Cross-Categories – a Misconception among Authors?

Not a Romance

I come across a staggering number of self-published books that don’t seem to fit into any single well-defined category.

What do you get when you cross Harry Potter with Brokeback Mountain? Buyer confusion!

Some authors are thinking along the lines, “I’ll double my target audience by writing a book that has a healthy combination of fantasy and science fiction.” Or it can be an action thriller mixed with historical romance. Or one of several other combinations.

To make matters worse, surely they will have friends and family members who will help encourage this. Somebody will say something of the sort, “You know what. I love Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings. I think that’s a great idea!”

One problem with this is that the target audience doesn’t actually double when distinctly different genres are crossed. Most readers who are specifically searching for a passionate romance, for example, are looking for exactly that. They’re not looking for a romance that’s fifty percent sci-fi, fantasy, or spy thriller.

Similarly, most readers who are looking for fantasy, for example, aren’t browsing for a cover that looks, or a blurb that sounds, too romantic.

Would you try to sell Easter bunny costumes on Halloween?

There may be an audience for a cross-genre book, but it will probably be a more challenging sell than a book that fits very well in a single genre.

In other cases, the author hadn’t thought about the categories at all until the writing was finished. When it came time to publish, the author is faced with the task of choosing the category. Now the author is thinking something like, “Well, there is a bit of action, a little mystery, a touch of romance, even some sci-fi at the end.”

Having a book that fits into a blend of categories is a major marketing and packaging obstacle.

It’s much easier to package and market a book that fits into a single, well-defined category.

Consider this from a marketing and packaging perspective:

  • The thumbnail image of the front cover needs to attract the right audience. When mystery readers click on a book because the cover appealed to them, but the blurb doesn’t sound like a mystery book, nobody will buy the book through discovery.
  • The title and cover need to send a unified message. If the title sounds like a spy thriller, but the cover looks like contemporary romance, this creates buyer confusion.
  • The blurb and Look Inside must reinforce the same signals given by the title and cover. Confused shoppers don’t by books.
  • The content has to satisfy the reader who is attracted to the book. If the title, cover, blurb, and Look Inside succeed in attracting fantasy readers, but the story doesn’t appeal to most fantasy readers, this will adversely affect book reviews and word-of-mouth sales.

Packaging a book for a specific target audience and sending a unified message about the content of the book is easiest when the book fits into a single, well-defined category.

I’m not saying that you can’t write a book that blends categories. If your goal is frequent sales, then writing a book that closely resembles one popular genre may be the best way to go. Marketing a book that fits into two or more different categories will probably be a much greater challenge. It’s already very difficult to be one of the top sellers. Why make it any more difficult than it already is?

It can be fun to write non-standard books. If you do this for the fun, and don’t mind that this may adversely affect sales, then you should definitely enjoy your fun.

I’ve had a little fun with this myself. For example, I’m working on a book called Romancing the Novel, which is an extension of a couple of pieces that I posted on this blog a few months ago:

Reading and Writing with Passion

Giving Birth to a Book

I also have a dialogue called Why Do We Have to Go to School? The closest topic is probably educational philosophy, but it’s actually fiction. I didn’t find a good category for it. It doesn’t sell, but I’m not surprised. I didn’t invest time marketing it, since it wasn’t an easy sell. But I’m not disappointed: It was fun to write and definitely worth doing.

I mostly write nonfiction, which sells for the value of the content and expertise. For me, the fiction is fun, while the nonfiction is educational. For me, the educational part sells, while the fun is just fun (and what’s wrong with having fun for fun’s sake?).

One of these years, I will finish a juvenile sci-fi book that I started several years ago. I believe that it has a great beginning (it better – I’ve spent years working on it). This piece of fiction won’t just be fun, but will actually fit into a well-defined, popular genre. Of all of my ideas for fictional books, this one has the best chance of succeeding. It’s also the book that’s taking the longest time to write. Maybe by 2020? (Hey, that would be a good year to release a book that has something to do with excellent eyesight.)

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

Branding Distinction for Authors

What distinguishes your book from others? What makes it special? How is it unique?

You don’t just want people in your target audience to see your name and the name of your book repeatedly. You want people in your target audience to associate something with the kinds of books that you write.

Knowing the author’s name or the book’s title provides recognition when they see it. You don’t just want people to buy your book when they recognize it. You want people to search for your book.

If you brand a distinction for your writing, people in your target audience may search for your book when they’re next in the market for a book of that kind. This is better than recognition.

When people in your target audience discover your name or the title of your book while they interact with you, you’re branding your name or your book’s title. It may be more effective to brand a signature that distinguishes your writing. Give your target audience a compelling reason to search for your book.

