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.
As a reader I wish more writers would write to markets I enjoy. Especially comedy modern fantasy adventure novels for teens like Nick Spalding’s Cornerstone and Shadowmagic by John Lenahan. I’m writing my own teen magical adventure book right now, but when I’m finished with it no one will buy it because this isn’t a marketable genre, or a trending one. So the only books I’ll get to read in this market are the ones I write. All my books are only what I like to write, and it makes me sad that I’m broke because of that. LOL!
I can’t believe you insulted Kazoos! Kazoos are wonderful instruments!
I knew I was crossing a line when I wrote that. I knew it… 🙂
I take issue with one statement. Unlike other publishers, Harlequin has for years done market research, and lots of it. Focus groups, etc. Harlequin watches for trends like a hawk. Harlequin’s problem with chasing trends is twofold: 1) It has the maneuverability of a large ocean liner, that is, it is slow and ponderous and unable to catch trends early, and 2) Its international market concerns call for a kind of bowdlerizing of product that blands out what Harlequin publishes and makes it by definition not trendy. Harlequin is unique–or at least, before the recent sale it was–in making a consistent effort to develop a loyal readership and to cater to that readership.
You’re absolutely right, Irene. Harlequin was the exception. I suspect that will change with the recent change. They were innovators for years. Thanks for catching that.
“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.”
What? Of course there’s a way for “outsiders” to tell. If an author says that they’re doing well, it’s very easy to get an idea of how they’re doing by looking at their Amazon rank and the price that they’re charging for their books. If someone says that they’re selling really well and all of their books, including their newer books, are ranking in the hundred thousands, or millions…they’re clearly not making a living from their writing. When someone is ranking in the top few hundred, and especially the top 100, and says that they’re doing well, odds are pretty good they’re telling the truth.
I also haven’t found that writing what you love and chasing the market are mutually exclusive. What’s worked for me, and for many, many authors I know, is to look at all the different genres of books that sell well, and figure out which ones that I would do best at, and write in those genres. Nothing against writing what you love – but from what I’ve observed, if you want to make money, it makes sense to also think about whether there’s a big, existing, hungry market for it.
Disagree 100% with your Amazon argument. As I’ve said upthread, Amazon is one market. Yes, it’s the biggest in the U.S., but it’s not the only market at all. Right now, my paper books–selling in indie bookstores as well as on Amazon as well as in B&N and in bookstores around the world–make as much money as my Amazon U.S. only sales. You can’t track those sales by looking at my Amazon rankings.
You’re right: if someone is exclusive to Amazon, you can probably guess what they’re earning. But if they’re not exclusive, you have no way to know.
And even with Amazon, you can’t guess accurately. I’ve hit the same lists selling thousands of copies. My Amazon rankings were very high–but the books were with one of my traditional publishers. So I should have earned 25% of net. Instead, I earned a deep discount rate (which we’re disputing) of 65% of net. I did the math. On those books, I earned 0.005 per book.
I’ve had books indie published that have sold fewer copies and made me five figures in one month or more, and I didn’t hit a list at all (because it was a popular category). That’s just me.
I know writers who outlearn Amazon-only writers by factors of ten because those writers aren’t Amazon exclusive, because they have their books available in every market possible. You can’t track that by looking at Amazon algorithms.
As for writing what you love and chasing the market–sometimes you’re lucky. What you love and the market converge. As I said in the piece above, that’s the trunk novel syndrome from old publishing. You wrote something in a subgenre that didn’t exist, and now it does. Kudos.
But the minute you think “Hey, I can write that!” you’re writing to market. If it excites you to write it, then you’re writing for the love. If it excites you because you might earn money at it, you’re writing for the market and your heart isn’t in it.
Here’s what I’m saying, and it’s what I said last week. The markets exist for all types of books. All of them. You have no idea if your book of the heart will outsell some book that chases someone else’s success, because you’re not trying.
It’s your career, though. Do what works for you. Let’s talk in ten years, and analyze again.
Short version: Write what you love, the money MIGHT follow.
