Part II: The Ultimate Guide to Market Research

Welcome to Part II of our book marketing guide. Here’s a brief recap of the most important points in Part I:

  • Business comes down to two things: strategy (your system/plan) and execution (actually implementing that system)
  • This guide is your book marketing system. It will also help you with execution through the exercises and in Part 6, which explains how to set effective goals and plans.
  • The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + newsletter + great covers/blurbs + consistent new series novel releases of 60,000+ words (4+/year) = full time author

We’re on the first, and most important, component of the book marketing formula: genre research. I use the terms “genre” and “market” research interchangeably. The reason I use the slightly awkward sounding “genre research” is simple: the book market at large is a little too wide to set our sights on. Most of your research will be in a specific genre or sub-genre, each of which will have different expectations and quirks.

Some genres do better wide (that is, when you publish your books at all retailers). Others have a voracious Kindle Unlimited readership. The expectations of cyberpunk differ from space opera, although both exist under the sci-fi umbrella. Such differences might seem granular, but they are actually massive. If you are new to book marketing, some poking around in Amazon’s charts will reveal how each little sub-genre is its own ecosystem.

As such, this section will not explain what genres are hot right now, or which are popular with certain readerships. Such information would be outdated within the month. What I will instead do is supply you with the tools necessary to do your own market research. Thus, you can analyze a vast array of markets with ease and generate your own up-to-the-minute analysis whenever you so choose.

In Part II, we’ll cover:

  • The two types of “writing to market” and why this is not a new concept
  • Reader expectations and how to identify them
  • Why positioning your book properly is critical to standing out in a crowded market place
  • How to start building a sustainable, long-term author brand

I Thought Marketing Was Just About Buying Ads

This is a common mistake.

Marketing and advertising (or promotion) are often used as interchangeable synonyms. However, they are not; advertising is a subset of marketing – which is a much larger beast indeed. The reason this matters is simple: many creative types harbor a severe aversion to paid advertising, thumbing their noses at it.

However, even if you have little money or a severe, incurable aversion to paid advertising, you can still do a lot of good marketing. In fact, the most important marketing happens before you write a word (the market research we’ll talk about in this section).

As we’ll find, marketing encompasses everything from the book’s description (called the blurb), to the market research you do to identify who would want to buy it; it involves the packaging (the cover art), building a platform of engaged fans (usually via an email list) and getting the word out to people who might buy the book. Even if you’re the most anti-commercial person in the world, if you told a single person about your book – a friend, maybe – you engaged in marketing.

Everyone, then, is a marketer. Some people are just bad at it. This is not cause for alarm, as we all struggle in the beginning. Unless you insist on never improving, that is – in which case, your chances of success plummet somewhere around zero. Which aspects of marketing you focus on is largely up to you, although this guide will strongly urge you to hone the fundamentals. Given time, you can get better, and improve bad marketing efforts into good ones.

Honing the fundamentals builds synergy, where the sum of the marketing parts is far greater than the whole. This demands practice. But building this suite of skills is well worth the trouble.

And now, let’s begin with the first part of our Ultimate Book Marketing formula: genre research, and what it is.

Component #1: Genre Research = Write to Market, Right?

Yes and no.

“Writing to market” is a dirty concept to some. For the uninitiated, it means heading over to Amazon, browsing the genres and actively writing/designing your book to appeal to specific sub-genres. This sounds like some wildly new concept. But it’s really just writing commercial fiction aimed at a preexisting audience.

Genre/market research – or writing to market, if you prefer – is about understanding genre tropes and expectations. Genre fiction makes up the bulk of novels sold. Think romance, thrillers, cozy mysteries, urban fantasy, military sci-fi and so forth. These genres & sub-genres all have established fan bases that want certain things from their books. As an author, your job is to deliver this expected experience in a satisfying and delightful way. To do so, you need to understand what makes a thriller different than a romance.

The major genres are as follows:

  • Romance
  • Thriller
  • Mystery
  • Crime
  • Sci-Fi
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Western
  • Literary

A genre is not homogeneous. All sci-fi readers are not seeking the same experience; cyberpunk (Blade Runner, Snow Crash, The Matrix, Deus Ex) is a different sub-genre than space opera/military sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, The Expanse, Dune, Foundation). Study what makes Snow Crash (cyberpunk) a different reading experience than The Expanse (space opera), despite sharing some tropes – or a billionaire romance different from a bad boy rock star one. In many instances, this is an emotional feeling, rather than “include tropes X, Y & Z.” You can identify these differences by reading the reviews, studying the blurbs and analyzing the covers – but the best method is reading books from your sub-genre’s Top 100 list.

