Four years ago I earned a living as a web marketing consultant. Now, I earn a living as an author. Consequently, I receive regular emails from folks who’d love to build a career as an author and want to know my secret.
There’s no secret. Sorry.
There was, however, a strategy. That strategy was based upon established marketing principles, and the purpose of this post is to share that strategy with you. Like all advice in this industry, take it with a pinch of salt, but some of my advice might be of use if you’re looking to build a career. I’m no literary expert, but I do understand how consumers work.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, a few caveats …
This advice is primarily aimed at indie (self-published) authors rather than those of you hoping to snare a deal with a publisher. I know why some authors crave a deal and there are benefits, but I think the chances of making it big these days are approaching lottery odds (for debut authors). I’d love to see my books on the shelves of Waterstones and WHSmiths but not so much I’m willing to give up my indie career and all the benefits.
I’ve also made a few assumptions.
Firstly, your writing is of a decent standard – no amount of marketing advice can help a poorly-written book because consumers won’t want it. Secondly, if you write fiction, it’s imperative you understand the art of storytelling. If you write non-fiction, it’s equally imperative you know what you’re talking about.
If you’re still with me, let’s get into the detail.
I’ll start with a controversial statement: if you set out to write a book to appeal to the broadest possible audience – in the hope it’ll become a global bestseller – good luck. I think you’ll need it.
Now, when I talk about writing a global bestseller, I’m going to assume you’re not some undiscovered literary genius with the ability to pen a breathtaking piece of work, unlike anything the world has read before. The cream will always rise to the top but for the rest of us, we need to carve out a profitable niche before we take on the world.
The important word here is NICHE.
Your aim should be to write a book which has the potential to become a bestseller within a specific niche/market. In literary terms, I’m talking about sub-genres (both established and new sub-genres).
If you market a product to everybody, it’ll be relevant to nobody.
Of course, you should write the absolute best book you can but if your aim is to write a book ‘everyone’ will love, chances are you’ll more likely end up with a book no one really cares about.
The vast majority of small businesses (yep, this is a business) start with an empty order book and build up their customer base by filling a niche the market leaders (in this case, publishing houses) aren’t tapping into.
It might sound counterintuitive but writing for the broadest possible audience is only going to undermine your chances of building a hungry band of loyal readers.
Knowing this was pivotal in my (relative) success.
My first book, The ’86 Fix is a time travel novel set in a suburban Britain, in 1986. There are thousands of time travel novels on Amazon’s shelves, so I was faced with the challenge of writing a book with a chance of being found in such a crowded space.
So, I decided to write a book which would only appeal to a very specific audience – British readers between the ages of 38-60. In doing so, I discounted 98% of the global book-buying market, but I knew there were still enough readers in that remaining 2% for the book to sell well (it did, and still does).
There are two good reasons why that book became the bedrock of my writing career …
- I never had to consider removing an amusing cultural reference or an ’80s-related plot device because an American or a Millenial reader wouldn’t understand it. As a consequence, the book had an authentic voice which resonated with my target readers. The beauty of writing for a niche audience is you can write for them, and them alone. The broader your audience, the more you have to filter.
- When it came to marketing and advertising, I knew EXACTLY who I was pitching the book at, and how to reach them. Conversely, the broader an audience, the more difficult (and expensive) it is to attract new readers. How do you target a reader if your audience is ‘everyone’ (or just ‘everyone’ who reads in a particular genre)?
Let me expand on that second point.
Last week, I spotted a post in a Facebook group from a woman who was trying to decide on a title for her debut (non-fiction) book. I asked her who the book was aimed at – because the title needed to appeal to them – and she replied: the target audience is women.
Can you imagine the difficulty in promoting or advertising a book when your target market is 3.75 billion people?
It also assumes those 3.75 billion people are like-minded. It assumes they all have the same needs, the same wants, the same outlook on life, the same challenges, the same opportunities, the same income, the same education, etc, etc – that is madness.
If she’d said the book was squarely aimed at working-class, Afro-Caribean women in America between the ages of 25-40, I’d have put my shirt on her having success with it. Unfortunately, the individual on Facebook didn’t seem to care who the book was really aimed at, and that’s a huge mistake.
