So, you have a concept of the tale you want to tell. Is the story truly of your own design? How can you ensure your book’s originality, while also making it similar enough to others in its genre for it to be compatible with your target readership? Your story can be unique and compelling without being genre-defying. There is a perfect balance between originality and writing content that readers want to consume, based on information gleaned from the book market. Here are five steps to keep in mind, both when coming up with your novel and as you write it:
1. Do your research
In the world of traditional publishing, the term comp titles (short for comparative titles) carries significant weight. When an editor pitches a title to a publisher, they are required in almost every case to present similar books that have been published successfully in recent years (generally dating back no more than 3-4 years). This gives the publisher an idea of where the title would fit in the market, as well as the potential revenue it could generate. Though comp titles are not officially part of the self-publishing process, THEY ABSOLUTELY SHOULD BE.
This is the kind of research I’m talking about, the very best kind: reading within your genre and knowing what is successful within your target market. You must stay up to date with bestsellers and successful titles in your genre and sub-genre. You must know where your book will fit into the market and who your readers would be. Though no one has the time to read every top seller out there, that is where book blurbs and synopses come in. Some important North American bestseller lists to keep your eye on are generated by: The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, USA Today, LA Times, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. If you’re not finding many titles in your category on the bestseller lists, turn to more specific Google searches like ‘best books about family sagas’. Where there is the internet, there are always book lovers generating specific lists such as these.
However, there is little point in doing research if you don’t know what you’re looking for. By staying up to date, I’m not simply referring to being aware of what other authors are writing about. This kind of research involves taking note of characters, setting, themes, symbolism, motifs, plot, points of view, language and meaning, structure. When reading a title in your genre, you should be making reflections on all these elements as part of your analysis of a book’s success. You can learn a lot from professional review publications and the literary analyses they provide. If the thought of literary analysis seems daunting to you, take a course in literary analysis. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers a variety of English courses for free, and same goes for Reedsy with writing and publishing courses.
2. Reflect on your findings
Based on your research, identify what is trending and hot in your genre. Trends are crucial, folks. Rupi Kaur released her internationally bestselling book of modern poetry Milk and Honey in 2014. Since then, there has been an explosion of short illustrated poem books on the market. Remember what happened after Twilight was released? Vampires, vampires vampires. Everywhere. Literarily. Everywhere. Werewolves were introduced in the second book, and then what happened? Furry wolf monsters appeared throughout bookstores far and wide.
If I just made you picture werewolves by the masses roaming through bookstores, I apologize (sort of). You see my point. You want to play into these trends without being just another fur monster collecting dust on the shelves. That is not to say that books about vampires and werewolves cannot be successful. These are just some fantasy subjects that are more difficult to stand out in, but who doesn’t love a challenge? Pay special attention to reader reviews of the books in your genre. GoodReads features particularly thoughtful reflections from readers. I have seen avid readers write such in-depth reviews that they belong in a review publication. For each title you analyze, what do readers consistently rave about? What are they not so crazy about? Note other writers’ triumphs and be wary of their mistakes. Though you too shall make mistakes. Hooray for editors working their magic on drafts.
3. Find the missing link
Through your reflections, you should now have an idea of what is overdone in your genre. If you still want to pursue a topic or concept that has been done many times before, you have to figure out how you can make it your own. If you cannot find a way to make it new in some way, if there are no new elements to add, what does that tell you? No author wants to be given a review ‘been there, done it before’. You may have to go back to the drawing board, but is that not vastly better than publishing content that readers deem unoriginal?
Conversely, you will now have an idea of what has not been given enough attention in your genre. Therein lies an exciting prospect just waiting to be written about. Perhaps you find a subject that readers responded very well to in only a handful of books. It is a solid subject, yet not enough authors have written about it. Enter you. Sunflowers Under Fire by Diana Stevan is an indie title that stood out this year, as a Finalist for the 2019 Whistler Independent Book Awards:
In this family saga, love and loss are bound together by a country always at war. In 1915, Lukia Mazurets, a Ukrainian farmwife, delivers her eighth child while her husband is serving in the Tsar’s army. Soon after, she and her children are forced to flee the invading Germans. Over the next fourteen years, Lukia must rely on her wits and faith to survive life in a refugee camp, the ravages of a typhus epidemic, the Bolshevik revolution, unimaginable losses, and one daughter’s forbidden love.
Why it stands out: Much of WWI fiction take place in Britain and France. Titles featuring this era that are published in North America focus on the Allied perspective. The author is contributing to an underrepresented topic, in this case, the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the experiences of women and their families in Ukraine during the war.