First, you must identify your target audience. Secondly, you must market your brand effectively – e.g. through discovery or by providing valuable content (whereas self-promotion and being too frequently visible may get you tuned out).

Interact with people in your target audience and let them discover that you’re a writer and what makes your work special. The more you write or say, the less people will remember. You want the emphasis on a concise phrase (just a few words, nowhere near an entire sentence) that brands your specialty and something to go along with it – your name, your book’s title, or the name of a series, especially if it’s very short – so that they can easily find it when they’re ready to search for it.

Here are some examples of how to brand distinction:

  • Your Name, writer of clean romance
  • Series Title, featuring Brooklyn’s modern day Sherlock Holmes
  • Book Title, a dancing guide for people with two left feet
  • Author’s Name, specializing in vampire erotica
  • Workbook Series, math for children with ADHD
  • Name of Book, sick of implausibly perfect characters?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2, on editing/marketing, is now available)

A Negative Indie Image?

What do you perceive is the general image of indie authors? Good? Bad? Ugly?

There is certainly some loud criticism:

  • Some nefarious websites have developed large followings by criticizing indie cover art.
  • Publishers and authors (including indies!) disparage a growing “slush pile” of self-published books that lack editing, formatting, or well thought-out storylines.
  • The reputation of free-promo books is on the decline.
  • People are speaking out against shorter and shorter eBooks, including those that are just the first chapter of a book.
  • Then there are the infamous authors who have abused the system with fake reviews. Who hasn’t heard about this?

Loud voices do carry much weight. The complainers are marketing a bad image for indie authors.

There are easily a million indie authors out there. They have many friends and family. Almost everybody knows an indie author, or at the very least knows someone who does.

Complaints and disparaging remarks affect all indies. The reputation of self-publishing affects the sales of all self-published books. The reputation of eBooks, in general, affects the sales of all eBooks.

The more people blast eBooks, the more customers won’t want to purchase eReaders, which affects all eBook authors – including traditional publishers that make eBooks.

Yet there are many authors, editors, and publishers out there contributing to the negative image of eBooks. Every time they refer to the “slush pile,” disparage free-promo books, or remind us of past review abuse, it affects the image of eBooks in general, which affects everybody’s sales.

Even some indie authors participate in the complaining. All of the work these authors do to market their own books is negated by the advertising that they do to bring down the image of indie authors.

Indie authors are not powerless. There are things that every indie author can do to help restore our image. I’m not saying that we should just call an “orange” and “apple” to change the image. Part of the solution has to do with marketing, but part also has to do with product. Yet every indie author can impact both – creating a positive perception through both marketing and product improvement.

Here are some ways that all indie authors can help to improve our image:

  • Don’t disparage other indie authors or indie works. Every time you do this, you contribute to the problem. It doesn’t just affect those at the bottom; it affects everyone.
  • Don’t complain about the slush pile, free-promo books, or review abuse. When you mention things that create a negative connotation in people’s minds, it reinforces a negative image.
  • Strive to paint a positive picture for indies, rather than a negative image, when you discuss self-publishing with others in person, in your blogs, in community discussion forums, etc.
  • Bring attention to great indie covers, great indie books, and indie success stories. Anything positive you can say about indies goes a long way to establishing our overall credibility.
  • Don’t give good reviews to lousy indie books. Do give good reviews to good indie books. Be careful what you say in any bad reviews of lousy indie books – or at least the way you say it.
  • When you hear someone disparage indies, refer to the slush pile, etc., make a quick, positive, tactful, “Actually…” comment. Don’t get in a debate, don’t sound defensive, keep it short.
  • When your friends and acquaintances self-publish, give them honest feedback and help them improve their covers, blurbs, Look Inside, storyline, and writing (e.g. suggest finding an editor).
  • Do your best to perfect the covers, editing, formatting, and storylines of your own books.
  • Highlight quality indie books in your blogs and on your websites.
  • Once you have achieved mild success, occasionally lend a hand to help a newbie start out on the right foot and avoid some common mistakes.
  • When someone asks you, “Don’t you hate the effect that all of those lousy self-published books have on your image,” politely and quickly refute this without sounding defensive.
  • Take a moment to think of things that you like about being an indie author, and about other indie authors. This will help you focus on painting a positive perception.
  • Think about some good indie books that you’ve read and what you enjoyed about them. These ideas may come in handy in your interactions with others.
  • Recommend quality indie books to others.
  • When you’ve gained ample experience and have become a formatting expert, offer some advice or instruction to newbies.

With a million or more indie authors, there is potential power in numbers. If we want to improve the indie image, we need only make a few changes in what we do and encourage a few friends to do the same.

To those of you who are already doing these things, you have earned my sincere appreciation. J

Who holds the mightier pen – the critics or the authors?

