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.


  1. Ah, hitting the ‘bestseller in category’ lists. What a rush. I have screen captures of each time it happened because it’s never lasted long and I like to be able to go back and look at them when I’m feeling discouraged. I know I probably went about this ‘wrong’ (by someone somewhere’s definition anyway). My sales would’ve been better if I’d had the sequels ready to go – bing bang boom – instead of having to tell readers they’ll have to wait. I probably should’ve picked a genre and stuck with it. But I am writing what I love and what excites me, so I have to comfort myself with that. (And my pretty screen captures.)

    1. I hear you on having the sequels ready to go. I think my third book could have ridden its wave longer if I’d had the next one ready three months later. As it is, I’ll try to get that wave back when it comes out late spring. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ve got a sequel in draft to my first book, which got not a wave but a ripple. Apparently, there is not a huge clamor for legal-focused science fictin. I still really care about those characters and that world, so I’m going to get going on revisions on that soon even thought I don’t expect equivalent performance. Secretly, of course, I’m hoping that I’ve improved enough in my craft that the second legal one will sell better. But I’m not expecting it.

      I do love both of them–just in different ways.

  2. When I first started, someone told me to write what I wanted to read. I’ve kept at that, which I now realize I could do only because the marketplace was opening up as I started setting up my little booth. Had I still been restricted to writing dependency on publishers, I would have had to write what they wanted, instead. I do try to be aware of what the readers ask for, though, and it’s all grist for the mill.

  3. I can vouch for a book having “legs” as it were – my best-seller over time has still been my first historical novel, which came out (ulp) early in 2007. And in the most recent Christmas markets, the Adelsverein Trilogy (which came out two years later and all at once because someone advised me of the wisdom of having sequels ready to roll) still outsold everything else — even the newest of my books!

    In about another decade, I’ll slap a new cover on Truckee’s Trail and the Trilogy and see how that works for me.

  4. Oh good. I though I was the only one trying to follow the comments and arguments at TPV and looking like a very perplexed dog.

    It would be interesting to see how many sub-genres indie publishers have “put on the map,” as it were. Or resurrected from the Big 5’s dustbin. “Oh, look, sweet romance! I’ve been wanting to read one of these for ages. I wonder why no one writes them anymore . . .” and so on.

    1. Yeah. For someone writing from the perspective of traditional publishing, she’s absolutely correct when she says that Amazon, with all its computing power and marketing muscle, hasn’t manufactured bestsellers. She means that APub hasn’t turned out any new names that are as well known as Grisham and Patterson, much less a steady stream of them.

      I believe most of the people taking umbrage at that statement don’t understand she’s thinking of people who move millions of books in paper (much less e-book), not “hits the top of Romance > Paranormal > Werewolves & Shifters with a Bookbub-anchored promo.” (Though to be fair, with a good promo campaign, that sub-sub category can hit #15 in the entire kindle store. Yay random research of off-the-cuff remarks!)

  5. Well, this topic certainly got things going all over the place (those places I check on a daily basis, anyway). I think I’ll just plagiarize my comment to Cedar yesterday. Basically, what I boil it down to is “Write what you write best, which includes enjoying what you are writing. Don’t worry about the market – but know who they are so you can market to them.”

    If you have that stall full of Odd items, know where the Odd people tend to walk. That could be the stall at the very fringe of the bazaar that you share with three other people – but out on the main thoroughfare, you’ll never be seen by the Odds, and the housewives just there to buy the chicken for dinner will never see you, either.

  6. MGC has certainly been an education. The last few years I’ve had to toss out everything I knew about publishing. It’s good to have a guide to the changing landscape.

  7. On the marketing thing, I have a question. I’ve been trying a few different promos Amazon offers, like putting the first story in a series up for free a few weeks ago and now running a countdown deal for the novella. (Dot gave me her blessing to post the link so here it is 🙂

    Question: on the issue of just getting more visibility to get those numbers rolling, what kind of success (however you define it) have you seen from putting stuff up for free, for sale, and how did you promote it.

    1. I did a countdown for my second book and got about 30 sales the day it was promo’d at AccordingtoHoyt. Another place that got sales was Book Plug Friday at PJMedia, but BPF’s status seems very uncertain right now.

      Someone here said she saw a bump in sales just from dropping the first of her trilogy to 99 cents, and that was before her ads went up.

      I get this newsletter, and I believe the listings are free: It seems to be directed at romance readers, so I don’t know if that would work for you.

      1. With the advent of KULL, the free give aways sort of lost steam. For awhile they not only had little impact on sales, I got very few free downloads. But I’m wondering if a lot of people aren’t leaving the KULL program, because my last round–two books the last two weeks–got lots of downloads. I’ll see if sales pick up, these next weeks.

        1. Thanks for the answer, Pam. I did a free one a few weeks ago and actually got a good amount of downloads, but hasn’t seemed to translate into a bump in sales in any of the others, so not sure if those make a big diff.

          1. Just when you think you have it figured out, something else comes up. There may be a bump the next couple of weeks, once people are home instead of visiting for TG, and before they go off for Xmas. Or a bump after, because of new book readers for Xmas.

            If only my magic infinity ball actually worked. “Without a doubt” it says. Yeah.

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