Genre versus Author Platform? Which Matters More?

by Joel Friedlander on December 18, 2013 · 171 comments

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by C.S. Lakin (@CSLakin)

When my friend and colleague Susanna Lakin told me about her experiment in trying to find out exactly how important an author platform is for genre novelists, I was fascinated. Now, she’s written up the story of what she did, and what she’s found out. This is crucial reading for any novelists who are having trouble getting traction with their sales. Susanna, who has written more than a dozen critically-acclaimed novels, was the ideal person to run this “experiment” and I think you’ll be as fascinated as I by her results. Here’s her report.



Is it enough for an author to write a terrific book, then market it wisely, devoting a lot of energy and time to building an author platform? Will that ensure great sales? Most authors have precious little time to spend on building their platforms, yet most experts in publishing will agree that author platform is crucial.

But how crucial? Even if an author spends hours a week trying to get known—via social networking, blogging, listing their books on paid and free promotions, joining in on forums, offering sales—often all that effort shows little return in the way of sales, new readers, and buzz. A million writers are vying for attention, and many are putting out similar effort to build their author platform.

Authors can certainly benefit from engaging in all of the above activities; surely those efforts must help to some degree to get their name “out there” and be recognized. The aim of most authors is to get discovered, and to have name recognition (along with a great reputation for being a solid writer).

We’ve heard how crucial it is, particularly for nonfiction writers, to build that platform, which is so much easier than trying to build a platform for fiction. However, fiction writers are highly encouraged to do similarly using many of the same methods as nonfiction writers, such as blogging on timely topics that can tie in with their novel’s themes or setting.

Where Does Genre Fit In?

Without going into the strategies and methods for either fiction or nonfiction platform-building, I’d like to take a step back and ask this question:

How much does genre [for the novelists] have a bearing on success?

This is a question I did not want to ask myself, but after writing more than a dozen novels in various genres and spending years trying to market them, promote them, grow sales and readers, I kept coming back to this question.

Why? Because although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books are a bit experimental and can’t be easily categorized. My books just weren’t selling much.

With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. But after I’d put out five novels as ebooks (and some also in print), and did extensive marketing and promotion (spending an outrageous amount of money on publicity, for example)—following to the letter all the sage advice I’d garnered on how to sell for success, nothing worked. My author friends were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or they would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat.

Maybe It’s Just Luck

I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

I was dying to find out.

My Genre Experiment

So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform.
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author.
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine.
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series.
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion. [NOTE: This was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in.]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page.
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure.
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there.
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released.

author platformSo, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

My Results

The novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

You Don’t Have to “Sell Out” to “Sell Big”

I don’t think writers should “sell out” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. I find nothing wrong with writing to a specific audience for the sole reason of selling more books and making some money. It feels nice to pay the bills.

So, does it matter whether you have an author platform or not? I suppose it depends on what genre you want to write in. As my pen name identity grows an author platform, I’m assuming it will help my sales. But it didn’t hurt at all to not have one when I published this novel.

Any thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

author platformC. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript. Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!



Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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    { 151 comments… read them below or add one }

    Simon Townley December 18, 2013 at 1:30 am

    Fascinating article. But when I go to Amazon and use the ‘look inside’ feature on Colorado Promise, the whole book seems to be in italics. Why is that? Joel – do you have any views on that? Nitpicking I know, and it might just be a glitch. Look forward to seeing ‘From Idea to Selling in Three Months.’

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 5:52 am

    This is new, and it’s happened with other books of mine. When I view the ebook using the KDP previewer, it looks fine. So it must be a problem with Amazon’s feature, which is bad. I sent them an email to ask to fix it. The actual ebook looks fine, but of course we want our previews to accurately show the interior of the book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander December 18, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Ebooks are still in their infancy, Simon, and “glitches” like this are still all too common. I suspect, as Susanne says, that it’s a problem with the interpreter that Amazon is using for the “look inside” feature, but I’m sure they will straighten it out eventually.

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 9:31 am

    I just had my designer make a pdf and run it all through her mobi gizmo to check it all. She said by uploading as a Word doc, Amazon can mess with it but not with the format she uses. I think from now on I will let her vet and upload my docs. She uploads a zip file made through her mobipocket creator and since it’s zipped, Amazon can’t ruin it. That’s about as techy as I get! In case anyone wants to hire her, she’s a great designer: Ellie at http://www.publishista.com. Joel, you too, of course, but you might be too busy!

    Reply

    Simon Townley December 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Should have guessed it would be an Amazon glitch. At least you found a fix. I’m sure now you’ll sell even more books! I did find it confusing when I first opened up the book, as my brain (it’s a bit slow) told me I must be reading a letter as the opening to the book. Funny how formatting preconditions us.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Yeah I hate that! I hope they upload that fast. I don’t want people to see that! So now I’ve learned a good lesson. I format and upload books all the time for myself and my editing clients, but I think I will hire Ellie to do her magic as the last step on all of them.

    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Well, it took my designer and me a full day to get Amazon to fix their problem. They explained the LITB (Look Inside the Book) section is somehow connected to the reviews section, so if there is an unclosed italics tag ( without a to close it) in the review section (which there was, and didn’t cause a problem there), it carries over into the preview the book window. Which makes a whole lot of sense, right? Not. But they fixed it. Sheesh! Our files were just fine!

    Reply

    Karen December 20, 2013 at 5:44 am

    With all due respect – as someone who codes – your files were not “just fine.” As you said: “there was an unclosed italics tag.” And THAT is the frustration and horror of code! That little missing tag, wreaked havoc with your entire book! And since “tone” is sometimes so difficult to parse in comments, I meant this with humor. I’ve loved this post and the tsunami of responses that only such a great post can provoke.

    Reply

    Liana Mir December 21, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Her comment made it quite clear that her files were fine. She has no control over the reviews section.

    Karen December 22, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Liana, If one set of her files produced the error but the second set did not, then it would seem the first set was flawed.
    I am assuming (correct me if I’m mistaken) that Susanne is saying, sometimes – or for some formats – Amazon’s system forgives an unclosed tag, and sometimes, it does not. Nonetheless, the unclosed tag is a flaw. Did I misread it when she said, “there was an unclosed italic tag“?
    It’s a bit like talking on the cellphone while driving. You may not get a ticket – but you are breaking the law.

    Roland Denzel December 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    She’s saying that there was an unclosed tag in a review/comment, somewhere, and when someone invoked the ‘look inside’ feature, that open tag caused it to be displayed incorrectly.

    Greg Strandberg December 18, 2013 at 3:02 am

    I’ve been hearing you promote this article all week and I haven’t been disappointed with the results. I’ve thought about just what you’re talking about, taking apart a novel that’s working and putting it back together in your own way. I’m reminded of Jeff Bridges’ character in Sea Biscuit, sitting amongst all the automobile parts.

    It sounds like you didn’t read many of these romance-style books, but how long did you spend reading one novel, researching the categories, and then writing the thing? I’d think you’d have to respond to trends, which can change quickly, so having a book out in at least 3 to 4 months seems ideal.

    Seems like a worthy experiment to try.

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 5:27 am

    As I mentioned, I went from idea to selling in three months. I write fast, and know how to plot out novels, so most writers probably won’t be able to do a thorough job in such a short time. As far as trends go, this has nothing to do with trends, which are more about topics like zombies. Genres are pretty established and have certain sizes of readership, which of course fluctuates a bit, but year after year certain genres sell big and others don’t.

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    Valorie Grace Hallinan December 18, 2013 at 5:47 am

    This is one of the best articles of its kind I’ve read in a long while. Thank you for this. Writers need to make the most of their precious time and your experiment/wisdom can help us with that.

    Reply

    Karen December 18, 2013 at 6:10 am

    FABULOUS post! Tremendous timing! My brother and I are ripping apart a few books, as you’ve described, to learn the structure of MG / YA fantasy. It was just a fun, learning project – but you’ve inspired me to challenge him / me / us to take that knowledge and write, based on what we learn. Can you give me a few hints on how to research the sub-genres of fantasy / paranormal MG? I’m off to the google rabbit hole – but would be ever so grateful for any info on what was most helpful when researching genre? I cannot wait for “From Idea to Selling in Three Months!” I am headed straight to your blog to sign up for updates. Many thanks for this great, lucid ad hugely inspiring post.

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 6:14 am

    Do a Google search for the top-selling books on Amazon and/or Kindle in your genre. Then search for the top-selling authors in that genre, or use “top ranking” for the search words. Look at the Kindle top lists for those genres and subgenres and see which books are in the top ten. Then pick two or three that are similar to what you write, order the books, and deconstruct the structure. Have fun!

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    Karen December 18, 2013 at 6:28 am

    Many thanks! two questions – is there some sort of “master-list” of genres that might exist to use for research & comparison? And I’m curious why you chose the name of a man as your pen name?
    And a third question — when will you be releasing “From Idea to Selling in Three Months!”?

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Thanks, Karen. I made a comment above how to search online for Amazon’s best-selling genres and top-ranking authors. As far as the new ebook goes, I have to first write the darn thing! I’m getting ready to release my handy grammar guide for fiction writers, so once I get that done, I’ll put together the genre book. I kept a journal of what I did, and I think the week-by-week task list will be super helpful. Subscribe to my blog and I’ll be posting about it. Hopefully by February? I still need to write two novels in the meantime!

    Reply

    Karen December 18, 2013 at 6:30 am

    Woopsie! I misread the pen name – it is not a man’s name. LOL! Where’s the edit button on these posts! LOL!

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Funny! Since I chose “Charlene” (I wanted a kind of girly romancy name), but husband has been calling me Charlie!

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    William Ockham December 18, 2013 at 7:33 am

    I think this might just be the most important article of the year for indie authors. I hope folks don’t assume that the takeaway is to write sweet western historical romance, but rather to understand the nature of their market.

    Genre is a linking factor in a directed graph network of potential customers. The readers who are part of that network have an indirectly expressed set of requirements for a particular form of narrative fiction. Writers who can meet those requirements effectively will succeed.