Can I ask where you get your data about Amazon imprints not performing well? That contradicts the data in the latest (not to mention past) Author Earnings Report. According to the AER, “There are no more than a few thousand books published by these imprints — Montlake, Thomas & Mercer, 47North, Skyscape, and the like — but unsurprisingly they punch well above their weight, being uniquely positioned to sell well in Amazon’s own Kindle store.” That’s certainly what a quick scrutiny of the Top 100 lists in any genre would seem to be indicating. (It’s also why I personally publish with Montlake as well as indepedently.) The data are especially compelling, it seems to me, when one looks at author earnings as opposed to publisher earnings. (And I’ll just add that Montlake, at least, is pretty wonderful about allowing authors to write the books they want, without “guidelines” such as those laid out by many other romance publishers.) http://authorearnings.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-aug-trend-gross-sales.png
My source is the same as yours, Author Earnings Report. Only I look at the statistics, not Hugh and Data Guy’s interpretation. Both men are very pro-Amazon. They don’t look beyond Amazon’s borders sometimes. Many, many, many bookstores will not take Amazon imprints. And Amazon is not the major player overseas.
Frankly, if Amazon’s imprints were doing well, by my definition, they wouldn’t “punch well above their weight.” They would dominate the charts, like the USA Today and the overseas sales charts as well. They don’t. If you can manufacture a bestseller, then Amazon’s imprints should out perform everyone else’s titles, from George R.R. Martin to Lee Child to Nora Roberts.
So far, Amazon has not had a breakout bestseller. Not one. And that’s my point. If you could make a bestseller using algorithms, then Amazon is uniquely positioned to do so–and has not. At all.
Btw, the imprints are curated. Which means that they do pick books which they believe will sell. Whether or not they put out guidelines has no impact on how books are chosen in-house. I’m assuming that the imprints are, like the rest of Amazon, part of a for-profit business, so they are hoping to make some money on their gamble.
“Punching well above their weight” is not much of a recommendation. It just makes them another market. It’s not more effective than other markets, because they can’t get their books into places that I can get my books into, without having a big publisher imprint. Right now, in some markets, the Amazon brand is toxic. That’s not how to have a breakout bestseller.
I’m not saying to avoid them, by the way. I’m just saying that if following algorithms and using markets to your advantage were the things that made books sell well, then Amazon’s imprints should be outselling every other publisher imprint, and they’re not. They’re not even selling as well as many imprints of the Big 5. Or 4 or however many stupidly large Random Penguins there are now. 🙂
For what it’s worth, Amazon imprints -can’t- qualify for USA Today’s bestseller lists because USAT requires that a book meet a minimum sales threshold with at least two different retailers in order to qualify for their list, and all Amazon imprint titles are exclusive with Amazon, and are thus excluded from consideration. Absence from that list is not a reliable measure of sales or reach. It’s not unusual for a book that’s exclusive with Amazon to outsell titles that do make the USAT chart.
Okay. Here’s what we’re talking about. I’m talking about blockbuster bestsellers. Real bestsellers. The ones that you can buy anywhere and around the world. You’re talking about one bookstore (the largest) inside the United States, mostly. Yes, its books do well in its own environment, and some do very well. But none are blockbusters according to my definition.
The word “bestseller” has been cheapened in the last few years. It now means someone who hits these Amazon lists. As I said above, those books are impossible to trace because Amazon does not release its numbers.
I did not know that Amazon imprint books are Amazon only. That seems strange to me, because so many writers have complained that their Amazon imprint books can’t get into other retailers. That leads me to believe someone is misleading someone. Do these writers think that their books will get to their local retailer in paper and don’t understand their contracts (possible) or is this a requirement of Amazon to go with its imprints? If so, then Amazon is limiting its market for these books in a ridiculous manner. Seems sad to me, both for the writer and for Amazon.
By the way, this is one of those areas where I disagree with other writers. I look at the entire world as my market, not just Amazon and the U.S. Why have your eggs all in one basket? Even if–especially if–it’s a large basket. All that means is the basket decides it doesn’t want your brand of eggs, and then you’re out of luck. Seems like a huge gamble to me–unless you’re investing the money you make for the day when your brand of eggs no longer fits in the basket. I’m not seeing that from writers who are Amazon-only. They seem to believe Amazon will treat them well forever, not realizing that Amazon doesn’t care about them any more than any other big company does.
