Business Musings: Writing to Market
Marie Force wrote a lovely blog post this week on the five-year anniversary of her major success as an indie writer. She busts a few myths about her career in the post, and she’s very clear about her numbers, and the events that came together to launch her success. She’s written something similar before, but not in quite as organized a fashion. Take a look with an open mind. You’ll benefit from it. (Thanks, Marie! And congrats!)
I’m going to mention a few of the myths she busts in that post, and then I’m going to look at one thing she focuses on, something that other writers either miss, scan over, or don’t understand at all.
An important myth, busted.
While Marie was traditionally published when she started her self-publishing career, she hadn’t been in traditional publishing for very long. She really didn’t have much of a platform. Look at the dates she lists in her blog, and realize that the publication of her “big” traditional books happened in the same period of time as her indie books starting up.
Some of her traditional publications were with a small press. The bigger traditional publisher who took her—Harlequin—had her in their Carina line, which, at the time, was e-book only unless a book took off.
So, her traditional publishing “platform” wasn’t really a platform at all. It barely counted as a dock at the edge of a shallow lake.
The build in her career—traditional and indie—started at the very same time.
Another important myth, busted
Marie Force kept her indie published titles secret in the beginning. She did zero promotion, because she was worried about “publisher retribution.” She didn’t want her traditional publisher to know that she was self publishing — even though contractually, she could self publish.
Smart woman. Traditional publishing is nothing if not unpredictable.
She was on the cusp of the ebook revolution, when there were a lot of devices, and not a lot of content. Her books were good, and they sold, primarily by word of mouth—word of mouth that she had nothing to do with in the first several months of her self-publishing career.
That free book
On February 1, 2011, her first publisher priced one of her earlier ebooks free for one week only. That move had a halo effect on all of her other ebook titles, including the two self-published books that she “hadn’t marketed in any way.” Her sales on those titles tripled, and the growth continued.
There are some important things about that free book.
- It wasn’t the only book she had published. When readers finished and liked that first book, they could immediately order another Marie Force title. Not only that, they had a choice of titles. They could find one to their taste.
- The book was free for one week. Limited promotions always work better than never-ending ones.
- It was February of 2011. The date is truly important here. I know it’s hard to remember five years back with any clarity, but I have a blog to help me remember.
The ebook revolution was just starting, and we had just come off the first “device” Christmas. A lot of people had received Kindles as gifts and most of those people were searching for content. The Kindle was an inexpensive and functional ereader, but it was not cheap—and, importantly, readers weren’t sure about this device. So they didn’t want to spend a lot of money on content while they figured out if they liked the device.
Free books, in that early 2011 heyday, sparked the gold rush.
As Marie says in her blog, “luck is the convergence of preparation and opportunity.” She was prepared—she had her own self-published titles uploaded—and the opportunity presented itself.
I had a similar free experience about ten years before. When digital audio books were just starting, I sold my Retrieval Artist series to Audible. We agreed that the first book in the series, The Disappeared, would be free for…I believe…one week. (It might have been ten days or two weeks. I’m not going to check.)
That free-for-a-limited-time promotion jumpstarted all of the audiobooks in the Retrieval Artist series.
A few years later, when Audible bought another long-running series of mine, we discussed whether or not to put the first book free. My editor there said that free books weren’t working as well as they used to, but we’d try for one week. And, guess what, he was right. The second promotion, after digital audio became commonplace, didn’t work nearly as well.
Now, Audible tends to offer free with the purchase of something else, or on different promotions…anyway…what I’m saying here is that Marie Force’s free ebook came in the exact right place at the exact right time—and…
- She’s a good writer. Readers like Marie Force’s books. She’s constantly improving her craft, telling stories that she loves to tell.
In other words, that free book was one of those promotions that’s really hard to replicate in the market of 2015.
Writers tend to miss that—the way that promotions change.
My Real Point
Writers tend to miss something else, in all these stories of wild success.
The successful writer does something new, and daring, and different.
Not in promotion. Not in cover design.
In the book itself.
From Marie’s blog:
I’ll never forget the reason my agent said the publisher gave for rejecting True North: “No one wants to read about a super model.” Those became the nine words that changed my life. At that point in my “career” I had received a lot of rejections. I’d need a third hand to hold them all. By then, every romance publisher in the business had also rejected Maid for Love, Gansett Island book 1. I’d grown accustomed to rejection, but the True North rejection made me mad. It made me sad. And it made me determined to take control of this ship myself.
Most writers see the last sentence of that paragraph as the all-important part of what she’s saying. While it’s important, it’s not the most important thing here.
What’s truly important is the fact that Marie Force self-published a book in a subgenre that traditional publishers believed to be worthless. The story of a famous person (insert your favorite noun here—super model, star quarterback, actor, high-powered CEO, singer) was considered unsalable in New York, for some reason I’ve never understood.
