The task for every author is finding an audience. If your book is any good (and I have some reason to believe that mine aren’t bad) then there is an audience out there for it. Most people who have read my books seem to like them pretty well. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of people have read them. Why not? The most basic reason is that most people have never heard of them.
So my task now is to find my audience. As my audience grows, I hope that more of my audience will start to find me, through word of mouth. But that isn’t going to happen until my books find their way into more reader’s hands.
What I have learned, through many years of striving, is that the publishing industry is not set up to serve every reader’s taste equally. In fact, it’s not necessarily set up to serve the largest communities of readers. It is set up to serve the communities of readers who are easiest to find.
This makes perfect commercial sense. Books are not that expensive, so if there is to be a margin for the publisher to make a profit, the cost of making each sale needs to be kept low. The profit potential lies in the readers who are cheapest to sell to, which means the readers who are easiest to find.
What makes a reader easy to find? First, a very clear definition of the kind of book they want, and second their tendency to visit the same places and talk to each other.
If an aspiring writer were to ask me how to make money as a novelist (I’m not sure why they would, but bear with me here) I would tell them choose a reader community that is easy to find, figure out exactly what they want, and create exactly that. This is not startling or unusual advice. It is what any marketer in any industry at all would say.
The publishing industry does tell aspiring writers this, but they are cryptic about it, by which I mean that it took me the best part of a decade to figure out what it was saying. The way it says it is this: agents ask for comps. “Comps” is short for “comparative titles”, and it means recent books that have sold well and are exactly like yours only different.
The reason they ask for this is that comp titles identify the particular reader community that the book is designed for, which makes it easy to pitch the book to a publisher, because publishers sell books into those communities, and they do that because they are inexpensive to sell to.
In sales, there is a concept called “channels”. A channel is a well-defined path by which products travel to customers. Selling things through a channel is cheap and reliable. Selling things outside of a channel is expensive and uncertain. This does not mean that agents and publishers will never take on a project that does not fit an existing channel. Every channel that exists today was pioneered by a work for which there was no existing channel. But those kinds of books are risky, and the agent and editor have to be really in love with the project and work very hard to get it sold within a publishing company.
The problem with channels, from the point of view of an author or a reader, is that they have to be defined in specific and concrete terms. Novels are multifaceted. You can write a coming-of-age story set in ancient Rome, the Wild West, Regency England, or outer space. The setting might be entirely secondary to the story and its themes, but it will determine if it goes in the historical fiction, western, romance, or science fiction channel. Someone who loves coming of age stories will find a few in every genre, but they will have to search through many uninteresting volumes in each genre category to find the stories they are looking for. The titles they are looking for won’t be clearly marked and easy to find. That The Wistful and the Good is a coming-of-age story is really much more significant than it being historical fiction, but it is as historical fiction that it must present itself to the world. The channel system requires books within the channel to wear the plumage of the channel.
The channel system is not entirely regimented, and the channels don’t all line up side-by-side, but to a very large extent it is based on setting, romance being the notable exception that cuts across everything else. Why is it this way? In part, perhaps, it follows the lines of popular taste, but I think it actually does as much to shape popular taste as to follow it. Mainly, I believe, it is driven by the inherent difficulty of categorization. Categorization is easier when things have clear physical properties. Coming of age is a somewhat fuzzy category. Set in the Wild West, or set on a Space Station, are much more obvious and unambiguous properties by which to classify books.
One of the lessons I learned from my years as a content strategist is that categorization follows the lines of easiest and clearest distinction. In other words, things get classified according to the properties that are easiest to classify them by. But if you are looking for things according to criteria that are not the easiest to classify things by, the classification system is going to work against you, not for you. This problem applies equally to readers looking for books and writers looking for their audience.
The point here is that the problem is not lack of readers, the problem is the lack of a channel to those readers. English boarding school stories were an important genre back in the day. I grew up on Jennings and Derbyshire. My sister loved The Chalet School books. My father, in his youth, was an avid reader of Billy Bunter. But by the late 90’s the genre was as dead as the boarding school system itself. There was no channel by then for a book about a boarding school for wizards. Harry Potter eventually sold despite this and found a pretty decent sized audience.