    One cautionary note. You are far better off looking at the prices of other successful books in the genre than paying attention to Coker’s “research” which is, unfortunately, total nonsense. For an explanation, see my comment here:

    http://www.thepassivevoice.com/05/2013/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors-sell-more-ebooks/#comment-106893

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Thanks, William! I hear you on the pricing issue. It’s a never-ending debate. But since I’m happy with my daily sales at this rate, I don’t want to price to the genre. Most are 99 cents to 2.99, and I feel that’s fine when releasing another book in the series and discounting the prior books, but I do agree with Mark Coker that when you sell something cheap, it gives a lot of people the impression the book is only worth that much. Or that it’s short. My book is 125k words, so feel it “deserves” a higher price. If you look at Russell Blake’s posts on this, he sells at a higher price because he has a following and rep and his readers will pay anything. So at some point, those factors all come into play.

    Thanks, too, for making the point that writers shouldn’t go off and write in the genre I wrote in (please don’t–I want my bigger market share!). No, seriously, you have to write things you enjoy writing about. I lived in CO, raised horses for years, love Westerns, love history. It was a perfect choice for me.

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    Bill Peschel December 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    “I do agree with Mark Coker that when you sell something cheap, it gives a lot of people the impression the book is only worth that much.”

    Mark echos what I remember from my advertising and marketing class back in the day. People do pay attention to price signals, and too low signifies cheap. A high price signifies expensive or deluxe, at least so far as wine and luxury items are concerned (not really books unless you’re doing a limited edition or an edition with a lot of extras).

    The trick is to find the price point that works for that book.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Yeah, and I worry about messing with the price a lot. I don’t want all those readers who spent 3.99 to see it at 99 cents a week later, then up to 2.99, etc. So I’m going to just leave it there for a long time except for any special one-day promo I might do with a big distribution outlet like Bookbub.

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    Linton Robinson December 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    This factor depends very greatly on where a writer is, in the writing career.
    Look at “has to be priced right for the book”… then ask yourself how that would be determined by a writer. The best answer is generally “experiement with price points”.
    The use of freebies and discounts to aid in sales and extablishing one’s self is pretty hard to deny. Though many try for some reason.

    Frances Caballo December 18, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Susanne, I’m certain a huge factor in your success is your writing. You’re already an accomplished writer and editor and those skills must have served you well in tackling this new project. I still believe that having an author platform is essential for writers and yet I can’t deny your success with this book. My opinion is that you write a terrific book because you are a gifted writer, did a tremendous amount of research (hired the same cover designer, took the time to deconstruct this genre, etc.), solicited reviews in advance, and researched sub-genres. This research really paid off for you! What I really love about this post is that other writers can learn from your example. By following your steps, writers who love to write genres can have as much success as you did simply by following the steps you outline in this great post! You are a shining example of a hard-working, talented writer. Kudos to you. And thank you for showing writers how they can climb Amazon’s charts too.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Thank you, France. Listen, folks. I can’t emphasize enough how important author platform really is. My experiment was not meant to prove you can toss that out. The point was to see if some genres might sell a bit on their own without it.

    But we live in a social world in which being authors means interacting with our tribes and engaging with our readers–which is the “funnest” part about being an author! And every bit of platform building helps, no doubt. So do not misunderstand my “message.”

    And, you all MUST BUY Frances’s AMAZING book on building your social media presence (and be SURE to watch for Avoiding Social Media time Suck, coming out soon!): http://www.amazon.com/Social-Media-Just-Writers-Marketing-ebook/dp/B009ZOM5MS/

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    Frances Caballo December 18, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Oops! I did not mean to appear anonymous (empty avatar). I recently changed my picture on Gravatar but I guess it didn’t “take.” It should appear now. Sorry, Joel!

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 8:50 am

    lol Frances, you weren’t nameless–just another faceless person in the crowd!

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    Kathryn Guare December 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

    An excellent post and a fascinating, valuable experiment! I sort of half-suspected this was the case with some of the sub-genres on Amazon. There are not many “cat sleuth” books on the market, so the ones that exist probably go like gangbusters. My question is, how does a sub-genre get established on Amazon? And why can’t there be one that I fit into for the books I’m already writing?! Something, for instance, under the “Suspense” category called “Irish heroes”?!

    Reply

    Bill Peschel December 18, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Interesting question. Amazon allows you two categories, but has bestseller lists for far more categories. For example, they have best-seller lists for mysteries –> series and mysteries –> cozy, but I can’t figure out how to categorize my books to hit those marks.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    What my big-selling author friend told me is it’s based on how someone finds your books. I see all kinds of categories pop up, like “Frontier and Pioneer.” Well, that really isn’t a genre or a category, but these are keywords typed in. I see this issue with the path too. I am on two Romance-Western lists. But one is via Kindle Store and the other Books. So people are looking first at books (or typing in the search words in the books menu) then going to the book, then clicking on the Kindle version, then buying it. Make sense?

    That’s just a little bit of explanation there. You can easily top a “list” if there are only five books on it, but I’m guessing Amazon doesn’t show it as a list (Under the Amazon Best-Seller Rank section on your product page), unless there are plenty of books that fit in that list. Yet, I’ve seen weird things, like a romance novel top the best-seller list for Nonfiction-Theater/Drama. When the book has absolutely nothing to do with that topic (and is not nonfiction!). So go figure.

    Anyone else know about this?

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    Greg Strandberg December 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I’ve seen this in the non-fiction Tarot category. It’s a small category, and it only takes a rank of about 30,000 to be #1 in it. I’ve seen some thriller-style novels show up there for a day or two, perhaps trying to get some easy traction and visibility.

    So I followed suit. I put my new Tarot serial killer murder mystery in that category, hoping a few sales will give me that visibility, whereas a second thriller category would just take forever to show up in (or at least a whole lot more sales).

    Now is this ethical? Amazon allows it, and I figure I’m related to the genre in some way. If you’re not related to the genre, well, I guess you have to think quite a bit on that.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Greg, is there really a “tarot” category you can choose for one of the two categories KDP offers you to select. If so, I’m surprised! But it’s a great strategy.

    I did the opposite. I made sure to do the very main, specific categories, then did the very important search thing: made sure all those categories and keywords were all over my product page in every field, including the reviews. The keywords are essential and weighted, so when someone typed in “Sweet Western Romance,” even on the first day I put up my book, using the “released in the last 30 days” tab, my book came up high on the lists immediately, because I have that phrase many times on the page.

    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Does Amazon really offer Tarot as a category choice in those drop-down menus? I would be surprised. But good strategy. The point is to make sure the keywords are what people will use to search for a book like yours and to use them many times in many places on the product page. Will a person be specifically looking for a thriller about tarot? Probably not. Maybe occult, paranormal. Think how you might search in general for a book like yours. Those are the keywords you want. Of course, then, if there aren’t a lot of books in that tarot category, your book will show on that list once enough books sell. Will that give you more visibility to be on that list? Not sure. It will show, at least, it’s an “Amazon Best Seller” on that list, so that may sway readers to buy.

    Linton Robinson December 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Greg, it’s not so much a question of ethics as of effectiveness. If people are hot on Tarot and look at or download your book because it was in that category, then find out it’s not about that, they are going to be unhappy. And that’s the last thing you want.

    Nancy Beck December 30, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Fantastic post. :-) As to categories on Amazon, I admit I’ve been perplexed on where exactly to put my books. According to M. Louisa Locke (she writes Victorian era mysteries based in San Francisco), the keywords you use can help get your books into the correct categories and subcategories. KDP actually has documents on how to go about it, but who knew (besides Ms. Locke) that they were there? Not me!

    She talks about it here: http://mlouisalocke.com/2013/12/16/how-to-get-your-books-into-the-right-categories-and-sub-categories-readers-to-booksbooks-to-readers-part-three/

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    Linton Robinson December 18, 2013 at 9:51 am

    The question is not “real”. “Genre” refers mostly to fiction books. Nobody calls “how to” or “military history” a “genre”, really. “Platform”, as properly used and understood, refers to non-fiction.
    “Platform” isn’t something you go out and build. That would be “fan base”, “recognition”, “author brand”, “readership”, etc. A platform is what you are. It’s a pre-existing position that suggests that people will buy your book… and will be aware of your book. You’re a seminar speaker, a radio evangelist, a famous athlete, bimbo who blows presidents, celebrity, expert, etc.
    Most of the “platform building” advice given by “experts” (blog all the time, write articles for SEO sites, etc.) isn’t really very effective. It LOOKS effective when the experts show you their results–but it’s almost always because they had a “platform” before they started blogging. (And they are generally “experts” at selling books about selling books or self-publishing)
    Actually, a fiction writer might not even NEED a “platform”. Might be better off working other means of achieving “discovery”. Than, oh, posting about how to write when they’ve never sold any writing, for instance. There are things you can do, but I have NEVER seen an “expert” mention them: ways to get readers by writing what YOU like writing. Ways to promote your book beyond personal relationships.

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    Anne R. Allen December 18, 2013 at 10:44 am

    This is so fascinating, Susanne! Thanks so much for sharing your process and insight with us. I know other authors with very little platform who seem to know how to place themselves in the right Amazon categories to keep themselves on bestseller lists. This is such a valuable post. Thanks to Joel and Susanne for bringing it to us!

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Thanks, Anne. I learned a lot from it and now know what genre I’ll be writing for the next few years … I decided it was time to make some money for a change :) And of course, I will still write wonderful literary fiction and other genres that call to me. But it’s nice knowing I can earn some rent money, which gives me more time to write the hard-to-sell novels.

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    Robyn LaRue December 18, 2013 at 10:58 am

    My takeaway might be a little different from others. I am so glad someone has said writing genre and other books harder to define are both okay! I’ll keep writing the “books of my heart,” but I also have a lively interest in several genres. No need to limit myself, especially if one can help pay bills while the other finds an audience. Thanks!

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    Erica December 18, 2013 at 11:55 am

    This is fascinating – I’m in the process of writing my first ebook, so I’ll be interested to read your ebook about how you went through the process.

