There’s no excuse for not knowing where your book fits in the market

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From Nathan Bransford:

I know that the vast majority of authors haven’t worked in the publishing industry and aren’t spending their days acquainting themselves with its ins and outs. I know that for the uninitiated it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between traditionally published books and self-published books. I know you would rather just write your books and coast to fame and fortune without lifting another finger.

But real talk: If you don’t know where your book fits in the market and can’t come up with some comp titles published in the last 5-10 years, there’s really only one reason: you just haven’t done the research.

It takes hundreds of hours to write a novel. You can afford to spend an extremely important 2-3 hours clicking around on Google and Amazon to research what else is out there.

. . . .

it’s not enough to just write a good book and then let the magic of publishing take care of the rest. There was never a time when someone could “just be a writer” and it’s certainly not true now.

There are many, many reasons it pays to know where your book fits in the market, but they all really boil down to this:

  • You must know what differentiates your book as you’re pitching and promoting it.

If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’re going to have to write a query letter. If you’re pursuing self-publishing, you’re going to have to write good jacket copy, or at least know what good jacket copy looks like. If you’re planning a marketing campaign or social media presence, it’s helpful to know where your audience is and what they’re reading.

In order to really know why your book is special, you should know what else is out there. You should know who your potential readers are. And in order to do that, you have to have a sense of the landscape.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

21 thoughts on “There’s no excuse for not knowing where your book fits in the market”

  1. This isn’t just a marketing issue.
    There is also a strong brand building element.

    Commercial fiction moves among strong genre and subgenre currents of reader *content* expectations (not just nebulous marketing classifications like Young Adult). Each of the classic genres identifies a spectrum of accepted content, approach, and tone. These are user expectations tbat affect the reader’s perception of the narrative; things like how “gritty” a mystery can be and still be cozy, how speculative a hard science SF can get before it drifts out of “known true” territory into “not known false” or worse (from a hard SF fan perspective) outright fantasy.

    This is particularly important when drawing in techniques and conventions from other genres; at what point a cross-genre narrative switches its primary orientation? (At what point does a thriller with a strong relationship plot become romantic suspense? Or vice-versa. When does the danger subtext in a cozy become too explicit?)

    The issue doesn’t end with the sale, where marketing ends; unless the reader is a total novice they go into a read with expectations from the cover, title, blurb, *and* the nominal genre cues. How well they conform to (or intentionally subvert) conventions and expectations will determine how the story (and the author) is received. Which is important for brand building and subsequent sales.

    This focus is also important if the author wants to build a brand; a certain consistency of tone and style across titles is very useful. If the author wants to build a reputation for,say, light and breezy fractured fairy tales, it may be helpful to stay in that territory for a few books before venturing into grim and gritty serial killer hunts. Just saying. 😉

    Once a fanbase is established some drift of clearly identified change can be welcome but care is needed not to lose part or all of the fans if the steamy urban fantasy series is to be steered into paranormal erotica.

    Examples abound of authors that pick a playground to start with, ramp up their reputation and brand and then leverage it to expand their range, and also of writers that start out with muddled, confused efforts, well written but without a clear calling card. Sometimes the author figures out where their skills and vision best work (John Jakes is exhibit one) and find big success in a different field. And sometimes…not.

  2. And or, one might consider that authors don’t always know what genre they’re writing in a feature rather than a bug. Regardless, until an author has written a bunch of books (say ten minimum) they are unlikely to know what they like writing, or perhaps they like writing everything, in which case they will need to signal their genre with more care to differentiate their latest release to the right readers.

  3. Writers that didn’t start out as readers?
    That are writing in a genre they aren’t fluent in?

    I think I’ve run into a few. Not impressed by their output.
    (The nastiest review I ever read was in ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, over BATTLEFIELD EARTH. “L. Ron Hubbard hasn’t written any SF since the 30’s. BATTLEFIELD EARTH suggests he thinks nobody else has, either.”)

