Business Musings: What Market?
This past week, I’ve talked with a lot of writers about writing to market. Not just because of last week’s blog post, but because I had done a group author signing at Powell’s on Sunday, and the topic came up again. At dinner after the signing, one of the writers asked, “What market are indie writers writing to?”
Indeed. That’s a very good question. Because there is no answer. Or should I say no good answer. Not in indie publishing anyway.
Let me explain.
Back in the days before the ebook revolution hit, there was an actual market that writers could write to. That market was defined by traditional publishers.
Traditional publishers—without doing any market research at all—would declare certain genres dead because sales had tapered off. (Sales had usually tapered off because mediocre books got published in that genre after the big surge of good books. More on that below.) At conferences, editors would state that their company was looking for a certain type of book, usually a subgenre.
Often those editors were editing brand new imprints at very old companies, an imprint that the traditional publisher was starting to capitalize on some perceived market trend, and needed a new stable of writers to fill.
Usually writers didn’t have to write to market for these imprints. Usually, writers had a trunk manuscript in that very subgenre, something other publishers (or even that publisher) had turned down years before.
These things still happen in traditional publishing. Just this month, Orbit, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group, announced that it would double its output of science fiction and fantasy titles. Instead of publishing 45 books per year (about four per month), it plans to publish 90 titles (about seven per month) starting in 2016.
Last year, Pocket Books opened a new sf and fantasy imprint, after years of not publishing any sf/f except in urban fantasy and romance. (Those of us with sf/f books still in print from Pocket from the previous incarnation of the sf/f line back in 2000 had been effectively orphaned all of that time.)
I’ve been through these traditional publishing waves dozens of times in the past thirty years. So-n-so has started a new imprint at such-n-so big company and promises it will have dozens of New York Times bestsellers. Then the books don’t do well or the sales force loses interest, the editor moves on to another company or is downsized or is promoted, and the imprint gets canceled or morphed into another imprint altogether.
Those are publishing markets that writers can figure out. The markets are defined by the new imprint or the new editor’s tastes.
The fiction magazines are also markets of the same sort, which have actual guidelines that stress an editor’s needs and wants. Anthologies are similar.
It’s still not a good idea to write to market—at least with novels—because you could write a novel for the new Orbit line, get rejected, and quickly run out of places to sell that novel, which will happen if you’re not an sf/f fan to begin with and are only writing the book to sell it to that new publishing imprint.
Short stories are another matter. If you’re a true short story writer (and by that I mean, you love short fiction), then you could write to what you perceive the market to be, without wasting a lot of your precious writing time. I often write stories for anthologies with strange guidelines to see if I can color within the lines. Rarely do I color within those lines, because I’m just not a to-market kinda girl, but I often get stories I wouldn’t have expected otherwise out of them. Most I’m not satisfied with. Some surprise me. None take more than a few hours of my writing life.
But if I were to write a military romantic suspense novel about helicopters because my friend M.L. Buchman is having success writing them, I know I would write a craptastic military romantic suspense novel. Because I know bupkis about helicopters and the people who fly them, and frankly, much as I like reading Matt’s work, I don’t like reading nonfiction about the military (except historically speaking) and I’m really not interested in helicopters.
My military romantic suspense helicopter pilot book would waste months of my time, and would molder—literally—on some editor’s desk—if I were to submit the book traditionally (which, given modern contracts, I will not do).
Clearly defined markets were the hallmark of the closed publishing system that existed before the ebook revolution—from the perspective of writers. Traditional publishers were just flailing in the dark. Because traditional publishing is the only multibillion dollar industry that I know of that does absolutely no market research at all. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
They hire editors for their “gut,” and fire those editors when their “gut” fails them. Often failure is defined by such stupid things as “This erotica title didn’t sell as well as expected.” What was the expectation? “Oh, that it would sell at least as well as Fifty Shades of Grey.” Which was a phenomenon.
The publisher, of course, wouldn’t look beyond that expectation to see that the erotica title sold half of what Fifty Shades sold, which made the erotica book more successful than, say, that literary novel everyone in-house loved. But because everyone in-house expected the literary novel to sell only 5,000 copies, and it sold 5,005 copies, it was successful, and the erotica novel, which sold (oh, I don’t know) 100,000 copies, was not.
Because of unrealistic expectations.
Traditional publishing markets to bookstores and book distributors. Occasionally traditional publishers will talk to a handful of bookstores—or to the buyer for Barnes & Noble—to see what those people think will sell. Some booksellers know their inventory really well, and their customers even better, but booksellers have no idea what future item will sell well either.
