The Writer’s Ally is pleased to feature this valuable post explaining what writing to market really means, from USA Today Bestselling mystery and thriller author Tom Fowler. Read on to learn more about his tried and proven strategies.
Whenever an author suggests writing to market in an open forum, you’ll often find some version of “You’re selling out” in the replies. In reality, writing to market is simply considering your audience before you write. This will enable you to release a book to fans and readers who want to pick it up versus launching and hoping for the best.
As a writer, you are free to write the story of your heart. I hope you do, and I further hope it’s a great experience for you. If you want strangers to buy your books, however, you need to present them with something that appeals to them, not just to you.
The core of writing to market is finding the intersection of what you enjoy and what’s selling well. We’ll get more into specifics later, but my thrillers (written to market) have far outsold my mysteries (which were not). If people want to call this “selling out,” well . . . haters gonna hate.
(Note: most discussions of writing to market center around fiction. It’s certainly possible to adapt these principles for nonfiction, as well. If you’re a nonfiction author, I think you’ll see a lot you can use as you read this.)
Let’s take a closer look at how to go about this.
Step 1: Identify genres you enjoy.
You need to enjoy creating the story. If you don’t, why are you writing it? If you’re in it for a quick buck, this will show in your prose. You won’t have the tropes quite right. You might skip over some story beats which are essential to the niche. Your tone might be a little off. Frequent readers of the genre will know, and you’ll never get them to buy another book.
Even if you haven’t written it yet, you can also approach this part by considering what kind of stories you like to read. Note that I specified “to read.” It might be very easy to watch a James Bond marathon and decide you like thrillers. If you want readers to come from Russia with love, however, you’ll need to read a bunch. Movies are different animals.
Step 2: Read. A lot.
I would cast a wide net here. You want to be versed in the classics, but you also need to know what contemporary writers are putting out for the modern reader in your chosen genres. If you want to write cozy mysteries, for instance, and you’ve never read Agatha Christie, now is the time to start. The top writers of cozies today know their Miss Marple from their Poirot . . . and so do their readers.
Step 3: Assess the market.
You might really want to pen a yeti shifter romance, but if there are no books in the niche or none that are performing well, it’s not a good call. The market just isn’t there.
The “artiste” may say their creative genius will establish a market by writing something new and interesting. It’s possible. So is watching just one episode of Ozark. But the probability is low.
What you’re looking for is a genre that’s popular but not oversaturated. There need to be enough readers to buy what you write, but maybe not enough books to satisfy everybody who goes looking for one.
To find these spaces, you’ll need to explore the Kindle store. We’ll use the US Amazon Kindle store here. It features well over eight million books, and while you can certainly sell on other storefronts, Amazon is by far the largest ebook seller in the American market.
Search the niches you enjoy writing or reading. You can do this by entering a subgenre in the search bar (“mafia romance”) or by clicking through the category tree down the left side. Now, look at the category’s #1 book. What’s its Amazon bestseller ranking (ABSR)? This is a measure of how successful it is overall, and like golf, a lower score is better. Thus, the #10 book in the Kindle Store sells better than 11, 12, etc.
The #100 title in the entire Kindle Store (not just in your category) will sell about 1000 copies a day. The #200 book will move about 500. Not bad, right? Even the #5000 book overall sells over 30 copies a day, #10,000 does about 15, and #30,000 about ten.
You’re looking at the top (ranked 1) entry in your chosen niche, right? Ideally, it will be in the top 100 storewide. This gives you a high ceiling. It means the genre contains at least one book with a lot of visibility overall. Now, scroll down to the 20th title in your chosen niche. You want it to have an ABSR of #30,000 or lower storewide. This gives you a reasonably high but attainable floor.
Don’t you want both the 1st and 20th ranked books in your category to have really low ABSRs? No. This would mean the genre is super competitive, and you’re going to have a tough time gaining visibility. At the very least, the bottom end of the top 100 in your chosen niche should have rankings better (i.e. lower) than #40,000 in the overall Kindle Store.
Let’s do an example using Publisher Rocket—and no, I’m not an affiliate. I just use and believe in the tool. It makes this process far simpler. [Note: The Writer’s Ally is an affiliate, and you can check out this awesome tool here.]
Maybe you’re a voracious romance reader across many subgenres, and you’re thinking you want to write your own stories. What’s the best romance niche for you? Let’s see what Publisher Rocket says:
The categories are sorted by the overall Kindle Store ABSR of their top books. (Remember, each book has its own ABSR storewide plus its position in each category, and lower is better for both.)
