Market to your genre, but write for your audience
One of the benefits that self-publishing has brought to the book world is a breadth of genres and sub-genres that were previously underserved (if not completely nonexistent). While those sub-genres may not have been profitable for a big publishing house to chase, due to their smaller overall size, they can still be profitable for an author making the much higher commissions that self-publishing brings. That’s why it can pay to write to your audience if you’re passionate about a type of story that isn’t typically the biggest sellers. The trick is finding that audience that shares your interests and wants to read those stories, which means that even though your story may be unique or different than what’s expected within your genre, your marketing efforts should still continue to conform to norms. Otherwise you may not be able to find and attract that core audience in the first place.
“This book spoke to me.”
Almost all of us who aspire to be writers can name books that have changed our lives. For me, it was The Saint in New York by Leslie Charteris, the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, and anything Jilly Cooper and Fiona Walker have ever written.
And thanks to the rise of self-publishing, today’s generation of readers are getting even more opportunity to find the kinds of books that speak to them, because authors who might never have got a publishing deal in the past are now able to make a living telling the stories they want to tell.
In many ways, this is the most important perspective you need to cling to as you build out your career as an author. The key to success is no longer to write books that have generalized appeal. Finding your tribe – the people who get your writing – is how you really build a career.
What I mean by this can be demonstrated by the rise of brand-new genres, subcategories, and styles of books that have been driven by self-publishing. A great example is BWWM Romance (Black Woman/White Man.) This is a subcategory of Romance that pretty much didn’t exist in traditional publishing, but has exploded since the invention of the Amazon Kindle – with authors like Jamila Jasper developing a passionate fanbase of readers who finally get to explore love stories featuring a interracial pairing that traditional publishers often considered “not commercially viable.”
Likewise, the rise of MM Romance – gay romance between two men – is something that Amazon’s self-publishing platform helped drive. Traditional publishing barely considered male/male romance as a genre, or limited it to erotica – yet now there are huge audiences for books featuring love stories between two men, with the same focus on narrative beats and strong characterization that you’d find in a ‘regular’ romance book.
Urban Fantasy, Young Adult, and a number of other categories now churn with hundreds of new releases every month, when traditional publishers previously only focused on a few authors in those genres; once again, through the mistaken belief that books catering to such a limited audience “weren’t commercially viable.”
But, here’s the thing – for a massive publishing company, that might be true. However, for a self-published author making 70% commission on their book sales, the ‘small’ audiences that traditional publishers preferred to ignore can actually provide self-published authors with a comfortable income.
It’s no longer about a few hundred authors selling millions of books – as was the traditional publishing model. It’s about thousands of authors selling hundreds or thousands of books; and giving their audiences exactly what they want.
Money on the Table
The math behind it makes plenty of sense. A self-published author selling 1,000 books on Amazon will generally get to keep more of the royalties than if they’d sold 7,000 books through a traditional publishing contract, which pays around 10%. Immediately, you can see that the targets a self-published author needs to hit to make a living from writing are considerably lower – and that’s even before you factor in that many traditional publishers limit the number of books they’ll publish from a particular author to avoid ‘flooding the market’, whereas some self-publishing writers churn out a new novel every month or two.
That’s why the real opportunity here is for self-published authors to build that readership of 1,000 by publishing books that traditional authors don’t provide for those readers – like BWWM, or really authentic MM Romance. One of the reasons traditional publishing is dying is because there are literally tens of thousands of readers crying out for writers to provide them with the kinds of stories they want to read; but nobody from Simon & Schuster or Penguin is filling those needs!
This is your opportunity!
After all, if traditional publishing isn’t catering to these markets because they’re too small or niche, then that means there is even less competition for those readers from writers just like you! And the secret to doing that is easier, more seamless, and more natural than you could possibly imagine. It just involves writing what you want to write.
Finding your Tribe
The reason so many self-published authors ‘quit’ after one or two books is that the motivation to write their original book probably didn’t come from the idea of making a living out of it. Most first books are labors of love – I know mine was. Who would want to read an old-fashioned adventure story about some ginger kid having car chases and shootouts in Paris?