If booksellers actually knew what made individual books sell well, then Amazon’s book lines would be the bestselling book lines on the planet. Amazon has more information about what readers want than any bookseller before or currently working. And Amazon can’t predict what will sell well and what won’t.
Let’s go back to the question asked at dinner, shall we?
What market are these indie writers talking about?
There are no gatekeepers in indie publishing, no editors saying they want this subgenre (only with more kazoos) for their publishing line or claiming that that subgenre is dead (despite the fact that 9 of 10 of this year’s bestselling titles were in that subgenre).
There is no market.
There is a marketplace.
A wide-open marketplace that lets readers browse and find whatever is to their tastes. Think of one of those bazaars you find in major cities, the kind of bazaar that goes on for blocks and blocks. Sure, there’s a lot of fresh fruit currently in season, and some lovely woven scarves and some beautiful hand-carved bowls. But there are also one-of-a-kind items, from artists who might not be able to afford to be near the entrances, but you can find them if you look.
That expanded marketplace is new in publishing. Before, the gatekeepers controlled every single stall in that marketplace. You couldn’t find the lovely one-of-a-kind item even if you walked past every stall in every aisle.
Now you can.
So again, what is that market that indie writers are writing to?
Indie writers are making the very mistake that traditional publishers make—the subgenre-killer mistake. The indie writers are looking at their friend, Suzy Successful, who is a) making a living or b) selling really well or c) says she’s doing just fine, thank you.
Of course, the indie writer isn’t asking what “making a living” means. Is it tens of thousands a year or tens of thousands a month? Is it millions per year? Is it simply more money than Suzy Successful made at her day job? What was her day job? Working at MacDonald’s? Or was she the head of a Fortune 500 company?
All of that matters, by the way, because everyone’s definition of “making a living” is different. For me, “making a living” means at least six-figures per year. For a friend of mine, it’s making thirty thousand or more.
And what does “selling really well” mean? Does it mean tens of copies per day or hundreds per day? Does it mean five or six per month or thousands per month?
And are the sales for money or are they free downloads? Does Suzy Successful price all of her books at 99 cents? Is she selling a hundred copies per month at 99 cents? That means she’s earning $35 on that title. Is she selling a hundred per day? Then she’s earning roughly $1000 per month or $12,000 per year before taxes.
Numbers can be spun, and success is often in the eye of the beholder—or the braggart, the person who wants you to be impressed with her.
What about “doing just fine, thank you”? People who say that often don’t believe that the money is any of your business or they don’t know how much they’re earning or they don’t believe they’re earning enough. Some people who are doing just fine are really doing just fine, whatever that means to them.
You don’t know. Most writers look at Suzy Successful and her friend Joe Winner and listen to the hype that Joe and Suzy spew. The other writers don’t check—they really have no way of checking. Because Joe and Suzy might have their books on Amazon only, in Kindle Unlimited, where they get a share of a pretty small pie, or they might be distributed all over the planet, but in ebook only, or they might be diversified into a variety of places, from audio books to paper books to translations, and for all you know, they could be making a fortune.
There’s no way for outsiders to tell.
Before computers, traditional publishers could only guess what the competition was doing. They would watch the book deals that the other publishers offered their writers or they would examine the New York Times Bestseller List, compiled from a group of secret bookstores, and guess. Everyone knew those bookstores were cherry-picked because they published Our Sort of Book, not that silly genre crap, so really, traditional publishers had no idea how the competition was doing.
The only way to know would be years later, when remainder tables were covered with a past bestseller in hardcover, a book that had been distributed everywhere, and clearly had sold nowhere. Or when the mass market paperback from that hardcover came out—or didn’t (because the publisher couldn’t invest any more money into that project).
Traditional publishers guessed, just like indie writers are doing right now. Indie writers see their friends Suzy and Joe on top of an Amazon bestseller list. Or Joe puts up an ad on his website or Facebook page for his book, with the phrase, “Over 200,000 copies sold!” beneath his name. Does that mean the book sold 200,000 copies? Does that mean he has sold 200,000 copies cumulatively, over all of his books? Does that mean the book sold 200,000 copies for cash money or does it mean that the book sold 5,000 copies for cash money, and had 195,000 free copies snatched up in some promotion?
There is no way for outsiders to know.
Traditional publishers tried to scope each other out when computers came into being. Bookscan followed as quickly as it possibly could, but only a handful of bookstore accounts participated, which is why back in the day, Bookscan only showed about 50% of the market. (Last I checked it was 70% of the traditional market, but I have no idea where that figure comes from, and whether or not it’s actually true.)
