How I Performed Hara-Kiri
On My Career
And How You Can Avoid Disembowelment As An Author
The general message of this post, originally, was “stay in your niche!” as genre-hopping was almost the kiss of death. But that was long before indie publishing came along. It was also before concepts such as 1,000 True Fans and building your tribe became more than neat ideas, and instead became concepts that actually worked.
Indie authors today can genre hop all they like, as long as they have a dedicated tribe (platform) that will follow them everywhere. As I have learned, though, every time you shift (sub)genres, you pay a price. Because I am writing in five major romance sub-genres that have little cross-over, I must have five times the number of readers to see the same effect as a monogamous author.
Therefore, very new indie authors and those seeking legacy publication will probably find it more effective to stay within a genre or sub-genre until they have built their platform. –t.
I’ve been writing fiction since the original Star Wars was released. I was actually writing fanfic, but it wasn’t called that back then. I didn’t know other people did it. It was an embarrassing secret I didn’t even tell my school friends.
But I was bitten by the bug, and eventually I started writing original fiction. I’ve been writing fiction ever since, but in odd moments, and sometimes I wouldn’t come back to it for months.
My daughter was two years old when it occurred to me I should try to get my work published. My daughter turned 17 last month, and my 17th title was released in paperback the month before her birthday. [As I update this article in mid 2016, I have just published my 65th book.]
And I still have a day job.
[Not any more.]
Across those fifteen years I have written 24 completed novels, and dozens of partially-written scripts, and hundreds of ideas and rough notes for more stories. I’ve also written around a hundred articles, the majority of them on the business and craft of writing. I teach about eight different writing classes, including the perennial Romance Writing course that my local university can’t seem to get enough of.
At the same time I have collected and read a staggering number of how-to books on the craft and business of writing. To begin with, I wanted to know how to be a success. I’m still trying to figure that out, to a certain degree, but I’ve learned enough to be content with the idea of being successfully published and still holding a day job.
But I’ve also learned enough to look back at the last fifteen years and wince, because I royally screwed myself over at least six times in that period. I’ll eventually confess all, but today I want to tell you about just one of those suicide moves.
This is a warts-and-all confession, so brace yourself.
If you’ve heard “write what you read” once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. It makes fabulous sense, except that I read everything. I mean, literally everything. I was a high school geek and straight A student, in the top 10% of the state. Getting less than 90% on anything was a shock for me, one that would have me consulting with teachers to find out where I went wrong.
My parents lived on what you probably call an acreage. We didn’t have a name for it at all, it was just home. Home was 40 acres outside of a 20,000 person town that didn’t run to public transport. Except for the last year I was in high school, there was only a single television station, the government one, which offered some really solid dramas and lots of documentaries, plus a single movie on Sunday nights, usually about two years after release in the theaters. Oh, there wasn’t a cinema in town, either.
So I stayed home a lot, and there wasn’t much to do at home once homework was covered (and I honestly don’t remember doing a ton of that, either).
But I was already a bookworm because through my primary school years the entertainment resources had been even fewer. (In Australia, that’s grades 1-7, before you go straight to high school. No junior high there.)
I had grown up in a wheatbelt town that had three shops, five houses, a three-room primary school, sports pavilion (the center of the community for most Australians), and an A Grade wheat silo next to the railway line. No television, no commercial radio, and only four other kids under the age of twelve and they were all boys. I didn’t play with them because they wouldn’t teach me how to throw stones like they did, and I had a cooler bike than they did. (A green Dragster with a banana seat…I campaigned with my father for weeks to get him to buy it for me, and then I rode it everywhere.)
When I wasn’t hanging out in the bush, getting into this week’s mischief, I was reading. My parents owned the general store in town, and I found a cache of books next to the fresh vegetables stand, not long after we moved there. Mum must have figured reading never harmed anyone*, and purchased dozens of books for the store, and many of them ended up in my general collection.
(*When I hit 16, Mum actually started telling me I should a) hang out with my friends more, and b) don’t blind the boys with science. I never had the guts to tell her a) I had no friends I cared to hang out with and b) if a boy couldn’t keep up with my brain, I wasn’t interested in having his hands on my body.)
I grew up surrounded with books, and a minimum of distractions, and my parents never restricted my reading, although I naturally gravitated towards the adventures (Enid Blyton was a staple).
