When You Don’t Quite Fit #HNS2019

Alison Stuart, author of historical romance and the soon-to-release historical mystery, Singapore Sapphire, and three other authors—Lauren Willig, Deanna Raybourn, and Leanna Hieber—discussed the notion of carving out your niche in a crowded market. It was a lively session with lots of laughter.

Publishers and retailers love labels; but what do you do when what you write doesn’t fit neatly on the shelf …

Lauren Willig refers to her novels as “genre stew”, a combination of historical chick lit, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Deanna Raybourn used the phrase “magpies of the writers world” to describe her novels which are Victorian, romance, mysteries. And Leanna Hieber has coined a new phrase for her novels—gaslight fantasy—to describe their blend of historical fantasy, mystery, and gothic.

The group shared stories about their obstacles to publishing. Deanna said that she originally “didn’t know what she wanted to write” and stumbled around for years trying to fit until her agent told her to spend a year reading rather than writing. What she discovered during that time was that the stories she loved to read all included mysteries, had women in the lead role, and featured romance. Two years later, she sold a series of six books in one deal, her Julia Grey series.

Lauren sold her first novel just when cross-genre stories “became a thing.” She then experienced a problem because the genre lines tightened again. Lauren has discovered that readers enjoy a “modern frame story”, which is what she writes. She also told the audience that her publisher changed the cover of one of her novels from a historical fiction look to a romance look, when romance was hot and historical fiction wasn’t.

According to the panel, we should realize that publishers are organized by genre.

Each panelist offered advice for other authors:

Leanna: say yes to every opportunity and say yes to your voice.

Deanna: choose fear … choose the project you’re afraid of

Lauren: be flexible when you go to market; remember that the market is a strange beast and changes on a dime.

Alison: understand what your core story is, understand the market for that core story, and pitch to the right market.

The group said that historical fiction seems to be booming. Positioning your novel is key. For example, “Kate Morton” read alikes are selling. You can also position a novel by using a combination such as: Jane Austen meets James Bond.

Other posts on HNS2019:

Tips on Writing a Series and The State of Historical Fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Follow the Money

Follow the MoneyWhen big change happens in an industry – sometimes referred to as disruptive change – significant innovation is always involved. Think of the disruption digital photography has had on chemical based photography, or steamships had on sailing ships, or smartphones have had on traditional and mobile phones. Such disruptions affect all players in an industry along with the flows of money and profit.

Clayton M. Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, argues that established companies have great difficulty with disruption because their processes and values focus on evolutionary change and the very things that make them successful are at odds with disruptive innovation. Of course, publishing is no exception.

Industry statistics are confusing and often incomplete, but consider a few US stats included in a blog on The Future of Publishing, written by Thad McIlroy. (Some are a little dated, but I believe still relevant.)

  • Of more than 88,000 publishers in the US, nearly 68,000 had sales under $50,000 – a 2005 study. (Does this  mean there are a lot of publishers looking for good product? Or far too many publishers?)
  • The top 50 US publishing companies hold 80% of the market in terms of sales. (A huge portion of their revenue comes from established authors.)
  • And yet, more than 400,00 new titles were published in the US in 2007.  (Talk about competition! What other industry offers so many new products every year?)
  • Nearly half of all Americans aged 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure. (That’s zero, zip, nada, folks, and begs the question of what they are doing with their time. I suspect that one answer is social media.)
  • Between 1985 and 2005, average annual household spending on books declined 14%. (Averaging can be misleading. For example, this data said nothing about splits amongst hardcover, paperback or ebook spending.)

According to the authors of a JRC Technical Report on The Book Publishing Industry,

Digitization alters the legacy cost structure. Some costs disappear (printing, physical transportation, storage), some remain unaffected (creation, authors’ advances, editorial process, marketing and sales), some are shifted (e.g. promotion, with the coming of blogs and other tools) and some new ones also appear – mostly on the software side of the equation (computer programmes, file conversion, cataloguing and permitting search of text and metadata, storing, security, right management…).

