In this episode, we talk about how to write to market with Chris Fox. Chris Fox is an incredibly successful author of fiction and nonfiction. He’s hit the trifecta. He’s succeeded at writing fiction, at teaching fiction, and his students have gone on to succeed as well. Some of them are making over $50,000 a month.
Thomas: The real measure of success is not whether a person has been successful but whether they’ve been able to train other people to be successful. That’s why we’re excited to be interviewing Chris.
What does it mean to write to market?
Jim: Some of our listeners know what that means, but many don’t. Can you clarify? What is writing to market?
Chris: If you can picture a Venn diagram, you’ve got two overlapping circles. One of those circles is the thing you are most passionate about writing. The other circle is a large, voracious reading audience. You want to find the sweet spot where those two circles intersect.
For example, at some point in my career, I’d love to write a weird western, which is a standard Western with some supernatural elements thrown in. But that genre has a tiny audience. Very few readers are into weird westerns. If I wrote that book, I probably wouldn’t sell many copies simply because there aren’t many readers of that genre.
One of my other passions is military science fiction, and that was the genre I chose to write. I knew that right now, tons of people love military science fiction. This is coming off the back of some great television shows for the last decade, and readers want more of it. I know that if I write these novels and enjoy it, I’m going to sell a ton of copies.
That is the definition of writing to market. You find the intersection between what you love to write and what a large audience loves to read.
Is writing to market a form of selling out?
Jim: Are you asking authors to sell out for the sake of sales?
Chris: That is the number one question I get.
If you strip away the desire, then that would be selling out. If you abhor erotica, but you start writing it because you know it will sell, you won’t be happy. You won’t be writing something you’re passionate about.
Fans can sense that. They’ll know if you’re phoning it in and writing something that doesn’t interest you.
It’s true that you have to pick the novel that you really want to write, but if you’re like most writers, you’re overflowing with ideas. Writing to market without selling out is about looking at the closet of ideas you’ve been building and choosing the most marketable idea.
Maybe some people think that’s selling out because you choose what to write based on the market that exists for it. But if it’s something I love to write, it’s a choice and a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Jim: You liked westerns and sci-fi, and you chose from two things you liked. I guess it could be like a chef who enjoys cooking four different dishes. She loves cooking four different dishes, but three of them are most popular, while not many people choose the fourth dish she loves to cook.
Chris: Exactly. When you get to a point where you’re doing this full-time, you need to assess the size of the market because that’s how you’ll pay your rent or mortgage. You need to know there are enough people out there who will buy it.
Burgers are more popular than steaks for a reason. Burgers are less expensive, take less time to prepare, and they’re easy to eat on the go.
Early in my career, most of my books were more like burgers. When I had more experience and a larger backlist, I knew that I could write whatever the heck I wanted to. As I gained experience, I wrote more artsy, from-the-heart type novels. But early in my career, it made sense to write something I knew the market was interested in.
Jim: That makes me think of musicians who have released three or four massive albums. After they’ve had success, they decide they have enough money, and they just want to write the album they’ve always wanted to write.
It usually doesn’t sell as well, but they know that going in.
What mistakes do authors make when writing to market?
Chris: The number one mistake I see almost every time somebody gets into writing to market is that they read a popular book and want to copy it.
When you realize Harry Potter is doing tremendously well, you want to write about your own magical university. People include a Haggard-type character, a Dumbledore-type character, and a Harry Potter-type character. They sort of copy what they’ve already seen.
When you’re writing to market, you’re trying to capture the same emotional resonance.
You need to figure out why the audience likes Harry Potter. What are they getting out of it?
Then you have to write something that’s the same but different. You need to deliver a similar emotional experience within a good story and still deliver something unique. You can use some of the same notes, but it needs to be different enough that readers don’t feel like they’ve heard it before.
If you’re trying to knock off Hunger Games or Harry Potter, you’re usually going to do it poorly. Fans will sense that, and you’ll get slaughtered in your reviews.
Thomas: It’s important to know why somebody likes Harry Potter. If you don’t know why you may copy all the stupid and superficial bits that make it sound and feel derivative. But if you understand why people like it, you can speak to that same why in your fiction and connect with the audience in a similar way.
Jim: The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series. Both have similar protagonists where a strong female is coming into her own. And yet, those stories feel different. Is that what you’re talking about?
Chris: Exactly. They’re clearly the same genre. You have roughly the same emotional arc for both main characters, and you can see similarities in the dystopian worlds. Both series hit the same emotional highs and lows, but they are different in their own way, and each has a unique spin.