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    Jay Chastain December 18, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    First of all, awesome expirement! I love this stuff… Now, I have to ask these 3 things, did you do any FREE promo at all to launch the book? Was it in Kindle Select or did you put it on all platforms? And if it wasn’t FREE ever, how did people find it? THANKS!

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    NO! No free. Bad! Free really only attracts people who want free stuff. Usually they are not your readers, and so if inclined will write bad reviews (since they would never have bought your book). The point I made is that for each genre, there is a group of readers–some big, some small. When a reader loves a genre, they often buy everything they can find in that genre (this particularly applies to Romance, and I’ve noticed they read a lot and fast!). So if there are few books in that subgenre they love, they will keep looking for new books. The moment a book hits the”shelf,” they buy it. Supply and demand. I put the book up on Smashwords but I’ve only sold two copies, compared to about 2,000 on Amazon in the last few weeks.

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    Jay Chastain December 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    This kind of blows my mind a little bot then LOL. Nearly ALL self publishing advice deals with FREE if you are an unknown (due to a lack of exposure otherwise).

    But here, it seems like if you write in a big genre, have a good description, good cover, and readers can tell you write well by the sample, it will sell. (and in your case, A LOT of copies)

    If that’s what you are saying, my mind is completely blown. haha

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    Liana Mir December 19, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Of course, this is exactly what Dean Wesley Smith has been saying from the beginning. Stay out of the bargain bin, write a good book, give it a great cover and summary, publish it, and repeat. Over and over and over.

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    Linton Robinson December 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Well… first of all, not adaptable by all people. Nor is the “just write the kind of book genre slices want, not what you want” thing.
    What so many miss is that it’s not a matter of just downpricing or giving freebies–it’s what you do with those tools.

    I recently completed a promotion that knocked the price for one of mine down to $.99 for a few days. This is a book that has already been bought by many, and given away at some point. It got about 100 sales in a day or two, and was in the top half dozen rated in its category.

    I am currently doing a freebie promo for My Funny Major Medical, a themed humor anthology. This book is a little different becaus the main goal isn’t making money, but promoting the contributors. But still… over 12,000 downloads since Tuesday really does effect things. It’s too early to see if it generated sales or the ebook (or more likely the paperback as a stocking-stuffer, or the books of the various contributors, but that’s an awful lot of books out there in people’s hands with my name, the company, name, the contributors’ names, and links to their books and ours.
    This cost no money, took about 4 hours work for me to plug into into people seeing it. Ask Wesley if he thinks that’s a bad way to go, and I’ll bet you he says it makes sense.

    Liana Mir December 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    I was responding to Jay. A lot of people seem shocked that pricing is not the only indie strategy when it was NEVER the only one.

    He does suggest loss leaders. If you have only one book, that’s not a loss leader.

    Linton Robinson December 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Actually, Liana… you CAN use loss-leaders when you only have one book. Because you have an infinite supply of them, and unlimited time.
    If McDonalds gives coupons or discounts or twofers on burgers this week, they are hoping it will come back to them in the form of word of mouth, repeat business, etc. Major difference–ebooks don’t cost you anything.
    You could have, as one instance, an “ad” in the back of your book to sign up for announcements of your next book.

    I don’t think anybody ever thought pricing is the ONLY indie strategy… but it’s something to use. Works best is used smart.

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    Liana Mir December 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I wouldn’t have thought anyone believed that if they weren’t saying left and right that they’ve never seen indie marketing NOT be about pricing or that indies solely compete on price or that writing a good book and publishing it is somehow a new entrant into the discussion.

    “A loss leader (also leader)[1] is a pricing strategy where a product sold at a price below its market cost[2] to stimulate other sales of more profitable goods or services.” Wikipedia

    If there is no other product, it is a sale or a sample or exposure, etc., but not by definition a loss leader.

    Linton Robinson December 19, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Liana, I don’t want to get into a big semantic quibble here, but I don’t understand what you are saying with all the double-negatives. I don’t think you understood me, either.
    There are many ways to sell books other than pricing.
    One definition (especially of something like that) isn’t really enough to contradict on. And it’s worth mentioning because it’s about strategy. MANY loss leaders are applied to the same product… or a coming product. Like airline flights, sandwiches, etc. Think about what a one-cent sale is.
    Hopefully we can agree that there a lot of ways to skin the cat and it’s a good idea to select and prove the ones that seem likely and seem to work for you.

    Liana Mir December 19, 2013 at 7:16 pm

    You are right that you misunderstood me.

    You said no one believes indies and indie success is all about price. I said I disagreed for obvious reasons: many people, including Jay, are saying just that, that that is all they have heard and read. From the beginning, this was not the case, and I told Jay so.

    You stated not everyone can stay out of the bargain bin (or at least appeared to contest my reiteration of Dean that we should), and I disagreed. Loss leaders are not the bargain bin and are a good idea, that is the specific practice of putting one book or title on sale or free to promote the sales of OTHER BOOKS. If you have no other books, it’s not a loss leader. It’s either a sale or the bargain bin.

    William Ockham December 18, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Your opinions about free are not backed by the data. There is some important context about free. In genres where the reader graphs are smaller, but tighter, making the first book in a series free is a really valuable strategy. For non-mathematically inclined, think about fantasy as a genre. Much smaller total numbers than romance, they read fewer books on average, and they are not as tight-knit a community (of course, that’s true of every other genre). Fantasy readers tend to be loyal to series, worlds, and particular writers. There’s lots of competition to acquire those fans and it typically takes reading an entire novel to discover whether or not you like the world. If you, as a writer, want to cultivate fans, you need to get them to invest their time in your world. Making the first book in a series free (after you have a few books in the series out) is a valuable strategy for developing a fan base that will keep coming back for each new story in the series.

    One of the things I liked most about your article is that you put in the time and effort to understand a particular genre and what worked in it. Everyone should be careful about making blanket statements about different strategies. Almost every writer I’ve talked to has a set of beliefs that are really no more than superstitions. One of these days I’m going to figure out how to explain directed graph networks to writers. Your article actually got me a little closer to that goal.

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Sorry, William! i guess my humor didn’t come across correctly. I really was joking. There are times free is great, especially when releasing a new book in a series and putting the first book(s) free. I’ve put a novel up for months free on Amazon and got tens of thousands of copies picked up. Did anyone ever read it? Wish I knew. Probably a few. But, truthfully, the “free” shoppers often never read your book. Whereas I’m guessing most people who actually pay something for a book intend to read it.

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    Linton Robinson December 18, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Glad to learn you were joking. It’s hard to tell.
    Actually the use of free Kindle books out of Select is an excellent way to build, and it’s a little more sophisticated that your image of it, there.
    Without getting into the whole ball of wax, let me just say that there is no way of telling if somebody reads a book they acquire, or what their reaction is. But when people speak of “platform”… what could be a better plank for a discoverability platform than a reader HAVING ONE OF YOUR BOOKS IN THEIR POSESSION?

    Gyula December 20, 2013 at 1:18 am

    “But, truthfully, the “free” shoppers often never read your book.”
    You nailed the point, Susanne. I have a dozen or so books on my Kindle I downloaded for free, I’m just keeping them for “later read”. When that would be? Cannot say. As a reader I see it more effective if I download a sample, read the first chapter, and immediately decide whether I buy the book or delete the sample.

    Denise Grover Swank December 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Wow. I whole-heartedly disagree with this statement. I’ve boosted the sales of several series by using free. It’s just another of my many sales tools. Sure the ratio of follow through of free downloads to sales of the second book is small, but I’m not going to scoff at 7000+ sales per month of a book versus 150 the previous month, with about 5000 follow through sales of the third book in the same month. And that’s one month.

    There is no absolute right way to do something. What works for me might not work for you, but in my opinion, blanket statements are short-sighted. The results are the proof if something works or not.

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    Selena Laurence December 31, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Thank you, Denise! As a new author, I trudged along with my first SP book until I put the first in series on free for five days immediately preceding the release of the second in series. That was what jumpstarted my readership. I’ve had steady improvements in my sales since. I specifically wrote a novella to go with the series and have now placed it on permafree. I timed it to lead into the release of the third in series. It has worked for me. Sure, there are plenty of people who only want free books, but I’ve gained a whole loyal readership off of that first free offer I did.

    As for reviews, I’ve heard the complaints about reviews after a free offer, but I’ve not had that happen. I’ve gotten new reviews for several weeks after the free offer, and they’ve all been 4/5 star. Maybe I’m just lucky, I don’t know, but if I hadn’t gotten tens of thousands of copies of my book out there, no one would have found me. Now that they have, they keep buying and I keep writing! :)

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    Ciara Ballintyne December 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    I’ve suspected this for some time. My genre (high/epic fantasy) isn’t one of the ones that sells like hotcakes. There’s a solid audience for it, but also a lot of competition. I won’t change what I write (I’ve little interest in other genres) but I am adapting my approach. What I have noticed is that paranormal fans seem to be enjoying my debut novella, even though it’s technically fantasy, and only has a light romance plot, so I’m trying to pick up that market, and I’m planning to market the next book as a fantasy romance. It is, but I wouldn’t normally have marketed that way.

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    Frances Caballo December 18, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    My last comment is this: Sharon Hamilton, a Realtor, started writing romance novels a couple of years ago. Then she wrote some erotica. When the Navy Seals captured Osama Bin Laden (her son is a Navy Seal too), she wrote a Navy Seal romance. Then she wrote Zombie romance books. The end result is that in a matter of a couple of years she’s no longer selling houses; she’s supporting herself on the proceeded of her books. She tapped into a genre, and changing trends, and has done really well. I’m told that her books are well written too. She really worked on her platform too, especially her blogging community. So I guess the lesson here is that tapping into popular genres while building an author platform can really turn into large sales.

    Thanks to Joel and Susanne for getting this conversation started!