Then we moved to Geraldton, and I discovered the wonders of the high school library and the even bigger public library.
I read everything. I easily moved on from Enid Blyton to science fiction (Wyndham was a firm favorite on my keeper shelf), and around 16 or so, Mills & Boon romances. My mother introduced these to me. She bought them by the carton at the second-hand book store, and we’d devour the lot in about two weeks. Mum could read one in about two hours.
I also discovered English thriller writers like Desmond Bagley (I’m still trying to rebuild that collection here in Canada), and Peter O’Donnell. Stephen King hit me with the impact of an asteroid, and Sherlock Holmes bit hard (I became a committee member of the Sherlock Holmes Society).
I had a room-sized keeper shelf that included mystery, science fiction, romance, historicals, fantasy, horror, thrillers, suspense, and hybrids of all of the above.
So when I discovered Writers Digest, and their treasure trove of how-to books that told me firmly to ‘write what I read’, I was utterly stumped.
I read everything. Where do I start?
I finally analyzed that the common element in the majority of my favorites was the romantic thread. I can’t resist a good love story. So I started writing Harlequin romances for publication. I thought they’d be easy. Ha!
I wrote six or seven of them, submitted them, got firmly bounced every time. But to complicate the issue, I won the Romance Writers of Australia’s Emma Darcy Award for romance writers, which told me I could write…I just couldn’t get published. Confused, I stopped to reconsider.
It wasn’t like I really enjoyed reading the little category novels anymore. If I was going to read romance, I reached for the big thick tomes that usually had an historical setting….
That was it, I decided. I had no respect for the category romances. I’d try the mainstream historical ones, instead.
Newly inspired, I wrote two really big historical romance novels. I had a blast writing them, and one of them came fourth in that year’s Emma Darcy Award, which told me I could write them well, too. But I couldn’t get them published.
By this time I was living in Canada, and plugging into the local writing scene, and the Internet was booming. I was already an on-line citizen (I met my husband there), and was connecting with romance writers on-line. Living in Canada meant I could more easily attend writing conventions, and my education on the business of writing took a macro leap.
But I still wasn’t sure what I should be writing. Nothing seemed to be working (i.e., selling). I tried my hand at a fantasy romance, considered and quickly discarded the idea of writing straight science fiction. (It intimidates me. Reading, yes. Writing, no. Not yet, anyway.) I tried a romantic suspense, which actually ended up more of a romantic thriller. Nothing worked.
Then I heard about Hard Shell Word Factory, and the brand new concept of electronic book publishing. I did some research, but the industry was so new, no-one had much expertise to share with anyone.
So I submitted the category romance novel that won the Emma Darcy Award…and sold.
In the very same week, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche I had submitted to a small press in Canada also sold.
Good news, right?
Actually, it was really shitty luck for a number of reasons, but the chief one I’m trying to convey in this post was that my debut appearance as a published writer was as a category romance author, and a cult-fiction author, with two almost completely segregated audiences (there’s not too many women who care for the misogynistic Holmes).
But I was too naïve, and too delighted with having sold to know — or care if I had known. I was being published!
I quickly submitted to Hard Shell Word Factory a couple of romances I had stashed away that didn’t totally embarrass me. (I was, at least, improving as a writer enough to recognize crap when I wrote it.) They were a category romance that was trying hard to be a mainstream romantic action/adventure, and an historical romance. Hard Shell bought both.
Big mistake. Huge. Career-killing, in fact.
But I had no idea at the time, and it took another five years or so for me to finally realize just how badly I had screwed myself over, right out of the gate, and continued to do so, every book after that.
My publishing history, listed in order and by category is:
- Category Romance
- Adventure Romance
- Historical romance
- Historical romance
- Erotic historical romance
- Mainstream romantic suspense
- Erotic romantic suspense
- Erotic historical romance
- Contemporary romance
- Erotic romantic suspense
- Erotic fantasy romance
- Erotic romantic suspense
- Erotic horror
- Erotic historical romantic suspense (with a interracial romance, to boot).
- Erotic romantic suspense.
Laying it out this way should tell you what took me ten years to figure out.
** Find your niche, and stay in it! **
My multiple mistakes included:
- Publishing in two different genres, first books out of the gate.