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

Marketing: The 4 R’s of Branding

Repetition, Recognition, Referral, Reliance

These four R’s affect most of us every week when we buy products and services. As authors, we can apply the same branding philosophy in the marketing of our books.

(1) Repetition. Every brand of soda, detergent, television, car, and so on is constantly trying to get us to notice their name, logo, slogan, and image. We see it on television, on billboards, in magazines, and even on hats and t-shirts. The more we see it, the more we’re likely to remember it. This way, we remember brand names for products that we’ve never even tried.

You want people to remember your book and the name of the author – even if they haven’t read it yet. The more often people see your cover, read the title, hear your strapline, and see your author photo, the more likely they are to remember it. You can’t afford to invest millions of dollars in advertisements and commercials, but you can afford free. Your blog, your website, social media, articles that you write, local newspapers and television, every place your book is available for sale, every edition of your book (paperback, eBook, etc.), every book review, every person you interact with and mention your book or writing hobby – anything you do online that includes your cover, title, strapline, and/or author photo (including every little Like and Follow), improves your visibility. The more often people see and read these things, they more likely they will remember them.

Strapline – a single, short sentence used to create interest in your book (kind of like a slogan).

Your title and strapline should be short and easy to remember. Bestselling books often have three words or less for this very reason. Coke. Pepsi. Sony. Levis. The Shining. Wool. The Scarlet Letter. Short, easy to remember, easy to spell. Ideally, the author name should also be short and easy to remember and spell. Your cover and author imagery should also be easy to remember. A very busy cover, or one that doesn’t have one central image, or one that doesn’t use three main colors, or one where the title doesn’t stand out, or one that doesn’t present a unifying theme and signify the genre – such a cover isn’t as easy to remember. The title, author name, and cover are actually important marketing tools.

(2) Recognition. When we shop for a printer, golf club, or laundry detergent, we often prefer a brand that we recognize to one that we’ve never heard of – even if we’ve never used any of the products before. We may recognize the brand name, the logo, or even a catchy slogan.

The same principle applies to books. People often buy a book that they remember seeing, hearing about, or reading about, or has an author they recognize. This is why visibility of the brand of both the book and author is so important – people recognize what they remember.

Don’t change the title, cover, author name, or author image. If you use a much different cover for the paperback and eBook edition, or use a different photo for your FaceBook author page and AuthorCentral, for example, this inhibits recognition. Let all of your online activities reinforce one another with a unified approach.

Create “buzz” for your book prior to and during its release. Get people talking about your book – in person and online – and this will help them recognize it when it becomes available. In the months prior to publication, ask people for input on your cover, title, and blurb – in person and online. Spread the word about your upcoming book. Highlight positive things that will create interest in your book – like spending a year doing research or working on your third revision with an editor. Don’t be a salesman, just naturally get this into conversations. “So, what have you been up to recently?”

Interact with people personally. People recognize authors they’ve actually met. They just need to naturally discover that you’re an author, then remember your face and name plus the title and strapline for your book. Short and easy to remember and spell.

(3) Referral. If a friend or acquaintance recommends a product or service, we’re much more likely to try it. The product or service must be pretty good for it to be recommended by someone who doesn’t have a financial interest in the sales.

This applies to books, too. Word-of-mouth referrals can have a major impact on sales. For this, the book has to be very good. An amazing plot, a memorable character. Great storyline and characterization helps. It also needs to meet standards for editing and formatting; people won’t recommend a product that has obvious problems.

They’re much more apt to refer your book correctly if the title is short, easy to remember, and easy to spell; or the author if the name is easy to remember and spell; or to describe a book that has a simple, memorable cover.

(4) Reliance. People believe that Sony makes great televisions. Sony has established credibility and trust, and because of this, many people prefer to buy Sony electronics.

Readers are similarly more likely to buy products from authors who establish credibility and trust. Part of this comes from creating a highly professional cover, blurb, Look Inside, and author page. Behave professionally online; misbehaving certainly loses credibility. Your author photo, biography, and behavior should give the appearance of a knowledgeable, competent, trustworthy, and credible author. Do you look and sound like someone who would write a book in this genre?

Write content for your blog, website, newspapers, or magazines (in print or online) that demonstrates your expertise. Useful information may even attract newcomers, in addition to helping build your credibility.


At the bottom of your blog (and many other online activities), you can include your name and the title of one to three books. If your titles are very short, you can squeeze three into this space. As you can see below, sadly, I broke my own rule with a very long title. If you have expertise, just imagine how it would look to have your name and title show up at the bottom of an article in a high-traffic area in a magazine, newspaper, or online. Prepare an article relevant for your book and strive to get it published. You may be able to publish it locally or at a lesser traffic site, at least. It won’t go to waste because in the worst-case scenario, you can always add it to your blog.

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