That’s all there is to understanding your genre.

Still not convinced this process is necessary?

Selling authors have done this for over a hundred years. They will do it for a hundred more, long after your books are forgotten. If you are going to write a romance, understand what readers expect. Thriller? Understand what those readers expect. Want to mash up the two genres into romantic suspense? Fine – understand which elements must be present to craft a satisfying cocktail.

Then retire to your writing lab and execute it.

How Many Expectations Do I Need to Hit?

Too often I see writers using the “I wanna write the book of my heart” refrain as a lazy excuse to not understand their chosen genre. These same folks tend to whine about how readers don’t buy their books. You can lampshade tropes, break expectations and turn genres on their head once you understand the rules and boundaries of your chosen genre(s) – e.g. Firefly, which is a space opera western.

In the immortal words of Charlie Parker: Master the instrument, master the music and then forget all that shit and just play.

But mastery comes first.

You earn the right to “just play” by immersing yourself in your chosen genre. Some authors understand this intuitively, from having read dozens or hundreds of books in a specific category over the years. If you have mainstream tastes, you’ve often absorbed the expectations & tropes of mainstream genre fiction through osmosis because you’ve read so much of it. Others, like me, had to actively study their chosen sub-genre.

Some authors avoid doing genre research because they believe it sentences them to a slow, boring death of hackneyed tropes and formulaic writing. As we’ve already discussed, however, understanding your target market actually frees you to exercise more creativity and really stand out in your genre.

There are two basic approaches to successfully writing genre fiction:

Writing to genre/market: writing a book in a well-defined genre/sub-genre, using many of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. E.g. disaster fiction, urban fantasy, paranormal romance

Writing to trend: writing a book in a well-defined sub-genre that’s currently hot & selling well, using all of the tropes, expectations and common characters within. Trend books are often laser-targeted toward a very specific sub-genre (in a popular larger genre) that has suddenly grown to a size that outstrips normal demand. Often they’re simply sub-genre books that are enjoying a sudden swell of popularity. E.g. Navy Seal romance, billionaire bear shifter romance, tough guy urban fantasy

To beat a dead horse: You must understand your genre and audience’s expectations. The most critical marketing comes before you write a single word. Marketing a weird, left-of-center book is a Sisyphean task. This is an issue of craft, too. Plotting techniques integral to thrillers will ruin romances. Genre expectations – and even many sub-genres – differ substantially from one another. Contrary to the misguided beliefs of struggling artistes everywhere, studying genre tropes is not optional.

Imagine ordering a lobster in a restaurant, only to be given flounder. Would you accept the chef’s “innovation” or explanation that they’re both “seafood”? Absolutely not – you’d never eat there again. This is what you’re doing when, say, you don’t include a happily ever after (HEA) in a book marketed as a romance. A reader ordered lobster, but you delivered flounder. Maybe the flounder was delicious. Doesn’t matter; you broke the implicit promise your cover/blurb made.

There is a point where the tailoring becomes so extreme, however, that you sacrifice long-term sales for short-term gain. This is writing to trend: searching for hot genres and then writing tropes exclusively the way people like them now. This is often what authors envision when you mention “market research”: checklists of tropes, recycled characters and generally indistinguishable books. Such titles are generally churned out as pulp commodities to capitalize on a sudden spike in reader interest. People’s broader tastes don’t change much (romance has been around for almost two centuries), but sub-genres fall in and out of favor rapidly. By focusing only on these tropes, your book will sink when that sub-sub-genre is no longer hot.

Weigh the pluses and minuses and factor in your writing speed when making a decision. Writing to trend demands fast releases, but it’s the quickest way to go from zero to making a living. Writing to genre allows more creative latitude and is a better path to building a long-term, non-commoditized brand. I think you’re best off somewhere in the middle (although hewing toward the “write to genre” end of the spectrum): where you’re writing in a genre with current commercial appeal, but which has also held readers’ interest for, say, longer than the past ten minutes.