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    Connie Brentford December 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Well done! I’m so glad this paid off for you. This experiment has answered another question many self-published authors ask. “Should I write books in a genre that makes money?” Writers with low sales lament about this because they want to be full-time writers but somehow feel if they switch to a better paying genre they’ve sold out and sacrificed their art. As you’ve explained, you’ll be writing in this genre now, for money, but will still continue with your other books. It’s not either/or and I hope authors will give themselves permission to try something different because of your experiment. Thank you!

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    Susanne Lakin December 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    Thanks, Connie, I’ve always been an experimenter. A lot of my books cross genres a lot and they were so fun to write. But it made it very hard to sell to traditional publishers as well as sell indie. But I do believe over time even an author writing as diversely as I do can do well. Just look at the range of genres Michael Crichton wrote in!

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    Kelly Miller December 18, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    What a great article. For authors who can change genres it’s great to experiment, but for me I’m only passionate about writing mystery/suspense.

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    Bruce Arrington December 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Another point to consider might be why adult genres sell more, especially in light of e-readers. From what I have observed, not a lot of young readers yet have access to e-books simply because of the expense. It’s easier for them to pick up a paper copy of the book, and cheaper too, than the upfront cost of an e-reader. Unless I have a large readership, that will be hard to change. Yet perhaps in the future this could. Do you have any data on young readers vs adults, and if my theory holds water, or if it’s full of holes?

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    Linton Robinson December 18, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Interseting, Bruce. Many seem to think that ereaders are mostly young people. But I’d say if you look around you’ll see a LOT of kids with tablets and fancy phones… both or which are eReaders with the addition of free apps. I don’t know about expense being a barrier… but ebooks are cheaper than new books. And a lot of stuff is not available in used book stores. Especially work by new and indie writers.

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    Shawn Bird January 1, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    My YA books sell 3:1 iTunes to Kindle. The kids read them using the iBook app on their iPhones. No e-reader required.

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    Dale Mayer December 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    How does one find other subgenres that sell themselves???

    Fascinating concept. I should try a hand at deconstruction!

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    Libbie Hawker December 19, 2013 at 8:05 am

    I’ve been thinking for a long time about moving into the (potentially) lucrative world of historical romance. This article gave me some great ideas on how to maximize my success when I make that move. Thanks, Susanne!

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    David Kudler December 19, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Fascinating and insightful — if a little depressing for those of us whose tendency is to write away from the genre bulls-eye.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

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    Rose Mary Boehm December 19, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I can imagine how your experimental approach works in today’s ‘specialization’ environment where no-one seems to have time for experiments. They don’t read Playboy for the interviews :) any longer.

    What I am not sure how I can ‘genre’ my novels. I am not prepared yet to give up on them but shall try and go for chic-lit and new covers.

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    Bruce Arthurs December 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I’m making a note to dig up an old screenplay (from when I was trying to sell movie scripts in the 1990′s) set in 1856 “Bleeding Kansas” with a romantic subplot, and consider if it might be rewritten into a novel.

    My usual preferred genre is fantasy/science-fiction, with an occasional foray into mystery/detective, but I do like to try and stretch myself on occasion. My work tends towards the dark, grim and action-oriented, so for my current project I’m trying my hand at a comic romance (with superheroes, because, hey, everything goes better with superheroes). If nothing else, I’ve been having fun.

    (That last is important. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I don’t want my writing to be a job. Work yes, a career maybe, but not a goddamned job. I have one of those already, thanks.)

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    Greg Strandberg December 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    You can’t go wrong with some Civil War tie-ins – lots of people eat that up.

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    Linton Robinson December 19, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I’d suggest you take that screenplay “reverse adaptation” idea seriously, Bruce. I’ve done several of them, and they are pretty cool books that people really like. A couple are short, but two of them grew into fairly long novels.
    It’s SO much easier way to write a novel, frankly. You’ve already done all the story line, just need to add in descriptions and whatever else seems fun–a whole different thing from lopping off things you like to make a script out of it.

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    M.M Justus December 19, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I do have a couple of comments. I don’t think I’ve ever commented here before, so I may be out of line with my criticisms, but here goes, anyway.

    1) Where you started with this book was not where a complete unknown would start — two of your points stand out as something a newbie wouldn’t have a clue to know how to do (heck, I’ve self-published five books and I don’t know how to do them). One is how do you find out which sub-genres sell sans platform? You say you were told. By whom? How would a newbie get this information? Two, you say you had two well-known author friends blurb your book for you. That’s great for those of you well known enough yourself to have well-known author friends. But that gave you a leg up that newbies don’t have.

    Also, you had the funds and know-how to purchase a cover by a designer who knows your genre, as well as hire an assistant to help you find reviewers and bloggers.

    All of these things marked your “anonymous” book as not anonymous at all, IMHO.

    Would you be willing to re-try your experiment without them? And do you think you would have succeeded as well?

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    Linton Robinson December 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    You are so right, MM. I refrained from saying that, but since you bring it up.
    It points out some of the reasons that so much “expert advice” for new and indie writers is actually fairly useless. Most of the “experts” have only written a book or two–about publishing and/or selling books.

    I haven’t read Guy Kawasaki’s book, but the first reaction I had to all the fanfare for it was… “he’s already there… got a big platform, just has to kick a book out” The average writer doesn’t have that, and despite all the “go build a platform” advice you can’t really just suddenly become Sarah Palin or Cory Doctorow because you want to sell books.
    TONS of this advice is of the “research keywords and write your book to fit them” ilk, useless to anybody but mindless hustlers.
    The scenarios these people describe are just not realistic for people without pre-esisting readersship, money/support, and connections.
    The ways you CAN boost up using amazon tools are never mentioned by the experts.. shockingly. Ways to get readers by writing what you want, not some stupid SEO drivel, ways to leverage up free and discount days on Select, etc. It’s really weird… I’ve never seen another field like this.

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    Rose Mary Boehm December 19, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Yes to all your points. I mean, they are my points too now that you’ve made them.

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    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I disagree, M.M. A lot of unknown authors with no platform will hire a cover designer, editor, get someone to write a review. They are still anonymous and do not have an author platform. No one bought the book because they knew who Charlene Whitman was and would find no presence of here online, for the most part.

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    M.M. Justus December 19, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Most newbie indie writers do not know the right kind of people to get the kind of reviews you had for you “anonymous” book. I certainly don’t.

    And a good many newbie indie writers don’t have the money to hire cover designers, etc. I sure don’t. I have to make the sales to pay for the cover. My books have to pay their own way, unfortunately.

    Also, you said that you used your own Twitter account to announce your book. That gave Charlene Whitman away as you. People will put two and two together, especially if you’re an author they already like and want more books by you.

    I’m not saying your methods don’t work for you. I’m saying that you have methods that you used even with your “anonymous” book that are most likely not available to a newbie indie writer.

    I really would like to learn the answers to my questions in my original comment, too:

    One is how do you find out which sub-genres sell sans platform? You say you were told. By whom? How would a newbie get this information? The Google strategy you mentioned above does not work well (having tried it several times). Besides, if someone told you, can’t you tell us? Two, you say you had two well-known author friends blurb your book for you. How do I get well-known author friends to blurb my book?

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    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    M. M., I still disagree. People did not know I was Charlene Whitman. She did not have an author platform when the book was released and started hitting the top lists. Most serious new authors DO pay for a cover designer, editor, etc. That has nothing to do with establishing an author platform, so you are talking about two different things.

    A new unknown author can send their book off to get reviews, such as The Midwest Book Review and Kirkus. Anyone can get some good reviews before publishing if they write a good book. In fact, you could write that Examiner reviewer and ask her to review your book and she probably would. I don’t think what I did made a huge difference. The genre did.

    I learned about this one genre because of a blog post I read by that author on how she had friends writing that genre and making money. So that gave me the idea.

    By doing a Google search online for the top 100 ranking Amazon authors and the top-ranking Kindle books, you can see what genres sell. Then click on the book and see the product page and notice what “best-selling lists” the book is in. If you check out a number of books in a genre you think you’d like to write in, and emulate (deconstruct) a few top-selling books in the top-ranking genres, you should probably have similar results. I would not go with a general genre since tons of people write in mysteries or thrillers, but then again, those genres have huge audiences so if you jump in there and write to fit that genre and put out covers that fit as well, no reason you shouldn’t do well. I know many authors writing thrillers, paranormal, etc., that sell big by doing that and not by finding a boutique subgenre like this one I did.

    And just FYI, a lot of my editing clients–first-time authors with NO platform–sell big with their first ebook right out the gate. A lot of them just put their book out, maybe do a baby blog tour and get friends to write reviews, have NO endorsements, etc., and they start selling 200+ books and hit the top lists right away. I see this a lot. They often come to me with pretty awful books but by the time we’re done and they put their book online, they do great. The genres I can think of off the top of my head are suspense, YA suspense, African American urban romance, paranormal thriller, legal thriller, and political thriller. So, I do see this working due to genre. They wrote great books that fit their genre, with no online presence yet, no platform, no name. Their subsequent books are selling well too now. They write me as soon as their books get published to tell me they’ve hit numerous top lists. And that makes me very happy!~ They didn’t do this as an experiment, but it proves the point I’m making, right?

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    M.M. Justus December 19, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    So I am not a serious author because I cannot afford to pay for reviews (Kirkus) or for covers. You might want to rethink your phrasing unless that’s precisely what you meant. I did take classes on how to do the technical work to create my own covers, and I’m competent at that, but the hardest part is learning what kind of art/fonts/etc., will attract the reader who would want to read the book. If that’s what I’d be paying for, then I don’t see why I can’t be taught that so I can do it for myself. But that seems to be some sort of proprietary secret (and no, looking at covers doesn’t help if you don’t know what the font names are or what specifically to look for in the art).

    Who’s your Examiner person? I will be glad to send this person one of my books for a review. I did get a good review from a local paper (http://www.tacomaweekly.com/citylife/view/arts-entertainment-local-historian-turns-research-into-gripping-novel/) when one of my books came out about a year ago. It sold me maybe a dozen books. I have used pull quotes from the article in promo material, to little effect.

