “epic,” “historical,” and “sword and sorcery.”

Action & Adventure seems like a catch-all. Most traditional fantasy has some kind of action and adventure in it, and the category is full of the common bestselling fantasy series, like A Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time, and stuff by Brandon Sanderson, as well as a lot of Dungeons and Dragons game manuals. So maybe you could classify this category as “fantasy for people who play D&D.”

The Epic Fantasy category has pretty much the same books as Action & Adventure, plus the Lord of the Rings books (which may have also been in the A&A category, but further down, as I didn’t drill too deep).

If you asked me to guess which books would be in “Historical Fantasy,” I’d have gone with books set in a defined point in history, but with the addition of fantasy elements, such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is about the Napoleonic Wars but with a magician as part of the British forces, or the Temeraire series, about the Napoleonic Wars but with an air force consisting of dragons. I guess you could also call that alternative history, but I tend to think of alt history as where history has gone off in a very different direction because something different happened, like my Rebels books, while those books have more or less the same history playing out, but it does so with fantasy elements. We’re not seeing what happens if England loses to Napoleon at Waterloo, just England winning at Waterloo with the help of a wizard. So, fantasy set in the history of our world, vs. secondary world fantasy.

And yet, I remember the Deryni books by Katherine Kurtz being called “historical fantasy.” They were secondary world, but that world was based very closely on our world. Kurtz was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism and was a stickler for getting the details right. There might have been people with magical powers in her world, but aside from that, she wanted the clothing, weapons, and technology to be historically accurate for the period in which she set her books. In one of the books, there’s an author’s note apologizing for using a kind of boat that didn’t come along for another hundred years or so after the period she was writing about, but she needed a boat with particular capabilities for the plot to work. Her land was roughly based on Britain, but with a somewhat different geography and very different politics, but did have Christianity. So I guess “historical fantasy” could also be about a secondary world based closely on a particular era of our world instead of being wildly different and having races like elves and dwarfs.

Looking at what’s actually in the category, it’s a lot of the same things that were in the other categories, plus the Outlander books and Erin Morgenstern’s books (The Night Circus, etc.).

I’ve thought of Sword & Sorcery as being something like the Conan the Barbarian books. But I’m reading a fantasy series now that has a blurb on the cover calling it “one of the best sword and sorcery fantasies in years,” or something to that effect, and I’m not sure I’d ever have looked for something like it in that category. There are swords, and there’s magic, but the focus of the series is on the relationships among the characters. On Amazon, that category is almost identical to Action & Adventure and Epic.

You get very different results if you look in “books” instead of “Kindle e-books” since the Kindle Unlimited books dominate in e-books, and those tend to go after a very different audience. They’re very trope-driven and are very much in that “find your lane and stay with it” way of writing. You also see different things if you look at the bestsellers vs. just browsing in the category (the bestsellers are a current snapshot, but there’s some kind of consideration of sales over time in browsing, apparently).

I find all this a bit frustrating as both a reader and a writer. It doesn’t help in finding books if the same books are in every category. Why bother having such narrow categories at all if they all end up being the same, anyway? When there’s little difference between the books you see in plain-old “Fantasy” and the books you see when you break it down into smaller categories, and there’s little difference between categories, there’s no point in having the smaller categories. You might as well be like the big bookstores and just have a general “Science Fiction and Fantasy” section. Yeah, you might have some books that are historical, epic, action & adventure, romantic sword & sorcery, but all of them? Maybe what we need are more specific categories — secondary world, quest stories, non-grimdark (or shove grimdark into its own category without it also spilling over into all the other categories). And maybe separate categories for romantic urban fantasy (that’s really just paranormal romance) and “traditional” fantasy with romantic elements. I guess you can drill down into some of that with keyword searches, but I haven’t had a lot of luck. I even have software that lets me look up how a particular book is classified and what books you get when you search for a particular keyword, and that hasn’t helped me find books. Yeah, the software’s supposed to be for self-published writers to figure out which keywords and categories will be best, but I find it’s also useful to look up a particular book I like to see what categories it’s in, so I can then look there for other books like it.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t make it any easier to figure out which “lane” would be the best fit when they’re all more or less the same. I’ve got a virtual conference starting this weekend about the business side of publishing, so maybe I’ll learn something there that will help me.

publishing business

Romance and Fantasy

My panel last weekend at the Nebula conference was about romance and science fiction/fantasy. As usual, I thought of all the good things to say in the middle of the night days after the panel, so I’ll discuss the topic here.