    “Doing your homework” isn’t just about wordsmithing. Or even the business side. It’s also about purpose. Otherwise you end up like the movie cliche modernist painter, dripping paint on a canvas to see what comes out.

    Asimov used to say the first thing a writer needs is something to say. Then they have to figure out how to say it.

    From what I’ve seen, when tbe reader (any reader) knows more about the genre than the author, good things rarely follow.

  4. You can know pretty much where you want to be – and still not know who the other writers are because you physically can’t read enough of them to evaluate the modern ones. And so write where your omnivorous classical background makes you comfortable (define classical as you like).

    You can’t do things Bransford’s way if you can’t. I either read – or write. I prefer to write. My own omnivorous background is old – and I’ve had thirty years of illness during which I haven’t added much to it, the last twenty of them spent writing my own mainstream trilogy. It is a perfectly good writing model – for me – and may be what makes me unique as a writer.

    Humans find a way to adapt to all kinds of circumstances: think of Anne Frank, writing in hiding. Think of Flannery O’Connor, battling the lupus that eventually killed her, writing quietly while her mother took care of her. Think of Tolkien, quietly constructing a world.

    How to market is a secondary problem, but the writing can be done in many ways. Because it cannot be contained.

    • There’s writing and there’s writing.
      Commercial writing, which is what we’re discussing, is not freeform-random.

      Just one recent example:
      Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series.
      She started out to write an 18th century historical novel.
      Right away she realized the voice and personality of the protagonist driving her narrative did not fit the setting. Either the character had to change or the narrative had to change. She chose to change the narrative. She switched from the historical fiction genre, with its constraints and expectations, to a time-travel fantasy, with its own but different expectations. Since she was playing with time-travel, that brought in time loops, paradoxes, the mutability (or not) of history. Which she took advantage of to great narrative effect.

      She *could* have dug in her heels and ignored the genre conventions. “Its my story and I’ll tell it my way.” But she understood both genres and their needs and potential, and her own goals, and chose wisely. 30Million sales over 8 books and a 5 season and counting video series are proof.

      So yeah, writers don’t *have* to understand the genre they’re paying in.
      Nobody is going to seen a hitman to kneecap them.
      But tbat doesn’t mean anybody is going to read the magnum opus.

      Self expression can lead to masterpieces but if sales and reads matter, a bit if research into the outside world will help.

      • I don’t know if Gabaldon changed her core beliefs about her own writing – and if she’s happy with that. I wonder if she will be read in the future in the same way she is now.

        She has the capacity to do what she wants to do – and I’m very pleased at her current success – it’s pretty amazing.

        I don’t have the capacity to pivot. I don’t particularly have the desire, but I have to make a virtue of the necessity of slow writing, since that’s my only option. I do have the capacity, so far (cross fingers, covid-19 lurking), to continue on my original writing path. Fully intended to be commercial fiction. My way.

        Fortunately, I am very happy with that path – or I’d just give up on the whole thing and take life easy during the pandemic.

        • I’m not sure Gabaldon could be said to have changed her core belief, simply because that would be a betrayal of herself. I think it would be difficult to do that and keep up with that series as long as she has. It’s not fun to tell a story that you don’t want to tell, and keep doing so for how ever many books Gabaldon’s written. If anything, that sounds like the writers’ division of hell.

          What it looks like to me is that Gabaldon kept to the core of the story she wanted to tell, and stayed true to that story by putting it in the “genre garden” where it could bloom. I only know “Outlander” from the few episodes I watched with my mother and grandmother, but I didn’t get the sense that Claire would ring “true” if she were born in Jane Austen’s era. She is plausible as a woman of the early 20th century.

          It’s possible to betray a story or its characters by putting them in situations where they ring false. I’ve seen it done. But Gabaldon’s changes allowed her to stay true to who Claire is, and true to the story she wanted to tell about her. That’s vital.