And, finally, you should always strive to find the intersection between what you enjoy writing – and write well – and what readers will buy. Because consistent production is difficult when you dread heading over to the keyboard.

How to Do Market Research

With market research, you’re really trying to answer a single question: who is my target audience? Who’s going to buy the first ~1000 copies of this book?

This question is best answered prior to writing, as usually the answer for most first novels (or fifth novels) is “no one” or its corollary, “people who like to read.”

Market research can be performed for free, right on Amazon. Yes, it sounds boring. But it tends to be enlightening and interesting. No, even if you hate it, market research still is not optional. An hour up front can save you hundreds of frustrating hours on the back end, which I feel is a pretty good trade. Even if you already have a book available, go through these steps. You’ll often find that your book is under-performing not because it sucks, but because your cover and blurb are off-base. Or you’ve placed your work in the wrong category. Or, well, you’ve created a book that has no target market – or a tiny market.

In short, market research entails:

  1. Research your genre on the Kindle Bestseller charts. This tells you what readers are purchasing right now: they are voting with their dollars that they want books with these covers, blurbs and tropes. This is the most unbiased form of market research, and it’s available for free.
  2. Drill down to your sub-genre (e.g., romance is a genre; paranormal romance is a sub-genre) and examine the covers, blurbs and other patterns. Note the differences – some are mere outliers (or misclassified), but others provide insight into untapped markets.
    • Exclude books riding a recent promotional wave. You can generally screen these out because they’re $0.99.
  3. Assess how well this sub-genre is selling and the level of competition/saturation. Do this by writing down the ranks of the #1 book, #5, #10, #20 & #50. Everything between 1 – 10,000? Good opportunity to carve out a full-time living. Everything between 1 – 5,000? Getting quite competitive. Between 1 – 2,000? Hyper competitive.
  4. Determine whether this sub-genre can support your financial goals (pro, part-time).
  5. Determine whether you can realistically break into the Top 20/100 given your current resources. Garnering visibility in a highly competitive sub-category like contemporary romance costs significantly more than in, say, steampunk. Of course, the latter has a much lower monthly revenue ceiling.
    • Breaking into the Top 20/Top 100 of your sub-genre is not the be-all, end-all of success. It is just a metric to analyze competitiveness. For example, if you only have the financial resources for a $50 promo push, it’s hard to gain any real visibility in contemporary romance due to the big, well-entrenched players and dozens of daily releases. Expecting immediate success, thus, would be foolish. But you can employ the principles of kaizen and compound interest to build toward the author platform/resources you need to compete.
    • Assess the sub-genre’s market dynamics: how frequently do the top authors publish? What’s the expected word count?
    • Finally, determine whether your voice and production speed are a good fit for the sub-genre. If your strength is writing hyper-snarky first person POV, then contemporary romance is probably a poor fit. But chick-lit could work well.
  6. Write down ten indie authors and ten traditionally published authors in the sub-genre.

Researching your target market up front will give you a good idea of how to best position your book. If you haven’t written it yet, it also gives you the opportunity to incorporate elements of a less-competitive sub-genre (e.g. dark fantasy) without ruining your book’s appeal to a broader sub-genre (urban fantasy). Doing this cleverly can enhance your organic visibility on Amazon by increasing your book’s cross-genre appeal.

To beat this horse’s bones into dust: research is not optional. As an author, you are a service provider – and your job is to provide entertainment. It is not entertaining for a reader to pick up a space opera, only to find that it’s a philosophical treatise on the merits of dust. This is a bad product, and your reviews will reflect as such. Some authors have done this research through years of reading their sub-genre, which means they intuitively grasp the beats, tropes and expectations of the target market. Others have to sit down and actively study it.

As already stated, I was part of the latter group. There is no shame in that; we all come to this game with different skills and experiences. You can close any deficiencies in genre knowledge merely by reading and studying what others are doing.

If you find the thought of tailoring your art to fit audience expectations/popular demand abhorrent, market research is still massively helpful. Why? The absence of certain types of fiction/characters/plots on a sub-genre’s Top 100 list can signal gaps that you and your fickle muse can fill. This is risky, as often what doesn’t appear is simply unpopular or not in demand. However, there are sub-genres with once-popular tropes/plots that have fallen out of trad-pub favor or disappeared from the marketplace (e.g. classic pulp adventures). Likewise, there are sub-genres with a few popular, breakout titles, a devoted fanbase, but very limited commercial success for the non-breakout titles (pure cyberpunk comes to mind). If you identify a way to position your novel as the next Snow Crash, Neuromancer or Ready Player One, then you can ride off into the sunset in your gold-plated Camaro.