Now, let’s look at a book which is the absolute definition of niche.
For my sins, I’m a lifelong fan of Aldershot Town Football Club. For those of you not familiar, it’s a small-town team with a base of roughly 5,000 fans (rarely do they all attend home matches at the same time, unfortunately). I mention this because last year I read a book called Slab Life: the highs and lows of the 2017-2018 football season through the eyes of an Aldershot Town fan (Amazon link).
At the time of writing, that book has twelve reviews, and they’re all five-star. It’s also likely the most well-read book amongst fans of Aldershot Town Football Club. 99.99% of the general book-buying public are unlikely to be interested in the book, but when the author began writing it he knew he had a ready-made audience who would almost certainly buy it, and love it.
Granted, that audience is small, but the point is valid. I make it because somewhere between a book written for ‘everyone’ and a book written for just 5,000 die-hard football fans rests a sweet spot.
So, how does this help you write the right book?
Say you want to write a novel based on a traditional ghost story – the competition is huge on Amazon and your book would likely become lost if you write for ‘everyone’, or even just readers who like ghost stories. How do you reduce the audience size so you can write a book for them?
Let’s say you narrow the audience by targeting the theme to a specific geographic location (don’t do this – it’s a shit concept), and that presents you with the following options…
- A ghost story set in Great Britain
- A ghost story set in London
- A ghost story set in Chiswick (a London suburb)
- A ghost story set in Riverview Road, Chiswick
Writing a ghost story set in Great Britain still presents a huge challenge from a marketing perspective, but at least you have a narrower audience – folks who like British ghost stories. Now, at the other end of the scale, if you wrote a ghost story set in a specific road, how many people who live in that road would be interested in reading it? I’d wager a sizeable majority.
From a marketing perspective, you could literally walk up Riverview Road and knock on every door to tell them about your book, and most residents would probably buy a copy because it couldn’t be more relevant to them, even if they’re not fans of ghost stories.
The trouble is, you’d reach market saturation pretty quickly, and that market isn’t big enough to return a profit on the 1,000-odd hours you spent writing your book. You need to identify that sweet spot, which could be a ghost story set in London – a small enough market to target, but large enough (9 million people) to sell enough books.
Let’s take that theme in a different direction.
How about that ghost being a former World War II soldier – a gay soldier who (for obvious reasons) had a clandestine relationship with a senior officer. Perhaps they died before they ever got to live out their happily ever after, and that’s why our ghostly soldier now haunts the former home of his one-time love.
Putting aside any bullshit prejudices, suddenly you have a distinct market for your book – fans of gay fiction and ghost stories. A relatively narrow market but fans would devour such a book, and likely LOVE IT because the core theme would truly resonate with them in the same way my debut novel resonated with Brits who love ’80s nostalgia and Slab Life resonated with fans of Aldershot Town Football Club.
Hopefully, you can now see the benefits of writing to a niche audience.
Knowing who you’re writing for is half the battle. You have a book targetting a niche audience but how do you let that audience know your book is aimed at them?
Most book marketing experts will argue that to succeed in any given genre, you’ve got to create a product which meets the exact expectations of the audience in that genre: similar characters in a similar setting with a similar plot. The book itself would have a similar cover and a similar description to all those other similar books on Amazon’s shelves (I make no apology for my liberal use of the word ‘similar’ – I’m making a point).
If you’ve ever read one of Lee Child’s novels featuring Jack Reacher, you’ll probably know his hugely successful series has spawned hundreds of similar novels featuring a similar alpha-male protagonist – usually an ex-military loner with trust issues.
Several years ago, I picked up one such novel by an author called Mark Dawson. I didn’t know it at the time but Mark is a hugely successful indie author, and I’d guess a large slice of that success is down to his John Milton series (Milton happens to be an ex-military loner with trust issues). However, where he differed from all those other Jack Reacher type characters is that Milton is a BRITISH ex-military loner with trust issues, and many of the books are set in Britain. That appealed to me as a reader and set Mark’s novels apart from the competition.