Thanks for the clarification though. Doesn’t change my argument, just a detail. You can’t be a world-wide blockbuster bestseller if your books are only available in one store.
Let me add that I know many, many, many indie authors who outsell me and have books in many retail venues. Those writers have repeatedly hit outside bestseller lists like USA Today. And as far as I know, from what those writers are telling me, they’re writing what they love. Yep, some of them are in the middle of trendy genres like Urban Fantasy, but others aren’t, like legal thrillers. Yet, these writers are doing very well without chasing trends. These writers write what they love.
What I love is all this pushback I’m getting when I’m telling you people to trust your art.
“I did not know that Amazon imprint books are Amazon only. That seems strange to me, because so many writers have complained that their Amazon imprint books can’t get into other retailers.”
It is my understanding (and I may well be wrong) that titles published by Amazon imprints are exclusive to Amazon as ebooks. However the Amazon Publishing site specifically says that print editions are available to booksellers, distributed by Brilliance Publishing.
Well, I don’t think anybody can really know, as Amazon doesn’t release sales figures. Most of their imprint sales are in ebook form. But if you get enough tens of hundred thousands of those, it works! Whether or not they’ve had a multimillion-bestseller, they would still appear to be a better bet–and that’s what it’s all about, really. Placing your bets where you think the odds are best. You may not have the 3-million-to-1 chance of winning the 50 Shades jackpot, but you’re much more likely to win the mid-six-figures make-a-living one. I suppose that which thing has more appeal for you depends on the kind of gambler you are. For my money, indie and APub offer the best odds at very-good-living money (the kind I make), so that’s been my own route.
Really? Really? You’re looking at writing as a bet? Really? Okay. Well, that explains a lot.
Because for me, it’s a career. I have consistently made six figures or more (sometimes much, much more) from my writing since 1990, even when the market was tougher than it is now. Did I chase the market? Yep, when a business collapsed on me and I was over $500,000 in debt. I wrote some things to pay off that quickly. But I continued to write my own books too, and that backlist now earns more all by itself than the cumulative earnings of my writing to market books–many of which are still earning as well, just not as much.
I can tell you from experience that writing to market is soul-killing over time. Writing what you love isn’t.
And if you’re looking at writing as a gamble, then you have the wrong attitude toward your craft. Writing is a career.
I sure hope you’re not acting like most gamblers. I hope you’re saving your money. Because gambles eventually fail. Knowing and understanding business, making business plans, and growing your business according to that plan will build a strong business that will survive you and all the market trends.
So what happens to you when Amazon abandons its ebook only imprints? What happens when they move the focus of their business elsewhere? What does your contract say? Will you get your rights back? Can you go worldwide with your books then, in other markets? (These questions are rhetorical. I don’t want you to answer them in public.)
Using one market to pay your rent–even if the market is big–is a gamble, and again, experience here: it’s a bad one. What looked like a sure bet in 1995 doesn’t even exist in 2015. But I have the advantage of lots of business experience, a long career, and–sadly–a lot of mistakes. I’ve watched thousands of writers come and go, and I did my best to learn from their experiences and mine.
What I learned is never ever ever put your eggs in one basket. Diversify, and do what you love.
Good luck with your gamble. I hope it continues to pay out.
I think you’re twisting my words a bit. I’m actually well known for writing what I like and not writing to trend. But I write in popular genres, and I write what I’m quite sure my audience enjoys. Within what I enjoy, that is. I’ve written exactly one book to trend (for a reason). It’s by far my worst-selling book. Go figger. It’s good, too! And I enjoyed writing it But my audience is a bit more of a crossover one that doesn’t care for a lot of the trendy things in romance. Thing is, though, I know that audience is THERE. I wouldn’t write something if I didn’t know the market was there. That’s different from ‘chasing trends,’ though I think that’s a valid strategy as well if you write fast and are versatile enough to shift gears like that. Heavens knows lots of folks make bank in it. I find that not writing to trend seems to give my books more legs, so perhaps that’s a tradeoff.
The argument about whether to go wide or stay exclusive isn’t really an answerable or winnable one, IMHO, because it differs so much even within the same genre–by author, or whatever, and it differs over time as the industry changes. Like most things in publishing, the answer seems to be, “It depends.”