- Publishing these books more or less simultaneously, which split my marketing efforts and my time…how do you build a website or a public face that appeals to both? Answer: You don’t.
- The third and fourth books were in different sub-genres from each other and from anything else I had ever published (and in romance, that’s a big deal – romance readers are very monogamous).
- The third and fourth books were released on the very same day.
- The fifth book was the sequel to the Sherlockian pastiche, and had the misfortune to be released during the weeks-long Canadian postal strike, and I was oblivious to the negative impact it would make…or that it would end my relationship with that publisher.
- I jumped publishers after that.
- The new publisher was very new. (They were starting up, and I think mine was their fifth release ever. I never saw a copy of my book on a single bookstore shelf that I hadn’t personally arranged with the bookseller).
- I got talked into “trying” romantica (erotica + romance), and was a moderate success at it…which made walking away from the money very hard.
- But even then, I continued to jump sub-genres, from historical to romantic suspense to fantasy….
- And still didn’t understand that the romantica audience is more concerned about the sexy subplot than the story, and failed to deliver in spades…which meant I didn’t sell as well as I might have.
I think I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes, and there’s more than what I’ve listed here (which proves that you can be both intelligent and incredibly stupid at the same time), but all the mistakes I’ve made tend to fall into one massive no-no: moving out of your niche.
Staying in your niche doesn’t just mean continuing to write novels in your chosen sub-genre. It also means staying with your chosen publisher and format. There’s been more than one career killed by moving publishing houses, when readers fail to move with the author. And dozens more careers badly bent by the move.
Same with the format of your book, which has a large effect on the distribution of it. If you’ve been publishing your books as POD paperbacks, don’t suddenly jump to electronic, or trade paperback only…not unless you can guarantee that your loyal readers will be able to find your books in the same places they’ve always found them.
The readers are your base against which you must measure every career move you make.
From your first novel onwards, you’re building a readership, even if it’s microscopic at the start. In order to build momentum in your career and some serious income, you need the readers who bought your last book to buy this one, and you need to find new readers with each new title.
If any career decision you make cuts you off from your readers or makes it more difficult for them to hear about new titles, or to buy those titles, it’s a bad decision. It’s an even worse decision if the new titles are ones that your readers aren’t going to want to buy even if they can find it – and that’s exactly what jumping sub-genres will do: make them not want to read you any more.
What staying in your niche involves:
1) Understand the reader expectations of your niche.
This is where the “write what you read” rule really makes sense. If you’re writing in a beloved genre, then you already understand the unspoken reader expectations.
2) Meet those expectations – every single novel.
3) Don’t change your niche unless there is absolutely no other option.
Continue to produce books in that niche, year after year, and maintain your readership. As you grow more established, you can stretch the periods between books, and use that time to build other niches, but don’t ever let the original one go if you can help it.
4) You can add niches to your portfolio
But don’t add niches until you’re well established in the first, and even then, be aware that you’re starting from scratch, building a new audience for the new niche. Don’t expect to sell as well in the new niche until you’re a few books into it, and have built momentum.
If a second or third niche takes off big, then you may want to let earlier niches go…but think really hard about that before you dismiss all your earliest readers.
5) Once you’re with a publisher, stick to them like glue.
Writers do change publishers, but there’s a cost involved. There’s even negative impact on your career with a change of editors, too.
Don’t use petty concerns as a reason to jump ship. Stay professional, work to resolve issues, and maintain a good relationship with your publisher.
6) Equate changing publishers with changing niches.
Some readers will come along for the ride, but you’ll probably have to grow a whole new readership when you move houses, especially if the distribution of your books changes in any way.
7) Focus on delivering the best quality book you can produce, every book you write.
Readers may not have the writing expertise you do, but they know if a book stinks, or if your heart wasn’t in it when you wrote it. You’ll lose readers fast if you starting hacking out tomes.
On the other hand, if you give every book your best, the readers will response to it. Guaranteed.
It takes huge amounts of faith, discipline and determination to build your niche (and your career), but what would you do if you didn’t write? At least this way you stand a fighting chance of building a career that works for you.
So make sure you pick your genre and sub-genre carefully. You’re going to be writing it for a while.
First appeared on Anchored Authors, July 5, 2008