Believe you me, writers for decades have butted their heads against that one. For every book that slipped through, like the Nora Roberts category Once More With Feeling that got me started reading her work to Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, that didn’t sell—just because traditional publishing “believed” that those books wouldn’t sell.
I put “believed” in quotes on purpose. Traditional publishers never do market research. Their prejudices come from their gut or from the results of a book badly published decades before.
So, when the country supposedly got sick and tired of the Western in the late 1970s, traditional publishers gave up on them. Try selling a Western to a traditional publisher these days. Can’t be done, unless the Western has another label—like Weird Western (western & fantasy) or Western romance (self-explanatory).
Somewhere along the way, publishers decided that romantic suspense didn’t sell, either, and that once-booming market has trickled—in the traditional world—into a handful of writers.
Why is the fact that True North, the book that launched Marie Force’s successful indie career, is about a super model important?
Because the book—in addition to being good—filled a gaping hole in the market. Readers were looking for famous-people romances, and they bought that one.
If you look at the game-changing novels that have been published in the U.S. in the last 100-plus years—and believe me, I have—what you’ll find is this: They are, to a book, stories that were unique, different, and (dare I say it) original.
There was nothing else on the market like those books.
They were not part of a major subgenre. They were not part of a trend. If anything, they were the kind of book that got rejected a lot, the kind of book the gatekeepers said could never, ever sell.
Ever hear of Harry Potter? The DaVinci Code? Presumed Innocent? The Flame and the Flower?—ooh, wait. That’s probably too far back in publishing history for you people.
All of these books surprised their publishers with the success. Just like True North surprised the publishing world with its success.
When you look backwards, you can see the germ of that publishing success. With 20/20 hindsight, that success is obvious. Fifty Shades of Grey took off because readers could read it on an airplane without their seatmate leering over them, asking if they liked it kinky. Fifty Shades was the perfect union of content and ereader.
But the seeds were there—erotica always sold well. It sells even better in ebook because of the “whatcha reading?” leer isn’t possible any more.
The Bridge of Madison County sold well because—oh, my heavens! Someone decided to market a romance to men, y’know, 50 percent of the population, usually left out of romance marketing, because men won’t read romance. (What I have found with my assignments for the craft workshops I run is this: Men love romance. Men seem to hate books with pink covers. Ergo, if you want to sell a romance novel to a man, stop using pastels and pinks. Have a cover like…y’know…the original cover for The Bridges of Madison County.)
Why am I making this point?
Because…over and over and over again, new writers talk about how important it is to write to market. Agents stress this. Editors want this. The sales force at traditional publishers demand it. (Because they’re lazy and don’t want to do anything creative.)
But it’s terrible, awful, horrible advice.
In one of those posts, and I can’t remember which one, he discusses how deadly writing to market is. No one argues with him about that in the comment section of his blog, but on new writer boards and on listserves and on aggregator sites, writers (courageously [she writes sarcastically]) speak out against Dean’s “stupidity” in his attitude toward writing to market.
Because, y’know, Dean knows nothing about writing to market. He found the Lucky Rabbit’s Foot of Writing years ago, and it made everything he wrote golden.
Dean started out writing his own original works. But for reasons I’m not going to go into here, after 1992, his entire publishing career was about writing to market. He wrote hundreds of tie-in novels, which was the ultimate in writing to market. What is a tie-in? It’s a specific market, with specific rules.
Under his many pen names, he was hired by traditional publishers to write to a particular market, to chase this trend or that trend, and sometimes, to write a book under the name of New York Times bestsellers who were too sick or too weary or too blocked to write another book themselves.
Dean has written more books to market than all of the writers who claim he doesn’t know what he’s talking about have written collectively. He knows writing to market.
More than that, he sees the sales figures for those titles—even the bestsellers written under other names. He knows how well those books sell, and they do sell well.
They’re good books. For what they are.
Books written to market.
But to do something memorable, to do something original, to do something that will get you fans for the rest of your writing career—and maybe beyond your death—to do those things, you need to write your own works, and more importantly, you need to believe in those works.
They might not be successful right away. Note that Marie Force wrote six books before selling her seventh traditionally. That book didn’t do very well.
By the time the ebook revolution came around, she had several books finished and unsold—books she believed in enough to market to traditional publishers. Better than that, books she believed in enough to publish herself, even back in the days when that was a dicey proposition. Read the blog again. See how many risks she took.
People who write to market are taking one tiny risk. They’re trying to make a living as writers.
But they won’t have a long career. I tell you this from the perspective of someone who has had a long career. Not because I want you to do things my way—God forbid. I made a lot of mistakes over the decades. (I wrote to market too, writing tie-ins and other works while writing original novels and editing. A lot of us did both—and jumped off that merry-go-round as soon as we could.)