I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about being put on the romance and sf panel every year, at just about every convention. I don’t mind so much at the Nebulas, since I probably do have more expertise in that area than most people at that conference, having actually written romance novels, and that conference is aimed at writers. But I also feel like I’m getting “typecast” by the industry in general, both at conventions and by publishers, and the fact that I keep ending up on the romance or paranormal romance panels may perpetuate that typecasting.

The thing is, I last wrote romance more than 20 years ago. I haven’t been involved with Romance Writers of America for about a decade. The books I write now could not be shelved as romance and wouldn’t even be considered by a romance publisher. The Enchanted, Inc. books got shelved as general fiction because they were published as “chick lit,” which is not romance, and that publisher keeps doing Book Bub ads (which is good) for them as paranormal romance, which they aren’t (which is not so good). When you look at that book, the heroine has bad dates with multiple guys, and just has a bit of attraction to the guy who ends up being the romantic interest for the series. There’s not even a kiss until book two. I said on the panel that I write “shipper bait” because the romantic content is more about readers wanting my characters to get together than it is about actual romance on the page. People consider my books romantic, but I think that’s mostly because they make readers feel romantic. It’s not because there’s that much romance in the books.

When it comes to readers, I don’t care how they consider the books, as long as they’re reading them. The problem I have is when it comes to publishers, because they persist in seeing me as a romance writer. As I mentioned, the publisher for Enchanted, Inc. promotes it as paranormal romance. If someone is really looking for paranormal romance, they’d be disappointed in this book, in which the only real romantic content is a general sense that you like this guy the heroine has no romantic relationship with and you want them to get together. Some readers are cool with that. I’m sure others are disappointed, and then there are all the readers who might like it because they aren’t looking for romance, but they aren’t being promoted to so they don’t find it or know about it. Then the fact that it’s promoted as paranormal romance means that the people who buy it also buy paranormal romances, and that triggers the bookselling algorithms, so it’s recommended to people who also bought paranormal romances, who are less likely to actually like it, and it’s not being promoted to people who might like it.

Then there’s the way publishers see other things I write. A Fairy Tale was rejected by multiple fantasy publishers, most of them with the comment that it was “too romancey.” This is a book without a single romantic relationship in it. There’s a little sexual tension between a couple of secondary characters, but the most that happens between the two main characters is that they both have moments in which they each admit to themselves that they find the other somewhat intriguing. There’s not even a kiss in the book. I’m not sure what’s “too romancey” about that. I suspect they read the first few chapters, saw that a man and a woman met, and assumed it was a romance because I have written romance and because they see Enchanted, Inc. as romantic. In at least once case, I’m pretty sure it’s because the editor “shipped” Owen and Katie, so she saw Enchanted, Inc. as romantic and classed me as a romance writer. Maybe there were other issues with that book that made them decide against it, but the reason they gave was that it was “too romancey” to be published as fantasy. The same thing happened with Rebel Mechanics. It was initially submitted to fantasy publishers, and at least one suggested I submit it to a romance publisher instead. Never mind that, again, the only real romantic content relating to the love interest is an awareness of attraction and the other relationship is strictly related to the non-romantic plot. A book that doesn’t even have a kiss between the hero and heroine wouldn’t sell to any romance publisher. I was eventually able to sell it to a young adult publisher.

And that’s an issue for a lot of authors. Women authors are more likely to get shoved into YA with their sf/fantasy books, even if they aren’t really YA stories. If the main character is young and female, it’s more likely to end up published as YA. Not that this is entirely a bad thing, since YA sells very well and there are a lot of adult readers who choose to read YA, but there’s also the problem that because so many books that really could or should be adult fantasy/sf are being published as YA, there’s less real YA being published. Librarians and teachers are complaining about not being able to find books for the 6th-8th grade readers.

It’s not entirely sexism, as I’ve certainly read books with far more romance than I write that are written by female authors and published as adult sf/f. In some cases, it seems like a female author who establishes herself in fantasy with a male main character and with little to no romantic content can then go on to write something that’s a lot more romantic. But then I know of at least one book by a female first-time author that was published by a fantasy publisher in spite of it being something that could just as easily have been published as paranormal romance. I don’t know what the difference is, why the same editor who said Rebel Mechanics was too romancey and should be submitted to a romance publisher would have had no problems publishing a book that had kissing and sexy sparring between the hero and heroine in chapter two.