          • Exactly. Nice phrase, btw.
            (Put it in tbe right garden.)
            She didn’t blindly do her story ala Gollum (It’s mine!) did her best to give it the best genre to shine. And that opened up narrative doors a historical novel wouldn’t have.

            The show is surprisingly good; NETFLIX has the first three season and I binged the last two thru PRIME. The acting is great but they have excellent material to work with doing a great job of contrasting the cultures of the time and highlighting the unchanging aspects of human nature. Like the first season of Game of Thrones it is *properly* light on the fantasy elements but it uses them accurately.

            Its educational crossgenre.

            • Thanks!

              The one “Outlander” episode I saw made me want to get the books; Gabaldon’s work looks like it’s worth studying, as well as fun. I know my mother binged the show when it finally came to Netflix, so I’ll tell her it’s on Prime, too.

              • It’s actually on Starz via Prime but a seven day trial is enough for the last two seasons. And Amazon is safest for a binge-and-cancel trial. 😉

                And yes, Gabaldon characterizations are worth studying. Even the blackest villain comes out nice and rounded. Some nice techniques for shorthanding that.

      • Yep, Felix. When I first saw this OP above, my initial reaction was: “Well, duh” since it’s so darn obvious. I remember spending months researching the market of my current niche before I started outlining my first book in the series.

        “She switched from the historical fiction genre, with its constraints and expectations, to a time-travel fantasy, with its own but different expectations.”

        Which is exactly what I did. I went from “pure” Historical Fiction to Time Travel Fiction/Historical Fantasy. So I not only read Gabaldon but the other commercial “classics”: Timeline (Crichton), Time and Again (Finney), 11/22/63 (King), and plenty more. Then I made a chart of how they handled the big TT issues: which TT theory, what TT mechanism, how often back and forth, has present time elapsed, what paradoxes, etc., etc.

        My twist is to add Neanderthals and a BIG time jump (40,000 years) to the mix.

        And I guess I did it right because my current book is Amazon ranked better than most of the above (Top 50). And outselling my HF.

        • One would think it’s obvious, no?

          Traditional publishing is built around promotion, convincing people to buy what you have to sell, but most every other business is built around figuring out *first* what people will buy and enjoy and *then* building it. It’s called market research and it is an integral part of the commercially successful creative process.

          Figuring out where an existing book fits, for marketing purposes, is better than never bothering but strictly speaking it more effective to do it first so you don’t end up with an unmarketable product.

          It’s all about knowing your audience.

          BTW, all three of your Classics ended up as successful movies. They knew what they were doing.
          Finney in particular played repeatedly in that space with different but always successful approaches. His movies are hard to find but never fail to please.

          TIME AFTER TIME, the movie, not the insipid TV series, is also a classic; turning the most common time travel trope on its head for a thriller.

          • My research along those lines led me to the conclusion that my genre of choice has been entirely taken over by splatterporn and nothing else is salable — at least not according to the major publishers. I refuse to write splatterporn, because I hate to read it. So what am I supposed to do, give up?

            (By the way, Bransford’s advice in the OP is intensely stupid. It is not a matter of ‘an extremely important 2-3 hours clicking around on Google and Amazon to research what else is out there’. You have to actually read the damned stuff to know what is out there, and nobody has time to read it all even in quite a narrow subgenre. If you’re well-read enough in a particular genre to be absolutely certain that you know what will sell and what probably won’t, you don’t have time to write anything yourself. Researching the competition is a Red Queen’s race.)

            • That’s not what’s needed.
              What you’re thinking of is tradpub’s fad-based “the same as XXX, but different”.
              What’s needed is understanding the basics of each genre or subgenre. What’s a western? What makes it different from, sat a thriller set in cowboy territory? What’s a cozy mystery? What’s the difference between HEA and HFN in romance?
              It’s not about what tradpub shovels out today but what the genre itself is about.