And yeah, my bets (or what I’d call my educated, calculated guesses, which is basically what we all have to go on in this rapidly-changing environment) are paying off very well well so far. Thanks for the good wishes, though!
LOL, Rosalind. Thanks for proving my point on trends. Yes, you can make $$ writing what you love. And we all pick our paths. Glad to know you’re not really gambling. I know many writers who are.
I actually have an MBA in Finance and a business background, by the way. When I talk about “bets,” I’m talking about bets in the same way I’m thinking about any investment. You do your research, you decide what your best course is, and you do it. You check how it’s working out, and whether you should change course. You try stuff and see what works. You do more of the things that work, and you abandon the things that don’t work. But, yes, they’re all bets. You’re making calculated guesses based on the information available, knowing that the information is imperfect. Most of all–will readers respond to this X Thing you wrote? That’s the really unknowable one!
So far, my decisions and course corrections have worked out really well. Three and a half years of results are a pretty good indicator, I think, that I’m doing something right, but I’m always checking and reevaluating. I think one has to.
I think “bets” is the wrong word. Your explanation is a good one, but get the gambling language out of your business. That opens the door to the subconscious to misinterpret what you’re doing, and will hurt your business planning in the end. Remember, as writers we work out of our subconscious and conscious brains. Don’t call your writing “work” and don’t call it a “gamble.” Continue to follow a business plan, and you’re golden. I agree on checking and re-evaluating. That’s how publishing works now, and I’m grateful for it. Because I hated the days of one path to success. (Even though I never really followed it.)
I love this article, there’s so much great content. It’s absolutely true that some authors are chasing market, and that it’s not usually a great idea. But you also admit in the comments that you did it for awhile (very successfully!). And yes it may be soul-crushing after time, but if you hadn’t chased the market, written books for readers that made money, would you have had the freedom and reputation to write more creative stuff later?
In my experience, most authors start off writing what they want, fail, then focus on craft and learn to write better stories; stories that satisfy people. Until you consider who is enjoying your writing, there’s less motivation to improve your craft. So you write some books that people like, kind of figure out how to do things, build some trust (because even if you’re not really enjoying it, your readers are…) and earn enough money to quit your day job. It’s amazing to be able to focus on your own creativity 100% of the time, and do the truly great work you should be doing. Most authors will never get there; often because they are never forced to assess how people are responding to their books (which for me, can be measured in financial terms).
Sure, Amazon isn’t everything and can be misleading. But it’s enough of an indicator that I can figure out whether an author has been successful (probably earning over six-figures, or almost certainly not). If you are writing books, publishing and designing them well, doing your best at marketing and nobody is responding; you aren’t getting the awards and glowing reviews – an experience nearly all authors have faced, the choices are to keep writing what you’re writing, or to write for market, or something in between (writing what you want to write, but studying craft and story until you can at least satisfy a small group of people).
For me, writing to market = better writing that more people appreciate (but I’m pretty sure my definition is wrong, and you have much more experience in publishing than me. I’m not arguing, I think doing great creative work should be the focus of life. But personally I’d rather write some books to market that are successful and earn money, rather than getting an actual job and only having a little bit of time left to write, and I think it’s OK to use your skills and talents as a writer to produce something people enjoy. Some writers feel like that’s selling out, or dirty, or terrible – I understand it can be soul-crushing if done for years, and I’d never suggest doing it forever. But enough so that you can write full-time, whether it’s 30K or 100K, I think that’s a reasonable and rational life-decision for someone who wants to be a writer to make (kind of like an internship). At least you’re practicing your skills and building a platform, unlike having an unrelated desk job.
For some reason publishing people seem to be absolutely split on this, but I don’t think it should be a matter of opinionated debate. I don’t think your beliefs about art should define your publishing strategy. Do what you want. If you’re happy with the results, keep doing it. If not, change them. Everybody should write what they want to. Keep doing it as long as they want to. If they become heavily in debt and are stressed out and have the skills to get back in control of their lives, the option should at least be on the table. If somebody else’s advice isn’t working for you, try something else. But don’t just keep believing in a certain artistic ideology if it is producing results you aren’t happy with. (Perhaps, of course, that’s how “real” art is made… trial by fire, most people fail but a handful produce great work. If you want to become a truly great artist, maybe that’s the only path to take…)
Girl, you hit the nail on the head. It is wonderful to have someone speak so intelligently about “chasing the market”. Thank you! ~Red Phoenix
It’s going to be interesting, when a new Joe Winner pops up, and there are no “I loved it but I couldn’t sell it” left in the trunks because they’re already out there on the market, eh?