There is something that writers report hearing from agents all the time. I’ve heard it several times, and I bet J.K. Rowling (who must have grown up reading the same book my sister and I did) heard it a few times before she found an agent willing to gamble on representing Harry Potter. They say, “I think it’s a great story, but I can’t sell it.” And what that means is, the book does not fit neatly and clearly into a channel that’s hot right now. That does not mean there is not an audience for it. It just means there is not a channel for it today.
Another piece of evidence for the existence of a wider audience beyond the existing channels comes from a librarian friend of mine who tells me that she has patrons coming into the library all the time asking for the kinds of books that publishers simply don’t publish these days. Why don’t publisher’s publish books for those folks? Probably because there is no channel to them, which means that selling books to them would be riskier and more expensive than selling to an existing channel. Where would people like that go in search of the books they cannot easily find? To a librarian, of course.
I spent a lot of time fruitlessly searching for comps for the books I was writing. I never found them. And small wonder. I write the kind of books I want to read because no one is publishing those kinds of books. I have been, almost deliberately, doing exactly the thing I would advise the mercenary young author not to do—write books for which there is no current channel—and doing so precisely because there is no channel and thus no one is publishing the kinds of books I want to read.
What you should be doing, if you want to make money writing fiction, is to identify the comps before you ever put pen to paper. I won’t be doing that, though, unless someone can point me to some undiscovered channel that produces the kinds of books I want to read and want to write. In other words, if you have read my books and thought they were just like some other recent books that sell well, let me know, for you will have discovered my comps, and thus my channel.
In the meantime, here I am, looking for my audience. Some notes on the quest so far:
The advice I was given by my was-to-have-been publisher, and which I have since found repeated many times, is that newsletters sell books. The most important thing an author can do, it is often said, is build up a newsletter mailing list so that their fans can keep in touch with them.
So far this has not proved true for me. Of course, if you subscribed to the newsletter, you got to read The Wistful and the Good for free, so it’s not a surprise that you did not all run out an buy a copy when it was published in final form. But you didn’t all rush out and buy a copy of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight when I released that either. A few did, but not most.
I thought that might have been because you came here for historical fiction, while Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight is a fairytale fantasy. In other words, maybe I created an historical fiction channel and then sent a fantasy down it with predictable results. But then I released St. Agnes and the Selkie, the sequel to The Wistful and the Good, and it sold about the same as Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight did on the day I announced it.
I suspect that the reason is that my newsletter subscribers are here because they are fans of my non-fiction, not my fiction. After all, we read fiction and non-fiction for very different reasons. I myself follow a number of writers’ newsletters without buying their books. I don’t write this newsletter simply in the hope of selling books. I write it to express the things that interest me about the business and culture of stories and storytelling, and a few other subjects. I hope there is some crossover between my fiction and non-fiction audiences, but I value them both separately. And so far, the crossover isn’t proving to be all that large.
I suspect that newsletters work better to sell books for authors who already have a developed audience, and who stick much more closely to the subject of their books in their newsletters. Historical novelists, for example, often fill their newsletters with historical snippets from the period they write about, feeding the same appetite with the newsletter that they do with the books. I could do the same by filling this newsletter with snippets of Anglo-Saxon history. Would any of you want that? It would be easy enough to do, but I would find it rather dull work. Let me know!
BookFunnel is a paid service that allows authors to run group promotions. Essentially, a bunch of authors upload their book covers and blurbs to a shared page on BookFunnel and then promote that page to all their newsletters and social media. There are two kinds, newsletter builders, for getting newsletter subscribers, and sales promos for selling books. A number of my newsletter subscribers come from the newsletter promos I have participated in. I’ve only done one book promo so far and that wasn’t successful. I am currently testing the system by participating in four more book promos, and I crave your indulgence when I ask you to click on the links to these. BookFunnel gives you a reputation based on how many clicks you bring to the promo and my ability to participate depends on that reputation.
A BookFunnel promo is, of course, a form of channel. Each promo specifies a particular type of book it will contain. The broader channels are specified by BookFunnel based on traditional bookstore genre definitions, but within those genre definitions, each promo is quite specific. In looking for my audience, therefore, I have entered Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight into four different promos constituting three different channels. Will I find my audience in one or more of these channels?