I’ve been reading an Old School epic fantasy saga, and the way romance is handled in it does make you wonder. In book one, the young male hero is joined on part of his journey by a girl. There’s maybe 50 pages of them traveling together in a 700-page book. After they reach their destination in the last third of the book, they split off into separate journeys, and he spends the rest of the book and the next two books pining over her and longing for her, thinking of the time they spent together, as though they’d established a deep, meaningful romance. I had to flip back through to look at the part they spent together because I’d missed it entirely. He didn’t show signs of admiring her in any way. There was very little awareness of her. He did do a little posturing, but it came across to me more as him competing with her in trying to impress others with them than trying to impress her. They are actually around each other in the last book, which is described as being “a romantic journey,” but I can’t tell why these characters like each other, aside from him being the main character and her being the only girl his age in the series. If those 50 pages of being around each other without really thinking about each other are supposed to establish an epic romance, then I can see where editors used to that sort of thing might be like, “Whew, better send this to a romance publisher,” when there are characters who actually show signs of attraction.

The nice thing about publishing for myself is that I can classify my books however I want, but I still have to try to find readers who might have trouble discovering my earlier works. I’ve started turning down romance-related panels at most conventions (not that there are a lot of in-person conventions right now). I’ll keep doing the romance panel at the Nebulas because we get into this sort of issue. I’m not opposed to romance. It’s just that I don’t really write it, and being classified that way has hurt my career.

publishing business

More on Categories

Since I’ve been talking about book categories, I thought I should explain how that works and why it’s important. There’s a system of code categories that booksellers and publisher use to sort books. Some of the categories are pretty general, but then some areas get sliced and diced into pretty specific categories. For instance, there’s a code for firefighter romance. Strangely, although there’s a specific code for cozy mysteries involving crafts, there’s no code for paranormal mysteries. You can find the list of fiction categories here.

For traditional bookstores, the fine parsing doesn’t make much difference, since books are generally shelved in general fiction, romance, mystery, or science fiction and fantasy (some stores may break out horror into its own section, and some stores give all Christian fiction its own section). The codes are used more for databases and possibly for internal tracking (maybe to keep an eye on what’s selling).

But for online bookselling, they become more important. Instead of having to just go to the mystery section in a store and then scan the covers to see which ones you want, you can search a specific category. Each book can be put in more than one category if it fits multiple places. That can be both good and bad. If your book is a perfect fit for a category, that makes it easy to find. If it’s not such a good fit, your book can fall between the cracks. Since there’s no paranormal mystery category, I’m going to have to choose between maybe cozy, general and either amateur sleuths or women sleuths. I don’t know what the people looking for my sort of thing will be looking for.

Amazon also has some of its own categories, and I’m not sure how you get put in them or how they decide. I’m not even entirely sure how you find them. When I was digging through the bestseller lists for the potentially relevant categories, I tried clicking on an individual title, then found in its listing where they showed its rank in various categories, some of which weren’t listed as a category for browsing or bestseller lists. So, I was looking through general cozy mysteries, found a book that looked along the lines of what I’m writing, and found that there was a separate category for ghost mysteries, but it wasn’t listed for browsing, and there isn’t a code for it. But you can bring up a list of those books by clicking on that category in that listing. It may come from key words you can put in a book listing, possibly from algorithms that show what sorts of things people buy, like those “people who bought this also bought” lists. If a lot of people who generally buy ghost mysteries buy a book, it might get classified as a ghost mystery. Sometimes this is hilariously inaccurate. Recently, Enchanted, Inc. has been listed in “plays and drama,” which is just bizarre. I wonder if a lot of drama students who buy books of plays have been buying it.

This is what I’m talking about when I talk about trying to classify my books. Where are the people who are looking for the kind of book I write most likely to look for that kind of book? Once you know that, you can have a better idea of how to handle that book, like what to mention in the book description, what the cover should look like, etc.

You can call your books whatever you want to, whether it’s “light fantasy, “fun fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy,” but none of those are established categories, so you still have to find the right code to put on it. That’s the hard part.

publishing business

Finding a Category

I’m running behind schedule today because I ended up having to do a massive brain dump to get a bunch of stuff out of my head and on paper so it wouldn’t end up swirling around in my head and distracting me. I have a lot of thoughts about how books are marketed and sold that have maybe led me to realize what some of my problems have been, and they filled about four sheets of paper once I started writing. I’m not sure I prevented the distraction, though, because those realizations have spurred more thoughts.

One thing that’s frustrated me about publishers is that they only seem to know how to sell a book if there’s already something like it in the market. Something new and entirely different is a scary unknown, and they don’t know how to put it in their spreadsheets. Most of my books come from a place of writing the thing I want to read but can’t find, which means they’re really hard to sell. It would have to be something the publisher is utterly passionate about so that they’d put in the work it takes to create a new category.