I’ve seen a different spin on writing to market: indies looking at the sub-categories and sales ranks, saying “On a spread, what sub-sub categories have higher sales for their top 10-25 books than average, given the size of the category? This indicates a market hungry for more stories than currently exist. Now, is that something I can write? If so, I’ll give it a shot, and see if the readers like it. It may not work. It may break wide, it may stay small, but hey, it sounds like fun and is worth a try.”
The difference is, the contempt for the market they’re writing to is missing, as well as the expectation that the book will be a huge seller. (By looking at the top sales ranks per subcategory, they have a good idea of exactly how small or large that potential market is.)
It’s not that different from saying “Hey, this anthology is looking for stories about Valentine’s Day. And Mars and Venus. Hmm. What if Edgar Rice Burroughs was right, but the telescopes they were using were seeing into an alternate universe? And that universe crossed paths with the old pulp stories’ swampy Venus? On Valentine’s Day? I can write that!”
That said, while I wish the “I’ma gonna write me a trashy book and make a million bucks!” writers were not with us, humans are human. They’re probably descended from the first cave guy who leaned on a sharp stick and said, “You know, if we could just stick a spear in that gigantic fish you saw, Ug, we’d never be hungry again. Yeah, whaling, that’s ticket to an easy life!”
I agree with all of this, Dorothy, except the “Is this something I can write?” The question should be–well, actually, it shouldn’t be a question. It should be a spark, a statement: “Hey, cool! That sounds like fun. I’ll try that.” See the difference? If you’re doing “Is this something I can write?” you’re pushing aside projects you want to write by writing to market.
The excitement has to be there. And anyone asking “Is this something I can write” is responding intellectually to a market, not viscerally. Writing is, at heart, about emotion, and if the emotion isn’t there from the start, then it won’t be there in the storytelling either.
I do see the difference. And you and I are on exactly the same page about needing to love what you’re doing, even if we’re merely on nearby pages on how to get there.
That’s great, though. Most of the indies I know are thinking in terms of the next 6 months, or five years, or as a new day job; you’re looking at intellectual property still being fresh and new in 20 years, and ready to market with some new covers, blurb, and updated formatting. (Love the Smokey Dalton; both the stories and the way you’ve brought them out.)
Even when I don’t completely agree with you, you always make me think, and stop to examine mine own beliefs. Thanks for writing this blog, and taking the time to pass on your thoughts!
I think you are conflating two very markets:
The publishers market is where publishers buy manuscripts.
The readers market is where readers buy books.
Those are two very different markets.
Because there has always been a greater supply of manuscripts than demand from publishers, those publishers were de facto gatekeepers for the readers market. With self-publishing, the author/publisher bypasses the publishers marketplace and goes direct to the readers marketplace.
So writing to market means very different things depending on whether you are talking publishers market or readers market.
Writing to publishers market means writing manuscripts that publishers want to buy. As we know, publishers are fickle and their buying habits always change. I have understood the danger in writing to publishers market is that you’re chasing a trend. By the time you can deliver long-form fiction, the market will have shifted. The other danger is that the long-tail of the market doesn’t really exist. The publishers market, for the most part, buys what they think they can sell in quantity to readers.
Writing to readers market means writing books that readers want to buy. Readers also have changing reading interests, but to a certain extent, there will always be a niche readership for any topic you want to write about. Unlike traditional publishers, who need to sell a heck of a lot of books in a short time to make it a worthwhile investment, self-published writers can sell a modest amount of books over a long time, and it’s still a good deal. But regardless of how big/small your target audience is, you’ll still need to market to them. In fact, it’s usually the case that the smaller your niche, the easier it is to market to them.
Trad pub: Don’t write to publishers market, because of the lag times involved in long form fiction, and because you won’t be writing your passion.