    I’m nothing if not writing in a boutique category. Time travel in the Old West. I suspect there is a good niche market for it, but I don’t know how to find the readers.

    Anyway, this seems to have become a more antagonistic discussion than I ever intended it to be.

    All I was trying to say is that your experience is not universal, even though it seems to you that it ought to be, and that your experiment was contaminated in ways that you apparently don’t believe it was. A simple, you may have a point from you might have defused that.

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    linrobinson December 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I agree completely.
    I also laughed at the whole “serious authors pay big bucks up front on their books rather than learning how to DIY” thing.
    And paying for Kirkus reivews is, to me, a HUGE badge that says “Dilettante”.
    BTW, you can definitely learn to do covers. The way you learn what readers in your area like is to study books in that same area.

    And yes, this was not really an “experiment”. Want to see an experiment of interest to indie writers, google “Cory Doctorow experiment”. Many ramifications on pricing and just what’s going on with indie writers.

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    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    I’m not speaking about you specifically, just talking in general. The Midwest Book Review is free. If you want them to review an ARC, it’s $50, but if you send them two release print copies of a novel (I just did this with two of mine), it’s free. And if you want newspapers or others to review your book, just ask them. They are usually looking for something to review! I called the Greeley CO Tribune to see if they’d run an article about me and my novel because it’s set in Greeley. The editor said sure. So you just have to take time and be innovative and research. I’ve found there are lots of reviewers out there. You can post on Facebook or Twitter with hashtags of your genre asking for reviews. You’ll get some.

    I will say that putting out a great book as a superior product usually takes money, just like creating anything else of value. My successful clients, even though some can little afford it, pay for professional editing, a good cover designer (I paid $100), etc. Some use a credit card or deferred PayPal payments. But I think it’s worth investing some money into publishing your book. I think with Colorado Promise I spent $100 on the cover design and $500 on my interior designer, but I have used her before and she does all the work I don’t want to do, like put the book up on Create Space–which is something you or any author could do for free on their own. So I really didn’t have to pay that. And I did all my own editing, so saved money there :). So I could have done it all for free if I wanted to make my own cover (which I did with my daughter for a few of my other indie novels). So just something to think about … I’m trying to help and give ideas here. No antagonism on my part and I wish you success and joy in your writing journey!

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    Liana Mir December 20, 2013 at 6:55 am

    She said ‘most’. Her phrasing was correct as anecdotally, most do.

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    DWF December 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Thank you, M.M., for pursuing this line of thought. I thought of the same things before seeing the comments, and I have written my own take here, http://myth.typepad.com/breakfast/2013/12/pros-and-indies.html but you have done everyone a service by playing devil’s advocate and by doing more than that, showing the complexity of writing and selling books. Brava!

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    Lorraine Reguly December 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    I think what you have done is fantastic! This is an all-encompassing statement, too.

    Do you have any advice for memoirists?

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    M.M Justus December 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I should say that the cover in the article is not the current cover of the book in question. I did not know what I was doing back then. I have since redone it, and it looks like what’s on this page now: http://mmjustus.com/?page_id=45

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    Blythe Gifford December 19, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    As a long time writer of historical romance (traditionally published) who has just self-published for the first time, I want to make a couple of comments. First, yes, romance (all kinds) is probably the top selling genre. Romance readers were also early embracers of e-books and self-publishing, so there is an audience out there. However, though I’m sure this was not your intention, someone might take away from this post that all you have to do is write a good romance in a particular (TBD) sub-genre and voila! The truth is that self-published results for romance writers have varied widely, even within a niche. Does genre matter? Definitely. Is it a guarantee? No. The entertainment business is, I’m afraid, inherently unpredictable.
    By the way, for those who are interested in writing a romance, I do recommend Romance Writers of America. The organization teaches the writing business, as well as the writing craft, to newbies as well as established writers.

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    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Blythe, thanks so much for saying that! A very important point. Maybe there aren’t a ton of these kinds of genres. I do know, though, by watching many of my beginning novelist clients hit big sales out the gate in certain genres that there is truth to this whole supply and demand principle. And it may change week to week. Maybe next year a trend will influence what sells. We saw what Fifty Shades of … did to the romance market, and RWA did report it caused a heavy surge in romance book sales and stats. RWA is a terrific resource and I joined it right away! I hope no one got the idea from my post that sales are guaranteed. I just told what I did and what happened. It proved to me that genre matters. That’s pretty much my “message.”

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    Sandra Schwab December 31, 2013 at 12:17 am

    To put the record straight, the romance genre was doing very fine indeed even before Fifty Shades. It’s been the bestselling genre in the US for more than a decade.

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    James Maynard Gelinas December 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    This is fantastic. Susanne, you promise a followup to character/plot teardowns in a forthcoming book. As an unsuccessful and flailing story-teller, one book I’ve found incredibly useful for teardowns and analysis has been Robert McKee’s “Story”. The book is geared to screenwriters, but the analytic method he proposes seems useful for fiction as well.

    He breaks story down from character interactions (beats), using character intent to build suspense by denying goals (the gap between an expected result and harsh story reality; what he calls a ‘turning point’ in a scene), the ladder of small success combined with continual failure scene by scene to propel plot, and how to handle divisions in acts with small, medium and finale climaxes that are properly paced. And then there’s a whole separate discussion on the difference between character and characterization. And a brilliant breakdown on the difference between upbeat, downbeat and combined upbeat and downbeat for ironic endings that’s simply fantastic – never discussed in any fiction writing uni class I’ve taken.

    Long ago, I was assigned Burroway’s “Writing Fiction”. Which is a good book. It has a fine treatment on the see-saw nature of plot, building character treatments, external versus inner conflict, etc. But while it presents a good ‘big picture’ treatment of storytelling, and uses many examples of excellent shorts to make particular stylistic points, it doesn’t provide a framework that explains the process from: interpersonal interactions, scene construction, sequence of scenes and subplots, whole acts, and then unifying this for an entire story from beginning to end.

    And every class I’ve taken has focused on literary writing, with professors disdaining any genre analysis at all. It’s as if academic writing programs want to teach students how to fail and stay hungry in the name of artistic purity. McKee argues for the importance of genre as a way to clue readers in on what to expect so they won’t get confused is crucial. That the artistry is in surprising the audience with novel character reactions to unexpected circumstance WITHIN FORM.

    I want to figure out how to tell a story people are willing to pay for. I recognize I’m only partway down that path. Toward that end I’ve been reading stuff my wife finds downright strange. For example, I read Daniel Steele’s ‘Big Girl’ and ‘Wanderlust’. I read Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives.’ Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ and James’ ’50 Shades’. This is not material I would have chosen for pleasure reading. My question in reading these books was: what elements of fantasy are common throughout and what does that say about audience aspirations of that market?

    It’s like reading Tom Clancy and asking who buys this stuff and what unfulfilled dreams does reading his work tap into for his audience? Teenage boys who hope to enlist, enlisted soldiers and ex-soldiers who wish they might have been chosen for top spots among the military elite, middle-aged men who would vicariously enjoy the thrill of being a CIA agent.

    Steele is particularly interesting. Her use of 3rd Person omniscient, near total absence of mise-en-scene character interactions, and over-reliance on cliche phrasing suggests she should fail. At least, that’s what my fiction teachers would have said. Yet she’s sold millions of books. What do her readers get out of them? Well, I think she combines the reality of family adversity and perceptions of self-doubt with a fantasy of transformation to independence and ultimately finding a fulfilling relationship. And then there’s a contrary depiction of the beautiful as vain and ultimately unhappy, making choices based on how others perceive them rather than achieving who they want to become. And this is the chord that’s striking with her readership. Her readers fight through terrible prose and just about every broken rule of fiction authorship taught in uni in order to read what amounts to a character treatment with a full arc lifestory – a woman who they want to become. Not a Mary Sue, but a round character with the types of flaws they see in themselves but who ultimately perceives and overcomes adversity. While those who have it easy get a deserved comeuppance that’s not cruel but ‘just’ based on the path they’ve chosen.

    I think this overcoming-self-doubt theme is also crucial to the successses of Twilight and 50 Shades, though those stories don’t offer desirable moral lessons for readers. But did they ever sell.

    With Collins there’s this carnival-esque display of the foibles of the rich and famous. There’s always one good female character to identify with and a slew of bad women and men to laugh at or hate. Characterization is flat, plots thin, and structure stolen straight out of film cliches. She’s selling schadenfreude.

    Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough. McKee’s book Story has been immensely useful for me at this stage in the learning process. Reading genre to understand the readers of genre also crucial. And your blog post was most insightful. Thank you. -M

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg December 19, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    Wow, that’s a whole post within a post. Thanks for the detailed analysis!

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing all that! I should read that book. I critique about 200 manuscripts a year (partial and full) in my work–all different genres with clients all over the world, so I examine a lot of story structure and teach it as well. Deconstructing a book for structure is a great way to learn how to write a similar book.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus December 20, 2013 at 1:22 am

    At the end of her posting, Susanne says, “I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.”

    I hope that sentiment is not so deeply buried that it gets missed by other authors. I nearly missed it.

    Maybe I’m nuts, but I think a writer needs to have a passion for a book’s subject or genre instead of just analyzing, deconstructing, reconstructing, hyper-nicheing and mimicking. Without passion, a writer becomes a machine.

    Does the world really need more books about post-apocalyptic lesbian teenage vampires? I think not.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.com
    http://www.CreateBetterBooks.com

    Reply

    Kristi December 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Maybe the world doesn’t need it but readers are still buying them and smart writers, who aren’t trying to win a Pulitzer on every book they write, give the readers what they want and the readers reward them by buying their books again and again.

    Call me a sell-out but I’d rather make rent than win some writer’s award no one cares about but the people who hand them out.

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    James Moushon December 20, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Susanne:

    Great post. The point is well taken. Genre does really matter if you want to sell your books.

    I love long posts. Joel has a thread going on that topic.

    james

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    deb smith December 20, 2013 at 8:35 am

    “My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day.”