It may have only been a short step away from convention but in a crowded marketplace, sometimes that’s all it takes. While creating a product which fits their market, many authors ignore a basic marketing principle; one which is considered fundamental in most other sectors – offering a product which just a bit different from the competition will attract the attention of consumers.
Anyone for cake?
Imagine you decided to go into the cake-making business, and your first product is a Victoria sponge (you know, two sponge discs with jam and cream in the centre). Now, if you head to the cake aisle in any supermarket, you’ll likely see they stock more than one Victoria sponge. As a consumer, how do you choose which one to buy?
You might decide to buy one produced by a trusted brand you’re familiar with, say Mr Kipling. That is similar to readers buying books from authors they’ve heard of: the genre superstars. You might decide to buy the cheapest Victoria sponge – in the literary world, that’s like a lot of self-published authors who try to sell a book in volume by pricing it at just 99p (making a pittance in the process and undermining the true value of their product).
You’ll see Sainsbury’s have two variants of the Victoria sponge with similar, traditional packing and price point. One is branded as better quality because it’s from their ‘Taste The Difference’ range, but essentially, there’s not a lot of difference between the two Sainsbury’s products.
Then there’s the Oggs product (as an aside, I notice it is more than double the price of the other two sponges, but clearly it still sells so well that Sainsbury’s see it worthy of a place on their shelves).
Until I researched this article, I’d never heard of Oggs but I love the name – it’s different, and immediately caught my attention. One could argue a book also needs a similarly unique, catchy title. If I see another book titled with a variant of Deep Water or Point Blank, I’ll likely lose my shit (I certainly won’t buy it).
Now, look at the Oggs product packaging. It’s far from conventional – no picture featuring a cup of tea or lace doilies, no traditional serif font or twee colours. I think it’s fair to say it would catch your eye if you were scanning the shelves in your local supermarket, right? It is the same principle with a book cover. Some might argue it’s important your cover closely resembles every other book in your genre, but …
How can you possibly stand out from the crowd if your book looks exactly the same as every other book in that crowd?
The final and overarching point I’ll make is the product itself. Rather than one big Victoria sponge, Oggs offer four mini Victoria sponges. It’s hardly revolutionary BUT, it is a differentiator. It sets the Oggs product apart from the others – it is their USP, along with their quirky branding.
If I were to set-up a company selling Victoria sponge cakes, I’d go a step further. I’d swap out the jam for an unconventional filling, like peanut butter.
With my books, I like to add extra ingredients that aren’t typical of the genre – it is my USP. I use humour (badly, some might say) and unconventional characters, and I’m not shy in the use of industrial language (top tip: if your prose is a bit sweary, drop a ‘fuck’ or a ‘wank’ on the first page so readers know what to expect).
I’d guess the majority of global readers probably wouldn’t enjoy my books – certainly those readers who favour orthodoxy. They’re not my target market. I’m fortunate there are enough people who do like my unorthodox writing style and themes. Enough for me to pay the bills.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the cake …
Like a gay World War II ghost, a peanut butter Victoria sponge won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (and some might argue, controversial), but for folks who really like peanut butter, it’ll stand out from the crowd … and they will LOVE it. It’s also likely most consumers won’t want a Victoria sponge with peanut butter, but as long as there are enough people who do, the sales will flow.
This is the same principle as books – write for a niche audience and you’ll gain traction far quicker than if you write a book for the mass market.
There’s one final point I need to stress. Many budding authors want to pen a bestseller so they tend to play safe and stick to all the rules. They sign-up for all the courses, read all the popular books on how to write a bestseller, and tick all the items on a checklist. They do everything that every other budding author does. As a result, they end up writing the literary equivalent of a bland Victoria sponge.
I did the exact opposite, and it’s a strategy I heartily recommend, because (drum roll – this is the profound, takeaway statement) …
You’ll have a significantly better chance of breaking out as an author if you make big waves in a small pond. No one wants to be an insignificant ripple in the ocean.
In closing, there are many paths to success and I can only tell you what worked for me. Other authors will have found a different path but we all share one common aim – to attract new readers. Some authors invest a huge amount of time and money on advertising but I don’t. I began by writing a book for a niche audience and adding my own special sauce to help it stand out from the crowd.
Perhaps that is my not-so-secret secret.