I know that the vast majority of authors haven’t worked in the publishing industry and aren’t spending their days acquainting themselves with its ins and outs. I know that for the uninitiated it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between traditionally published books and self-published books. I know you would rather just write your books and coast to fame and fortune without lifting another finger.
But real talk: If you don’t know where your book fits in the market and can’t come up with some comp titles published in the last 5-10 years, there’s really only one reason: you just haven’t done the research.
It takes hundreds of hours to write a novel. You can afford to spend an extremely important 2-3 hours clicking around on Google and Amazon to research what else is out there.
Why it’s important to know where your book fits
It pains me to have to repeat this in our Year of Plague 2020, but it’s not enough to just write a good book and then let the magic of publishing take care of the rest. There was never a time when someone could “just be a writer” and it’s certainly not true now.
There are many, many reasons it pays to know where your book fits in the market, but they all really boil down to this:
- You must know what differentiates your book as you’re pitching and promoting it.
If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’re going to have to write a query letter. If you’re pursuing self-publishing, you’re going to have to write good jacket copy, or at least know what good jacket copy looks like. If you’re planning a marketing campaign or social media presence, it’s helpful to know where your audience is and what they’re reading.
In order to really know why your book is special, you should know what else is out there. You should know who your potential readers are. And in order to do that, you have to have a sense of the landscape.
“Okay, okay, I get it,” you might be grumbling. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
I’m here to help.
First, know your genre
As I write in my guide to writing a novel, “Sure, maybe you’re a once-in-a-generation visionary who can conceive of whole genres that have somehow eluded the billions of people who have lived on this planet before you.
But you’re probably not. No offense.”
Even if you didn’t do it on purpose, your book has a genre. And even if it contains elements of multiple genres, it still has a base.
Knowing your genre is so, so crucial. If you’re pursuing traditional publication, agents are going to want to know what you think it is and how it fits. And if you’re self-publishing, as David Gaughran pointed out in our recent interview, it’s extremely helpful to know your niche and sub-niche so you can hit specific category bestseller lists.
Here’s a pretty good list of genres if you don’t even know where to begin. Even better if you can hone in on a particular sub-genre. Find books that are similar to yours and look at how they’re categorized on Amazon.
Familiarize yourself with traditional publishing imprints
First, a definition: an imprint is a division within a publishing house that typically hones in on a particular niche. The imprint is the name on the book spine.
There are “household name” imprints, like Alfred A. Knopf, which is an imprint within Penguin Random House, there are eponymous imprints like Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins within, well, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, and there are boutique imprints led by a particular editor, like Nan A. Talese.
There are dozens and dozens of imprints within the Big 5 publishers, which are organized into groups. For instance, Alfred A. Knopf is part of the The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group within Penguin Random House. And if you’re thinking all of this is kind of insane, yeah, me too!
The good news is that because imprints specialize, you don’t need to familiarize yourself with every imprint under the sun. Just hone in on the ones that publish your genre.
It’s helpful to know the imprints if you’re pursuing traditional publishing because you largely want your comp titles to hew to books that were published in a big way. Not every book published by the Big 5 was a bestseller by any means, but knowing imprints will help you separate traditionally published books from self-published books.
This is less important if you’re self-publishing, but knowing the difference can still help you zero in on some of the most popular authors in your genre.
There are a few ways to familiarize yourself with imprints:
- Know the Big 5: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette. The majority of bestselling books come from these five publishers. There are some big publishers outside of the Big 5, such as Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but at least memorize the Big 5.
- Check out this chart. This is a really helpful way of visualizing the way imprints and groups roll up within publishers and is an exhaustive list of the imprints at the Big 5.
- Check the copyright page of books you know are similar to yours. You’ll see the imprint as well as the publishing group.
- Just Google it. At the end of the day, you can probably Google your way to getting the answers you need with a few good searches.
Search for books and authors in your zone
Once you know your genre and have at least a passing familiarity with imprints, you can start searching for authors and books that are similar to yours. Remember, it’s most helpful to come up with a list of books that were published in the last 5-10 years because you want to know how your book fits into the current market.
Here are some tools that can help:
- Amazon. There’s a variety of ways you can use Amazon to find similar books and authors. Check genre-specific bestseller lists, look at the similar books that are recommend, the sponsored books, and zoom into the specific categories. With even an hour you’ll likely have a decent list.
- Goodreads. Goodreads lists and “Readers also enjoyed” recommendations can be a good way of finding books similar to yours.
- Publishers Marketplace. This is a valuable resource that includes a database of traditional publishing deals, “who represents who” info, an exhaustive list of traditional publishers and imprints, and industry news. It costs $25 per month, but as you’re conducting your research it’s definitely worth it.
- NY Times Bestseller List. It certainly has its problems, but it’s good to get in the habit of keeping an eye on the NY Times list so you know what’s popular in your genre.
- Just Google it. Seriously, Google is your friend.
Some tips as you’re compiling your list of books and authors:
- It’s more helpful to know what sold well than what’s good. Sure, you might think the bestselling writers in your genre all suck. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to know who they are so you can think toward peeling away some of their readers.
- Don’t get discouraged by similar books. It’s a big book world out there. Just because something else was published in your zone it doesn’t mean your book is a nonstarter. Don’t avoid looking for comps because you’re scared of what you might find.
- You’re probably not a unicorn. Don’t use your research to further solidify your belief that there’s just nothing like your sparkling snowflake of a unicorn book. Sure, your book is unique. That doesn’t mean you can’t find other books in your zone.
Look for blogs, online communities, and publications that appeal to your potential readers
Having a list of popular authors and books in your genre/sub-genre is a really helpful start.
It’s also good to know how your potential readers are learning about books like yours. Look for blogs that review books in your genre, online communities of genre superfans, and magazines and publications that appeal to your readers.
Subscribe to them. Read them. Get involved in them.
Get your finger on the pulse if your niche. You can get 80% of what you need with a few hours of searching, but to really have an optimal sense of the market you should be plugged in through time.
Above all: HAVE FUN WITH THIS! This doesn’t have to be drudgery. Think about how fun it might be to expand your “to be read” pile and find your future readers.
Do you have any tips for finding your place in the market? Take to the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Market day, Goslar, Germany by Jacques Carabain