Still, 50% of the market was better than none of the market, but even that didn’t help traditional publishers manufacture bestsellers.
Because that’s what we’re really talking about here, underneath that code of “writing to market.”
Everyone wants to write a bestseller. Everyone seems to believe that writing a bestseller will make you rich and you’ll never have to work again.
That might have been true twenty years ago—if you were a #1 bestseller for more than a week, if you had a good publishing contract so that the money actually flowed to you rather than stayed in your publisher’s pocket, and if you were good at managing large sums of cash, so that the money earned more money for you. Let me tell you, the one-hit-wonders I’ve known (hell, most of the many-hit-wonders I know) ended up broke and back at their day job because they didn’t achieve any of those ifs.
Traditional publishers want to publish bestsellers.
Writers who write to market believe they are writing future bestsellers.
But here’s what writers who write to market and traditional publisher are chasing.
They’re chasing someone else’s success.
Joe Winner wrote a book out of love for a subgenre. Maybe Joe Winner didn’t even know what a subgenre was, let alone that he was writing in one. Maybe Joe Winner wrote this book because no one else was writing anything like it, and since he couldn’t find one to read, he wrote the story himself to entertain himself.
He marketed the book and the book took off, and he wrote more books in the same vein, because he happens to love that kind of book, and those books continued his success.
Joe Winner is doing well, because he’s doing something he loves.
Along comes traditional publishing. Look, the sales force says to its editors. Why can’t you find us books like the ones Joe Winner writes? We can sell those. We’ll tell our accounts that these books are just like Joe Winner’s, only better. And our accounts will put the books on their shelves, and we’ll all get rich.
So editors put out the word, and guess what? Writers flood the trad publisher with trunk manuscripts—manuscripts written for the love of the subgenre. Those books do pretty well. Not as well as Joe Winner, but good enough.
And maybe, just maybe, one of those books takes off too, because it was written for the love, and we all know that Joe Winner is a slow writer, and Larry Lucky is a faster writer who is a better storyteller and is filling the niche faster than Joe Winner can even think of an idea.
Wow, the sales force at trad publishing thinks. This subgenre is hot, hot, hot. We need more books.
The sales force pushes the editors to buy more books. The traditional publishing company—oh, I don’t know, doubles its output of that subgenre in the following year—and lookie! Writers start writing to market.
And that’s when the editors start buying the best of the mediocre. They have to fill that subgenre. The for-the-love books are long gone, and now the editors get competent books by good writers that somehow don’t have the same magic as books by Joe Winner and Larry Lucky.
I can point to a thousand genres where this happened, from legal thrillers (Hi, Scott Turow [aka Joe Winner] and John Grisham [aka Larry Lucky]) to horror (Hi, Whitley Strieber [aka Joe Winner] and Stephen King [aka Larry Lucky]) and so on and so forth. We’re watching the progression now with The Martian and with Game of Thrones. That’s why sf/f lines are expanding again. Wait a few years. In traditional publishing land, those lines will contract and there will be a new subgenre enthusiasm that we can’t predict back here in 2015.
These days, indie writers act as their own internal sales force. They encourage themselves to write urban fantasy because their friend Suzy Successful has made a fortune or at least a living writing urban fantasy. They encourage themselves to write paranormal romance (with kazoos!) because their friend Valerie Victor has done really well writing paranormal romances with harmonicas.
There are even indie writers who (I kid you not) troll the Amazon subgenre bestseller lists [fiction –> romance –> contemporary –> paranormal –> musical instruments ] and decided that this week that’s the way to go. Those writers write short books, filling that particular niche before it “goes away.”
When these writers don’t even know how many sales it takes to hit one of those sub-sub-subgenre lists.
I’ve hit more Amazon sub-sub-subgenre lists than I can keep track of. Sometimes I hit them with 3 sales in one day. Sometimes it takes 900 sales in one day. It depends on the subgenre list and it depends on the day and it depends on what else is on sale and it depends on whether or not Amazon has sprinkled magic fairy dust on its algorithms so that they somehow favor my book, whatever that book may be.
There’s no way to know what the sales actually are without someone telling you.
And let me remind you—again—that Amazon knows what these algorithms are. They know which books are selling and which ones aren’t, and Amazon’s book lines are not very successful, even on Amazon. Let me repeat that. Amazon’s book lines are not very successful, even on Amazon.
If the people with all of the market data at their fingertips can’t manufacture a bestseller, why the hell do you think you can?
Because you’re special? Because you understand how markets work? Because your friend Valerie did it?