    Hi. I don’t see how your current Kindle ranking of approximately 4,500 overall, with sub-cat rankings attached, could produce sales at the level you state. My estimate, based on years of experience as both a romance author and publisher, puts your sales at fewer than 10 copies a day, maybe 5. Competing for addition in the extremely small sub-cat of “sweet historical romance” was a smart decision, but telling other writers that making money in the romance genre is easy peazy is dubious advice. To say the least. Not to mention that a condescending attitude toward a genre of fiction always surfaces in the writing.

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 20, 2013 at 8:41 am

    This week I’ve been averaging about 20-25 books a day. When I hit #247, I sold 500 in one day, and between 11-10 and 11-30 I sold about 1,500. But it’s been fluctuating, of course, since the number of books sold at any one moment on Amazon is going to vary. So you can’t just make blanket assumptions based on overall paid rankings.

    I never said making money selling romance was easy, nor I am being condescending about the genre. I just never had an interest in reading it or writing it, but I don’t mean to criticize it in any way and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I worked very hard to create an excellent book. It wasn’t easy. And I know other authors in this genre also work hard to write great books.

    Reply

    Kristi December 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Deb, I’ll say what others are thinking but won’t dare say: “Chillax. It ain’t that serious.”

    She’s only telling her experience and giving writers another idea to try.

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    Nissa Annakindt December 20, 2013 at 8:49 am

    If only I could find a subgenre that would sell well without platform… I’m just not a romance sort of person. Though ‘sweet’ romance is at least something I’m able to read.

    Reply

    Megaera December 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Just one more comment before I turn “receive comments” off on this post.

    You might want to consider that any time you make a generalization like this, especially about a popular genre, you’re going to get pushback, and it will be deserved.

    Also, any time you make a generalization like this about self-publishing, just because something worked for you (even if it works for your friends, too), you’re going to get pushback, and it will be deserved.

    At first I thought your article was helpful. Until I started thinking about it and really considered what you were saying and how you conducted your experiment. Then I started reading your responses to me and to other commenters, and I realized how wrong I was to think this was helpful. You cherry pick your answers, for one thing. There are questions to you that I’ve repeated in both of my comments that you didn’t answer, and I think it’s because you know you can’t so you avoid them.

    I know no one has the “magic bullet” for successful self-publishing, but the way you wrote your original article makes it sound like picking the right micro-genre will automatically give you better results. This is not necessarily true. And your experiment was flawed. The Twitter posts under your own account about your “anonymous” book was a huge one.

    Anyway, I’m turning comments off now, so I will not see any reply you make. Call that a Parthian shot if you like, it won’t matter to me. But I needed to say this. There’s a heck of a lot of advice on self-publishing out there. I’m not sure any of it is of much use.

    Reply

    Katy Pye December 20, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Thanks Susanne and Joel. Great idea, post, and comments. I’ve read authors do better sticking to one genre, at least until we build a name, so I’m encouraged there may be other avenues. Thanks for the research tips, too.

    I deconstructed a couple of books as prep to writing my first novel, since I’d never written fiction over 15 pages. Loved doing that. The process helped me focus. I figured out what I liked or didn’t in the writing, characters, etc., in each book. When I finished, I understood more about the genre, myself as an author, and had a solid foundation for building my book.

    I agree with James on Robert McKee. David Corbett’s, The Art of Character, is another fabulous resource for digging into what makes characters tick.

    Thanks, again. I’ll be following your progress.

    Reply

    Roland Denzel December 20, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    This was very interesting, no matter how you slice it.

    Thanks for the write up!

    Roland

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    Autumn Kalquist December 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Susanne,
    Writers can be a prickly bunch. ;D

    I really appreciate this post. It has me thinking about the type of book I want to tackle next. I appreciate it every time someone shares their experiences with indie pubbing. I didn’t think you were making blanket statements. You were sharing your experience so that some of us might be helped by it. Thank you. ;)

    Reply

    Joanne Guidoccio December 21, 2013 at 6:49 am

    A fascinating post! Thanks for sharing your experience, Susanne. I’m looking forward to reading your book about the process.

    Reply

    Kath December 21, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Interesting post. Thanks. Well done on your success. I’ll be interested in reading your book. I enjoyed Lonesome Dove too though it really isn’t the kind of book I normally read. I wonder would you be able to advise me on the use of pen names and epublishing. If I epublish under my pen name who owns the copyright on my novel? Thanks

    Reply

    linrobinson December 21, 2013 at 8:27 am

    A whole topic in itself, Kath. But first of all, you own the copyright. Who else would, the anonymous nom du plume? There are three levels of penomimity.
    1. The pseudonym is common knowledge. Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Saki, Clemens/Twain.
    2. The nom du guerre is only known by you and your agent. (If your publishing house knows… see #1.) One aviso here, it brings your agent into the circle, and if you are using the pen name for fraud or anything like that, they’re on the spot.
    3. The identity is known only to yourself (and, of course, Santa and the NSA. One big problem here is cashing the checks.
    If you are self-publishing, it gets easier, but you still end up needing plausible ID’s on amazon, CreateSpace, etc. Those publishing platforms tend to have forms tailored to entering a seperate “written by” name.

    Reply

    Kath December 22, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Many thanks for the advice – much appreciated. You’re all very kind. Good wishes Kath

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    Susanne Lakin December 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Hi Kath, I didn’t want my real name showing on the copyright page so I copyrighted it in my pen name. It costs $35 to register a copyright via the online site with the copyright office. They give clear, easy instructions. You choose the option of using a pen name in one of the windows. I don’t bother copyrighting any of my other novels, which are in my real name.

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    Linton Robinson December 21, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Just out of curiosity… why do that? If you don’t protect your books normally, why bother to copyright one under a different author name?

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    Susanne Lakin December 21, 2013 at 8:59 am

    No need to copyright my books in my name. Copyright law protects them automatically. But someone named Charlene Whitman could come along and claim she is the author, so I needed to connect my real name to my pen name, since I put that pen name on the copyright page. I am not a lawyer and did my own research and spoke to agents and publishers for advice. So there are other factors involved, but this scenario worked best for my concerns.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Hmmm… actually, they are not “protected” unless copyrighted. You can’t take an infringer to court unless they are registered. I’d suggest you look into this.

    The other… well, what if somebody named Suzanne Lakin showed up? Your rights to an unregistered book would have to be proven. Easy enough with witnesses, prior online posting, registration with amazon, tax payments, etc… but no different from your other books, essentially.

    I see so many people jumping into pen names without thinking it out before hand, or even being aware of the laws and financial ramifications involved. Look…. it’s a brand. You have to treat it seriously.

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    Joel Friedlander December 21, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    And you don’t even have to list an author name on the copyright page at all. For many years it’s been common practice for publishers to copyright on behalf of authors, and many books show the copyright as “© Book Publisher, all rights reserved.” The copyright registration is where you list both your real name and your pen name, if you’ve used one. Hope that helps.

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    Linton Robinson December 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    I’m guessing anybody interested in this question is self-publishing, otherwise their publishers would give them the answer for that particular project.
    Writers all seem to think they understand copyright, but not that many do. I still see them saying, “Just mail yourself a copy.” The next level of not understanding is, “Don’t worry about it, it’s copyrighted as soon as your write it.”
    Deeper than that you get the realization that you have to be able to prove you wrote it prior to any infringement. Deeper yet is the fact that you can’t take anybody to court without registration…. and there is a deadline you have to make to file. Shorter than the time it takes for copyright registration to become final… unless you pay a couple of hundred dollars, as opposed to the $35 to just do it up front.

    Joel, I think it might be really helpful if you were to get a copyright attorney as a guest poster. There is plenty to know, and writers tend to not know it.

    Here’s one of Uncle Lin’s laws about copyright. Don’t ask strangers on the internet what to do about legal matters. :-)

    Reply

    Kath December 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Many thanks for the advice, Linton – much appreciated. You’re all very kind. Good wishes Kath

    Roland Denzel December 22, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    I’d love to hear what a copyright attorney has to say on the matter, too.

    From what I’ve read in the copyright office literature, you are protected without registering. You must register the copyright before filing a lawsuit, however. You can register at any point down the road, too.

    Of course, it’s much clearer if you do it from the get go, but you don’t have to. It will be on you to prove it, either way, and a copyright filed before the infringement certainly plays in your favor.

    http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.pdf

    “Even though registration is not a requirement for
    protection, the copyright law provides several inducements
    or advantages to encourage copyright owners to make regis­
    tration. Among these advantages are the following:
    • Registration establishes a public record of the copyright
    claim.
    • Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, regis­
    tration is necessary for works of U. S. origin.
    • If made before or within five years of publication, regis­
    tration will establish prima facie evidence in court of
    the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in
    the certificate.
    • If registration is made within three months after publica­
    tion of the work or prior to an infringement of the work,
    statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to
    the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an
    award of actual damages and profits is available to the
    copyright owner.
    • Registration allows the owner of the copyright to record
    the registration with the U. S. Customs Service for pro­
    tection against the importation of infringing copies. For
    additional information, go to the U. S. Customs and
    Border Protection website at http://www.cbp.gov/.
    Registration may be made at any time within the life of
    the copyright.”

    Kath December 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Many thanks for the advice, Joel – much appreciated. You’re all very kind. Good wishes Kath

    Reply

    Kath December 22, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Many thanks for the advice, Susanne – much appreciated. You’re all very kind. Good wishes Kath

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 23, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Pretty much what I said, Roland.

    What I’d suggest that writers interested in this do is examine the sentence, “Your work is copyright protected, but you can’t take to court anybody who infringes it.” See if that makes any sense.

    Yes you CAN register it after the fact, like I said, but it costs you heavily to do so.

    Reply

    Pamela Beason December 21, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Fantastically useful post! You proved a theory I’ve been wondering about for a long time. Genre fans are extremely loyal. I have deconstructed bestselling novels in the past and will now return to that successful method in the future. Thanks so much for doing the experiment and for writing about it!