Well, recently, I received an email from a redheaded kid in the UK who’d loved my book because the subplot of it – my own personal experiences getting bullied for being ginger in the UK – struck a real chord with him. Sure, it’s only ONE guy who has ever sent me an email like that, but my book spoke to him.
Just like Jamila Jasper’s BWWM books speak to women and men who want to read stories of interracial romance that are rooted in the real racial tensions of the modern world, and how there are gay men out there who want to read stories about men building and sharing happy relationships together, instead of ‘gay’ treated like a fetish and limited to erotica (which deserves its own place, however, since that continues to have an audience of its own.)
There’s the traditional wisdom of ‘writing to market’ which involves identifying the top trends in publishing and writing books ‘like’ those – but chasing trends is not how the world’s most popular authors got where they are. You’ll never be on top if you’re always chasing somebody else – and if the stories you’re writing aren’t crawling to get out of you, you’ll burn out pretty quickly.
But the ones that are? You’d be surprised how many people want to read them. When I first hit the bestseller lists, it wasn’t with a carefully-researched romance novel written perfectly to market, but with a full-length novel I’d smashed together in two weeks blending action/adventure, traditional romance, and a whole lot of smut. It had taken only two weeks to write because I’d loved writing it. I’d wake up each day excited and enthused by the idea of hammering my fingers on the keyboard – and when I published it, people left reviews saying stuff like: “I’ve never read anything like this before – but it works.”
Since then, I’ve never looked back – because I managed to find an audience of readers who really dug the kind of books I wanted to write. The other day, when my wife asked nervously “what if your next book is a flop?” I told her: “I don’t care, I’d write it anyway.” I’ve been lucky enough to ‘find my tribe’ so I won’t have to face that dilemma. The secret to successful self publishing is for you to do the same.
Don’t write to market – but publish to market!
But while the success of that bestseller was a surprise, part of it shouldn’t have been – because what enabled me to ‘find my tribe’ was following the advice I just told you not to – about ‘writing to market.’
You see, the magical books that speak to readers in such a unique way are often disguised as professional-looking, well-researched publications. My first best-seller might have been a balls-out adventure novel with romance and sex in it, but the cover was SPOT ON for the ‘dark mafia’ genre, and my blurb was enough to get anybody clicking the ‘look inside.’ The fact that my first chapter opened with our heroine naked, alone, and locked up in a seedy bordello set the stage for an adventure many curious readers couldn’t resist.
I didn’t write my story to market – but I published it in a way that was congruent with the other best-sellers my book would eventually sit alongside. Like I mentioned in my post about covers, there’s a ‘dress code’ for successful books, and the real secret to success is to write books that are unique and really grab the attention of your ‘tribe’ but publish them in a way that is congruent with the bestsellers of that genre, so readers will take a chance on the book in the first place.
Just like you’ll likely be stopped at the airport if you try to board an airplane in a tuxedo and tennis shoes (because something doesn’t look right about that combination) you’ll fall flat if you don’t package your unique book in a format that provides comfort and reassurance to potential readers that you’re not going to waste their time.
I published my best-seller five years after I’d first started self-publishing, so I’d had the benefit of learning how the system works (what covers sell, how to write a blurb, and how to market and launch a book) and if I didn’t have the tried-and-trusted system in place, my awesome book might have otherwise disappeared into obscurity.
So, in short, you have to do the impossible – write a book that stands out, while at the same time blending in.
Nurture your fans
But that’s where the magic happens. Each time you introduce a wider audience to your book, you’ll grow your reader base a little – and as long as you nurture them with regular new releases, foster an engaged email list, and acknowledge that you ‘get’ them, in the same way that they ‘get’ your book, you’ll develop a core of fans who can lift you from ‘aspiring’ author to a de facto presence on Amazon and beyond.
Authenticity is the new currency in self-publishing, and it’s the key to your success as a self-published author. As Amazon moves further and further towards becoming a ‘pay to play’ marketplace for books, the ability to speak directly to a core audience of fans is what is going to keep you as a player in this competitive industry long after other authors have given up.
Write what means something to you – because somewhere out there, there’s at least one reader to whom it means something, too.
You have a responsibility to develop your talents, learn the craft of writing, and master the process of successful self-publishing – but the foundation all of that is built on is the one thing nobody can fake: Authenticity.