Of course, doing that is far easier said than done.

Neither of those genres are writing suggestions; my attempt at writing a classic pulp adventure series was an abysmal commercial failure. If you’re adept, you can see opportunity in the market gaps. Most authors are better served coloring within the lines, however, at least at first.

Ultimately, the key question is this: what is my core reading demographic searching for? What do they want to feel? James Bond, Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne are all trained killers, but they feel different. The reading demographic has a ton of overlap, to be sure, but the takeaway experience from each is different. James Bond has an aristocratic, escapist elegance; Jack Reacher is an imposing physical presence and eternal wanderer; Jason Bourne is an improviser and master of his environment.

These distinctions might strike you as granular, but they’re critical – not just for selling books, but for writing good ones that resonate. Try to understand the principle behind why a hero is dark and brooding, or a wanderer, or an aristocrat – what emotional hot button that presses in your target demographic – rather than blindly copying a trope.

Important: Amazon’s charts are skewed toward the preferences of Kindle Unlimited subscribers. For new & unestablished authors, Kindle Unlimited is the best way to generate visibility (as well as money). But it’s important to understand that genre preferences vary across retailers, so if you’re going wide, then repeat this exercise with each retailer. For a more general snapshot, use Facebook Audience Insights, which are free if you use Facebook Ads.

Facebook also gives you valuable demographic insights into your target audience – everything from age to gender to income. Generally, only the age and gender are useful for our purposes, although you might discover otherwise. One interesting thing you’ll find is that the Kindle audience is 88% female; BookBub’s audience is 90% female. A substantial portion of your audience, regardless of sub-genre, will be women. This is especially true in romance, where 99%+ of the readership is female.

Naturally, large demographics like “men” and “women” are anything but homogeneous. The goal isn’t to classify all readers of the same gender as identical in taste/preference – that would be ridiculous. Rather, the question you should ask in light of such data is this: what is a man/woman who likes Urban Fantasy looking for? How might their favorite characters, plotlines and themes might vary? What type of covers/blurbs/marketing do they respond to? By including certain elements (or excluding others), you can broaden the appeal of your work.

Which Market Should I Choose?

If you’ve done the exercise above, you should have some market candidates. But let’s drill into this on a more philosophical level.

This guide is designed to be somewhat paint-by-numbers. But if you can infuse the exercises with a sliver of free will and pinch of rational thought, you immediately separate yourself from the pack.

I find that many authors simply copy what others have done or gravitate toward what’s hot. I’m as guilty as anyone of this; I chose urban fantasy because a number of indie authors were breaking out in the genre. In retrospect, however, it would have been wise to comb Amazon’s charts for less saturated alternatives. This is not a moral or creative issue so much as purely a business one; there are voracious market niches with less competition than urban fantasy.

Legendary copywriter Gary Halbert once said that the most important thing in business is finding a starving crowd: a group of people who desperately want what you’re offering because no one else is giving it to them. In such instances, concerns like quality and advertising are less important – the crowd is hungry, and it will devour anything on the market.

A current example is LitRPG, a fledgling sub-genre which is trending toward saturation. Indeed, by the time you read this, it might already be over-run (such is how fast the indie landscape shifts). But, right now, one can launch a book with a substandard cover and minimal advertising into the Top 5000, simply because the readership is voracious and the supply of LitRPG is still (relatively) low. In indie author terms, this is what’s known as an “underserved niche.” There are many sub-genres that have been long ignored by traditional publishing. These have flourished in the indie world.

Of course, in broad, popular genres that are “saturated,” there are often hidden starving crowds. Many readers are sick of lame stock characters and plots of convenience. How do you design a book that will appeal to these underserved consumers? You read the Amazon reviews of popular books – positive and negative. Find what those popular books are lacking, and then bake that into your own to position yourself as an alternative to the commoditized masses (more on that below).

To reiterate the word of warning above: I see far too many authors trying to hop on what is hot at the moment, giving their long-term brand little analysis. The problem with seeking quick hits is this: if you have a disjointed backlist, or no backlist (because you’ve started five or six different pen names), then that single hit does you little good. It generates very little sell-through from those who picked up your breakout. And when the spotlight fades, your platform and brand is right where it started – back near flatline levels.

