When writing a novel, you must engage the dedicated fans in your genre for it to be a success. Delivering to those committed and often voracious readers whose love for that genre and their ability to relay that love to others will be key to your success as an author. It is those dedicated fans, the fandom, and their excitement and love for your book which will ultimately force it into the casual readers orbit. Without finding those first, committed fans of your genre it is almost impossible to reach the wide audience you need to ensure your book is a bestseller. That is, not without significant marketing spend (at least tens of thousands) from a traditional publisher. Or, if you are self-publishing, yourself. In your case, you probably wouldn’t need to spend as much as your marketing spend will mostly be online, but you will have to work very hard indeed to emulate and compete with all the traditional publisher’s crock of ready cash. The way to avoid that spend or avoid relying on it, is to write a novel that feeds into the already established loves of your readers.
The fandom will often know their favourite genre or sub-genre inside out. They know what to expect in their favourite reads, as a writer you should recognise and internalize what those expectations are so you can put these on the page. Most importantly, you should understand that in order to stand out from the thousands of other debut novelists you will need to over-deliver on the readers expectations because the sweet spot of success is in batting out of the park rather than just hitting the ball to first base like that other writer.
Surprising and delighting your reader is the key to success. Similar but different is the refrain you’ll hear over and over from many a jaded publisher. When you are sending your debut manuscript to agents you want to announce your arrival on the scene. Agents inboxes are overwhelmed with manuscripts, so do what you can to wow them not underwhelm them. If you are going to send your manuscript to leading authors agents you better believe so has every other debut author. The agent you are submitting to, depending on their time in the industry, will have read everything submitted / available on the market in the past decade or two – so, impressing them is no mean feat.
With that tricky task in mind, think about how you might upend your sub-genre. Are you writing legal thrillers? Think about how you might tell that reader favourite from a different perspective than that of one of the lawyers, the jury, the judge, the accused, the accuser? Who else is present in the courtroom for the duration of the case: one of the clerks, the stenographer, the prison officers, a member of the public in the gallery? A reporter? The work experience kid? Has someone planted a camera or a listening device somewhere in the courtroom? Why are they watching and who? Try and tell the story from an unusual pov – it will help your work stand out from the rest of the slush pile and help you find that sweet spot to surprise the reader.
Author Kate Helm who writes across genre and whose psychological thriller The House Share is published May this year, sees the audience expectations as “fun and a challenge, rather than a creative straitjacket”. Kate thinks it’s important for the more commercially minded author to “understand what story and tone readers want” and how you the author want your reader to feel at particular moments and ensuring you deliver on that. Kate does this as she plans out her novel. So, if you want to save yourself endless headaches ensure you are going to hit those expectations before you even put the first word on that blank novel page.
When novelist Rowan Coleman moved to writing her historical Victorian crime novel about the Bronte Sisters, her ‘debut’ in that sub-genre, she felt her audience would want at least three red herrings and that there must be at least four suspects to keep the intrigue going. Also, Rowan identified that her audiences would want a certain balance between humour, charm, gothic darkness and violence. Rowan wanted to deliver a twist at the end that would hopefully surprise but also make complete sense in retrospect. But, bearing in mind that the audience is a 21st century audience, Rowan felt her audience would better identify with the novel if it mirrored contemporary circumstances rather than an unfamiliar 19th century issue. Rowan says “Finding the pace the readers were familiar with in that genre was also key. Then because my detectives are real people from history I also had to ensure my portrayal of them was both fun, fictional AND as authentic as possible. I’m blessed that Bronte fans and readers in the US and UK have responded well so far.”
To gauge what readers are responding to right now read the top 10 novels from your sub-genre (Amazon, as a search engine, is a great real-time source for this information). Then try to ascertain how you might use the elements readers are responding to when you write your debut. I’m not suggesting you chase the market because today’s market most likely won’t be the same in two years (the traditional publishing lead time). But that sub-genre will no doubt still exist, with a committed readership, so try and leapfrog those two years in the most imaginative way you can, to ensure your debut will stand out from the crowd in 2022.