We can see that the general “Romance” category is super competitive—the 10th book in the category ranks #22 storewide. Yikes! The top seller in New Adult and College Romance ranks #5 overall, but its 10th top seller comes in at #125 storewide. Still popular, but we’re getting more attainable.
If you like a little magic with your kisses, Paranormal Ghost Romance’s bestselling book holds an ABSR of #13, but its 10th title is positioned at a much more manageable #660. This would be a good category to target.
Genre: Identified. Now what?
Readers expect certain things from books, and they can be very unhappy when those things are absent. If you’re going to write a romance, for instance, you need a happily ever after (HEA) or at least a happy for now (HFN). Why? These are popular romance tropes. Long gone are the days of Love Story where the author could kill the woman at the end and still have people fawn over the book.
Here are a few popular tropes from my genres (mystery and thriller):
- The grizzled ex-cop now working as a PI.
- A retired (or soon to retire) operative must complete one more mission.
- The police arrest the PI’s client.
- A character returns to their hometown and must solve a crime that connects to their past in some way.
There are many, many more, but you get the point. Think about what you like reading and make a list of your own.
Writing to market means you’re taking your audience’s desires into account as you shape your story. You’re putting this book out with the hopes they’ll gobble it up, right? Shouldn’t you know who they are?
I misjudged my audience at first. I expected my mystery readers to be virile men who liked drinking, cursing, and punching evildoers in the face. I was a bit surprised to learn about two-thirds were women, they skewed older, and they weren’t too keen on committing violence. How did I find out? I (belatedly) did some research on people who read PI and hard-boiled mysteries, and I surveyed the readers on my mailing list.
Writing for the wrong reader is going to cost you sales—you’re making it harder for the right ones to find you. Don’t walk the same path I did here.
There are other factors that go into putting out a good book, of course, but if you get the two things above right, you’re well on your way. The Writer’s Ally can help you with the rest!
Writing to Market: What I learned with my books.
I have two ongoing series: A PI mystery and a military action thriller.
The first was not written to market. I didn’t know of the term yet—Chris Fox’s book was out, but I hadn’t heard of it. Still, I managed to hit some tropes while completely bypassing others in the name of being a Very Clever Writer. What did I whiff on? Compare this to the list of popular tropes I listed earlier:
- My PI protagonist doesn’t have a law enforcement background.
- He’s young (28 as the series begins).
- His family has money, so he doesn’t need to struggle.
Readers who stick with the books love the main character and supporting cast. And I still love writing this series after 12 books. But I know my choices have put some readers off (it’s in the reviews!) and that’s cost me sales.
When I launched my thriller series in the fall of 2020, I applied the lessons of writing to market in the hopes of kicking things off well. I researched and understood my main genre and subgenre. I wrote to hit the classic action thriller tropes. A few readers described my protagonist as a cross between Jack Reacher and Harry Bosch, which was very gratifying—and exactly what I’d aimed for.
My thrillers have comfortably outsold my mysteries. The most visible sign of my success in writing to market, though, was Amazon recommending my first thriller, The Mechanic, repeatedly. I did very little to push the book, but it kept selling and selling in a way none of my crime fiction titles ever had. I was moving 50-70 copies a day and even got an audiobook publisher to buy the rights for the first two entries in the series.
I know this happened because I put the time in up front. And because I did, I enjoyed some good organic sales out of the gate, which in turn jumpstarted the Amazon recommendation engine that pushed my book for me for a couple of months. For almost sixty days, it barely spent any time worse than #5000 in the overall Kindle Store.
Could I make my mysteries sell better? Sure. But for my mysteries to attain this rank, I would need to market them much harder with ads, newsletter promos, and money. They just don’t sell themselves in the same way that my thrillers do.
This is what writing to market really means. It’s not selling out. It’s just smarter selling.
Tom Fowler is a USA Today bestselling mystery and thriller writer. He was born and raised in Baltimore and now lives in the DC suburbs of Maryland with his family. He writes the C.T. Ferguson mysteries and the John Tyler thrillers, both set in his home city. Tom’s stories feature flawed heroes, action, and plenty of snark. You can visit his website at www.tomfowlerwrites.com, where you’ll be able to get two series prequel novellas for free.
Tom’s books are available on all retailers. You can view the C.T. Ferguson crime novels at https://books2read.com/rl/ctferguson and the John Tyler thrillers at https://books2read.com/rl/johntylerthrillers.