Self-pub: Write what you like, because no matter how narrow the niche, there’s enough readers out there to support you. And, by the way, you’ll need to figure out how to market directly to that niche.
Edit: I meant to write “conflating two very different markets” in the first line.
Um…that is my point, William. Once upon a time, from a writer’s point of view, there was only one market, the publisher market. Now, the writers can go directly to the readers. However, when you “write to market” for the readers, you’re not writing to an existing known market. Because readers don’t know what they want until they read it. Or find it. Study after study has shown this.
From what I can tell here, you are confusing marketing a finished product with writing a product to fit a preconception. I say, write what you want first. Then figure out how to market that thing you love. You’re saying…I don’t know what.
I’m not saying don’t market.
I’m saying don’t put the marketing in your creative process. Finish something you love, and then put it out for readers to find. Figure out how to market that finished product.
I think, from what I can understand from your long post here, that we’re agreeing. There’s a niche for every type of writing, even the subgenres that haven’t been invented yet. But I’m honestly not sure because you confuse so many different parts of the business in this one long post.
And, I’m guessing you’re a first-timer to this blog, right? You might want to poke around and see my past posts to understand exactly where I’m coming from.
I’m not sure how you think I’m confusing so many different parts of the business. I only intended to do one thing: clarify the difference between readers markets versus publisher markets.
I think writers can absolutely write to a very specific audience niche. I think the authors who have success marketing their own work usually get quite good at identifying who their audience is and predicting what that audience likes so they can create more of it. My core audience are techies, folks who are programmers or work in high tech or are at startups. They like smart fiction that makes them think about the future of technology and what implications it might have.
I’m not sure why you think readers wouldn’t know what they like. I know what I like. I see people go onto reddit all the time and say “I just read X, Y, and Z, and I would like to find more like that,” and the crowd will come up with 20 or 30 or 50 more recommendations.
I find it a little ironic that you twice call my 350 word comment long, when you wrote a 4,000 word post. 🙂
I didn’t say that readers don’t know what they like. I suggest you reread my piece. I am saying that with all of the freedom that now exists in the marketplace–freedom caused by readers knowing what they like–that writers don’t have to write to market. And if you’ve ever read any of my past blogs, the stuff you so painstakingly explained to me is stuff I have blogged about weekly for years.
If one is going to write “to market” these days, they would be best served by writing to the market that is coming down the pike, not the existing one(s).
By that I mean (and Kristine hinted at it) there is a periodicity to this kind of thing; there is the boom and bust cycle of the genre fiction market and the 25 year generational cycle. Both are approximate, both roughly coincide (though not entirely) and the genre cycle has an ever-increasing “tail” to it (takes longer to taper off each time through).
We’re in the middle/second half of a big genre boom; we’re at the beginning of a 25 year generational cycle (all the boomer SW kids are bringing THEIR kids to the theater this December). From now and for the next ten years or so…..
OH, and Happy Thanksgiving! I hear your pumpkin pie is awesome. 🙂
I think unrealistic expectations go hand in hand with writing to market. If you put up a book expecting that it’ll do as well or better than Valerie’s book and it fails then there is also the emotional fallout to deal with. If you thought that Valerie’s book was trash, that anyone could do that, and then your ‘superior’ book fails, what then? I had a conversation recently with a writer quick to decry romance writers as ‘terrible’ writers. She thought it was terribly unfair that so many writers she knew who were so much better couldn’t sell their books. Of course she also thought that romance readers were stupid and didn’t know what they were missing. How would it feel for that writer if she decided she was going to write a romance, and then failed? If she wrote it with that mindset, convinced it was going to be better than anything Nora Roberts produced, and nothing happened, no one noticed? How many times could she do that before giving up?
If you write what you love, what you enjoy, maybe it won’t sell, but you’ll enjoy writing it. Dean always talks about how much fun he has writing. Recently I’ve realized how often I’ve fallen into these sorts of destructive ways of thinking, of putting all sorts of expectations on what I write, instead of simply enjoying the process. Recognizing my depression, working on that, has helped me begin to figure out better ways to approach it. I want to have fun, to learn, and if people enjoy what I write, great.
This is totally in line with Zoe Winters latest post. In summary, she’s been neglecting one pen name because her other one name is now more successful. That other pen name she started writing the stories she loved and wanted to have fun with. Her Zoe pen name is her writing to market.
