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 }

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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!

    Reply

    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?

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

    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?

    Reply

    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.

    Reply

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