              What are the enduring tropes?
              What are the conventions?
              What are the known pitfalls?
              Some are universal (God ex-machina) but some are genre specific.
              I.E., “What’s a Mary Sue?” You’re unlikely to find her or her brother, Gary Stu, in romance, but they pop up a lot in bad SF both in prose and in movies. *cough*STAR WARS*cough*.
              The same is true are “infodumps” which are ocassionally necessary but often abused.

              You research the *genre*, not the “competition”.
              That’s one reason why waiting until it’s finished isn’t as helpful as understanding upfront who the audience is and what they expect.

              Just this week, we had this right here:


              Do an online search for “science fiction tropes” and you’ll find entire sites to listing and analyzing the conventions of the genre, how to use them, how they’re misused.

              The same holds for every major genre.
              Some are even sarcastic or parodies, which tells you how readers view them. If you’re doing epic fantasy, aka High Fantasy, it helps to look up “How to be an evil overlord”. It’s funny but what makes it funny how often writers leave those plot holes open.

              It doesn’t take a college course in SF to understand that it is a story that falls apart without a core scientific element. Or that romance, of whatever sort, is about the relationship.

              It’s the basics.
              You don’t need to read every frakking book pretending to play in the field, but it does help to read a couple of relevant “exemplars*.

              Want to do military SF? It helps to know military culture and procedures, but it also helps to read Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS and Gordon Dickson’s TACTICS OF MISTAKE. They *created* the subgenre.

              Mystery? Agatha Christie, Nero Wolf, Sherlock Holmes. Even Murder she wrote can help.
              Western? Zane Gray, Elmore Leonard.
              Romance? Nora Roberts is everwhere. Georgine Heyer.
              Suspense? Stephen King. Or better yet, Robert Bloch.

              If you can’t think of a few exemplars in your chosen field you *need* to do *some* research. Historical fiction isn’t the only genre that benefits from careful, targetted research. They all do. And not just to avoid twitter storms.

              It would seem to be an obvious *first* step, but the market is full of halfbaked stories (quite a few top sellers) that lack an understanding of what genre readers *expect*. Stories that might sell but are never read through on their way to the trash and take with it the author’s reputation.

              Saying you have no time to read *everything* in the chosen field is just a strawman. An easy excuse. Nobody likes homework.
              But it is necessary.
              There isn’t much social promotion in genre writing. 😉

              • BTW, speaking of Evil Overlords, here’s the original:


                It’s echoed all over.
                “My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear plexiglass visors, not face-concealing ones.

                My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.

                My noble half-brother whose throne I usurped will be killed, not kept anonymously imprisoned in a forgotten cell of my dungeon.

                Shooting is not too good for my enemies.

                The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

                I will not gloat over my enemies’ predicament before killing them.

                When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.”

                After I kidnap the beautiful princess, we will be married immediately in a quiet civil ceremony, not a lavish spectacle in three weeks’ time during which the final phase of my plan will be carried out.

                I will not include a self-destruct mechanism unless absolutely necessary. If it is necessary, it will not be a large red button labelled “Danger: Do Not Push”. The big red button marked “Do Not Push” will instead trigger a spray of bullets on anyone stupid enough to disregard it. Similarly, the ON/OFF switch will not clearly be labelled as such.

                I will not interrogate my enemies in the inner sanctum — a small hotel well outside my borders will work just as well.

                I will be secure in my superiority. Therefore, I will feel no need to prove it by leaving clues in the form of riddles or leaving my weaker enemies alive to show they pose no threat.

                One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation. ”

                My favorite:

                “My Legions of Terror will be trained in basic marksmanship. Any who cannot learn to hit a man-sized target at 10 meters will be used for target practice.”
                More at the source.

                An effective use of genre tropes and concentions is to play off reader expectations and go somewhere different, but to subvert expectations, first you need what they are.

              • Fair enough, but you don’t get that kind of knowledge from the process the OP was discussing.