If your friend Valerie is as successful as she says she is—and believe me, that’s a big if—then chances are, she’s writing in a subgenre she loves. She’s writing what the romance writers call books of the heart.
Now you might think contemporary paranormal romances about harmonicas are pure trash, but Valerie loves them so much that she noticed when no one published them and decided to write one of her own. It took off, and she’s writing more, happier than a pig in mud.
You, who think contemporary paranormal romances about harmonicas are pure trash, think how hard can it be to write one? So you do. And because you’re a good writer, it’s an adequate book. It has characters who aren’t quite cardboard. It has good sentences. It has a nice setting. And even though you substituted kazoos for harmonicas, you did that because you’re being “original.” That’s your flourish.
The problem is this: writing comes from the subconscious, not the conscious, brain. And you think contemporary paranormal romances about harmonicas are pure trash. (No, no, I understand. You really don’t. You did, and then you tried one, and you fell in love with the subgenre. Suuuuure you did.)
Because you think those books are pure trash on a subconscious level, there’s no magic sparkle to your book. It might not be filled with contempt (although really, kazoos instead of harmonicas? One’s a musical instrument and one’s a noisemaker—or am I being subconsciously contemptuous of kazoos?), but it’s not a good book either.
It’s certainly adequate enough to fill that niche for readers who need another contemporary paranormal romance about harmonicas Right Now, but it’s not good enough to make that reader pick up your next book because you wrote it.
And that’s where this house of cards falls apart.
That contemporary paranormal romance about kazoos might sell well—by your definition—but it might not. And you probably know nothing about marketing (except what your buddies have told you about key words on Amazon), so your cover is derivative to bad, your blurbs lack spark, and your interior design sucks. Once that word gets out, then your book won’t sell at all.
But say you do all those things well. Say your book is well written. You might get a few paranormal romance kazoo fans on your side.
But you’re not a blockbuster bestseller like your friend Valerie Victor (if, indeed, she is). You’re doing better than you would at your day job, maybe. And if so, congrats. But this kind of bestseller chasing won’t last forever. At some point, you’ll burn out. And you won’t have an readers who return because the book is yours. They return because Valerie Victor doesn’t have a new book out yet.
This elusive market you’re chasing?
It doesn’t exist. Or if it does, no one has found it—not even Amazon, which actually has the money to do the market research.
They are the only ones who have ever done it. And it’s not benefitting them in their own book lines.
Because repeatedly, what readers say they want is something unique and different. But, as one professor said to us in a creative writing class, there are seven plots. Shakespeare wrote them better than anyone before or after. If that scares you, quit now.
What my professor knew, what most writers learn, what readers know in their gut, is that what makes a book unique and different isn’t the plot or the subgenre. It’s not the romance or the harmonica.
It’s the writer himself. His perspective. His voice. His take on something that the writer—the writer—loves.
The books that breakout, the ones that become memorable breakouts, the books that everyone else is chasing—those books are written from the heart, not from some cynical analysis of a market that no one understands.
As I have said in the past week in private emails to countless writers who are chasing the market, congrats. You’re doing okay. But imagine how well you would be doing if you wrote something you love, not something you cynically came to because everyone else is “successfully” writing it.
You might be making a living. You might be doing better than you had at your day job, whatever it was. But at some point, this “market” you’re chasing will collapse. Readers won’t stay with you because of your voice. They’ll stay with the founders of the subgenre or the people who wrote books of the heart in that subgenre. But you—the cynical market chaser who holds that subgenre in enough contempt that you believe anyone can write in that subgenre? The readers will forget your books. They won’t look for your work.
Because it has no life. No verve, no excitement.
Then you’ll have to find a new market to chase. Or you’ll need to return to that day job.
Or gosh. Maybe you’ll have enough saved that you can finally write that book of the heart. If you’re not burned out. If you haven’t learned some really bad habits from your cynical visit to market.
If you still want to write anything at all.
In the meantime, the rest of us will be having fun, writing what we love, and then when it’s done, marketing it to the best of our ability, with good covers and good blurbs. We’ll turn our attention to the next book and the next book—governed by what we want to write next, not what some made-up excuse for a market (or the elusive “everyone”) says we have to write next.
Maybe one of our books will take off. Maybe it won’t. But if it does, then we get to decide if we want to write more like it, or if it was a one-off. Because we’re writing what we love, not what the market dictates—even if we pioneered that market, all by our lonesome, writing a book of the heart.
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“Business Musings: What Market?” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Photo at the top of the blog copyright © 2015 by Dean Wesley Smith.