Bestsellers, and writing to market
Kris Rusch put out another excellent article on the business of writing Thursday. Cedar had some lovely commentary on it’s explanation of the market vs. the marketplace yesterday, which I encourage you to read along with the original article.
But when you, oh, indie authors read it, I want you to keep in mind the semantic drift of the word “bestseller.” In the world of legacy publishers, Bestsellers are rare creatures that the people who buy six books a year (usually in hardcover) know and buy. They’re household names, even if you don’t read the genre. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, George R. R. Martin and Tom Clancy fall into this category.
When people who read more books start talking about bestsellers, they start using the NYT Bestseller List and the USA Today Bestseller list to indicate “People who move a lot of books.” These authors include Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci, Jeff Kinney, Mary Higgins Clark, Nicholas Sparks, Andy Weir, Rick Riordan… And yes, the line between these top two categories is pretty fuzzy. I read too much; I’d have to ask someone who only reads 6 books a year to tell me who’s in which.
When indies talk, they often tend to mean Amazon’s “bestseller in category” lists. Because the kindle sales rank provides a pretty straightforward picture on how well a book is moving (being tied to actual sales, and sales alone), checking the top 10-25 books in any sub category (or sub-sub-sub-sub category) and tossing the obvious outliers provides a pretty clear picture on the size of the reader pool and potential sales velocity of that niche.
Bestseller lists on Amazon, and the Hot New Releases lists, are as important for indie discovery as getting coop space like endcap displays in a brick and mortar store. The more you are seen, the more casual browsers will check you out and buy you. (In the vasty bazaar, this is the difference between main aisle placement and being tucked in the back, splitting a stall with poor signage with three other people.) So to say “I’m hitting the top 100 list in Space Marines!” is a big deal to a one-author publishing house, because it means their stall just popped up on a clearly marked aisle where a lot of browsers flow through. They’re definitely not the biggest or best stall on that aisle, and they’ll watch hordes of people flow past toward a new John Ringo or Tom Kratman, but there’s a much better chance some will turn aside, and eyeball him, pick up his sample, and say “Hey, why not? Looks good.”
The problem comes when indies try to talk to people steeped in traditional publishing, using the same words to mean these vastly different things. It’s like an American trying to do a South African recipe.
“Set oven to gas mark 3? Courgettes? waterblommetjies? Auugh! I thought I could do this just translating C to F and milliliters / grams to cups / tablespoons!”
One bit of friction comes when Kris is talking about writing to market. By which she means what she’s seen: writers sneering at a genre, then saying “It’s trash, but it sells well. I’m going to write some [knock-off] trash in line with what’s selling, and have a bestseller / make a million bucks.”
She got a fair bit of pushback from indies who mean, instead, “I’m going to look at the sub-sub genres, check the potential sales pool against number of items in market, and find an underserved market. (More sales on average than stuff available on average.) If it’s something I can do, I’ll try a story / trilogy in it, and see how it sells. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’ll break out and go big. Maybe it’ll barely sell; we’ll see.”
The difference in these two is as critical as the difference between a prawn and a parktown prawn. (One of these is a large shrimp; the other is a noxious cricket. I wouldn’t suggest trying to put the latter in your gumbo.)
She’s also writing from the perspective many of us hope to gain: a writer who’s been at this for decades. While not a household name like Grisham, she has a long career of good, solid books, novellas, and short stories across multiple genres and pen names. So when she’s talking about not chasing trends and writing to market, she’s looking at whether or not your book will still hold up and be sellable as intellectual property in ten to fifteen years instead of the money to be made right this month by publishing another knock off billionaire secret baby romance to fill the current market’s whim. (Actually, I think secret babies are out right now. Werewolves and other shifters seem to be the current flavor. If you’re reading post in the archives in 6 months, it’ll probably be different.)
I won’t say “Kris Rusch is absolutely right!!eleventy-one!” and I won’t say “Kris Rusch is wrong!! Pants on fire!”, because there are good arguments from the indie side on making hay while the sun shines, and good arguments on her side about having a series that transcends zeitgeist, is something you’re proud of, and can knock the dust off, give new covers, and still sell as fresh and new in 20 years.
What I will say is that I absolutely agree with her statement that you should write something because the idea viscerally excites you, and you love it. Whether you chose the category by market research and then cogitating on ideas and scenarios in the vein of that category, or you woke up to these two characters yelling at each other in your head and you’ll figure out genre after you get them decanted into a manuscript, write what you love. Storytelling is absolutely about the emotions, and your own will definitely come through!
The category may get them to come. Promotion to hit a bestseller list, or the Hot New Releases list, may get them to notice you and try you. But it’s your voice as an author, your spin on the world, and the way the story resonates that’ll get them to come back.