The past several days have been exhausting but enlightening ones both on a personal and on a professional level. Our local library has been holding its annual book sale and I’ve been doing what I could to help out. Now, before you start thinking I’m a socially-minded gal who loves to volunteer, remember, books. Thousands and thousands of books I get to play with. Some new and some going back to the early 1900’s. It is a bibliophiles playground.
One of the parts of helping at the book sale I love the most is being able to talk with the people who come in looking for bargains. Some come in with detailed lists of what they are looking for. Others bring in lists of what they have already read so they don’t duplicate what they already have in their library. There are even dealers who come in with their bar code readers or appropriate apps to see if we have anything they can snap up for a bargain and sell for a profit.
Those folks are fun to work with but the ones that get my writer’s brain to working are the folks who come in looking for recommendations for a new author or a title they haven’t read before. Sometimes they are wanting to return to reading a genre they left years ago because of the way the genre had changed. Most often, those folks once read every fantasy and science fiction book they could lay their hands on and then, in the 80’s and 90’s — and later — left the genre as it became more about writing to the message than writing to the story. Now they are hoping there are authors writing to the story again and come looking for such books — or books from the time when they still enjoyed reading the genre.
Then there are those who are looking for certain authors, often names I remember from my childhood and early adulthood as authors my father enjoyed reading, as also eye openers for me as a writer because of why they want to find the likes of Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney and others. The reason they are looking for books by those writers or others like them is the ease of the story, the emphasis on plot and character and not on sex. The lack of f-bombs every other word.
And that all makes me, as a writer, think about what I should be writing. Yes, I have to look at what the market wants. But the market is much broader and certainly much deeper than traditional publishing believes. Who knows how many readers have felt left behind by the emphasis by traditional publishing on putting out books that are nothing but clones for Fifty Shades of Gray or the Hunger Games or the Da Vinci Code.
That is why the influx of quality indie published and small press published books has been so good for the reading public. For those who have made the transition to e-books, it means a return to affordable reading. Most indie and small press e-books top out at $4.99. That’s a big difference from the $13.99 currently being asked by the publisher for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the somewhat controversial follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird. Then there is James Patterson’s latest, Alert, that is currently selling in digital form for $14.99.
But even more important is the fact that the upswing in indie and small press publishing have brought back a lot of the sorts of books folks have been looking for and not finding. Science fiction, once viewed as the the very poor red-headed step-child of publishing has seen a number of indie authors not only making money but making good money writing space opera and military science fiction that celebrates things like honor and duty and gives the reader a story that takes them on a roller coaster of events and emotions. Sweet romances and those with just a hint of sex have returned to the scene and readers are celebrating because not everyone wants to have the down and dirty played out in graphic detail once, much less multiple times during the course of a book. They want the romance, that dance that sometimes goes awry before everything finally falls into place.
So, when I see articles like one that came across my feed this morning telling writers to write to the market, I frown and get ready to fisk the article. Most often, those articles tell you to look at the New York Times or USA best seller lists to determine what you should be writing. (Of course, those are also the articles that tell you you should be trying your best to be traditionally published before ever considering going the indie route.) My issue there is that those lists are not only manipulated by publishers and book sellers and determined by pre-orders and then by Bookscan numbers. Then there is the little fact that those lists are also completely at the whim of the publication putting them out. Remember how Ted Cruz was kept off the list for awhile because the publication in question accused him of bulk ordering his own book, or having others do it for him, thereby artificially inflating the numbers? Finally, after Cruz and his publisher as well as others came back and publicly denounced and denied the accusations, days later the publication allowed the book onto the list. (I won’t go into the possibly political reasons why the book was initially kept off the list).
However, when an article tells you to look at the Amazon best seller lists, I find myself agreeing, especially when you look at the sub-genre lists. Why? Because you are seeing what folks are buying in basically real time reports. Amazon updates those lists every hour or so. You can see what books and e-books readers want. That means if you want to write space opera, you can go to that list and see what sort of books are selling. You can even sample those books for free, no matter who the publisher is — unless, of course, the publisher has decided not to allow you to and that, usually, is a red flag for a bad book.
So, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that you can write to what is selling but that what’s selling now is a far cry from what traditional publishers want us to believe. Don’t give up writing that sweet romance or that cozy mystery where your heroine is chaste or whatever. There is probably someone out there wanting to read it. But, do your homework. Go to Amazon and check the genre and sub-genre lists. Just remember, the deeper into the breakdown of the lists, the easier it is to get listed in the top 100. Those books may not be selling more than a few a month.
However — and this is a big however — if you write a good yarn, if it is well edited and well formatted, if it has an interesting cover and blurb and if you tag it with the right meta tags AND IF YOU FOLLOW UP IN SHORT ORDER WITH THE NEXT BOOK IN THE SERIES OR ANOTHER IN THE SAME GENRE/SUB-GENRE the bigger the chance your sales will increase. It takes time but if you keep putting out quality work and keep rewarding your readers, you have a chance of building your readership. No guarantee but then there are very few guarantees in life, are there?
So go read a good book and write a better one.