Research: The Author’s Success Tool

Authors can improve their books’ chances of success significantly by doing some research.

This research can take a variety of forms:

(1) Before writing the book, browse through search results to see what similar books are already on the market.

  • Are any of these books selling well? If not, this book may have very limited potential.
  • Is the market already saturated? If there are numerous books in the genre, yet several are selling well (especially, if this includes indie authors), then there may be room for one more. A category that has wide appeal can have numerous books and still not be saturated. But if there is a topic where there are many books, but there is little demand, that is a saturated market.
  • Can you compete with these other books? Are all of the top sellers from big-name authors and publishers? There may already be small-time success among similar titles to give you a little confidence.
  • What are the top-selling books doing right? There is an established audience for these books. Study these books to see what tends to attract this audience.
  • What are the ‘rules’ of the genre? For example, is it necessary for romance novels to have a happy ending, or what kinds of character flaws can the protagonist get away with? In order to have wide appeal, it’s important to understand the interests of the audience.
  • Is there a well-defined browse category for the type of book you’re writing? If there isn’t a category for the book, it will make it very challenging for shoppers to find it.
  • For fiction, study the kinds of plots and characterization that are successful in your genre. Those authors obviously did something right to attract readers.
  • For nonfiction, study the depth and range of the content and the way that the material is presented in successful books in this subject. If you can improve over what’s already been done, this may attract readers.
  • Learn what types of writing may attract readers, like showing more and telling less. Can you see yourself writing with an appealing style?

(2) All authors should do some research while they write:

  • Even fiction requires research. For example, if you’re writing a battle scene, research the weaponry to see what is or isn’t feasible; you can even find suggestions for effective ways to describe a battle scene. In fantasy, although you may defy the laws of physics to some extent, you still need to be consistent, so you must devise a viable set of rules; research can help with this.
  • Research names of characters. See what names are already in use, what meanings a given name may suggest to readers, etc.
  • Check your own storyline and characterization for continuity and possible contradictions. Your readers are likely to notice such issues.
  • Ensure that you’re using the right word, spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. In this digital age, it’s easy to find an explanation of when to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect,’ including examples of each, or whether the ? or ” should come first. Take a moment to check this. Or, if you’re writing is on fire and you just can’t stop, at least make a small note. For example, you might write <right word?> or <punctuation> in the middle of the paragraph to remind you to check on this later. Then you can search for <’s when it’s time to edit.

(3) Before you make your packaging, research the covers, blurbs, and Look Insides of top-selling books similar to yours.

  • What kinds of covers are readers accustomed to seeing in this genre? These are the types of covers that are attracting this audience. If the cover attracts the wrong audience, nobody will buy the book.
  • Look for important differences in cover design between similar sub-genres. For example, how do contemporary romances, historical romances, teen romances, erotica, etc. look different?
  • What color schemes are successful in this genre? Colors often have specific meanings. For example, a deep blue may be used with financial books to represent trust, while red is popular in romance because it suggests passion.
  • How long are the blurbs? How do the blurbs of top sellers signify the genre and arouse the reader’s curiosity? How much of the story do they give away? Studying effective blurbs can help you improve your own blurb writing.
  • Traditionally published books usually have very professional Look Insides. They often include a few professional touches such as design marks, their copyright pages are very detailed, and they generally are quite appealing to look at structurally. Study these models and learn from them. Also study how the pages are numbered (which have Arabic and Roman numerals?), page headers (e.g. title on the odd pages and chapter names on even pages), how the front matter is organized, chapter breaks (do they include space at the top of the first page?), header styles, etc.

(4) Research can also help when you seek professional help:

  • If you’re looking for a cover designer, visit their websites, check their portfolios, see what other books they’ve designed covers for, see how many of those books are similar to yours, see if the styles or features of the other covers appeal to you and fit with your vision, find those books and see if they list the cover designer on the copyright page. How are the other books that the designer made covers for selling? If those sales ranks are poor, maybe the cover won’t have as much an impact as you’re hoping. Find books with covers you like and see if their cover designers are affordable.
  • Research stock images if you’re designing your own cover. There is so much material out there, try not to settle for an image that isn’t quite right; your potential readers will notice this.
  • If you’re looking for an editor, find books they’ve edited (and verify this) and check if they meet your satisfaction (and try to get a second opinion if this isn’t easy for you to judge). Try to exchange a few written emails and find other samples of the editor’s writing (a blog, for example).

(5) Research can also come in handy when it’s time to make publishing decisions.

  • If you’re looking for a publisher, research the candidates. Check out their webpages, then check out their books – especially, books from an author who has a status similar to yours (i.e. new small-time author, indie author who has already published a few times, etc.). Compare royalties, any services that they provide (which you can verify), etc. The same research can help whether you’re self-publishing or seeking a traditional publisher or agent.
  • When self-publishing, research the browse categories and keywords. Type keywords into Amazon and check the search results. As you start typing, you will see popular keywords show up. You want keywords that are highly relevant for your book, which are reasonably popular, and where your book has the potential to become visible in the search results – all three are very important. Look for top-selling titles similar to yours in the search results to see which keywords they are visible under. When you click on those titles, you can also see which categories they are listed in.

(6) Of course, if you want to become effective with marketing, you must research this, too.

  • The first step is to research the many different things you can do to market your book. There are numerous possibilities. What you hope to learn is what is most likely to be effective for your specific book to reach its specific target audience.
  • You also want to research your target audience. The more you can learn about the kinds of readers for whom your book is a good fit, the easier it will be for you to gear your marketing toward them. Your blog, fan page, and email allow you to interact with readers directly, but beware they probably didn’t show up hoping to be part of a survey; you have to be tactful and indirect and keep such endeavors rare and unobtrusive. You might be able to find information about some audiences by searching online, or discussing this with your colleagues.
  • As you try different things, analyze your sales reports to see if you can find any correlations between improved sales and new marketing techniques that you’re trying out. It definitely benefits you to discover what does or doesn’t seem to be effective.
  • Find top-selling authors – especially, if have recently begun with a status similar to yours – and explore their blogs, social media, etc. to see if you can learn any of the secrets to their success. And have the sense to only try out ideas that seem scrupulous. 🙂

Note that sales rank can vary over time. A book might have a sales rank of 200,000 today because it just sold a copy, whereas it might usually be ranked in the millions. So monitoring rank over the course of a week can be helpful. Also, a book may have been a top seller a couple of years ago, but might be in the millions now. Check the publication date, too.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers


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