How does an author write to market?
Thomas: You’ve convinced us writing to market is the way to wealth and fortune. If I want people to buy my books, I need to write books that people want to read. So how do you write to market?
Chris: You start by studying the market. You need to understand what books are selling in that market right now. I go to the Amazon list in my target genre and see what’s selling. The next step is shocking to many authors. You actually have to buy the books and read them.
Thomas: Can’t I just read the little blurb on Amazon?
Chris: Many authors try just to read the blurb. They’ll see what the genre is and make some assumptions about it, and then they start writing. That’s the wrong approach.
You need to immerse yourself in the genre if you really want to be successful.
If a science fiction author reads a bunch of sci-fi novels that are selling today, they start to understand why it’s popular and what kind of emotional responses people are having.
Once you’re done with a book, read the reviews. The one-star reviews will tell you what the author got wrong, and the five-star reviews will tell you what the author got right. When you concoct your own story, you’ll know what landmines to avoid.
Thomas: Interacting with readers of that audience is a great way to get feedback. Reading reviews is probably the easiest way to do it, but listening to readers talk to each other, or even talking to them yourself, is better. I think you need to read at least two books in the market to know what is similar and what is different. If you just watch a TV show, and it’s the only TV show you’ve ever seen, you don’t know what the trope is.
On the other hand, once you see two or three space shows, you know that the hotshot pilot is a trope. You can decide whether to include that trope in your book.
Chris: I recommend reading a bare minimum of three books in the genre to make those comparisons. If you really want to do this right, read 15-20 books because you need to understand your genre’s length and breadth. That’s the only way to know you are not copying, but you’re still hitting the right emotional highs people love.
Thomas: I know authors who are terrified to read other books because they’re afraid their book will become derivative. But that is exactly what some authors need for their books to become more successful.
Jim: If you don’t read the other books, yours will potentially become derivative because you don’t know.
Chris: You’ve seen all the same movies as the people who are writing books now, and the odds are good that many books are being influenced by the culture that we’ve all consumed for the last 20 or 30 years. If you’re not reading other people’s books, there’s just as likely to be derivative as not.
Thomas: One of the tropes I see is when torturing a character works for getting good information. That’s a real pet peeve of mine. In college, I researched torture, and torture only leads to lying.
If you have somebody on the rack and you’re torturing them while demanding, “Tell us where the hostages are!” they’ll give you an answer. But it’s rarely the correct answer.
That is never portrayed in books because everyone’s drawing from the same sources on TV. Torture always works in the movies. In 24, Jack is torturing the terrorists to get the information. Now our whole society is conditioned to think that torture works. The Nazis studied torture and published their research, and if the Nazis couldn’t make torture work, torture doesn’t work.
What are hot categories and hungry categories?
Thomas: In your book, you talk about hot categories and hungry categories. What are those, and why are they important to understand?
Chris: A hungry category means the readers in that category are reading a lot of books. A hot category is typically a more saturated version of that. When you’re zeroing in on a category, you can pick a smaller niche that is not currently flooded with content but has fewer readers. In that case, you have a better chance to get noticed.
Or you could write in a category that’s hot, like military science fiction. But tons of people are writing military sci-fi, and it’s difficult to break into the top 100. If you do break-in, you are absolutely going to have a five-figure month on that launch.
You have to pick your risk tolerance and decide what you want to do. Do you want to write something with a lower readership, like steampunk, where you’re probably going to stand out? You won’t have much trouble getting your book on the front page of results. Even if it’s successful, you might only see a mid-four-figure month versus that five-figure amount you would have seen as a military science fiction stand out.
Jim: Do you recommend people go for singles and home runs simultaneously in different categories?
Chris: I try to double down in one existing category. The problem that I’ve run into with my own career is that I keep switching gears and going from genre to genre. Every time I do that, I sacrifice momentum.
The smartest thing you can do is pick one category and drill down as deep as you can. Then write a long series of books that people are interested in. You can write that series all the way to a successful six-figure income.
If you are writing in adjacent genres, like fantasy and science fiction, I advise people to write under the same pen name.
If you were going to write romantic suspense and hard sci-fi, I recommend using a pen name for each genre. It’s fine to write in both genres, but you want to be careful not to get a lot of bleed between those audiences because they are separate.
When you’re writing to market, it’s important to drill down into your perfect readership because that’s how Amazon will find more readers for you. If you can tell Amazon what type of person loves your book, they’re happy to help promote your book to all sorts of different types of people. But the moment you start mixing in multiple genres, it becomes difficult for Amazon to do that for you.