You can’t just go through the motions and expect to have a successful book.
Holy crap. I can’t believe somebody mentioned me here. I’ve been happily lurking and not commenting but I will say I didn’t write Zoe “specifically to market”. I loved all those stories, but I “held back” and tried to “soften things” that readers might be “offended by” or whatever. With the Kitty name, I just threw it all out there no matter how twisted or dark and readers ate it up with a spoon because they could tell I was being authentic. Now the challenge is for the Kitty name not to become something where I’m writing to expectations and the Zoe name is a lot more free to experiment. My goal is to get both names to the place where I’m being totally free with what I want to write on those names and not having a concern for “the market” but just doing my thing. And I can’t believe anybody still reads my blog, LOL.
But yes, my ideas of what is “commercial” and what is not were very much influenced by all the publisher blah blah talk that was still going on very heavily when I started, this idea that there is “commercial” fiction and there is this “other fiction” whatever that is. Now I don’t think in terms of “commercial” at all because I found out that what I thought “everybody would hate” is what my readers won’t stop talking about. And whatever it was I did with the Kitty name first, I did it from this completely unselfconscious place. And I’m just trying to get back there to that place where I DO NOT CARE how it does, so I can write as free as I did for that book.
Very much in a similar situation. I’ve found myself holding back because I’m afraid my readers want something different than what I feel compelled to write. It’s not intentional, but it happens and I had to really push myself to just leave things in that I have in the past cut out of my books before I published. It’s a market fear. If I think of my books’ readers as a market, it takes me somewhere I shouldn’t go. Honestly, if I think of my readers too often at all, it does the same thing. I have to write for me or I shy away from what comes naturally to me.
DO NOT CARE is exactly the phrase I need to stamp on the inside of my eyeballs. 🙂
Yes, holding back. Like you start self-censoring for fear of losing the readers you have or alienating them in some way. Like some readers will complain if all your books are too the same but then others will complain if they’re too different. And then if you write dark stories you get people addicted to that “thrill” of how dark can you go… but then they have limits and if you cross them they are utterly “disgusted’ and you lose them, but if you go too light, you’ve “lost your edge” and this is why I don’t read reviews, LOL. So much got so much better when I stopped doing that.
And I agree re: “If I think of my readers too often at all”. I’ve found it really just has to be me, the muse, and the work.
Nice post and so true. The YA genre in Traditional publishing is bad for chasing what is hot. One year is was faeries, then vampires and angels, OMG the fallen angels and then along came dystopian. I’m so glad I went Indie. I can publish those faerie books and continue on with them and publish the other YA series I started. They treat it like a fashion show. I want no part of that and thank god gave up following those agent blogs telling us what to write.
I was sort of guilty of writing to market in the romance genre. I haven’t published the book yet. I’ve seen so many romance indie writers having success in the contemporary genre that I wrote some. I enjoyed it and will continue on with them but when I wrote my first one, I could not escape what I love to write. It has bi elements and m/m elements. My favorite is bi/m/m romances. Even though he did end up with the girl in this one.
My first love is the paranormal world and I did discover what one indie described herself as epic romance fantasy which I don’t think is far from paranormal. I would like to do that. I love the romance genre and no matter what I write it has romantic elements in it.
Under my own name I write for me. I like to make up my own fairy tales and retell others. Romance plays heavy in these as well. And of course my cat stuff. What I will chase in trends right now that is super hot is coloring books. I love them and would like to do them. I think this would be a great introduction back into my art. I have two books planned and I hope even over the holidays to do at least one or two pieces.
That is why I love this new world. I can do these things and not have to be told what to write. I don’t have to follow the Trad fashion show.
You and Dean had me persuaded long ago of the stupidity looking for quick/easy money by chasing trends, but that’s an incredible point about Amazon. If they can’t do it, with the data they have, then it can’t be done, and any success someone experiences doing that is just dumb luck.
Wow, Kris, another wallop for me, right between the eyes. If I needed someone to talk me down from trying to chase what’s hot – and I am SO not that fast Lucky Larry – well, you more than gave me great reasons to WAKE UP and just write.
Thank you so much. So much.