Deciding to self-publish fiction is full of thorny questions. I’ve asked myself tough questions at every stage of creating a novel. Now I ask these thorny questions as early as developing a concept for a new story. These are discussions you might have with your agent if you traditionally publish. As an indie, you have to force yourself to consider how the market will receive what you want to write.
It’s all about analyzing genres and readers and figuring out how your book fits in. When starting my novel #3, I had learned enough about marketing to ask myself some thorny questions. What category is this idea? I’d been in women’s fiction, but this new protagonist is a man! Also, he’s a time traveler. Am I writing science fiction or fantasy? What’s the difference? Do I change a him for a her? Here are a few of my Thorny Questions.
Thorny Question #1 — What if my story aims for a mainstream category?
I grew up wanting to write novels and poems. Mystery and fantasy were my first loves in fiction. As I wrote forward, penning six practice novels before really getting down to writing something that might fit into a market, I realized that what I love to read is a blend of commercial fiction categories: upmarket (book club) fiction with supernatural elements. Sometimes called magical realism, though the term can be limiting.
When I published my first novel, The Renaissance Club, my publisher stuck my book in Amazon’s Paranormal Romance category. Predictably, some readers complained that there was “too much art and history” in the book. I had been clueless about the issue of knowing where your story will fit best. I had signed with a publisher who was all-genre, and though my book was time travel, it was book club fiction. This publisher could in no way compete in that market.
Would I have written a different book – say, a paranormal romance? No way. It’s not me to write romance, though I write love stories. But romance fiction has a rigid formula, and I just don’t believe every love story must have a happy-ever-after ending. I believe that is itself fantasy. Every love story that lasts takes work. Thus, I write love stories best categorized in women’s fiction – another sub-classification of commercial fiction. And commercial fiction is the province of the Big Five publishers. Why? because they throw an insane amount of ad money into supporting those books. Small presses and self-publishers can’t easily compete. Or can they?
Thorny Question #2 – What if my story falls into a less popular genre?
So, I’m aiming for a category that isn’t popular among genre readers, and puts me up against Big Five ad budgets. Am I going to change what I want to write? I’m not that writer. I write because I want to live in a world I create for a year or so, and it’s going to be somewhat literary, involve history and probably art or science, and feature main characters who have a deeper philosophy or spiritual side than most heroines of romance, thriller, and fantasy. There are notable exceptions, but that’s where my interests all. So as a self-published author, I’m going to have to figure out how to slide sideways into some of Amazon’s popular categories through embracing niches and sub-genres. Writing with an eye to those markets, but keeping my interests and inclinations central.
Thorny Question #3 – What if write what I want — can I squeeze it into a popular genre?
I believe that you should never write a book that doesn’t fit your interests and your taste. Unless you have the goal of making tons of money – in which case you shouldn’t be reading this blog series – you’ll have to determine what your book needs to be about, the characters you’re drawn to, and the story that excites you. That’s the first step in being what I think of as a successful indie author, that is, a writer who gets to publish and sell the stories she or he loves.
Thorny Question #4 — How many books do I intend to write?
I’m 71, and I don’t know for sure how much time I have to write my books, the books from my heart. I also have a part-time day job and some investment income. That sounds too personal, but it’s a good example of how my situation determines which goals I can embrace. Above all, I want to write books like the ones that interest me. My fiscal goal for publishing is to spend no more than I make in royalties, year by year. If I have to invest up front in a book, I hope to do what’s necessary to market it well enough to make back my investment. A profit is icing on the cake of my hopes.
But if you’re in different circumstances, if you need to make money on your books, or even hope to make a living from fiction, you have to make a compromise. You have to write to market even more than I do.
Thorny question #5 – Is there a genre you’d never write, no matter how popular it is?
For me, it’s horror. I’m not that reader, and I can’t be that writer. I also read, but couldn’t write, romance. It’s too much of a fantasy to me, too soupy and unreal. So why do I read them? Pretty much only read upmarket romances with interesting characters and settings. But I’ll probably never write one. Thrillers are similar for me. Occasionally read a good one (especially if written by Kerry Lonsdale), but probably outside my wheelhouse.
Possible genres for me to try: mystery, historical, women’s fiction without speculative elements. I read all those and can see myself writing one or more in those categories. I even have a plot idea for a mystery!
Write me if you have thoughts about the Thorny Questions. I’d love to hear yours and your answers!