There are lots of reasons why self-publishing success stories tend to concentrate around writers of “genre” fiction, but it’s a mistake to assume that success is impossible if you write literary fiction or historical fiction (which tends to get lumped in with literary fiction, even though it’s just another genre… like literary fiction!).
The first is demographics: romance and erotica readers were the first to switch to digital, followed by mystery and thriller fans, leading to the success stories of Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, and John Locke.
I remember SF/F authors complaining (back in 2011) that their readers hadn’t switched to e-books yet, casting jealous eyes at the outsized romance audience. But as readers did move across, we saw people like David Dalglish and BV Larson breaking out, and the rest of “genre” fiction soon followed.
The rise of “genre” self-publishing was also aided by the mistreatment of the midlist by large publishers: falling advances, worsening terms, and the shifting of the marketing burden onto the author’s shoulders. With bigger names jumping ship and striking out on their own, the increasing selection of quality self-published books at very low prices (and often exclusively available as e-books) acted as a strong pull factor for readers of genre fiction to switch to digital.
Non-fiction has been slower to go digital for a few reasons. First, technical limitations of e-book formats and the devices themselves have made the digitization of anything other than straight narrative text troublesome – even the minor technical challenge posed by something like footnotes has yet to be resolved in a satisfactory way.
On top of that, non-fiction authors tend to be treated a little better by publishers, especially in terms of advances – so there’s less of a push factor encouraging authors to self-publish. This means less big name authors dragging print readers to digital with low prices and digital exclusivity, and, thus, a smaller reader pool for non-fiction self-publishers.
The case of historical fiction and literary fiction is a little different. Weak digital sales from large publishers, and the relative lack of self-publishing success in these genres, has led some to worry about the future. But I think something else is going on here.
While literary fiction is a small genre compared to something like romance, and while historical fiction is a smaller genre (in relative terms) than it is in the UK, and while readers of both have been slower to move to digital, there is a large market there. It’s just tricky to reach.
Historical fiction and literary fiction don’t have the same book blog ecostructure as other genres. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any influential reviewers on Goodreads whose rating will lead to a sales spike. And many ad sites will warn that their audiences don’t go for those books in the same numbers.
But the market is there, as proved by the ability of BookBub to shift huge numbers of literary and historical novels. Even more striking is the effect of Amazon’s spotlight. Last summer, a backlist book from Iris Murdoch – not the most commercial of writers – hit #5 in the overall Kindle Store, on the back of a price promotion by its publisher (Open Road) allied with a Kindle Daily Deal.
What does this prove? There are less discoverability pathways for readers in those genres, but the readers are there, as proved by how the (very) few venues for visibility tend to outperform expectations.
This situation was greatly exacerbated by the very structure of the Amazon store. Popular genres like thrillers or romance are broken down into further sub-categories leading to granular classifications like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Conspiracies or Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Paranormal > Werewolves & Shifters.
The reason why this is important is that each of those granular sub-categories has its own Top 100 list, Hot New Releases list, Popularity list and Top Rated list.
Each of those lists are both visibility opportunities for authors and discoverability pathways for readers. Those lists allow authors to gain momentum on a less competitive chart, and then bootstrap themselves up to play with the bigger names. They allow authors to grow and they allow readers to discover books they otherwise wouldn’t.
The problem with historical and literary fiction was that, until recently, there were no sub-categories for those genres. This meant that authors had to be selling 50 or 60 copies a day to even hit the back of the respective Top 100 – which most authors might be able to achieve during a promotion or new release, but would struggle to maintain outside of that on a single title.
Sub-categories can also act as a parachute after a sales spike, slowing the inevitable decay, and perhaps giving you a chance to catch a second wind from readers who stalk the lists looking for new books. And, of course, it’s not just about Best Seller lists. Hot New Releases lists for each sub-category give new books great visibility opportunities. Top Rated lists afford readers’ favorites free advertising. And Popularity lists can (or at least did) turn successful free runs into paid sales.
I’ve been pressing Amazon (along with 1,000 other authors I’m sure) to expand the list of sub-categories, particularly for historical fiction, which was a mess of 25,000 wildly different books, with fairly obvious dividing lines.
Well, Amazon has delivered. Historical fiction now has twenty-five subcategories and literary fiction has sixteen (see the left-hand sidebar). On top of that, they have added additional filters for the Popularity list (left-hand sidebar, scroll down), where readers can segregate books based on time period.
Authors can put their books in the respective sub-categories by selecting the top-level category in KDP (i.e. historical fiction or literary fiction) then adding keywords from this list for the respective sub-category. (Note: that list is incomplete, and you may have to do a little experimenting with keyword choices to get into the sub-category you need.)
This is fantastic news for authors and readers. If you write literary fiction or historical fiction, life just got a hell of a lot easier. And it’s a big boon to readers too, who have sub-categories that reflect their interests, and who will, as a result, see a lot more churn on those lists, introducing them to new books instead of the same old stuff.
I re-categorized my historical novel last week, and I’ve already seen an uptick in sales (from moribund to signs of life). But the real test will be when I run a promo this coming weekend. What I hope to see is that the wider category footprint the book now has will both add to the sales spike on the way up, and slow it’s descent on the way down – but I’ll let you know how it goes.
For writers of other genres, keep an eye on your categories. Amazon seems to be in the middle of a revamp of the whole system. I noticed new sub-categories in other genres too, like Women’s Fiction and Contemporary Fiction as well as additional sub-categories in already well-served genres like Thrillers.
Check your genres, and make sure you are in the most granular (suitable!) sub-category for each title. And kudos to Amazon for listening.
Let’s Get Visible Paperback Release
If you want to know more about the importance of categories, how these various lists work, how you can position your book to take advantage of the Amazon algorithms, and how to put together a marketing plan to maximize your sales, I’ve written a whole book on the topic – Let’s Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books.
I know some of you have been waiting for the paperback, and the good news is that it is now on sale at Amazon. UK peeps can grab a copy here, and it should appear on other retailers (like Barnes & Noble and The Book Depository) pretty soon.
And apologies for the delay.