This report went on to discuss the publishing industry value chain, noting:

One major feature on the creative side is that this creative workforce is usually not supported directly, at least on a regular basis by its main customer the publisher, a feature shared by other creative industries. The author appears to be more in the position of a supplier working under various contractual arrangements. They will receive in most cases royalties within the range of 7% to 15% of the list price set for the physical book.

An analysis of the French publishing industry workforce found that 12% are writers, while 69% are journalists and publishing executives. An interesting structural dynamic with significant impact on cost allocation.

Pubsoft, an organization with the mandate of ‘democratizing the ebook publishing world to the every day user’ suggests that “readers are the ones who determine what sells and what doesn’t. They want cheap, good stories. And they want them now. They don’t care how they get them.”

These are some of the many pressures facing the publishing industry, and it’s likely that someone has already articulated what I’m about to say, but I will say it anyway: Writers need to follow the money.

By following the money, both outflows and inflows, writers can adjust their approach to leverage today’s changed and changing environment.

  • Writing requires time. Time is ultimately money. The more you write (volume) and the better your writing becomes (quality), the more you can potentially earn. What are you doing to increase volume and quality?
  • Agents are paid by writers. Are agents gatekeepers to the publishing industry? Is your agent worth the money you spend? Can you get published, and protect your rights, without an agent?
  • Readers have lots of choice. Readers ultimately fund the industry. What are you doing to reach readers and build an audience? What about reaching younger consumers who don’t (currently) read books, although many read tweets and blogs and interact on Facebook?
  • Volume x Price = Sales Revenue. Publishers have traditionally paid around 10% royalty to authors for each book sold. What are you doing to increase the volume of sales for your books? What trade-off would make it worthwhile to take a different publishing path?

A few examples illustrate different approaches authors have and are taking (I originally pulled these examples together in 2012, and I am certain there are many more):

  • James Patterson adapted lessons from his career in advertising to create a mega-writing business that functions like a literary assembly line and generates revenues in excess of $100 million a year.
  • A. Konrath, author of popular detective stories, agreed a few years ago to publish his newest novel directly with Amazon. (He decided he could make more money that way.)
  • Less well established writers like Joanna Penn, who began her blog as part of a marketing strategy for her books, make money (in some cases more money) from their blogs as well as their novels.
  • James Redfield, author of the novel, The Celestine Prophecy, offers a chat forum for readers on his website and bi-weekly webcasts for his Global Prayer project. He began by self-publishing.
  • Terry Fallis published his first book, The Best Laid Plans, by podcasting it a chapter at a time. He built an audience and won Canada’s Stephen Leacock award for humour. His second novel, a sequel titled The High Road and published by McLelland & Stewart, has been released concurrently in podcast and book formats.

What are you doing to follow the money?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Publishing as a niche business – Part I

This is part of a post I wrote some time ago on One Writer’s Voice – my previous blog where I talked a lot about the ‘business of writing’. Since I seem to have attracted many authors to this blog, I thought I would publish it here on A Writer of History. I believe the ideas remain valid. But more importantly, what do you think?

Recently, on Steven Pressfield’s blog, I saw this comment: Publishing has always been in the niche business. I made a note to noodle on the comment to see if I could gain any insights for writers. After quite a bit of time reading other musings on niche business models and publishing business models, I found a few tidbits.

Tidbits to spark thinking

Over at SEOBOOK there’s a post titled Perceived Authenticity is Key to Profitable Niche Publishing Models and an interesting diagram linking dramatic market changes to the birth of the attention economy. Should probably be called the attention deficit economy.

Sarah Lacy at pandodaily offered Confessions of a Publisher: We’re in Amazon’s Sights and They’re Going to Kill Us with the following quote from an anonymous publisher:

“there’s a bidding war among the publishers over the big books. We all know what the good books are–it all comes down to how much of an advance we’re willing to pay for them. The hotly fought-for books are the ones that sell. And while we might not make huge profit % on these, we make big profit $ on these. They keep the lights on by covering overhead. Better to cover our fixed costs by going all in on a few big books than trying to buy dozens of mid-list books.”