The first is Fantastic Female-Lead Adventures. Nothing is less relevant to me in choosing a book to read than whether the protagonist is male or female. But it clearly matters to many people, and it so happens that Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight has a female lead, and is an adventure, and is fantastic (in at least one meaning of that word). Still, if it doesn’t matter to me if a book has a female-lead, will my book really meet the tastes of people to whom it does matter? That remains to be seen. But please do click through to the link above.
One thing I noticed when I clicked through the first time, is that most of the covers had the color saturation and contrast turned up to eleven. The page looked like a wall of televisions in an electronics store, all blaring away in the oversaturated over-bright “display mode” setting. Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight looked muted by comparison.
You might argue that that would make it stand out, but a channel is not really about standing out. A channel is about providing a stream of similar goods to a willing market. So I went back and goosed up the saturation and contrast on the cover. I think it looks garish, but it fits in better. So far it seems to have helped a little, since the number of clicks it received went up after the change.
Is Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight more similar to these books on the inside than the outside. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Still, the experiment is worth running.
The next two promotions I am entering are for fantasy based on myths and fairytales. These should be a much better fit for Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, which is the retelling and continuation of an old Scottish ballad of the same name.
They are Myth & Fairytale Sale and Once Upon A Wicked Heart CyberMonday Promo! Please click through to both of them as well.
In these you will see the same super-juiced covers, though with somewhat more variation. These garish covers strike me as inappropriate to the subject matter. Any serious student of myth and fairytale realizes that the real stuff has a kind of somber cast to it. These are, after all, the expressions of people’s real fears about a hostile world. It is the literature of stolen children, captive maidens, starving families, monsters, beasts, and darkness. You shouldn’t need sunglasses to look at the covers of such books.
But perhaps this is just a matter of the cover designers that people are hiring only knowing how to do things one way. The monotony of these supersaturated covers is remarkable. They mostly look exactly the same. I have read that half the world’s hit pop songs are written by just two people, and it looks like half the world’s book covers are created by the same artist. Beneath the covers, will Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight prove similar to the other books in this promo? I’m not sure, but again, one must experiment to find out where one’s audience is to be found.
The fourth promo is Gritty Christian Fiction. Gritty (I have learned) is a code word in the Christian fiction market for works that are not preachy or sickeningly sweet. Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight is pretty gritty, in the sense that it is a fairytale about sexual assault and mass murder. (Lots of fairy tales are about sexual assault and/or mass murder.) I’m of two minds about this market. I am Catholic and my fiction is Catholic in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction is Catholic, which is to say that unless you were an educated Catholic you probably wouldn’t notice. It means that there are Catholic themes and an underlying Catholic anthropology in the works, as there are in, for instance, most of the Western canon. The problem is that once you put the label “Christian Fiction” on it, no one outside that community will look at it.
This is, of course, part of the problem with channels generally. It is not just that people tend only to buy from the channels they like, but that will positively avoid anything bearing the taint of any channel they don’t like. Simply putting the book in a channel labelled “Christian” is going to turn a lot of people off, including a lot of Christians who have seen some of the God-awful pablum that gets passed off as Christian literature. Still, maybe some part of my audience is there? I won’t know unless I look for them there.
There is a movement to create a serious Catholic literary revival, and my work should fit broadly into that movement, even if most secular readers would not notice anything specifically Catholic or Christian about it. But a movement is not a channel.
The book covers in Gritty Christian Fiction are a lot more varied than in the other promos, and on the whole a lot less garish, which I take to be a promising sign. Anyway, please click through and take a look, even if you are one of those who automatically recoil from the idea of “Christian fiction.” I’m looking for my audience and your clicks help me stay part of the club in case any or all of these promos turn out to sell any books.
Maybe none of these promo channels will work for me. I have defined my purpose and the kinds of books I want to read and write as “serious popular fiction” and if there is a serious popular fiction channel out there, I have yet to find it. If you have any hint as to where it might be, please let me know.