I thought that independent publishing would get me out of that problem because I could publish what I want, without needing to look at comparable titles. However, there’s still that problem of knowing how to package and market something new. Readers usually discover a book by seeing it, and the cover tells you pretty quickly what kind of book it is. Categories are even more important online for discoverability. It’s not like going into a physical bookstore and going to the science fiction and fantasy section. You can slice and dice it into sub categories, which is good when there are zillions of books available and you want to focus on just what you want, but it’s bad when what you want (or what you’re writing) doesn’t neatly fit into any category.

I seem to write stuff that’s potentially commercial but not marketable. I came up with the idea for the Enchanted, Inc. series because I liked the Harry Potter books and wanted something like that for adults — quirky and whimsical and dealing some with the clash between the magical world and the real world. I had a corporation instead of a school and dealt with workplace issues instead of school issues, but there was still the struggle of personal life vs. fighting magical evil while trying to keep the magical world a secret. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, given the massive numbers of adult Harry Potter fans and the younger fans who’d grown up. There had to be a huge potential readership. But I can see how marketing it was a challenge. The Harry Potter books may have been popular for adults, but they were packaged as children’s books (there were “adult” editions in the UK — I have two of them — but they had arty black-and-white photography covers that I like but that wouldn’t have sold the books if they hadn’t already been wildly popular in other forms). They couldn’t really package my books like that and hit the right audience. They were contemporary fantasy set in a city, but they weren’t urban fantasy as was being published around that time. There was no established way to package those books that would signal what they were to the audience that would like them, so they threw them into the chick lit category, where there was a defined look, and did some marketing to fantasy readers and paranormal romance readers. But then when the chick lit market tanked, it took these books with it, even though by then they weren’t really chick lit. There was still no good fantasy category for them.

I’ve been considering trying some advertising for these books, but I can’t think of what audiences I would use to build a campaign. Adult fans of Harry Potter would be too broad (and expensive) a category. The closest comparison in adult fantasy I can think of might be the Dresden Files books, but those are a lot darker. There probably is some audience overlap, but I’d guess that most Dresden Files readers would see my books and be instantly turned off (I’ve had some amusing conversations about the similarities and differences between our books with Jim Butcher). Some paranormal romance readers like my books, but that category tends to go really sexy, and my books aren’t truly romances. Really marketing my books would require either a huge investment or a big stroke of luck. I think a publisher could have done it, but for whatever reason they were turned off by the idea of any comparison to Harry Potter, even the idea of pitching it as Harry Potter for adults. Publishers hate using major bestsellers that are a category unto themselves as comparable titles, and they really don’t like going to another category. In their mind, those were children’s books and mine was in the adult category, and never the twain shall meet. The next Harry Potter could only be a children’s book.

I think the solution to my issue may be going after a more defined category with an established readership, building a name and audience there, and seeing if I can drag them into other things I want to write. So this mystery thing may be a clever strategy.

publishing business

More Market Research

I continued my market research yesterday, and it was rather eye-opening. It turns out that the books I had in mind were classified as “fantasy romance,” and that bestseller list was almost identical to the “romantic fantasy” bestseller list. That category is all over the map. There were things like The Princess Bride in it, along with some fairly traditional fantasy by a Mormon author who’s a big champion of “clean fantasy.” And then there were books that looked like what I have in mind, those with covers that feature a woman in a fairy tale-like gown, usually in a forest or near a castle, with a kind of filigree frame around the cover.

Half of those were classified as young adult (so I don’t know why they were on an adult fantasy bestseller list). And half of them turned out to be what’s apparently the big trope right now, “reverse harem” (and, oh dear, the interesting spam I’m probably going to get on this post thanks to that term). That seems to be about a woman who has a whole team of men serving her in multiple ways (if you know what I mean). Some of them were pretty up-front about it, with that term in the subtitle or series description, but some were more subtle. I didn’t pick up on it from the book description, but then all the reader reviews were swooning over how hot the book was with all those men in the heroine’s harem. There seem to be some code words or phrases in the description that make it clear to those who know. I just thought the mention of four men meant it was setting up a romance-like series where there would be a team of guys who would each get to be the hero of his own book, with one of them ending up with the heroine of book one, and a new heroine for another member of the team in book two, etc. But it seems this heroine is greedy and keeping them all to herself. This would definitely fall into the category of “not to my taste.” Heck, with just one man I’d have to send him off on the occasional quest. I’d feel really crowded with four or five. And I’m probably going to get all kinds of bizarre Amazon recommendations now that I’ve looked at those book pages.