    Reply

    Mark Coker December 21, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Susanne, fascinating experiment, and cool to hear you found our 2013 survey useful. For those interested to explore our survey and our findings, here’s the link: http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/05/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors.html

    Here’s the link to the 2012 survey so folks can compare how things changed from one year to the next: http://blog.smashwords.com/2012/04/can-ebook-data-reveal-new-viral.html

    I’ll present the results of our 2014 survey at RT Booklovers in New Orleans.

    Thanks!

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 21, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Thanks for chiming in, Mark. You do great work and help authors so much with all your research and advocating for authors. Your style guide for formatting ebooks is my Bible, and I’ve used it to format all my indie ebooks as well as many of my clients’. You’ve been the pioneer in the ebook revolution. So just want to give you a big shout out! And just let me know when I need to change my price on my book!

    Reply

    June Shaw December 22, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Susan, what a terrific post! Can you suggest how to research subgenres?

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 22, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Hi June, someone said joining forums on Goodreads was a good way to see where readers are looking for more books. I’ll be going into more detail in the ebook I write, but I would Google top-ranking authors (Kindle) and top-ranking genres. Then look at some of the product pages and see what best-seller lists their book is in. I really have no sure way to do this. The key, though, is to study whichever genre you want to write in by creating a novel that is structured exactly to reader specifications so it will fit that genre.

    Reply

    Rose Mary Boehm December 22, 2013 at 10:20 am

    I am beginning to wonder why we write. Do we write to make bestsellers and a loddamoney, or do we write because we are writers? Do we want to formula writijng to fit ‘reader specifications’ or do we want to express ideas or tell stories.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson December 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

    VERY valid question, which I’ve implied here, but you’ve made it open.
    Of course that “why” varies from one writer to another, and from one book to another.
    But I think most writers who are motivated by any sort of self-expression or artistic impulse cringe at the idea that your run around doing a bunch research to tell you WHAT to write.
    It all sounds real cute and tech-hip, but it’s basically hack and verges on whoring. And the thing is… it doen’t really work all that well.
    The books people create for market don’t really do all that well. Because there is nothing behind them and people don’t want to read that sort of synthetic crap. Ironically, if you look at amazon and all the hundreds of little 99 cent books advising this–many written by pinheads who can barely speak English and often to to the next step–once you’ve figured out what book to write, get somebody on fiverr.com to write it for you–are all in 8 digit ratings.
    I don’t think I’m the only one who finds the “find a great category then write a book for it” thing to be insulting, frankly. But if you want to go write a romance novel because people buy them, injstead of the book inside you that you want to get out, go for it.

    Just by the way… I’m not a purist artiste by any means. I wrote for magazines and papers for years. My best-selling book is self-publsihed, no ISBN. It dominates it’s niche as an ebook, one of the best-selling English titles in Mexico. Since I put out an ebook version, it has been on the first page of its categories from the first day it was published, and every day since. It sold 130 copies last week. It was in the top couple of items on Google for many years. It’s down to the second page now because I didn’t bother scrambling for SEO after the algorithm changes. Because I don’t see Google SEO as being as effective as the other ways I sell the book.

    What this comes down to is something like: yeah, you can go get your face surgeried and your tits augmented. Might get you hit on more. Is that what you want?

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg December 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    I wrote a book for authors on eBook promo sites – it’s one of my bestsellers. Wrote it right for the market.

    In Montana we have a long tradition of selling shovels to miners. Those smart folks were the only ones still around after the gold rush and they got the state started.

    Linton Robinson December 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    Very true, Greg. I use the analogy of selling booze to the 49 ers, same idea.
    I keep mentioning how many of the “how to sell books” experts are experts because they sell a book on how to sell books. Writers are MUCH more gullible than the general public.
    Thing is though… so little of what helps that kind of book sell is useful for a novelist. I mentioned SEO in the context of a non-fiction guide. But it’s useless for fiction. People react to that statement, but come on… do you look for novels to read by googling? What the HELL keywords would you use? Nothing that would pull and indie book up over all the big publishers books, for sure.

    The reason I said this stuff varies from writer to write,,, and from book to book… is because of the situation you describe. I’m the same way, that non-fiction title pays my rent, has bailed me out for years. But my hearts in the fiction.
    I always swore I’d never to a writers’ how-to book… but I might.

    Susanne Lakin December 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Rose, I think the answer is different for every person. As I said, a lot of people make a living writing. It’s a job for many. Just like any other regular job. If you’re good at what you do, you should be able to make money at it. Unfortunately, writing novels doesn’t follow that formula. Writers should be rewarded for writing well, but that’s not always or often the case.

    But we each have to ask why we write and what we want to write. For me, I write stories I love to tell. And since I would now like to make some money writing so my husband can retire from his grueling job, I plan to write the kind of novels that sell well–that are in demand. And that’s romance. I have tried hard to sell my mysteries, but romance seems to sell better. I may try a paranormal vampire Amish love story or the like. Who knows. But if you are wondering if it’s selling out to write to sell, check out the variation of this post I wrote here: http://jordanrosenfeld.net/writing-to-genre-without-selling-out-guest-post-by-c-s-lakin/

    Reply

    Rose Mary Boehm December 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Thank the lawd. Of course I’d like a bestseller, I’d be lying through my teeth if I told anyone I write ‘only for myself’. ‘course not. And I have been a copywriter, how hack can you get. Neither do I put myself on the high horse, saying ‘you should never…’ Why on earth not. If that’s your beef, do it.

    It would also do me good (my sales) if I were a little more Google savvy. No doubt about that either.

    But write write I can only do from another place inside myself. The rest would come out as pure crap. And there’s already a lot of that out there – as you rightly point out. Not even saying that my two novels are masterpieces. But I had something to say and I said it. End of story. Now…wouldn’t it be nice if they were selling better :)

    Reply

    Laure Reminick December 23, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Wow, every single post has been fascinating and helpful. I’ve copied and pasted several parts for later consideration.

    C.S./Charlene, you mentioned you thought to try this experiment because of something you read in a blog post. And you researched heavily after that.

    This type of 1. involvement in other people’s comments and blog posts and then 2. taking the time to do research, is an activity belonging to a certain type of person. Because we are all different, there are writers out there (new, and experienced I dare say) who don’t spend much time reading posts nor would have been able to figure out how to track down the popular genres. Different strokes for different writers.

    The wonderful thing, for me, is that you freely share what you found. THAT is so useful for me. I’ll take it, and use it in my own manner. I thank you, deeply.

    Reply

    Susanne Lakin December 23, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks for all the kind words! Everyone. What has been the most wonderful blessing of getting into blogging about writing and sharing everything I’ve learned about writing is the people who have connected with me. There are so many terrific people who freely teach and blog, like Joel here, and it’s such a joy to guest post on each other’s sites and get feedback and encouragement from readers. It’s a ton of hard work. I think I write somewhere between 150 and 200k words a year on my blog, including comments and ancillary comments on LinkedIn and other places I post my blog posts. It’s pretty exhausting to keep up on and keep good content flowing. So we bloggers greatly appreciate the support.

    Reply

    Michelle Weidenbenner December 24, 2013 at 5:45 am

    Hi Susanne -

    I remember when you first told me about your experiment. I thought you were crazy for using a pen name no one knew. I thought you would fail if you kept your novel and your identity a secret.

    I’d been taught and believed that your brand was you, Susanne Laken, C.S. Lakin and LIVE, WRITE, THRIVE and that if your blog followers knew you had written a new novel they would help tell the world. After all, you give them free and valuable writing information every day.

    But you wanted to test the industry. And you did. And you’ve been successful. I’m thrilled for you! It’s about time!

    Thanks for sharing your results and giving authors like me something to learn from and ponder. I can’t wait until your books come out. Just think of how many authors you’ll help!

    Best,
    Michelle Weidenbenner

    Reply

    Roberto Santos December 25, 2013 at 3:52 am

    I always read Joel ‘s blog here . And it’s really amazing the quality of posts. And now we have this one.

    I believe all of us writers invariably always ask ourselves “what is the REAL secret of a bestseller?” And your post Susanne, it sure helps to answer some of these questions. In other words, any experiment that aims to help all of us in the wide world of modern literature is very welcome!

    Maybe, from what I can read the posts, some did not understand what you wanted to explain here for all of us. Maybe because they did not understand the nature of the thing itself. Or, maybe because they simply had too lazy to watch the thing as a whole.

    One thing I was thinking while reading your experiment here – and this may be another interesting thing – is how many paperback books you sold?

    I ask this for a reason, they can give you another idea to experiment, I believe : the extent to which readers are willing to gamble on buying paper books? It will be an exciting genre determines the provision that a reader has to bet on an unknown author and buy a paper book which is more expensive, or it is connected only to the cheap price of e-books ?

    Does this alone explains why the “big names of the industry” sell their e-books so expensive?

    By the way, congratulations again for this experiment! I look forward to see the continuation.

    Best regards!!

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    Susanne Lakin December 27, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Most indie authors have told me they sell few print books in comparison. For example, one author who sells about 100k ebooks of a title says she might sell 200-300 print books a month. Some authors who sell 1,000 ebooks a month sell a handful of print books. I am guessing the big sales in ebooks is geared to ebook readers. Not sure how to target those who read mostly print books, but ebooks are taking over.

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    Karen December 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    How did you choose the book you analyzed / deconstructed? What were your criteria?
    Which book did you deconstruct?

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    Susanne Lakin December 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Karen, I chose this genre because, as I said in my post, I had heard the authors in this genre usually sold a lot of copies and some didn’t do any marketing or have an author platform. I am sure there are many other subgenres that have plenty of readers but not so many books. Sorry, I won’t tell which book I deconstructed. You’ll have to buy my book and read it and try to figure that one out. It wouldn’t be right to divulge.

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    Karen December 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    I understand your not wanting to divulge the actual name of the book – but did you choose a classic – can you just describe your criteria for choosing the book? A classic? – a recent bestseller? A top selling author? It would be so helpful to know what your criteria was for choosing a book that would be worth the very large effort of deconstructing it?