But the other possibility is that while the readers are out there (of this I am confident) there may not be any established channel to them. Maybe I need to find other serious popular fiction authors and work with them to build a channel of our own. If you have any leads or suggestions on that score, or consider yourself a serious popular fiction author, let me know. (You can comment, reply to this email, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Of course, it is always possible that I have other problems to address, other than simply finding the right channel. Maybe I should be commissioning some of those garish, shouty, wall-of-TVs covers for my books, though I would be very reluctant to do so. Maybe my blurbs are not working, or my taglines are sending the wrong signal. Maybe my pricing is off. Maybe I am in the wrong Amazon categories. Maybe I should be buying ads on Amazon or Facebook, or promoting through a different service such as BookBub or StoryOrigin. Marketing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition for any commodity, let alone one as varied as books. I plan to keep trying until I find my audience. Any thoughts, hints, or suggestions you have to offer would be received with gratitude.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, please help me out by clicking through to the promos:
Also, please consider buying one or more of my books. They make great Christmas gifts for the serious popular fiction fans in your life:
If you have read and enjoyed any of them, I would greatly appreciate a review on Amazon and Goodreads.
The one factor you didn't talk about is the title. People really do judge a book based on its cover and title, especially in our current saturated market.
If I may be so bold as to openly critique your titles, here are my thoughts (which are obviously just one person's opinion!)
The Wistful and the Good:
I inherently like this. It has an unexpected contrast, similar to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. "Wistful" is a word that describes me in many ways (as does the word "melancholy"). But it's not a very pop-culture word, so many young adult readers might not know what it means, or might feel ambivalent toward it. Overall, 8/10.
St. Agnes and the Selkie:
For me, this falls into the trap of "Too many unknown words." That's very common with fantasy novels, where you'll see things like "The Aesora Rising," and have learned exactly nothing from it. I think "Selkie" refers to a mythical creature? Maybe in the general camp of the Siren? But I honestly don't know what it is. (My mythological knowledge is mostly limited to what I learned from Percy Jackson.) St. Agnes also means nothing to me. Is this referring to a well-known saint in the Catholic pantheon? What are they patron of? I don't have a stories-all-the-way-down connection to it, so it's not particularly evocative for me. 5/10, kind of confusing. (Again, just my limited opinion!)
Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight:
(As an aside: I really like this cover. It feels polished in a way most indie covers do not, and I love the use of a renaissance-looking painting).
Per the title, this one is okay. The word "Elf" is a bit of a turn-off for me, since this often means the writer is re-hashing tired fantasy tropes or writing a fairy tale. I'm not a big fan of fairy tales, which feel like the precursor to fantasy, a genre I much prefer. But there have been some exceptions: The Once and Future King, while not a fairy tale, is nevertheless a retelling that I love with all my heart. And Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis' retelling of an old fairy tale, but he got me in the door by using a title that was interesting for its own sake and didn't require knowledge of the reference. 7/10, I think this communicates well, but it does requires some insider knowledge.
The Needle of Avocation/The Rules of Trade:
I believe Needle was the original title, and Rules is what superseded it? If so, that was a good change. Needle of Avocation has similar problems to St. Agnes, while The Rules of Trade is so overtly simple that it suggests a sense of irony. "The Rules of Trade" sounds like a euphemism for something, and that makes me curious. 7/10, definitely intriguing.
"I spent a lot of time fruitlessly searching for comps for the books I was writing. I never found them. And small wonder. I write the kind of books I want to read because no one is publishing those kinds of books."
This describes my writing and publishing journey exactly. I wrote/write my books because I couldn't find anything like them in bookstores. When pressed to come up with comps, I couldn't really find anything relevant. An editor I worked with suggested a few books that I really didn't like, but I went along with them just to have something to put in queries, though they felt off. If I wasn't their audience, how could their audience be mine? But maybe I was overthinking it and readers are more flexible than I am...
I prefer your more muted book cover, but I agree that the more vibrant version holds it own better among all the others. I don't know what the answer is to finding or creating a channel versus discovering readers organically via a newsletter, etc. but I've taken a chance on lots of unknown authors I found through Bookbub. I know members can also advertise their books in the Historical Novel Society's newsletter and online. Beyond that, I'm kind of winging it myself. But I'm open to ideas!