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.

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