No wonder it’s hard to find things to read if you find “clean” Mormon-written books, YA, and that all in the same category, and they all have fairly similar covers. That also doesn’t make marketing easy. I don’t know if there’s an underserved market of people who want the kind of thing I have in mind and haven’t been able to find much of it or if there isn’t much of it because people don’t want it and it doesn’t sell well.

One thing that’s very difficult about product marketing is that there’s no way to measure unserved pent-up demand. Back in my PR days, I had a client that did supply-chain management, and that included the ability to measure what was selling so that stores could get more of what was selling better and less of what wasn’t selling. I once stumped them in a meeting when I asked how they could really measure that, since they couldn’t count the people who came into a store looking for something and walked out empty-handed because it wasn’t there. I have a problem finding my size in clothes because most stores only get in one or two items in my size, and they sell right away. Maybe that would trigger some systems to then order more if they sold that quickly, but generally it just shows that only two sold in that size, so that’s all they order in the future, and they have no way of knowing how many people didn’t buy anything at all because it wasn’t there in their size.

I think there’s a lot of that going on with books. You can only measure demand by looking at what’s selling, but if something doesn’t exist and people want it, you can’t know. Publishers decide what to publish based on how well the things that are already being published are selling. They don’t know how many people go to bookstores and walk away empty-handed because they don’t find what they want. The rise of independent publishing has shown that there were some underserved categories, usually at either end of the spectrum. “Clean” romances have done very well, since they’d stopped publishing books without graphic love scenes, but then the racier ones that go beyond what publishers were willing to do have also done really well.

It may be a leap of faith to see if there’s a readership for tamer character-driven fantasy. I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want grimdark or harems of any kind.

publishing business

Market Research

I’ve been doing some studying about how to make a living publishing your own books and treat it like a business, since I came to the realization that it would be difficult for me to get a real job, so I have to make this work. I haven’t been very businesslike about it. I’ve just written what I feel like writing and thrown it out into the world. I’ve griped about how the traditional publishers have never done all that much for me, just throwing my books out there with little to no marketing support, but I’m doing the same thing. I’m trying to be more focused and strategic and learn what I can do to make this work as a business.

One thing I’ve never done much of is market research. At best, after I’ve written something I’ll look around for other things kind of like it to get cover ideas. I’ve never really been all that systematic about it. The guide I was reading suggested looking at the Amazon bestseller list that best reflects your subgenre and looking at whether you could imagine your book fitting in there. Then look at the sales rank for the #1, #5, #20 and #50 books. If they’re all really high in the overall rankings, that means there’s a good market for what you’re writing, but it also means it’s a competitive category.

The mystery series I’m working on fits perfectly in a couple of categories, and I could see those kinds of covers fitting it. It’s a moderately strong category, with the top-selling books really high in overall rankings, but once you’re down around #50, they’re fairly high but in a range I’ve hit with some of my previous books. So, that’s good. I seem to be on target there.

Then I tried looking up things that might fit the fantasy series I have in mind. I could swear that I’ve seen books that fit my general category and that have the sorts of covers I envision, but I only saw one or two of these on any of the category bestseller lists I tried. I’d been thinking they’d fit into romantic fantasy, but it looked like most of those books were really dark and sexy, and more contemporary than a traditional historical fantasy setting. Although these wouldn’t be actual fairy tale-based stories, I do think they’d have a fairy tale feel and I’m drawing on some tropes from fairy tales, so I tried the fairy tale fantasy chart, and it fit a little better there. But that seems to be a really competitive category. Everything in the top 50 was way up the overall charts. There was also no real consistency so that you could look at a book and know it was that kind of book. I may need to look up the books I know of and see how they’re categorized, then work backward from there.

I suspect in that area I may have the problem I’ve had with a lot of my other books, which is that they don’t fit neatly into any one category and there isn’t a lot like them on the market. That’s made it difficult for me to sell to the major publishers, since they want comp titles and are leery of something that doesn’t readily compare to something else that’s selling well. And I’m afraid it’s making it harder for me to sell these books independently. It turns out that writing what I want to read but that I can’t find isn’t a great business strategy. Go figure.

I’ll still write these books because I want to and I think there are readers. I may write one series more for money and the other more for love, and I’ll have to be strategic about marketing.

The other thing I’m seeing in everything I read about the business is that you really need to have a mailing list and newsletter. I’ve resisted because I hate them and I feel like everyone is totally bombarded by them, but if absolutely every book on publishing says this is the #1 thing you need to do, it may just be possible that they’re right. So I guess I need to find a mailing service and figure out how to add a link to my web site, and then I need to come up with content.