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    Susanne Lakin December 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I think I explained that in the article. I don’t think there are any “classics” in that genre. I had heard this author sold a lot of copies without a platform. That’s about all I can tell you. You can do your own research as mentioned in many of the comments above. There are many ways to find which genres sell well, but I can’t speak for other ones since I didn’t research them. I went on what the authors themselves were saying.

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    Karen December 28, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    How can we research market share each romance genre and / or subgenre has. Would you know how to find that information or where to research those statistics?
    Again, many thanks for this great post!

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    Debra Holland December 30, 2013 at 11:57 am

    A wonderful article. I have no idea if I was the author whose sweet historical Western romance you chose to deconstruct, and since I’m a huge self-publishing cheerleader, I won’t mind a bit if you did. I do know that when your book first hit the top 100 Western romance list and I saw your cover that I thought you copied the style of my New York Times bestselling Montana Sky Series covers–same font style and a beautiful setting rather than a clinch cover. Again, not something that bothers me. :) I think your cover is beautiful.

    When I self-published my first two books, Wild Montana Sky and Starry Montana Sky, in April 2011, I was stunned by how the books took off so quickly without any promotion on my part. I’d found two under served niches–Sweet AND Historical Western. Within a year, Wild Montana Sky hit the USA Today list–a huge shock for a previously unknown and unpublished (in fiction) author, who had a stack of rejections for this book.

    Wild Montana Sky won the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart award in 2001. But in spite of the attempts of two agents, the book didn’t sell to a traditional publisher precisely because it was sweet (meaning not sexy.) Ten years later, the series found a readership.

    Wild Montana Sky had almost 100,000 sales before I allowed Amazon Montlake to acquire the series, although still I self-publish smaller books, novellas, and short stories in the series.

    With the visible success of my sweet series, other authors started publishing their sweet books, proving what I’ve believed all along (and amiably argued with some editors about) that there are readers who will read any type of romance as long as it’s a good story AND there are readers who been wanting traditional (not sexy) romances but didn’t have much access to them.

    The important thing is to write the story that YOU want to tell, not just write for the market. It’s too hard to write a book in a genre or subgenre you don’t enjoy. Or maybe I should say, it’s too difficult to CONTINUE writing in a genre you don’t enjoy. Also, in this rapidly shifting publishing world, the popularity of certain genres or subgenres can change before your book is published.

    All the best,
    Debra Holland

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    Greg Strandberg December 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I just want to say thanks for bringing attention to my state and introducing a lot of new people to what life here can be like.

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    Bridget January 17, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    What a gracious and kind comment left by Debra Holland.

    The notion of “deconstructing” her book and using it as some sort of graphic organizer with which to generate a derivative text, then co-opting her cover designs, and going on to profit from this suspect activity, could have understandably warranted a far different response.

    Please, everyone. Ask yourself if you’d like to have this done to one of your books, published or unpublished…and behave accordingly.

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    C. S. Lakin January 17, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Bridget, I understand your defending Debra. I am perfectly fine with crediting her book as the one I used to study and deconstruct the structure. Authors do this in every genre all the time, including romance writers. It is the best and a most honest way to write to a genre. It has nothing to do with stealing ideas or copying style, although plenty of writers try to write exactly like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, and even in those cases, there is nothing truly wrong with that.

    If you take the time–and I would encourage you, and Debra, and anyone questioning what I’ve done–to actually read the book I wrote, you will see it bears almost no resemblance at all to her book in style or content. The fact that I hired the same cover designer to get a similar look is something many, if not most, savvy writers do. Writers find covers they like and then try to copy the look.

    I never tried to pretend I was her, or that my books were hers, and did not co-opt her cover. My cover is very different. I have a different font, different elements, no people, I have horses and mountains. Really, these arguments, although well meaning in defense of Debra Holland, are baseless.

    Frankly, I have no problem when other authors read and study my novels to see how I wrote them. I encourage that. And with my hundreds of writing clients, I encourage them to study best-selling books in their genre to see how it’s done. My guess is you have done that to some extent too, if you are a writer.

    I have no idea what you mean by “graphic text.” All I did was take notes like: opening: show the heroine in her ordinary world. Introduce conflict. Chapter two: show hero in his ordinary world. That is all I did. And I heartily encourage you and every writer to deconstruct novels in the genre they would like to work in so that they get a feel for how to do it. I’ve studied fantasy writers and have written eight fantasy novels. Did I copy any one? I have a few authors I love and I’ve studied their books, but my novels are unique in content, style, and structure.

    In fact, I highly encourage you to deconstruct my romance novel to see why it’s getting fantastic reviews, and compare with Debra’s (deconstruct hers) and you will see I used only a little bit of general elements (that a lot of writers in this genre use, like a love triangle) and very general structural elements. I mostly followed Michael Hauge’s 12-scene Lover’s Journey structure, and made sure I had those 12 key scenes. Which is what I’ll use for the next books.

    I am sorry you and a few others are so upset by this very acceptable and honorable practice. It is never a good idea to accuse authors of plagiarizing or engaging in “suspect activity” without having all the facts and without actually examining the books in question.

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    Karen January 18, 2014 at 5:41 am

    What Sussana has written about is indeed an honorable practice. It’s a classical way of learning any art or skill. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is filled with groups of young students sitting in front of great works of art, sketching away, observing, analyzing and learning to create their own works of art.
    A lotta years ago, I was one of them!

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    Bridget January 18, 2014 at 11:52 am

    At times, there may be a fine line between inspiration and predation, and it seems that it might–like all fine lines–be unintentionally crossed. Hence the call for caution.

    If the process described in this blog post were the former rather than the latter, would there have been a need for Lakin to introduce it as an “experiment” and describe it in terms which make it clear she believes she has come up with an innovative shortcut to epub success?

    Karen’s comment about students copying classic works of art is clearly well-meant, but specious for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that student copies are didactic in nature and not meant to compete for market share with Rembrandt or Dali’s own work. Yet her example is a good case in point for the inspiration vs. predation concept. Recall that Lakin herself stated in the comments: “I don’t think there are any classics in that genre” (Sweet Historical Westerns). She is not discussing a classical way of learning about art by studying many examples. She is instructing us in how to hack the niche subgenre market for ebooks by drawing unusually heavily upon a single successful novel as a source.

    The hack is not in itself a problematic goal. And her willingness to share her method could be construed as admirable, even altruistic.

    I only question whether this particular process blurs some distinctions which should remain sharp and well-defined. And I leave it at a question–not an accusation.

    Writers are thoughtful people; this situation has given us all something to think over, and decide about for ourselves.

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    Michelle Weidenbenner January 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I had a college professor from a writing program recommend that we do this deep evaluation of our favorite books. I love to study why books make bestsellers and totally think there is value in dissecting the parts and understanding what makes a story work. Kudos to Susanne for her hard work and her devotion to her readers in taking the time to write something fans would enjoy.

    Michelle Weidenbenner

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    Linton Robinson January 18, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Funny, because copying the masters is an example I often use in the context that writing ISN’T like other arts and really has almost no technique. You can learn a lot doing stroke-by-stroke copies of paintings. You can’t learn a damned thing by copying a book out word for word. I’m not sure how much you actually learn by deconstructing the format… but it’s not the same at all… more like learning basic composition of the masters. Aping the marketing, cover, etc. has nothing to do with writing. It’s something writers for money do all the time.

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    Sandra Schwab January 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Susanne, if you are so fine with crediting Debra and her book, one wonders why you haven’t done so in the blog posts you wrote about your little experiment, and why, when you exchanged e-mails with Debra after she had left her comment here, you actually refused to do so.

    As to not trying to co-opt Debra’s covers – oh please. I had only seen one of her covers before I read your article, and I immediately recognized the similarity. Given that you tried to get the cover designer to make your cover as similar to Debra’s covers as possible AND misrepresented yourself as a close friend of Debra’s, makes your claim rather ridiculous.

    Deconstructing Debra’s novel is not a problem here (though one might want to point out that most genre writers don’t need to deconstruct a novel in their chosen genre before they sit down to write one because … um … they’re actually readers of the genre in question). But the way you went about it is a problem. The way you misrepresented yourself while seeking information; the way you aimed at imitating Debra’s brand and then failed to acknowledge the debt owed to her; the way you CONTINUED to do this even after Debra left a comment here on this blog , even after you exchanged e-mails with her, THAT is the problem. If you read her comment above, it’s fairly clear to see (even for me as a non-native speaker of English!!) how very taken aback she was by this whole thing.

    For anybody interested in what actually went on behind the scenes, may I suggest that you read Debra’s comment on Barbara Rogan’s blog? Here’s the link: http://barbararogan.com/blog/?p=777#comment-3238

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    Greg Strandberg January 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    When I lived in Shenzhen, China, there was a place called the Dapeng Villages. Here all manner of painters and other artists lived and worked. They all did their own work, but they made their money copying the masters. And when I say copying, I mean just that.

    They’d do all the famous masters you can think of, the exact same picture you see in museums, and sometimes even better. You’d pay anywhere from fifty dollars to thousands of dollars and could then have a nice conversation starter hanging in your living room.

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    Rose Mary Boehm January 18, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    With Bridget 100%. She has spoken for my brain and for my heart in this matter.

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    Karen January 21, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Huge respect for the ethical issues Bridget raises. I’ve had my illustrations plagiarized, and would never suggest we cross those lines with our experiments. Sussana experiment raises a great point: when is it plagiarism and when is it “business?” I’m sitting with a copy of Texas Destiny & Texans Wager in my hands. (i wish we could upload photos here!) Both have similar typefaces, both have a bunch of daisies on the cover – and clearly they both have similar titles. Publishers – who are business people – will dance as close to the line as they can to promote their books & maximize profit.

    Now that “the gatekeepers” are gasping for air and authors have become publishers & business people, short of breaking the law, we’ll each need to figure out where that line is drawn. It’s one of many things I never thought I’d ever have to consider when I became a writer.

    I’ve so enjoyed Susanna’s wildly generous post & it was great to read the thoughtful and excellent questions Bridget has raised.

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