                As it happens, I know exactly what genre my fiction belongs to, but it’s getting to be an awfully polluted pool. The BPHs have spent the last twenty years trying to subvert the absolute living hell out of it, in the name of being hip and edgy and ironic, and as I said above, they ended up with splatterporn. They no longer seem very interested in appealing to readers; they would rather maintain their credibility with the sort of critic who praises a book for its ‘stomach-churning violence’ (real example, quoted verbatim).

                When you come down to it, I know the tropes and conventions of my genre backwards and forwards, but no one knows the market, because the most hyped new products are aimed at jaded reviewers instead of actual consumers.

                It feels a bit like the market for MP3 players when manufacturers were trying to turn them into tiny little PCs with tons of bullet-list features and impossible user interfaces. You know—just before the iPod came along and swept every one of those devices into the dustbin. The real question is whether black-on-black morality, pornographic violence, and sprawling, unfocused soap-opera plotting are the features that the consumer actually wants, or just the clunky UI that gets in the way. If the former, I might as well give up. If the latter, I might do pretty well. But I honestly do not know of any way to tell.

                • You know, I’ve been trying to figure out why this is becoming so…comment worthy?

                  And I’m thinking it is a legacy of tradpub-think, from the days when WRITERS MARKET was relevant. Because in those days of yore *publshers* were the market writers had to worry about. It din’t matter what the author knew or the readers expected because what mattered was getting an agent to fly it past publishers to see if *they* liked it. And, of course, publishers didn’t particularly cared what readers expected as long as they bought what they shovelled out.

                  (I’m reminded of the report aroubd here of a litfic author complaining that reviewers didn’t “get” his magnum opus and kept reviewing his medival tale of knights and dragons as a *fantasy*. And not a terribly interesting one. He sounded pretty earnest, too. He definitely had no idea how his story fit in the market.)

                  Even earlier, in the pulp days, the market was specific editors: experienced authors knew what kind of story the various editors liked and would either write to please them or wrote to please tgemselves and then submit to whichever magazine seemed likely to bite. It’s how Campbell, for one was able to redirect the bulk of science fiction to a higher level than before he took over Astounding.

                  Today, it’s different.

                  Between consolidation reducing the number of places a manuscript can sell and the BPHs doing as little as possible for most titles, it is falling to tge author to worry about the marketability of the story. In parallel, the rise of Indie, inc allowing authors to bypass tradpubs and go straight to the readers.

                  The market are the readers, not the tradpubs. Regardless of publishing path, authors have to have at least an idea of what readers buy and (harder) expect.

                  Complicating things is tradpubs throwing random stuff out to see what sticks. I still don’think focusing on tradpubs, and especially the BPHs dish out is a particularly good guide because their share is ever decreasing. And their power over B&M shelf space isn’t particularly meaningful.

                  If they are polluting the shelves with increasingly…obnoxious…material (dreaming of life as a dinosaur is SF, really?) it is because they are anxious about their declining share. Not an example to follow.

                  So no, they are no longer the market definers and neither is their output. On the contrary, in a time of overflowing options, readers finally have the upper hand and they get to buy what they like, not what is sitting on the shelves. They are the market definers.

                  That much is pretty clear by now, as evidenced by the declining numbers required to be a “bestseller” on lists rigged to favor the BPHs.

                  The OP is reflecting the need for authors to understand how they fit in the crowd but as I said to start this mess, I think doing it retroactively isn’t going to be as helpful as doing the market research upfront. It isn’t necessary to adhere to each and every genre convention and expectation but ignoring or subverting them works best when it is an informed choice.

                  Besides, given their recent track record, if I see the BPHs going one way, I’d be strongly inclined to go another. 😉

                • When books are no longer confined to specific shelf sections, who cares? When you have to stick books on shelves, you can only put them in one place.

                  With eBooks, the book can be in lots of sections.

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