In the course of that long career, I have seen hundreds of successful writers leave the business. They burn out. They hate writing. They loathe their readers.
These writers never write their own original works. They are continually chasing the hottest, latest trend. They’re constantly afraid of missing out on whatever it is that’s hot. They’re trying to force themselves into a box that they don’t fit into.
Every once in a while, a writer who chases trends finds the box she does fit into. If the writer is smart, she’ll continue writing in that genre, with love and enthusiasm.
But most trend-chasers aren’t smart. They don’t see what’s in front of them. So the writer who finds her niche will look at the greener grass in another genre and abandon that niche, rather than improve her skills and refine her craft and write what she loves.
Writers who have long-term success do take risks. And all of those risks are similar to the ones Marie Force outlines in that blog.
Those risks come from believing in yourself and in your work. Getting mad when someone says something stupid like “super model books don’t sell,” rather than hanging your head and saying, “Oh, yes, you’re right. Stupid me. I should write more books about English dukes in the Regency period, because those books do sell.” Even though you know nothing about the Regency period. Even though you’ve never been to England.
Chasing trends and writing to market work. For a while. And maybe you’ll end up like Dean. Dean burned out. He quit writing for a long time. He came back to it when the ebook revolution hit because he realized that the marketplace had changed, so that he could write what he wanted and he could treat those books like he would treat any other investment.
Why do I use the word investment? Because he pointed out something really important in a blog this week. He pointed out that because of the changes in the publishing industry, writers who indie publish are not engaged in manufacturing. They don’t make one product, and then sell that product.
Writers are creating assets.
Here’s the nifty thing about assets. The money that you put into an asset (generally speaking) remains in that asset. This means that you can sell that asset outright twenty years later and recoup your expenses plus.
When you’re in manufacturing, each widget must recoup its cost (a different measure) with its single sale.
A book doesn’t sell once. It can sell a million times, and still remain on your balance sheet as an asset. To sell a million widgets, you need to produce a million widgets.
Writers are not creating widgets. We’re creating a single property that can then be used in hundreds of different ways—and still remain in our hands as an asset, year in and year out.
Why is that important to this discussion?
Because trend-chasers believe they’re making widgets. And to some extent they are. They’re writing disposable goods, things that will probably not have much of a long life because they were produced to disappear. Trend-chasers writing things that are just good enough.
Readers will probably enjoy them. But will they go after that author’s works like they will go for something Marie Force will write? Nope. Because readers are reading those works while waiting for the next Marie Force novel.
Here’s the real key from the writer’s perspective.
Writers who chase trends are writing books that they believe will make money.
Writers who do not chase trends, writers who write books of their heart, are writing books they believe in.
Books they will fight to the death for. Books they will take risks for. Books that might not succeed the first time out. True North certainly didn’t. Had the ebook revolution never happened, True North might not have seen print for years, if at all.
Lots of long-term writers had books like that before the ebook revolution. Often those books would hit print once the writer had success elsewhere. Or those books would come out through a small press once the writer made a name for herself.
Since 2009, however, more and more of those books—those books of the heart as the romance writers call them—have been self- or indie-published. And some of those books have gone on to huge success, like True North. Some, like my novel The Death of Davy Moss, have yet to find their niche.
Ah, well. I believe in that book, and the people who have read it love it. I’m happy it’s in print. It earns a little bit for me every now and then, and garners some of the best fan mail of my career.
The difference between me and writers who have chased trends for a few years is this…
I love going to my writing desk every day. I can’t even use the word “work” to describe what I do. I play. Sometimes my play is successful, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I write something so challenging that I’m not sure it’s readable. Often I doubt anyone will ever read it and enjoy it.
My job is to finish that project, and put it on the market. My job is to let the readers decide what they like and what they want to give me money for.
My job is to respect those readers enough to continue writing and playing. Sometimes I will continue to play in the worlds those readers love, and sometimes I’ll invent a whole new world just to keep my playful brain happy.
If I wanted to chase trends, I’d work in Hollywood. Or in advertising, which I really have a gift for. I’ve done both. I actually had a career in marketing for a while. (And that skill set keeps rearing its ugly head every now and then, calling like a siren for me to return to that particular rocky island. Occasionally, I answer, and regret it.)
Writing is fun. Creating assets is play. Making those assets work for me is a game that I enjoy more and more as the years go by.
My advice to those of you who’ve read this far in the blog is pretty simple: Put yourself in the position to have long-term success. Believe in your work the way that Marie Force believed in hers.
That can mean years of no money. It can also mean success beyond your wildest dreams.
Take risks with your art. Never forget that you are an artist. Artists have original visions and original voices.
I know, I know. Telling you to be yourself as a writer scares you. If it scares you too much, then maybe this profession is not for you.
Write well. Write often. Write what you love.
That’s the secret to a long career.
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“Business Musings: Writing to Market,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2015 by CanStock Photo