Why it resonates: Diana Stevan recreates the stories passed down by her grandmother. The true-to-life elements of her novel contribute to its ability to move readers. Sunflowers Under Fire features the meaningful lives of refugees. Given the ongoing experiences of refugees across the globe — displacement, escape from violence, personal trauma — this topic is as relevant than ever. Stevan sheds light on history and events that occurred over a century ago, those which mirror elements of our own world.
4. Keep saleability in mind
Publishing is not solely about writing where your heart takes you. There are many elements that contribute to a novel’s ‘sell’ factor. Reflect on these questions:
- Who will buy this book and why? What will readers get out of it? If you cannot answer these questions, take some time to really understand what you wish to convey in your novel and why what you are writing about matters.
- Refer to sales rankings for similar books on Amazon. How are these titles selling? How many are there? Too many titles and it will be difficult for your book to stand out. Too few means that the market for your book is likely small. That is not to say that you cannot write for a niche market, but you must recognize how that factors into sales.
- Are you qualified to write about the topic you are pursuing? This question applies to those wishing to write non-fiction subjects like parenting or weight loss tips, realistic historical or political fiction, etc. If you do not have extensive experience or an academic background in a subject, even endorsement from a professional may not be enough.
- Do you have a well-thought out marketing plan? Without one, it will be almost impossible differentiating your book from the 500,000+ titles published annually in Canada and the United States alone. On your publication date, you want your book to go out with a bang! Check out marketing tips at the Kobo Writing Life Help Centre.
Title and Cover Saleability
Titles are tricky and it can be a lot of pressure coming up with the right one. The same goes for deciding on the right cover. The best titles and covers are not necessarily the most accurate representations of your book. Take this mini case-study on The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith:
Amsterdam, May 1943. As the tulips bloom and the Nazis tighten their grip across the city, the last signs of Dutch resistance are being swept away. Marijke de Graaf and her husband are arrested and deported to different concentration camps in Germany. Marijke is given a terrible choice: to suffer a slow death in the labour camp or—for a chance at survival—to join the camp brothel. On the other side of the barbed wire, SS officer Karl Müller arrives at the camp hoping to live up to his father’s expectations of wartime glory. But faced with a brutal routine of overseeing executions and punishments, he longs for an escape. When he encounters the newly arrived Marijke, this meeting changes their lives forever.
I had the pleasure of meeting debut author Ellen Keith last year. I asked Ellen if her publisher, Harper Collins, changed anything about her book after it was written. The publisher recommended that the title be changed to reflect market trends. Novels with the term ‘wife’ were found to be very appealing to her target readership. It is not a coincidence that these traditionally published bestsellers have their titles: The Secret Wife by Gill Paul, The Winemaker’s Wife by Kristin Harmel, The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain.
The novel’s cover is also not the most accurate representation of the story. In the opening pages, Marijke is arrested in Amsterdam and spends virtually her entire plotline in Buchenwald concentration camp. Harper Collins had the cover designed based on trends of similar WWII-era bestsellers. The Dutch Wife is a dark novel categorized as a historical thriller. With the exception of a few Nazi flags, it looks like the book could be a historical romance. The picturesque setting of Amsterdam is designed to capture the reader’s interest, while the book description clarifies what the story is about.
Without a marketing and design team at our disposal, self-published authors conduct this research themselves. Look up comparative covers and you will certainly recognize visual trends in your category. Kobo recommends Damonza for professional and affordable cover design. Reedsy and Indie Book Launcher offer helpful tips on coming up with a title for your novel.
5. Step out of your comfort zone
Take all this information and rather than feel overwhelmed, view it as a challenge! Even the most accomplished authors are constantly learning. When writing your story, do not simply skip past elements that you find difficult. If you’re writing about family dysfunction, you cannot shy away from explosive dialogue, or passive aggressiveness, or altercations. Mysteries are not effective without false herrings or unexpected twists. If you’re writing Sci-Fi, you do have to provide some sort of explanation as to why your character has supernatural abilities (otherwise you’re writing fantasy). If you feel out of your depth, take a writing course or attend a workshop!
Your favorite authors are your silent mentors. There is so much to learn from them and content to be inspired by, all contained within their books. Every indie author is in new territory — self-publishing as an industry only began ten years ago. We are all on the frontier and all wish for one another to succeed. With that in mind, do not be shy to reach out to other self-published authors online and at conferences. Join writer forums and connect with like-minded individuals. Use the hashtag #amwriting to engage with the indie author community. Though writing is a solitary pursuit, you are never alone!
Amy is the Author Engagement Intern for KWL. She comes up with creative blog content related to the craft and business of self-publishing, book news, and more. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.