The more obvious problem is this: if you’re constantly hopping genres, it’s hard to get a feel for what truly matters to a genre’s fans. You never develop a mastery of the sub-genre, nor do you hone a distinct voice. On the other hand, if you have a solid author brand, a modest hit can elevate your career to substantial new heights. But, best of all, you don’t need to rely on luck at all: there are no hits required. Instead, each person who buys one book is gently encouraged to pick up the others, because the writing, packaging and other marketing elements indicate they can expect a similar experience.

In my case, I’d written fifteen science fiction novels of various stripes and lengths before jumping ship to urban fantasy. The latter turned out to be a much, much better fit for my writing style and voice. In the end, my somewhat hasty decision to write a one-off series has paid dividends. But there are two important factors to note: one, I’d given science fiction a good run. And two, I didn’t repeat the same mistakes in the new sub-genre.

Positioning: How to Build an Author Brand in Your Niche

Ultimately, the goal of market research is not to create a homogeneous, cookie-cutter product. Once you understand your audience, you can craft marketing materials that position your books uniquely within your sub-genre. Thus, proper market research allows you to craft a distinct author brand. However, we don’t create our author brand using the same methods as Coca-Cola. We don’t have millions of dollars for branding campaigns that go up in Times Square or air during prime time TV. In recent years, direct marketers have started to preach the “brand advertising is dead” mantra. I wouldn’t go this far; the marketing people at Coke or Apple are not morons.

However, as indie authors, we do not have the funds for large-scale, mass-media awareness campaigns. But we can still develop our brand. What is a brand, after all? A brand is a promise of a consistent customer experience. You know exactly what you’re getting from Starbucks – whether it’s located in London, Tokyo, Sydney or Seattle.

Likewise, your name at the bottom of the cover implicitly promises a certain type of reading experience. It can be a very specific genre experience – fast-paced thrillers with hard-nosed, broken protagonists – or a more general emotional experience (e.g. “speculative fiction that makes you think”). The heart of your brand is your unique selling proposition (USP). A classic USP example is Domino’s famous “30 minutes or less” guarantee. In the indie realm, a USP is something your books offer that no other author does.

In other words, getting to the heart of your brand is as simple (and difficult) as answering this question: what makes your books distinct?

A few ways to jumpstart the brainstorming process:

  • Analyze your favorite fiction, particularly that which has stuck in your mind for months or years. The elements drawing you to these books, movies and shows are likely present within your own work.
  • Read other books in your sub-genre. Read their reviews/comments. How do yours differ?
  • Read your reviews/comments.
  • Survey your readers.

The easiest way to convey your USP is by becoming adept at writing catchy taglines and hooks. A proper tagline will not only sell the individual book, but will also immediately signal your author brand – e.g. what to expect from your work – without a prospective buyer even looking at another title in your catalog.

We’ll discuss this in greater depth in Part IV, since your USP/hook is an integral part of blurb writing. But, for now, consider what makes your books and author brand distinct. The honest answer might be nothing – in which case you’ll have to develop this uniqueness. If this is so, reflect upon what you’d like your author brand to be – and what you must do to close the gap between that destination and your current reality.

What’s Next?

We’ll cover how to promote your books and maximize the effects in Part III: The Ultimate Guide to Promotion. Before continuing, I’d recommend doing the Action Steps below – because using information is infinitely better than tucking it away for a rainy day.

Summary

  • Genre research is critical. If you mess up your book’s genre/sub-genre targeting, there is often no return.
  • Brand: a promise of a consistent customer experience.
  • USP: what’s your book’s hook? what do you offer as an author that no one else can?

Action Steps

  1. Research your sub-genre on the Amazon bestseller charts (nicholaserik.com/top100).
    • Write down the ranks of the #1, #5, #10, #20 and #50 book in two sub-genres that fit your series.
    • Write down ten indie authors and ten traditionally published authors who represent your target market (e.g. authors who can realistically complete the statement, my book is for fans of [Author X]).
    • Write down character names instead, if the character is more recognizable than the author.
    • You’ll use this list for PPC (pay-per-click) ad targeting, the blurb, cover inspiration and more down the line, so save it.
  2. Craft 3 taglines for your author brand.