Thomas: Amazon’s algorithm is very smart, but it’s also very stupid. You can make the algorithm’s job easy by drilling down into one category.
The cost of switching genres and getting a new pen name is that you’re starting over. You’re not bringing you’re following, reputation, or readers from the old pen name to the new pen name. You’re starting over with a new brand. It’s almost like becoming a new author.
You still have your mailing list and the knowledge you’ve gained, but that’s a high cost, and you’ll lose a lot of momentum. It’s like starting over with your career from scratch, and that’s hard.
Choosing a genre is critical when it comes to the success of your entire career. How does somebody not mess that up? If somebody picked a bad genre, five years from now they’re going to have tough questions.
How do I choose a genre?
Chris: There are going to be tough questions about which genre is best for you. But if you mess up, it’s not the end of your career. It just slows you down. I’ve written in three different genres. I have three different readerships. They don’t often bleed over, but I’ve got some momentum in each area, and I’m still making a great living.
The fastest way to success is doubling down in one genre. You can write in two or three genres. It’s just generally going to take longer to reach the same level of success.
How do I find out which genres are popular?
Thomas: What about doing the research? How do I find out how popular a genre is?
Chris: Start with Amazon. Amazon accounts for 80% of the online book market, and it’s growing.
Amazon is a meritocracy in that the more books sell, the closer to the top they are.
I look at their top 100 list for my chosen genre. Then I drill down into a specific category. If I’m looking at science fiction, I can drill down into space opera or military sci-fi. I’ll search as low as I can into the lowest subcategory that Amazon offers me.
Then I look at the covers for the top 100 books. When I find one on the first pages in the top 20 that interests me, I’ll click on it. I’ll read the blurb and see what it’s about. As I’m scrolling down the product page, about midway down, I see the book’s rank. One number tells me its overall rank in the Kindle store, and another number says where it ranks in the categories it’s in. The lower those numbers are, the hotter the book.
If you see a book that’s one of the top 100 books overall, that’s a worldwide number. That book is probably selling a minimum of 500 copies a day.
Let’s say you’re scrolling through these books, and you get to book number 50 of 100. If that book is still in the top 1,000 ranking books in a hungry category like romance, that book is still a great seller.
Whereas if you were looking at a smaller category and book number 58 of 100 was ranked number 25,000 in the store, that category is less competitive and maybe has room for you to break in.
Thomas: We all want to write for popular genres, but is it possible that a genre is too hot to get started in and the competition is too fierce?
Chris: It’s definitely a risk. If you do everything right, it’s always possible to break in, even if you’re a brand-new author writing in a supersaturated genre. But it’s much harder.
If you’re just starting out writing your first genre, aim for something between medium and large. Start with the medium size thing and get your feet wet. Try writing a book for that genre and see how it does. Then measure your overall success and try moving on rather than jumping into the hottest genre you can find initially.
What are some tips for getting started or adapting a story to the market?
Thomas: What are some quick tips you have for the person who wants to start writing for the market or adapt a current story to a particular market?
Chris: Focus 80% of your efforts on your cover even if your book is not written to market. If you can adequately convey to the audience what your book is about and what emotional notes it will hit based on that cover, that will account for most of your success, especially if that cover is viewable as a thumbnail.
My first novel had a werewolf and a pyramid on the cover that you could see even in the thumbnail image. It got a ton of people to click even though it wasn’t written to market.
Keep experimenting. If the first thing doesn’t work when you try writing to market, don’t give up. Just try to do it better next time.
How will your book, Write to Market, help writers?
Thomas: Why should people buy your book, Write to Market?
Chris: It will give you a new perspective. If you’re not familiar with writing to market, and even if you don’t want to write to market yourself, understanding how it works will help you market to your audience.
It’s a short book, and you can read it in 90 minutes. It will change your view of the market enough so that you can make a living at this in the next couple of years.
Thomas: That’s one thing I appreciate about your books. Since you’re writing them to be sold online primarily, you don’t have that expectation that all nonfiction books have to be the same width. Your books are exactly the length they need to be to communicate the topic. They’re nearly fluff-free, and I enjoy your books.
Book Launch Blueprint If you want help developing a custom book launch blueprint for your book, sign up before it is too late.
A Good Bunch of Men by Danny R. Smith, a retired homicide detective from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Dead prostitutes can seem like part of the landscape in South Los Angeles. What, then, could render two veteran homicide detectives speechless as they stand over their latest victim? A Good Bunch of Men will take you beyond the yellow tape and into the tormented minds of those who hunt evil.