Lacy’s anonymous publisher goes on to say that Amazon is deliberately keeping advances high which will bankrupt publishers.

I’m not trying to replicate what other extremely qualified folks have written on this matter, but it seems to be critical context.

As reported on The Scholarly Kitchen, another quote to muse on comes from Clay Shirky: Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.

I also found some thoughts on interconnectivity of today’s savvy consumers, a summary of Michael Porter’s thoughts on competitive advantage [his ideas stand the test of time] and a list of nine stable niche strategies.

Sounds like a witches brew doesn’t it?

Reflecting on these ideas:

Authenticity – what does or should authenticity mean to publishers? Various articles I’ve read suggest that publishers have to find ways to connect with consumers (and collect their data) in order to transition successfully and survive. Most consumers don’t care which organization publishes a book, they care about the value of a book’s content in terms they define such as entertainment, usefulness, empathy and so on. Oh, and they also care about price and ease of access to books. Building authenticity within a particular niche in the eyes of consumers (not retailers or distributors) could create a strategic advantage for a publisher.

Profit model – a business model where a few big sellers cover overhead costs for lots of books that do not break-even is unsustainable. Publishing isn’t the only industry where a few profitable customers or products cover up the flaws in a business. I’ve helped several organizations deal with the consequences of such a situation. But that very paralysis is driving more and more authors to self-publish or to find new ways to bring their content to market. And, if the anonymous publisher cited above is correct, Amazon is positioned to chip away at the best selling authors who sustain big publishers. And then where will the publishing industry be?

Abundance – creative content abounds. Creators (writers, poets, journalists, photographers, videographers, instructors etc.) are publishing content without charge or for such a modest charge (99 cent books on Amazon) that price is no longer a barrier. People can consume all day without cost on their laptops or mobile devices.

Attention Economy – as the diagram included on SEOBOOK says “all the rules for business growth, marketing effectiveness and personal performance have changed”. Mainstream brand affiliation is under attack. Growth can be explosive and unexpected. Finding ways to attract attention will be an important skill for authors and publishers.

Consumer interconnectivity – the networked economy enables consumer interconnectivity. This interconnectivity can create positive or negative effects for brands in an incredibly short space of time.

Competitive advantage – according to Michael Porter, businesses create competitive advantage through cost leadership, product differentiation, or focus. Trying to be all of these things to all segments is not a winning strategy.

Niche strategies – global consulting firm, A. T. Kearney, identified nine successful niche strategies (see bullets below). The challenge for established publishing houses would be to determine and act on a strategy that could set them apart. Authors should also think about their niche.

  • regional – a solid understanding of cutovers in a clearly defined regional market
  • target group – target certain customer segments and deliver personalized services, like Four Seasons hotels
  • product – a highly defined product niche
  • branding & lifestyle – examples such as Porsche and Mont Blanc create communities of dedicated customers who value the brand
  • speed & lightning consolidation – companies like Amazon or Facebook reshape a market, grow fast and cut out the current market leaders
  • innovation – companies define their niche in terms of innovative products
  • cooperation – small companies form alliances to compete against large scale leaders
  • market splitting – identify and exploit a weakness in the value chain of their industry
  • counter – these niche players identify and exploit a weakness in current sector leaders and force a game-changing strategy

Looking at the players and challenges in the industry

Publishing - a niche business

I updated this diagram from the one I produced in July 2012 – hence version 2.

Each player in the chain of bringing books to readers faces challenges. For example, authors are challenged because of the abundance of content/competitors, poor levels of remuneration and finding ways to connect with readers, publishers are challenged with profitability, authenticity in the eyes of readers, competitive advantage over other industry players and, because they have not interacted directly with consumers in the past, they are challenged with lack of consumer data. Each player has challenges, even readers are challenged to find the kind of quality they desire because of an abundance of product and an abundance of reviews.

More in my next post. I welcome your thoughts.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.